“I always liked my work very much and although I had trouble with it when I first learnt, it has been a little fortune to me”
After Lucy’s time working at the silk mills she continues working for the rest of her life, often changing from job to job in order to maintain steady employment and income. Lucy’s memoir is mainly based around her working life and is something that Lucy goes into great detail about. After working in service Lucy is provided with an opportunity: “I had been told of a place in Luton where they wanted a girl to learn the straw work… I though it was a chance to learn a trade, so I went there (8).” This is were Lucy’s 47 year career in straw work begins, a pivotal moment in her life.
Lucy provides detailed insight into the inner workings of the straw trade, particularly in her description of the seasons in straw working. Lucy often refers to how straw work fluctuates between almost no work to working “almost day and night (14)” during the busy season. Whilst Lucy does not go into detail as to why the straw trade had seasons it can be deduced from the material that they use. Straw itself being a natural product would have been effected by changes in the weather and a poor harvest leading to shortages, while “The straw work is very bad, as a rule, from July up to about Christmas (14).”
The straw trade was a trade that offered opportunity for women to make money, as it was a type of labour that was almost only undertaken by women. However, it was a deeply volatile industry, as Pamela Sharpe highlights in her analysis of straw plaiting and women’s labour: “despite its apparent suitability as a rural employment, straw-plaiting always oscillated between profitability and pauperism for labouring people (Sharpe,1994,133).” This is an element of the industry that Lucy constantly battles against as she is often out of work and out on the street as a result: “the season was over, and I was homeless, penniless, and with only the clothes I walked in (9).” From her early years, Lucy had battled against low wages that meant she saved very little from her meagre wages that often did not meet her basic needs. Yet she proved resilient in always finding new work and a place to stay.
Lucy’s description of straw work is one that highlights how it was not just a solo effort and often required the supervision of others. Her work often involved the input or depended on other straw workers. However, Lucy does not go into detail about conversations that happened whilst she was working. Instead she details how working made her feel and the opportunities it gave her.
Despite the low wages in straw work throughout her career, she attached a lot of pride to it particularly because it allowed her to navigate her way independently and provide for herself: “I have been at the work for forty-seven years, and have never missed one season (14).” Lucy takes pride in her work ethic and how she has never missed one season, it is something that Lucy attaches her identity to, the forty-seven years of working is something she sees as an achievement. Moreover, her work gave her a strong sense of identity as a hardworking and good woman: ” I had kept myself respectable (8,9).” Lucy’s job gives her a sense of identity that she never had as a child of the workhouse, as her work provides her with a sense of control over how she presents herself. However, Lucy always follows up her declaration of self pride with an almost apologetic statement: “I don’t wish to boast (8)” “I don’t like to talk of what I have done (14).” Lucy almost feels a need to disclose that she is not bragging about her work or present herself as self-entitled. Her inclusion of these statements is reflective of her working-class background and the Victorian sentiment that ‘self praise is no recommendation’. Perhaps she and other working class autobiographers felt the requirement to appear humble. As Regenia Gagnier points out, many such memoirs start with an apology: “most working-class autobiographies begin not with a family lineage or a birth date but rather with an apology for their author’ ordinariness (Gagnier,1987,338).”
Lucy’s final place of work was at a shop in the West End where she worked in straw plaiting for the last twenty years of her life, while she was also a wife and mother, living in Paddington. Lucy’s rise from workhouse child to straw worker is a journey that she displays an immense sense of pride in. Whilst her working life was at times unpredictable it gave Lucy opportunities to obtain a sense of identity, something she never had before her working life began.
Gagnier, Regenia. . Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender. Victorian Studies, 30(3), (1987): 335-363.
456 LUCK, Lucy, ‘A Little of My Life’, edited by J. C. Squire, London Mercury, Vol. xiii, No.76, Nov 1925-Apr 1926, pp.354-73. Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Useful Toil. Autobiographies of working people from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1974), pp.68-77.
Sharpe, Pamela “The Women’s Harvest: Straw-Plaiting and the Representation of Labouring Women’s Employment, 1793–1885,” Rural History. Cambridge University Press, 5(2). (1994) pp. 129–142
Image of women making straw bonnets.
Inwards, Harry. Straw Hats and Their history and manufacture. Project Gutenberg. (2021)
Image of Straw plaiting women
The Straw Plaiters. Straw Plaiting Guide. (2021)