The Straw Dealers of Buckland by Vanessa Worship

The Straw Dealers of Buckland by Vanessa Worship

by Vanessa Worship

The latest Woodlander’s Lives and Landscapes blog, researched and written by Vanessa Worship

Introduction

Throughout the nineteenth century, many residents of Buckland parish worked in the straw plaiting industry. For example, in 1851 one third of the population were straw plait workers. An introduction to the straw plaiting industry can be found in an article from the Bucks Herald in December 1920. The feature is entitled ‘Two Vale Industries’, the other one being duck-breeding. The writer first explained that he had ‘brought together a few facts while it is still possible to obtain first-hand information.’[1]

Apparently, the role of the dealer was crucial in the first stage of the straw plaiting process. First, he or she would make an offer to the farmer for a stack of unthreshed wheat, the raw material of straw plaiting. Workers were then employed to make up the straws into bundles weighing sixty to seventy pounds each, setting aside the ears, which were removed and given back to the farmer. The straws were then stripped and cut just above the knot, leaving straws nine to ten inches in length. At this stage the straw was bleached by placing it ‘in a box into which a cup of molten sulphur was introduced’ and sometimes ‘straws were dyed black or blue’. It was then graded through a series of sieves and tied into bundles four or five inches in diameter. These bundles were then sold to the cottagers for plaiting. The plaiters would take the finished scores (twenty yard lengths of plait) to the weekly market in Tring. The writer stated that straw plaiting was a ‘highly specialised industry in which straw dealers first figured, selling the raw material to the cottagers who plaited it and sold it to the plait dealers, who in turn sold to the hatmakers’.[2]

So it seems that the dealers played a vital role in the straw plaiting industry, often involving their whole families in the business too. This blog will tell their stories through the records they left behind.

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Figure 1: Parish map showing Buckland parish, sandwiched between Aston Clinton and Drayton Beauchamp (from The Phillimore Atlas & Index of Parish Registers)

The old parish of Buckland was one of the long, thin parishes of the Chilterns as shown in the parish map (see Figure 1). In the census records, the parish was divided into two parts, the Village, which lies to the north of Aston Clinton in the Vale of Aylesbury, and the Common, which is up in the Chiltern Hills. Buckland Common would later become part of Cholesbury-cum-St Leonards parish, in 1934.

The census returns reveal that, although there were many straw plaiters in both areas of the parish, all of the dealers, without exception, lived in the village. We can speculate whether this was because the Village was a little closer to Tring, where the weekly market was held. Or perhaps it was because a few enterprising people happened to live in the Village. Or perhaps the straw plaiters of Buckland Common did the dealing for themselves. Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing the real reason.

The following table shows the variety of occupation names and the number of dealers in Buckland recorded in the census, which fluctuated over the period, peaking in 1851 and 1871:

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Table 1: Variety of occupational names used for dealers in the census

The Menday/Munday and Brackley Families

Two of the most prominent Buckland families involved in straw plaiting were the Mendays, who sometimes appeared as Mundays in the records, and the Brackleys. The earliest useful census from 1841 (Figure 2), shows fifty-six-year-old John Menday and his wife Sarah both occupied as ‘straw factors’, while their thirteen-year-old daughter, also Sarah, was a straw plaiter. Next door to the Mendays was the family of Jesse Beal, a farmer, and living with them was Daniel Brackley, aged sixteen. No doubt farm servant Daniel and the young Sarah Menday would have been acquainted with each other at this time.

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Figure 2: Daniel Brackley & Sarah Menday in the 1841 census (HO 107/40/9)

By the time of the 1851 census, John Menday’s wife, Sarah, had died but John was still trading at Village Road. Living with him was his sister, Ann Menday, who was a pauper lacemaker (see Figure 5). In the meantime, John’s daughter, Sarah, had married the ‘boy next door’, Daniel Brackley, on 8th October 1850. The 1851 census shows the couple living in Lower Street with their three-month-old son, Richard. Both Daniel and Sarah were then straw dealers. Also trading in that year were Sarah’s brother, William Menday, and his wife Mary, who lived at Gates Cottages (see Figure 5). Incidentally, their next-door neighbours were the Warrin family (see below).

The family tree, shown in Figure 3, illustrates how the Brackleys and Mendays became linked through Daniel and Sarah’s marriage. It also shows three of Sarah’s brothers, who were also involved in straw plait dealing. In 1861, Daniel and Sarah were living in Lower Road, possibly the same place as Lower Street in 1851, but only Daniel was recorded as a straw dealer. William and Mary Munday (as their name appeared in this census) were both straw factors in 1861 and lived at Munday Cottage. Robert Menday, Sarah’s older brother, was living at Church Row with his family. He was a straw manufacturer while his wife, Elizabeth, was a straw sorter. Their son James was a straw cutter and five of their six daughters were straw plaiters.

