Throughout the first half of the 19th Century, the strawplaiting industry employed thousands of women in Orkney. The making of straw plait into bonnets was introduced into Orkney at the start of the 19th century. In ‘The New History of Orkney’, William P.L. Thomson, states that it was established in 1804 by a London bonnet maker by the name of Larking: “ and he was soon followed by Glasgow and Greenock firms operating through local agents.”
The plaited straw was sewn into bonnets and from there the products went to the manufacturers in Stromness and Kirkwall. The bonnets were then shipped southward to Liverpool and Manchester. Both the plaiting of the straw and the making of the bonnets was skilled work and Orkney could supply low paid workers for the industry.
Not all the islands of Orkney engaged in the strawplaiting industry. The main centres were Kirkwall and Stromness but it is interesting to look at the different parishes to see what was happening. Very little research has been done on this industry which was once important in Orkney. Sweeping statements and assumptions are made about it and the people it employed. It is not until you look in more detail, as I am doing in my research, that you can get a more accurate picture of what was going on.
The Stronsay census for 1841 and 1851 records 17 and 11 women, respectively, engaged in the industry. All of the women are plaiting straw with the exception of Mary Chalmers, Dirdal, Lady Kirk, who is sewing the plaited straw into bonnets.
Mary Chalmers was born in 1816, her father, Peter, was an agricultural labourer and fisherman. Those were the most common occupations for men in Stronsay in this period. Fishing was an extremely dangerous occupation. Mary married Peter Peace, a fisherman in 1842. By the 1861 census, Mary is a widow, living with her daughter, Peterina, who is the school mistress at the New School. Mary is earning an income by sewing shirts.
For the women who plaited the straw, many struggled to earn a living when the industry in Orkney collapsed in the second half of the century. Long hanks of plaited straw could be imported cheaply into England from China and placed on machines. There was no need now for the skills of the women. Many were able to find some employment as domestic servants, agricultural labourers and as knitters of stockings.
Most of the women were either single or widows. Sisters Mary and Barbara Elphinstone who lived at Bombasty, Lady Kirk, were paupers. The Rev John Simpson records in the 1845 Statistical Account for the island:
“They receive from 1s. to 15s. during the year . The only fund for relief of the poor is that which is procured by weekly collections in the parish churches on Sabbath, with the exception of a donation of £2. 2s. per annum from Mr Balfour of Trenaby for the poor of Stronsay.”
Strawplaiter Margaret Sinclair of Midgarth, St Peters had married a carpenter. She was widowed in May 1841 when James died at the age of 29. Margaret lived till 1890 but had to rely on living for a few years with her daughter, Jemima, married to farmer, John Gorie. She is buried in St Peters graveyard.
Barbara Scott who lived with her brother, Robert, and mother at Wardhill, St Peters, was to remain single. Robert was a carpenter, a trade at which he excelled. Barbara is recorded in every census until her death in 1891 as single. There is, however, an inscription on a gravestone in Bay Cemetery which says the following:
“In memory of JAMES WATERS, Boston, Mass. USA who died 26-11-1912 aged 72 years, his mother BARBARA SCOTT, Wardhill who died 4-5-1891 aged 74 years, his grandmother MARY SHEARER who died 22-2-1854, MARGARET MEIL SCOTT who died 14-8-1935 aged 65, JOHN WILSON SCOTT, Wardhill who died 16-2-1939 aged 70 years.“
The 1851 census records James Walters, age 9, living with the family at Wardhill. Is this the same James remembered on the inscription ‘Waters’ or ‘Walters’?
The only surviving example of this once boom industry in Orkney is in a glass case on the ground floor of Stromness Museum. It was made by Mrs J Rendall, wife of one of the Stromness manufacturers and the skill of the work was rewarded with a medal from the Great Exhibition held at Crystal Palace in 1851.
I have been researching the history of the straw bonnet making industry in Orkney for over a year. There are very few records. I suggest this is because, although this was an important manufacture for the islands, it was women’s work. The skill of the women workers in plaiting and sewing was of the highest quality but when the industry became mechanised and centralised in the south of England, it collapsed almost overnight in Orkney.
If any of our readers can help add to the information I have collected please email me Fiona Grahame: firstname.lastname@example.org If anyone would like a list of all those women in Stronsay or anywhere else in Orkney that I have collected data on please contact me. It is a fascinating untold story of women’s work.
I am grateful to The Stronsay Limpet for allowing me to publish this text in this month’s edition.
See also: Straw Plaiting in 19th Century Orkney