The town of Kirkwall has changed a great deal since the middle of the 19th century. People then were living very close together in crowded conditions. It was a bustling town where trade was vital. Merchants , workers, seafarers and craft workers lived side by side.
Kirkwall is described as being basically one long street by the Rev William Logie in his report of the town for the Statistical Accounts of 1841/42. Onto this are many lanes but he adds that the new King Street which runs parallel has “several neat and commodious houses”. People had gardens in which they grew a wide variety of fruits and berries: currants, gooseberries, strawberries, apples, pears, cherries and in one ‘greenhouse’ – grapes.
St Magnus Cathedral dominated the town but the remains of the once great Kirkwall Castle were still to be found in what is now Castle Street. Although the town had seen a rapid growth in population up to this point there were now many empty properties and housebuilding had mostly stalled. Rev Logie puts this state of affairs down to the collapse of the kelp industry:
“The inhabitants of the town consist chiefly of shopkeepers, tradesmen of different crafts, sailors, boatmen and labourers. It also includes several custom and excise men; proprietors; 3 medical practitioners; 2 bankers; 6 men connected with the law; 5 Ministers and several school teachers.”
In 1841 the town of Kirkwall had a population of 3,581. 289 women were employed plaiting straw. The population was made up of 1,508 males and 2,074 women. This means that 14% of women in the town were plaiting straw. The youngest was Isabella Bruce, age 9 of St Catherine’s Place and the oldest was 75 year old Catherine Wilson of Wellington Street.
There were also those that processed the straw before it was sent onto being plaited. Catherine Corston, aged 55, of Victoria Road was a straw plait dresser. Barbara James, also aged 55, of Victoria Street was a sizer of straw. Sibella Gray, aged 40, also of Victoria Street was a straw cleaner. Isabella Miller, aged 75, and Mary Gaudie, aged 65 both of Victoria Street were straw cutters. Barbara Maxwell, aged 65, of Harbour Street was a straw oiler. William Bews, one of very few men involved (with the exception of the manufacturers) aged 20 of St Catherine’s Place was a straw sorter. The work was low paid and men could find more financial reward for example at sea or in military service. These employments took them away from Orkney for long periods of time and some never returned as these were quite dangerous occupations.
Rev Logie notes:
“This manufacture [straw plaiting] has been carried on for forty years, and has proved a very seasonable source of emolument to the poorer classes…. In this manufacture, a woman earns from 3d to 9d per day, according to her skill and diligence or the time which she devotes to the employment.”
By 1851 the town of Kirkwall had increased to 3,869. Only 122 women were now employed straw plaiting. The gradual but inevitable decline of the industry had set in. Of the 2,203 (57%) women in the population, the number plaiting straw had dropped to 6%. The youngest was Jane Sinclair, aged 7, of Victoria Street and one of the oldest was Magadeline Bews, aged 73, of the High Street. Most of the women were single but 5 were married and 25 widowed. By this time pay was so low for this work that several of the women were also registered as paupers.
Robina Linnay, aged 59 of Queen Street, was a straw splitter. She resided in the house of manufacturer David Ramsay.
The plaited straw was transported to the women who would sew it together to make the bonnets. This work was extremely skilled and required fine needlework. The bonnets could also be finished off with various decorations such as ribbons. Between 1841 and 1851 there are recorded just under 100 bonnet makers in Orkney. The nature of the industry meant that most of the bonnet makers resided in Stromness and Kirkwall which both had thriving ports.
The manufacturers, those were the merchants who exported the products south, lived in Stromness and Kirkwall. The ones in Kirkwall included: Balfour Mainland in Broad Street; David Ramsay in Queen Street; and father and son George and James McBeath in Albert Street.
This is part of ongoing research.
Here’s a short film of some of those streets.