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Figure 3: The Brackley and Menday/Munday Family Tree (The amber shading indicates those who were at one time involved in the straw plait trade)

By the time of the 1871 census, Daniel and Sarah Brackley’s family were all occupied in the straw plait business; Daniel, Sarah and Richard were all straw dealers, while daughter Susan, aged nineteen, was a plaiter. Sarah Brackley’s brother, Robert Menday, was a straw dealer at Church Houses in 1871, while his wife Elizabeth and their three daughters, Sarah, Isabella and Elizabeth, aged twenty, sixteen and thirteen, were all straw plaiters. Sarah’s middle brother, William, had died by 1871 but his widow, Mary Menday, and her son Philip were still living at Menday House and both were straw dealers. Philip Menday was listed in the trade directories for 1883 as a straw dealer and in 1891 as a straw dealer and shopkeeper. But by the 1891 census his only occupation was grocer.

Curiously, there were no Brackleys or Mendays listed as straw dealers in the 1881 census, though Daniel Brackley gave his occupation as a straw cutter and Sarah had gone back to plaiting. Only four straw plait dealers/factors were recorded in Buckland in 1881 and 1891, compared with twelve in 1871, so it would seem that there was a dip in the trade for plait at this time.

By 1891, only Daniel Brackley and Richard Menday, another of Sarah Brackley’s brothers, were active as straw dealers. Richard was living at 1, Church Green in 1891 and, although he was born in Buckland, he had been working as a dealer and cutter in Aston Clinton in 1861 and 1871. By 1881 he had moved back to Buckland and was recorded in the census as a straw cutter. Daniel Brackley was again a straw dealer in the 1891 census, while his wife Sarah and son Richard were straw cutters. Incidentally, they were then living next door to twelve-year-old Nellie Davis, a straw plaiter who was the subject of my earlier Woodlanders Lives and Landscapes story from October 2020, The Story of Nellie Davis (see Figure 4).

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Figure 4: The Brackley family in the 1891 census (RG12/1146/74)

Both Daniel Brackley and Richard Menday were in their mid-sixties by 1891 but in the absence of a state pension, they clearly needed to continue working in the only business they knew: the straw plait industry. However, by this time, trade was already declining. The Census Report from 1893–4 records that the decrease in the number of people occupied in straw plait had decreased by forty per cent between 1881 and 1891.

By 1901, Daniel Brackley was the only dealer left in Buckland, apparently still trading at the age of seventy-four. Sarah had no occupation recorded and the couple were still living in Lower Road, Drayton Mead. But in the trade directories for 1903 and 1907, Daniel was listed not as a dealer but as a straw plaiter. Sarah Brackley died in May 1904, aged seventy-six, and Daniel died in January 1911, in his 86th year. He left £271.15s.11d in his will, which surprisingly equates to about £32,000 today.

The Gates Family

The story of the Gates family of Buckland revolves around two public houses – the Queen’s Head and the Duke’s Head. John Gates was recorded as a grocer in the 1841 census but ten years later he had two occupations: ‘grocer and beer seller’. Coincidentally, his next-door neighbours in Lower Street were Daniel and Sarah Brackley. In September 1853 John was granted a licence for the Queen’s Head public house and by 1861 his occupation was ‘publican and grocer’. Ten years later, he was a publican and farmer of six acres, while his son Charles, a twenty-six-year-old widower, was also living at the pub and working as a straw dealer.

One of John’s other sons, Thomas Gates, made his first appearance as the landlord of the Duke’s Head in Pegg’s Lane, Buckland in the 1864 edition of Kelly’s Post Office Directory. Thomas was listed as a hay dealer, as well as being the proprietor of the Duke’s Head in every subsequent edition of the directory until 1907, eight appearances in total. He also appeared in the census as the landlord of the Duke’s Head until 1911. Thomas was listed in the electoral rolls until 1913 and in his later years he served as a Buckland Parish Councillor. He died in December 1917 and is buried in Buckland churchyard. Thomas’s unmarried son, Arthur T Gates, also lived at the Duke’s Head and was recorded as a hay and straw dealer in the 1891 census, a hay carter in 1901 and a farm labourer in 1911.

