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Women in the Luton Hatting and Plaiting Industries

Historically, Luton and the surrounding area was the centre of the straw hat trade in England, producing a large share of all the women's hats manufactured and worn in the country.

As the hats were formed from lengths of straw plait, the plaiting and hatting industries co-existed happily and dominated home life for a large proportion of the inhabitants of Bedfordshire and, to a lesser extent, Hertfordshire.

A pencil drawing of women plaiting hair
Women plaiting straw at home by lamplight © Historic England

The plaiting industry

The twin industries of plaiting and hatting employed an unusually high proportion of women and children for the time - a fact which did not go unnoticed as contemporary accounts show.

Although it was by no means unusual for women and children to be employed in the 19th century, plaiting was often held responsible for women neglecting their domestic duties, ‘thus producing the miserable hovels characteristic of the South Midlands’.  The extra earnings made by the women and children were also said to make the men lazy, encouraging them to rely on their families rather than finding regular employment.

The prices paid for plait, particularly in spring and summer, meant that employers of agricultural labourers and domestic servants necessarily had to pay more than in other areas of the country in order to convince their workers to stay – not always successfully – and it was claimed that: ‘it [plaiting] makes the poor saucy, and no servants can be procured, or any field work done’.[i]

When the import of foreign plaits in the 1870s and 80s led to the collapse of the British plaiting industry the hatting industry emerged as the new primary source of income for many residents and continued to expand well into the 20th century.

Child labour

The extent to which the plaiting industry relied upon children is revealed by the establishment of plaiting schools around Luton at the start of the 19th century.

Children were generally taught the basics of plaiting at home before being sent to a plait school between the ages of three and four when their work was considered to be financially viable. Even younger children could be found in the schools and although unable to plait, children as young as two might be tasked with clipping the loose ends of straws ‘with their scissors tied to their bodies’. [ii]

At least 10,000 children are believed to have attended such schools in Bedfordshire at any given point during the first half of the 19th century, with as many as 13,000 during the peak of the industry in the 1860s. The schools charged weekly fees of two or three pence, and the children would be expected to earn between nine pence a week aged eight to as much as three shillings (36 pence) a week by the age of fourteen. Although straw plaiting could be done outside, and the children were therefore able to get some fresh air, it also meant that the children were expected to work on their plait almost constantly, indeed:

‘Whilst travelling through the country villages, whether at mealtimes or in the evenings, contemporaries remarked that it was rare to see a girl out of doors without her plait in her hand, and working away busily as she walked along.’[iii]

[i] Charles Freeman (1964) Luton and the Hat Industry. The Corporation of Luton Museum and Art Gallery, Luton, p 12.

[ii] P. Horn (1974) ‘Child Workers in the Pillow Lace and Straw Plait Trades of Victorian Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire’, in The Historical Journal, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Dec, 1974), p 790.

[iii] P. Horn (1974) ‘Child Workers in the Pillow Lace and Straw Plait Trades of Victorian Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire’, in The Historical Journal, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Dec, 1974), p 790.

An etching of a young luton girl plaiting straw
A Luton Girl plaiting straw © Historic England

The hatting industry

Following the decline of the plait schools, and of the industry as a whole, many girls near Luton learnt how to sew – ‘a sewer being considered a step above a plaiter, and one who may exhibit a certain amount of personal adornment, to which a simple plaiter would not dare aspire in her village home.’[iv]

Plaiters had long been used to their independence – not being bound to buy or sell to any one firm or individual, and this sense of pride and self worth seems to have transferred with the sewers into the hatting industry. When factory inspectors visited Luton in 1867 they found that:

‘The girls, accustomed to going to work when they pleased dressed in nice clothes, resented being classed as factory workers who, they imagined, answered the dictates of a factory bell and went to work in clogs and a shawl. One girl complained to the Dunstable bench that a factory inspector had been rude to her: it seems that he had called her a ‘straw-plait girl’ and not ‘young lady’ in the manner to which she was accustomed.’[v]

[iv] T.G. Austin (1871), The Straw Trade, p. 18.

[v] J. G. Dony (1942) A History of The Straw Hat Industry. Gibbs, Bamforth & Co,:Luton. p 111.

Women working in the ribbon room at the Barford Brother's factory, c. 1940
Women working in the ribbon room at the Barford Brother's factory, c. 1940 © Historic England

Work and pay

It took about four years to train a girl to become sufficiently skilled to work with all types of plait. Much in demand, the girls quickly found that the large factories in Luton offered higher wages for shorter hours than they were used to in the smaller businesses around the town, and it was therefore unusual for a girl to stay with a small firm once her training was complete aged eighteen.

Sewers or ‘hands’ were paid by piece-work – how many hats or bonnets she had sewn that week – and strict discipline was unknown with the sewers working the hours that best suited them; often working through the night as they wanted to make as much money as they could whilst work was plentiful in the spring season when straw was being harvested.

Despite the fact that women undertook some of the most skilled work in the industry, rates of pay between the sexes varied greatly.

The suggested wages provided by the Hat, Cap and Millinery Trade Board in 1939 suggest that the industry worked on the basis of paying women approximately half of what men received – this only increased in 1944 when women’s earnings were set at 68% of men’s.

However, Luton still gained a reputation as a place where the men were kept by the women, the Luton Chamber of Commerce going so far as to produce a booklet in 1900, aimed at attracting new industry to the town by advertising the advantage of being able to pay men at low rates as the female members of the family were already employed.

Women working in the wool felt section of the Barford Brother's factory, c.1940
Women working in the wool felt section of the Barford Brother's factory, c.1940

Further information

A Historic Area Assessment of the Plaiter’s Lea Conservation Area of Luton by Katie Graham and Davis McOmish will be published as part of the Research Report Series later this year.

Wardown Park Museum in Luton contains a number of displays and oral histories relating to the straw plait and hat industries of Luton.

Nicholls' Plait Stall, 21st August 1885, showing the interior of one of Luton's plait halls with piles of plaits for sale
Nicholls' Plait Stall, 21st August 1885, showing the interior of one of Luton's plait halls © Luton Culture
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