Three generations of Batchelors – the rise and fall of a straw plaiting family

Three generations of Batchelors – the rise and fall of a straw plaiting family

The latest installment from Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes tells the story of the Batchelor family and their involvement in the straw plait industry of the Chilterns.

By Deborah Conway Read

Luke Batchelor was born in 1790, in Cholesbury, and his wife-to-be, Mary Pratt, in Chartridge five years later. Their entire childhood, adolescence and early adulthood was spent in a country at war with France; a war that continued after their marriage in 1814 in Cholesbury and the birth of their son Thomas the same year.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain entered a period of agricultural depression. The price of wheat fell, landlords struggled to find tenants who could pay the rent, and wages fell too. Workers were laid off in the slack times, rather than their employers paying them all year round. At the same time, common land was being enclosed by wealthier farmers looking to maximise profits by turning all available land, previously shared by all the inhabitants, into mainly arable fields.

Despite the difficult economic circumstances of the time, young Thomas Batchelor chose to marry Elizabeth Nash of Chesham in 1837 and set up home in Lee Common, where he ran a shop. His parents also seem to have been coping reasonably well, as the 1843 tithe map of Chartridge shows Luke Batchelor owning one property and occupying two others. By 1851, Thomas’s parents had also moved to Lee Common.

School and chapel

Thomas, perhaps thinking of the future of his own small children, was obviously keen to improve conditions for the village children by starting, with two others, a school where previously there had only been a plait school. Plait schools had little to do with education; they were essentially sweatshops where children as young as four were forced to complete their daily quota of straw plait. Lengths of straw were plaited into narrow strips 20 yards (about 18m) long that were then used to make straw hats. Conditions could be very poor. Parents paid for their children to attend, so there was a financial incentive for the plait mistress to enrol as many children as possible, which could be as many as 40 in a room ten feet square.


The Primitive Methodist Chapel at Lee Common had congregations of up to 104 in 1851, with an even larger Sunday School averaging 170 children; photograph by Deborah Conway Read

Thomas’s school was run on lines set down by the British and Foreign School Society, a nonconformist organisation dedicated to developing education for poorer children. A Primitive Methodist Chapel had been established in Lee Common in 1839, and by 1845 the members had identified at least 150 children ‘destitute of the means of instruction’. A meeting of residents, including Luke and Thomas Batchelor, resolved to raise money for a school. The curriculum was limited to ‘the instruction of boys, under a certain age, in reading, writing, and arithmetic; and girls in the same, with the addition of needle work, knitting, etc.’ (Bucks Gazette, 6 December 1845). George Loosley, schoolmaster in 1861, wrote to the South Bucks Free Press in 1882:

       ‘There is no doubt that the Primitives raised the tone of this neglected district considerably, and the first school adjoined their chapel, although the school was entirely undenominational. A poorer district could not be found in Bucks, and beyond paying their school pence the local people could do very little, consequently appeals were made for outside aid […]’  

Living next door to the chapel and its schoolroom (possibly in what is now known as Clump Cottage), Thomas was well placed to provide lodgings for the schoolmistress or master. In 1851 Mary Ann Roe, the 26-year-old schoolmistress, lived with the family, as did George Loosely ten years later, also aged 26. Thomas must have been quite determined to make the school work. He supported it in other ways, hosting teas for children and parents in his orchard, as described in the Bucks Chronicle & Bucks Gazette in July 1870:

       ‘On Tuesday was held the annual public examination of the children in the British School. The Primitive Methodist Chapel, kindly lent for the purpose, was well filled by the parents of the scholars and by friends of the school, including numbers of old scholars, and this, under the circumstances, almost unparalleled school is manifestly dear to the inhabitants of the district. The proceedings commenced at two o’clock, and under the considerate management of Thomas Wheeler, Esq., of High Wycombe, who kindly presided, and of Mr. Stiles, the schoolmaster, the children did themselves and their teachers much credit. They read, sang, were questioned in grammar, English history, geography, and exhibited their copy books and needlework. After the examination the friends sat down to an excellent tea, comfortably served in the open air, in the orchard of Mr. Thomas Batchelor, adjoining the infant school, […]’


Grocer, constable and farmer

Thomas Batchelor was a busy man in 1851, when he was described in the census as grocer and constable, in addition to his support of the school and chapel. His wife Elizabeth was not listed as having an occupation. At this time the couple had three children, and a servant.

Parish constables, created in 1842, had a wide range of duties, not all of which we would nowadays expect from a police officer. Rat catching and rounding up loose animals were part of the job, as well as what we would see as more obvious functions of a law officer, such as attending inquests and making arrests. The men were appointed by a magistrate and were part-time and poorly paid. The low pay meant that not all constables were energetic in pursuing miscreants. They also monitored trading standards – an important function in an age of adulterated food. Thomas was obviously very civic-minded, and held the role for at least five years, from 1851 to 1856.