The Warrin/Waring Family

In the 1841 census, William Warrin’s occupation was ‘straw factor’, while his wife Elizabeth and two of their children, Ann and William, aged twelve and five, were straw plaiters. By 1851, the Warrins were living at Beal Farm, next door to William Menday, Sarah Menday’s elder brother. This was the same farm where Daniel Brackley was living back in 1841, Jesse Beal having moved to the Plough Inn.

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Figure 5: The Warrin and Menday families in the 1851 Census (HO107/1721/51)

Figure 5 shows the Warrin family with William and Elizabeth as straw dealers, their two sons as straw cutters and three of their daughters as straw plaiters. Only the two youngest children were not working. However, by 1861, the Warrin family (then recorded as Waring) were living at Lower Green. William was an agricultural labourer and Elizabeth was a straw plaiter, as were three of the children who were still living at home: Mildred, aged twenty; Emma; thirteen, and Charles, ten.

Other dealers

Other dealers include John Green, who was listed as a farmer and straw dealer in the trade directories in 1883, 1891, 1899, 1903 and 1907. However, in the census his occupation was simply ‘farmer of 30 acres’ in 1881 and ‘farmer’ in 1891. Perhaps John failed to inform the census enumerator that he was also a straw dealer.

William Ball was listed in Kelly’s Directory as a straw dealer and shopkeeper in 1864, 1869, 1877 and 1883. However, in the 1871 census his occupation was ‘plait dealer’ and by 1881 he was a ‘plait dealer and nurseryman’ in Church Row.

Some dealers were not listed in the trade directories but were recorded in the census as dealers on only one occasion. In 1851, James and Ann Lovgrove of Chapel Row were both ‘straw dealers’ and their daughter Mary was a straw plaiter. The same year, Thomas and Sarah Thorn of Morris’s Row were straw dealers and they too had a straw-plaiting daughter Mary. In 1861 Enoch Ives was a plait dealer, living in Blind Lane with his wife Sarah, who was a straw plaiter. Three of their children were also plaiters – Joseph, Emma and Robert, aged eleven, nine and six, respectively. Benjamin Morris was a hay and straw dealer in 1861. He lived on his father’s forty-two acre farm in Lower Green, and two of his sisters, Harriet and Mary, were plaiters.

James and Eliza Dewbray of 1, Randel’s Row appeared in the 1871 census as ‘straw factors’. Curiously their nine-year-old daughter, Louisa, was also recorded as a straw factor, but this was probably a mistake by the enumerator. Also in Randel’s Row, at number six, lived another straw factor, Martha Smith, and her mother-in-law, Sarah Bates, a straw plaiter. In the 1881 census, William Figg, the landlord of the Rothschild’s Arms, was recorded as ‘straw dealer, pltg’, presumably short for plaiting. His wife Emma had no occupation recorded but it is more than likely that she was running the pub. Living close by in Peg’s Cottage was William Seabrook, aged sixty-five, also a ‘dealer’.

Conclusion

This study has focussed on the dealers of Buckland village, just one of many villages of Herts, Beds and Bucks which played their part in one of the major rural industries of the nineteenth century. There is no doubt that the straw plait trade contributed enormously to the economy of the region. Nigel Goose found that earnings from straw plaiting made ‘a substantial contribution to family budgets’[3] and this research has shown that some enterprising straw dealers, often assisted by their entire families, managed to make a good living from the straw plaiting industry for much of their lives.

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Figure 6: Present-day map. Comparison with the tithe map in Figure 7 shows that the street pattern within the village has hardly changed since 1843 (OS Explorer Map 181, Chiltern Hills North, 2020.)

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Figure 7: Buckland Village Tithe Map of 1843. The highlighted properties are the homes of John Munday (No. 25) and William Warrin (No. 68) at the time of the 1841 census

  • Women’s Work in Industrial England by Nigel Goose, 2007, Local Population Studies.
  • Hilltop Villages of the Chilterns by David and Joan Hay, 1971, Phillimore & Co Ltd.
  • The Phillimore Atlas & Index of Parish Registers, 3rd edition, 2003, Phillimore & Co Ltd., Buckinghamshire/3.
  • Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown Copyright and Database Right 2021 Licence No. 100044050
  • Contains Tithe Map ©The Genealogist ©Crown copyright images reproduced courtesy of the National Archives, London, England (1381077)
  • With thanks to Veronica Main MBE (www.hatplait.co.uk), Rebecca Gurney, Lesley Hoskins and Helena Chance for their help in the editing of this blog.

[1] Two Vale Industries, from Bucks Herald, 11th December 1920, p. 9
[2] Two Vale Industries, from Bucks Herald, 11th December 1920, p. 9
[3] Women’s Work in Industrial England by Nigel Goose, 2007, Local Population Studies, p. 114

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