Imports, Mechanisation and the Decline of the English Plaiting Industry: The View from the Hatters' Gazette, Luton 1873 - 1900
Between 1870 and 1900, the straw plaiting industry changed from being one that substantially contributed to local rural and family economies, to one in irrevocable decline. Researching the reasons for this decline is historically important because it gives insight into the practical working reality facing English plaiters during the period when the straw hat manufacturing industry sought new opportunities and experienced rapid expansion. There has, however, been little in-depth exploration of the relationship between this decline and the concurrent and rapid industrial revolution in the straw hat industry. Other studies have considered the social and economic history of the plaiting industry and have concluded with an acknowledgment that the industry declined in the 1870s. The often brief reasons given for this decline have focused on the impact of straw plait imports and mechanisation in the hat industry. This study aims to move the discussion of decline forward by clearly linking the shape of the plaiting industry’s demise to industrial expansion in the straw hat industry. This has been attempted by researching a contemporary hat industry trade journal for the years 1873 to 1900. The Hatter and Umbrella Trade Circular; A Monthly Trade Journal, provides insight into the concurrent processes of decline and expansion, and is from the view point of the straw hat industry itself. This reveals a story of divergence between the fortunes of those working with straw. The rapid expansion of the straw hat industry created wealth in Luton, especially during the 1870s and 1880s and this threw the English plaiting industry into decline. However, it was the plaiters’ responsiveness to changes in demand for labour from the hat industry, which appear to have facilitated the hat manufacturers’ and plait dealers’ ability to meet the explosion in demand for straw hats. South Midlands rural workers were an on-tap supply of skilled straw workers. Many of these workers reacted to Luton’s industrial revolution by adapting; by moving between plaiting and hand-sewing according to demand and by traveling or migrating to become straw hat machinists in Luton’s myriad of small workshops.