Belgian Lace: by Caroline Auckland

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I know for certain that the main piece of lace visible in the above photograph is from Belgium, the rest I have inherited or acquired. A drawer full of aging white fabric and needlepoint has survived mainly because it is now of no use except as a decorative item. But the Belgian Refugees in Tunbridge Wells project has resulted in an increase of interest in the drawer I rarely opened.

Many of the refugees arrived at Tunbridge Wells Railway Station at the bottom of Mount Pleasant and opposite The Great Hall.

Figure 1, Kent & Sussex Courier 23 October 1914, p.3

The text reads accompanying the above photo reads:

 A pleasing incident of the arrival of Belgian refuges at the S.E.Ry, Station on Friday is shown in the photograph viz,. Little Belgian children being carried by Territorials to the Autocars lent by the Autocar Company under the superintendence of Mr Marshall and Mr White.

This image by the photographer Lankester, is juxtaposed with many images of soldiers from varying regiments also arriving at the town’s railway station. Entitled Territorials from the North, Lankester’s images firmly connect the railway station with the idea of modernity, the transport system both providing travel but also empirical strength with being a route of safety from war and protectionism with its movement of friendly armed forces. The text alongside the images reports that the refugees or ‘visitors’ a reference by which they are also known, ‘are of the trading class’ and are destined for homes in Dudley Road, Upper Grosvenor Road, (30 & 47), Southborough, St James Road and Grosvenor Lodge.

Wickham’s, the drapers and milliners, was on Mount Pleasant, Tunbridge Wells (just up from the Great Hall and the railway station), stocking lace in its Fancy Department. Calling itself The Fashion Rendezvous it boasted a collection of ‘real Bruges lace with all its charming association of patterns.’

     Figure 2, Kent & Sussex Courier 25 June 1915, p.8.

It appears the Belgians brought lace with them when they fled their country. Was this their most valuable possession? We might often think of what we would save when fleeing our home from fire and many of us would reply photographs or jewellery. But it would seem the Belgians chose lace. Was it for sentimentality or was it as a bargaining power?

A popular image of the period is this photograph below, available to buy as an ephemeral token of the times: a symbol of a Belgian refugee- The lace maker.

Figure 3, Carte Postale A. H. Paris, exact date unknown, private collection.

There is evidence of Belgian lace sales – nationally and in Tunbridge Wells and of its manufacture by exiles. That other spa town, Bath reported a ‘Very nice selection of every kind of Belgian Lace , made by refugees in England, to be seen at the Belgian Lace Shop […] Opposite the Grand Pump Room’.

Nearer home, the Hastings and St Leonards Observer advertised ‘A Great Sale of Lace from the house of Vandervelde- Foiret’ with 5 per cent of the proceeds going to the Local Belgian Relief Fund.

But, I am pleased to report, the good people of Tunbridge Wells via Dust & Company of the Pantiles and Nevill Street, with their own Pump Room nearby, presented the Belgian Relief Fund with a generous 10% of their takings. Mayor Emson received £26 from ‘Messers Dust & Co., being a percentage of the result of a sale of Belgian lace held in their establishment by Madame Vandervelde […] Madame is most grateful to the ladies who so kindly purchased her goods.’ An on-line convertor estimates £26 in 1914 to be equivalent to a staggering modern day total of £2754.84. My goodness, Tunbridge Wells ladies must have been smothered with lace!

       Figure 4, Kent & Sussex Courier, 20 November, 1914.p.5

This advertisement needs to be included in its entirety as it took up an entire column of a page of the local broadsheet. Proclaiming loud and clear that the procurement of lace from the Belgian Refugees was a valid and worthwhile war effort, trade and acquisition being the right response and Tunbridge Wells was proud of its women for this activity.

So after reading about the sale of Belgian Lace I then had a thoroughly lovely read through the wedding reports when lace is mentioned as both part of brides ensemble and the wedding present list, with lace handkerchiefs being a popular gift. The social etiquette surrounding weddings is very evident in this period with all these details being printed as well as the guest list.

The only wedding I could find which mentions Belgian lace directly is that of Rev. O.H. Edwards and Miss Lockett at Edenbridge, and there is a rather touching reference to ‘wounded Belgian soldiers at Eden Hall V.A.D. Hospital ‘ who had presented her with her marital bouquet.

Figure 5, Kent & Sussex Courier, 5 February, 1915, p.7

So next time you see a pile of lace jumbled in a charity shop or artfully draped over a pine towel rail in a shabby-chic shop; take a moment and consider what lace represents and how it was used as a commodity in war. Somewhere out there in vintage shops, wardrobes and suitcases in lofts or in display cabinets in regional museums examples of portable Victorian and Edwardian Belgian lace survives because of the resourceful women of Belgium: made by women, sold and bought by women and worn by women. Belgian lace sales were not particular to Tunbridge Wells but symptomatic of events all over England. Up and down the land the lace was displayed and retailed to adorn wedding dresses amongst other uses, their fine edges and trims embellishing moments of happiness within the days of trench warfare and mass loss of life.  All part of the war effort, it is truly the fabric of war, displacement and exchange.


Kent and Sussex Courier, 4 & 11 December 1914

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 27 May 1916

Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 19 December 1914.

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