Business must have been good and, by 1861, Thomas Batchelor had become a farmer as well as a grocer. He was living next door to his parents, with his wife and now four children, plus a servant and another schoolmaster lodger, George Loosley. Nearly 30 years later it was he who wrote to the Bucks Examiner recalling the foundation of the school.


Plait dealing

In the 1861 census, Thomas’s mother Mary was listed as a plait dealer. A plait dealer bought the straw plait made by the plaiters, often having first supplied them with suitable straw. The lengths of plait, usually 20 yards long, were collected and sold to hat makers at a plait market. Straw plaiting in Buckinghamshire probably began in the late 17th century, but it was the disruption to trade caused by that war with France that acted as a spur to English production. The introduction of the straw splitter made it possible to split straws into equal-sized splints that were easier to plait into good quality, narrow plaits. By about 1815 the price of a splitter had fallen to around 6d, so it was affordable and a woman could use it to increase her income to possibly £1 a week, maybe double or more than the wage of an agricultural labourer.

Straw-Plait and Bonnet-Making at Luton, from The Illustrated London News, 7 December 1878. Image courtesy of Culture Trust Luton. Thanks to Veronica Main

We don’t know if Mary Batchelor was a straw plaiter before she became a plait dealer, but it is possible. Luke Batchelor was an agricultural labourer all his life, so the additional income would have been welcome. The Lee was a small parish in the 19th century, with a population of 126 in 1851, but there were 109 straw plaiters, 90 of whom were women or girls, in the parish and the surrounding hamlets, some of which fell into Great Missenden parish. This must have been a major source of income for many local families.

The family continued to prosper, and by 1871 Thomas Batchelor was a farmer of 28 acres and a timber dealer.

Solomon Haynes, one of the two other men who founded the school at Lee Common with Thomas Batchelor, died in 1874. Thomas was one of the executors of Solomon’s will, but something seems to have soured in the relationship with his widow, as she brought a case against him reported in the Bucks Herald on 7 Aug 1875.

Sometime before 1881, Thomas and Elizabeth Batchelor, now in their late sixties, moved to Regent Street, Wycombe Old Borough, where they were living with their daughter. He was no longer a farmer, but a carman, what we might call a delivery driver. What happened to cause this change in fortunes, we do not know.

Thomas’s son Joseph, born in 1848, was by 1871 a plait dealer himself, perhaps having learned the job from his grandmother and maybe even having taken over her business. He was still living at home with his parents but married Elizabeth Smith in 1872. The young couple set up home in Lee Common. Joseph, too, was involved in the school and the chapel according to various newspaper reports between 1874 and 1877. To the delight, no doubt, of the schoolchildren, Joseph and his wife carried on the tradition of the school anniversary treat:

   ‘On Tuesday the scholars had their annual treat, and afterwards repaired to a meadow for play, lent by Mr. J. Batchelor, who, with Mrs. Batchelor, amused the little ones by scrambling sweets, nuts, &c, &c. At 4.30 a public tea was provided, of which a very large company partook. A public meeting was held at 6.30, presided over by the superintendent, Mr. J. Batchelor.’ (Bucks Herald, 5 May 1877.)

In that same year ‘Mr. J. Batchelor promised to give £1 if 60 others would contribute 1s. each towards the new stove recently placed in the chapel.’ Fortunately for the comfort of the worshippers, the remaining £3 was raised.


Smallpox vaccinations

Some of Joseph’s story seems very contemporary. He and Elizabeth had four daughters, and he was charged several times at the petty sessions for failing to have two of them vaccinated against smallpox before they were three months old. This was required by the 1867 Vaccination Act which stated that within seven days of the birth of a child being registered, the registrar was to deliver a notice of vaccination; if the child was not presented to be vaccinated within three months, or brought for inspection afterwards, the parents or guardians were liable to a summary conviction and fine of 20s, equivalent to about £127 in 2021. This Act wasn’t repealed until 1946, by the Act that created the National Health Service.

The Bucks Herald on 21 June 1879 reported that:

 ‘Joseph Batchelor, of Lee Common, who did not appear, was charged by Mr. Bryan with neglecting the vaccination of his child Florence. —Mr. Bryan said the child was born in 1878, and defendant had received a notice to vaccinate in December last, but paid no attention to it. On April 19th, he sent him another notice, but the child still remained unvaccinated.’

This is a surprisingly cavalier attitude on Joseph’s part, considering it was not a first offence, and the fine was a not insignificant amount. The Bucks Herald on 11 December 1875 had reported:

  ‘Joseph Batchelor, who did not appear, was summoned for not having his child under fourteen years of age vaccinated, as required by the Act.—Mr. Bryan, the Union Vaccination Officer, proved the case. He said the child in question, Edith Batchelor, was about nine months old, and had not been vaccinated, though he gave notice to the father for it to be performed October. —The Bench made an order for vaccination within six months.’

