By Aileen Atcheson
Employment in Clonmel and towns like it was scarce during the early nineteen hundreds. Women, especially, were usually reduced to taking back-breaking jobs in houses. Only the few could train to be teachers, office workers or nurses.
The Repeal of the Corn Laws had a dreadful effect on employment in Clonmel, the cotton industry fell apart. The creamery employed many women. The strike there in the early part of the nineteen hundreds was successful and a short time later the creamery closed. The nuns in many of the Irish convents and the gentry women, wives and unmarried daughters of Church of Ireland clergy men provided jobs and a huge service for poor people in Ireland in the last century. They are practically forgotten now. Small industries which they set up brought a bit of prosperity to many Irish homes.
A Mr. Looby, of old Clonmel stock, residing in America, sent two hundred pounds to the local St. Vincent de Paul society. The Society decided to use it to help female unemployment in the town. The Sisters of Charity were approached and agreed to run an Irish Crochet and Lace making school for girls. The Lace school, derelict and unsightly, still stands in Morton Street.
Few now remember its relevance to society over a hundred years ago. The Lace making industry was established and in operation in 1905. The salaries of the instructresses were paid by the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction. By 1908 forty-seven girls, formerly pupils of the Sisters of Charity school, were involved in lace production. The business was run in an orderly fashion, as one would expect when the nuns were involved. The lace was sold, sent to Dublin shops and a Dublin depot.
Some of the girls managed to earn ten shillings a week. They had a Summer outing to some seaside each year and a Christmas party. It was always a hen party, only workers at the lace school present. There was one instance at least, of two lacemakers managing to smuggle a bit of jelly out, wrapped in two clean serviettes, for one of their boyfriends, who was calling to collect them and bring them home.
Irish crochet blouse was made for Queen Victoria. Each square was worked separately and then joined together. A group of lacemakers were involved in the making. The lace school thrived for a fair few years. It had to close in 1923 because of a decline in the market for lace. The financial assistance to pay the instructresses salaries was withdrawn.
Marlfield village outside Clonmel is an old and picturesque villa and way back it had one of the biggest distilleries in the world. Stephen Moore, Moore’s of Barne, had a big flour mill there. After some years most of the land there had passed to the Bagnall family. They had built an elegant mansion and had elaborate gardens.
They were reputed to be Cromwellian settlers. They were owners of the ground rents of many properties in Clonmel and owned streets of good houses, such as those in Mary Street, which have now been demolished. By 1889 the village had lost most of its industry and some of the residents were poor and unemployed.
Ms. Harriette Philips Jocelyn Bagwell, née Newton, from County Carlow, was wife of Richard Bagwell. He was then owner of Marlfield House. He was a magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant of Tipperary and played a big part in local affairs. Ms. Bagwell was keen to set up some industry to provide jobs and an income for girls in Marlfield and Clonmel. In 1886 she set up the Marlfield Coloured Embroidery industry.
The embroidery was worked with white cotton thread on coloured material. Tea cloths, cushion covers, apron’s, children’s dresses were produced and nine young women were employed. Mrs. Bagwell taught the young workers to dress dolls. The girls did not earn much on selling the dolls but they learned the skill. When they could dress the girls well they were promoted to the embroidery.
The produce was sold at a shop set up in the village. Mrs. Bagwell was helped in this work by Lady Aberdeen, the Viceroy’s wife. She set up a depot in Dublin to sell work from Marlfield and the Clonmel Lace school. In Marlfield, Mrs. Bagwell paid the workers weekly and it was a condition a certain portion of the money was lodged in the savings bank. The girls had a small nest egg for when they got married or to fall back on in old age.
The aftermath of World War I and the 1920’s were difficult times for small industries. There was little sale for embroidered garments as money was scarce after the war. The Troubles in the country, War of Independence, Black and Tans, Civil War; these all affected the Marlfield embroidery industry and the lace school, both of which closed and the end of the nineteen twenties. Nothing is left now but memories.
“Ou somme les neiges d’antan.”