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Employment opportunities have varied over the years in Towcester.


Perhaps the biggest single opportunity was in connection with the road through the town. The Romans knew it as Watling Street, the name by which it is once again known today in the town. It is also called the A5, the major trunk road for many years out of London to Chester and Holyhead. This main road has been a major thoroughfare since Roman times, and many inns have sprung up alongside it to cater for the passing trade. The principal inns were the White Hart, the Talbot, and the Saracens Head, of which only the Saracens Head still exists today. There were, however, many others – the Plough, the Dolphin, the Swan, the Horse & Jockey, the Wheatsheaf, the Sun, the Iron Crown, the Goats Head, the Nelson’s Arms, to name but a few. Between them, these provided for the stage coaches, the post chaises, private carriages, farm wagons, and the local populace, and the innkeepers of the larger inns were held in high regard. The town’s reliance on this source of income was the reason the smallpox epidemic of 1796-7 was important enough to be mentioned in the parish register – no coaches would stop in a smallpox-ridden town, and people must have got tired of watching their income vanishing up the road in search of another town with no disease!


Local inns needed much labour. Guests needed serving at table, bedchambers made up, and their horses cared for. Stage coaches needed changes of horses. Waiters, barmen, chambermaids, cooks, grooms and postillions were all needed by every inn. Maidservants and grooms were also needed by the more wealthy among the locals, such as the Earl of Pomfret at Easton Neston, or Lord Southampton at the Wakefield Estate in Potterspury, or the local doctors (who all had to keep a horse). Work in the service industry was booming, and in 1851, one of Towcester’s biggest exports seemed to be innkeepers and grooms. Workers were also attracted to the town by the opportunities it offered, and may have been tempted on further by stories of Chester, London, and even further away, which were doubtless aired in the inns and bars lining the High Street.


Then there was the shoe industry. Many towns and villages had shoemakers, but all through Northamptonshire by the early 19th century could be found numerous shoemakers. It was a cottage industry then, very often involving the whole family. Starting in the 16th century, the shoemaking industry was built on the easily available leather locally. This was boosted by the demand for shoes by the Army in the Napoleonic War, but when this ended, trade slumped. Leather was bought from the dealers by shoemakers, who, often with their family’s help, would make up the shoes. Factory working was introduced in the late 19th century, in Northampton. This spelt the death of Towcester’s cottage industry.


It was mostly women who made lace. They bought their cotton from the lace dealer, to whom they sold the finished article. Almost every woman had a lace pillow by the early 19th century. Started by Flemish and Huguenot refugees, lace making reached it’s zenith during the Napoleonic Wars, when French lace was unobtainable. Every village had their own lace patterns which the women worked to, which were jealously guarded. The women worked from a very young age making lace, which was taught in special “lace schools”. The children would work for several hours a day, in very cramped conditions, for a pittance.


The following extract is taken from the Minutes of the Guardians of the Poor in Towcester:


“Sanitary conditions affecting the manufacture of pillow-lace

1861 report made in Towcester & Newport Pagnell

Lace-makers were badly housed and there was gross overcrowding in the lace schools, as many as 24 children being at times packed into the minimum of space allotted to a convict in his cell. The rooms were also as a rule most imperfectly ventilated and so the air they contained soon became foul and oppressive, and in the Winter it was further vitiated by the use of the “chafing dish”, a tray of ignited charcoal placed under the feet to obviate the cold from which persons employed in an occupation of so sedentary a character naturally suffered. The hours of labour were also excessive, many working from 9 to 12 hours or more a day, and children as a rule having a “task”, a certain length of lace to make before each meal. These little ones often began their arduous labour at the age of 5 or 6 years, and had little or none of that recreation so essential to health and proper bodily development. The stooping posture maintained during the hours of work was found especially to affect the development of the Chest, and with the aid of Mr Watkins [the local doctor] who was much interested in the enquiry, it was ascertained that although in ordinary children, and also in those engaged in manufacturing districts such as Preston, the anterior measurement of the chest exceeded the posterior, precisely the reverse was the rule amongst the children employed in making pillow lace. These various conditions were further ascertained to exercise a most injurious effect on the lace workers. Girls and women suffered much from debilitating and anaemic diseases, and whereas when the average annual death rate from Phthisis [Tuberculosis] in the Towcester and Newport Pagnell Unions was compared with that prevailing in an ordinary healthy rural district, it was found that the mortality of males but slightly exceeded the rate in the standard districts, yet the mortality of females was at the rate of 1 per 1000 in excess of the same standard rate.


Although these conditions had remained in the Newport Pagnell region since 1861, those employed in the lace trade had decreased in Towcester, and that the conditions had undergone material improvement. There were places in Towcester where there were cottages unfit for habitation, yet there had been a decided change for the better in the houses occupied by the poor. Some lace-schools were still overcrowded, but most were a vast improvement on what they were when they were held by the poorest widows in the cheapest and worst tenements. Children now not set to the pillow until 8 or 9, and owing to the action taken by a former Vicar of Towcester, children under 13 now only worked half time, being sent to school for a number of hours daily. Infants’ health appeared to have improved.


Poor Relief had been reduced to the lowest possible sum in the case of women who persisted in bringing up their children as lace makers. Many girls and women had given up the sedentary and unhealthy occupation which previously unfitted them for domestic duties and made them the worst of wives, and they had instead become domestic servants.”


This is not the romantic image that many have of a lace-maker, probably owing to the delicacy of the finished product. Girls no longer attended lace schools after 1870, having instead to attend the National School until the age of 13. Competition from machine-made lace saw the industry greatly decline by the end of the 19th century.


Towcester in 1901 was a very different place from the Towcester revealed in the 1851 Census. A comparison of the Censuses reveals that the numbers of shoemakers had dropped, and there were far more different trades in evidence in 1901. The biggest difference was in the employment of the women – where previously nearly every house at the lower end of the income scale contained at least one lacemaker, now only the older generation made lace. In one part of Towcester, where there had been over 100 lacemakers plying their craft in 1851, by 1901 there were just 2.


One major industry had meanwhile arrived in Towcester – the brewery. Begun by Pickering Phipps in 1801, and branching out into Northampton in 1817, a new Brewery was built in Towcester in 1874, on the site of the present Malthouse Court. Beer was brewed in both Northampton and Towcester until 1901, when the Towcester brewery burnt down.