Wight Life

No Lace Today

By D. L. White

Picture of Miss Charlotte Lander

Miss Charlotte Lander

First Published August/September 1973

Most people living on the Island have visited Broadlands House. It is the Island's centre for Government services, but I wonder how many, like myself, have wondered about its former use. What could have been the function of such a large rambling building as this?

It was while talking to Miss Charlotte Lander that I was told about Island lace-making and its connection with Broadlands. Lottie, as she is known to her friends, has lived in Ryde all her life. She must now be well into her eighties but is still very active. Sitting in the comfort of her own house, surrounded by her collection of Dresden china and historic photographs, she told me what she knew of the forgotten art of Island lace-making. The information that she gave me had been passed on to her from her grandmother, herself a lace-maker.

It was in 1827 when William Henry Nunn first came to the Island with his lace-making machines, after moving from Black-friars, London. (There was some talk of a £4,000 law suit having caused this move). It was Broadlands House that became the resting place of the industry that traded under the name of Freeman and Nunn, Lace-makers.

In 1833 an invention was patented, this being French blond lace and it brought the factory a considerable amount of money. At that time, the staff consisted of one hundred men, sixty girls and thirty winding boys (these being young boys of about thirteen employed to wind the silk thread and look after all the odd jobs such as sweeping up). Most of the staff travelled great distances on foot to reach the factory. They would bring their lunch and, during their hour-break, would cluster around the fire, listening as one of them read The Times out loud, each worker subscribing a few pence weekly for the papers. Following this, discussions took place; many of the men had a very high level of intelligence.

The lace produced by them was very expensive to buy. In fact, a pound weight of silver often had to be exchanged for a pound of silk, but the end product was lace as fine as a spider's web. The factory's story was not always one of prosperity, however. Fashions were very fickle and trade would very quickly drop into a depressed state, with bad labour relations adding to the troubles. One of the strikes at the factory lasted for six weeks.

Amongst its most valued customers were Queen Victoria, the Empress Frederique of Germany and many other social figures of the time, and it was Island lace that was usually worn at the Royal Court.

Having no son to succeed him, Mr Nunn finally closed the business. He died in 1869 and is buried in St Paul's Church, Barton.

After this, Broadlands became a training institute for servants and later a girls' home, finally passing into the hands of the Civil Service. Even today a reminder of the lace factory still remains in the form of the ghost of a nine-year old girl who was said to have been burnt to death in a fire. She is reputed to haunt the first floor offices which are occupied by the Inland Revenue.

The Island also had an abundance of small private cottage industries, all of which turned out lace with their own style of craftmanship. Yet another factory existed adjoining a corn mill at Huffingford (now known as Blackwater). This, however, produced quite different lace to that of Nunn's factory at Broadlands. Huffingford ceased production in about 1863 but occassionally specimens of this lace can still be found.

As the lace industry became more centralized in large factories so did the cottage lace-makers dwindle until their final disappearance.

By the early 1900s, Island lace-making had completely vanished. In 1933 a group of people did however attempt to revive the craft but after meeting with little success decided to abandon the idea.

Examples of Isle of Wight lace still exist in museums and many Islanders have small collections. Lottie herself has a few examples of Islands patterns such as the Isle of Wight rose and many other designs.

Until I met her I certainly knew nothing of Island lace nor indeed of the existence in the past of a large lace factory in Newport.

Picture of part of the skirt of a wedding dress made at the lace factory at Broadlands House, Newport in about 1860

Part of the skirt of a wedding dress made at the lace factory at Broadlands House, Newport in about 1860