One feels rather sorry for Mr Bryan, having to deal with this determinedly unrepentant father. It’s not clear whether Joseph just didn’t like the compulsion, or whether he had other objections. Vaccine hesitancy is nothing new, as this letter in the National Archives from May 1856 shows:

To Sir George Grey Secretary of State for the Home Department


I humbly beg to protest against the passing of the Bill on Compulsory Vaccination, which I look upon as a gross infringement on the Medical liberty of the Subject.

I further beg to represent to you, that many professional persons and others are of opinion that Vaccination not only does not prevent small-pox, but it is productive of worse and more dangerous diseases, such being the case, I hope you will present this my protest to the House of Commons,

I am Sir,

Your obedient servant,

Andrew Lowden

Barrhead by Glasgow

May 5th / 56

People then, as now, were afraid that vaccination could have serious side effects, as another letter from the National Archives reveals:

Evesham Jan 31st 1878

Dear Sir,

I am Medical Officer & public vaccinator to the 3rd district of the Evesham Union, & on Oct 9th 1877 vaccinated at Bretforton (a village in the district) [RG1] a child named Ernest Salter, residing at Bretforton: some three months after the vaccination the child had an attack of “eczuma impetiginades” [a contagious skin condition] affecting the face & ears – this was followed by an attack of “purulent ophthalmia”, [inflammation of the eyes] in consequence of which the child has entirely lost its eyesight. There is a good deal of prejudice against vaccination in this neighbourhood, & this case has been much quoted lately as showing its baneful effects; that being so, I believe a thorough & impartial investigation would be for the public good and I therefore, through you, petition the Local Government Board to hold an inquiry into all the details of the case.

I am, dear Sir,

Yours obediently

Horace L. Haynes
The Secretary – Local Government Board

In 1853 the Anti-Vaccination League was founded in London. This image was used in an anti-vaccination publication in the late nineteenth century. Courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Historical Medical Library

Joseph seems to have had some financial problems with his business, possibly created by the need to pay the vaccination fine in June 1879.  The Bucks Herald announced on 26 July 1879:

 ‘LIQUIDATIONS. Batchelor, Joseph, Lee, plait dealer and pheasant breeder. First meeting of creditors at the Royal Hotel, Tring, July 31, at 1. Mr D Clarke, solicitor.’

Whatever the cause of the difficulty, he was again in business in 1881 as a plait dealer, living in Lee Clump, so he must have been able to continue trading.

Sometime before 1885, Joseph had moved with his family to Cheapside in Luton to continue his straw plait business. This was probably the high point of his career as a straw plait merchant, as business must have been brisker in the famous heart of the hat trade. For the first time, in the 1891 census, his wife Elizabeth is listed with an occupation, that of schoolmistress and the three eldest daughters, Ella, Elizabeth and Edith, were listed as assistant schoolmistresses because Bedfordshire County Council had appointed them as teachers of straw plaiting in several village schools around Luton. Florence, known as Floss, at 13 was a scholar. Elizabeth’s sister Sophia Smith was living with them, as she had been in 1881, when she was described as an annuitant (living off money invested in an annuity), and now in 1891 as ‘living on own means’. If Sophia had private means, it might imply that Elizabeth had brought money to the marriage.

An exhibition of English Straw Plaits and Plaiting was held in the Plait Halls, Luton, in August 1885. Joseph Batchelor and plaiters from the Great Missenden area took part. Image M/734/48 – Thurston Collection, courtesy the Culture Trust Luton

The straw plait business was in decline in England towards the end of the 19th century, with prices forced down by a combination of cheaper imports and the introduction of straw-sewing machines. Joseph suffered from this, being declared bankrupt in 1896. By 1901 he and his family had moved to Castleford in Yorkshire, where he was a managing agent for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, though whether this was for domestic or industrial machines is not known. Perhaps Yorkshire was not to his taste, or perhaps the job did not go well, because by 1911 he was living with his wife and one unmarried daughter in Ipswich, working as an insurance agent. He died there 1914.

The Batchelor connection with Luton continued for many years. Joseph’s eldest daughter, Ella, had married Thomas Keens just weeks before her father’s bankruptcy. Thomas was very active in local and national politics as a Liberal and was knighted in 1934. Ella, now Lady Keens, became Luton’s first female Mayor in 1944.


–Deborah Conway Read


With thanks to Veronica Main MBE, expert on the history of straw plait, for her advice on this research.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy ‘The Story of Nellie Davis, A Chilterns Straw Plaiter’ by Vanessa Worship.

British and Foreign Schools Society

British Newspaper Archive

Gillard, D., Education in England: a history, 2018

National Archives

Ordnance Survey

Pamela Horn, ‘The Buckinghamshire Straw Plait Trade in Victorian England’ in Records of Bucks, xix, pt. 1, 1971

The Lee Village History

Veronica Main

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