News / Were your ancestors straw plaiters or hat makers?

Were your ancestors straw plaiters or hat makers?

25 April, 2012

Could you help English Heritage with their current project? We’ve just received the following message from an English Heritage researcher who’d like to speak to anyone with ancestors who worked in the straw plaiting or hatting industry:

‘Are you, were you, or do you know, a master hat–maker? If yes, we tip our caps to you, and hope that you might have something to share… We’re currently researching the hatting and straw plaiting industry in southern England – the commercial hub was in Luton, but the trade was also vitally important to people throughout Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Essex. If you, or anyone in your family, worked in the trade and would like to share your memories or any photographs, we would love to hear from you – you can contact the author directly at’

Please do get in touch if you’d like to share any of your knowledge with Katie!

  • Pippa Childerhouse

    My family,the Randalls, were employed in the hat trade in Luton, although I’m not sure that I am able to help much as I am relatively new to family history and am gleaning most of my knowledge from the internet. Most of the relatives that would have memories of this are no longer with us. I think I have a couple of family photographs but not of them at work.
    Is your research going to be made available to the general public in time?

    • Chris Fagg

      My mother worked for Randalls hat manufacturers in Williamson Street Luton Shen was a driver & delivered untrimmed hats to out workers to trim at home & then collected them she was also a first class milliner, the Randalls also had a farm at Sundon

  • Tony T

    I’ve lost count of the number of distant relatives who were straw plaiters. The ages ranged from 5 to 65.

    I have no photographs to support my facts, which are gleaned almost exclusively from FMP and census records.

    I am sure I am not alone in wanting to see the final published research.

  • Lucia Wallbank

    Many of my ancestors were employed in the straw hat industry. Most made the hats but others owned straw hat factories or were straw dealers and factors. Amos Punter, my 1st cousin five times removed, died in the fire at Vyse’s Hat Factory in 1930.

  • amysell

    Thanks, everyone! I’ll pass your information on to English Heritage and Katie will get in touch if she’d like to ask you any further questions.

    I actually have Straw Plaiters in my family tree too – a very prevalent occupation in the 19th and 20th centuries. The research is due to be published just before Christmas – we’ll let you know when it’s available.

    Amy Sell
    Marketing Executive for

  • Kate

    My great great great grandmother was a straw plaiter in Wendover, Bucks. She lived 1828-1898 and moved to Kent after marriage and did not appear to plait straw any more. I have read that straw plaiters were well paid and therefore considered to be frivolous. I don’t know if there is any truth in this and have no photos or evidence at all.
    I believe there were other relations in Bury St Edmunds who were involved in bonnet making.

  • Maureen Manton

    My Grandmother Jane Laggan and my mother Martha (Cunningham -nee Laggan) both worked as hatmakers at Hubbards in Luton Bedfordshire in the late 1930’s, they were both Scottish by birth. I think my father William Docherty (Scottish by birth) also worked at Hubbards for a time. They are all long gone now and I have no useful information but my Mother used to tell us that the NEW girls were sent up to “old Jane” for tartan paint!
    I would love to know if there are any archives of employee registers still around

    • Graham Manton

      Hi Maureen
      Just saw your reply to the hat making website and wondered if I might just ask where the Manton name comes into your family?
      I’m 48 years old have have lived in Luton all of my life, as have/did my father, grandfather and great grandfather. As far as I can see, Mantons moved to Luton from Ampthill area in 1800’s.

      Best regards

    • Colin Langford

      Can’t help with your family history but remember you with fondness.

  • Jane Townsend

    I live in New Zealand & my research of my paternal ancestors has revealed a family of straw plaiters in Maulden, Bedfordshire in the 1800s. Elizabeth BROWN (my ggg grandmother) was widowed in 1842 when her husband, Joseph died in Bedford gaol (convicted of manslaying & receiving stolen corn). Therefore she would have been very reliant on the income that she & 4 of her 6 daughters could earn as straw plaiters. My understanding is that straw plaiting could be done at home which made it an ideal occupation for women & children?
    I would be very interested in hearing about your research. It appears that by the mid to late 1800s straw was being sourced from outside UK & the straw plaiting industry declined?


    My (paternal) 2 x great grandmother Maria Webster was a Straw Bonnet Maker in Leith & Edinburgh Scotland from the 1830-50s

    She is listed in the 1841 census as “Bonnet Maker”
    In the 1851 (which I particularly love)she ws a Straw bonnet maker employing 14 girls (her husband a Bootmaker ONLY employed 5 men!!)
    Her daughter & daughter in law both living with them were described as milliner
    She was also listed in Edinburgh directories from at least 1833 at Leith as a Straw Hat or Straw bonnet maker.
    I don’t have a photo of her but do have a copy of the “Words of Counsel’ she wrote for her son – my great grandfather when he left Scotland to go to New Zealand aged 17 in 1852 – “Be earnest, be sincere, be dutiful……….”

    On my maternal line I have Hat Makers (felt) who worked in Bermondsey area of London, Dublin, Bristol and Melbourne Australia

  • H McMullin

    Our information has been gleaned from censuses
    Our straw plaiting ancestors lived in Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire. We have found Emma HAKESLEY a straw plaiter in 1841 in Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire and in 1851 Ann COX was also a straw plaiter. In 1861 Rachel GRAVESTOCK nee HAKESLEY together her daughter Emma GRAVESTOCK age 11 son Hakesley Edwin GRAVESTOCK  age 7 and grandson Henry GRAVESTOCK age 5 were all straw plaiters Just look at those very young children surely they were in a plaiting school I would love to know more about that. We also have Elizabeth JAMES who was a Straw bonnet maker in Stoke Damerel  Devon in is not known if she was a plaiter or just made the bonnets up

  • Sue

    I have been researching my paternal ancestors.
    My Grandmother was a straw plaiter as a child. She taught me how to make a 7 plait when I was small. All the girls from the census returns in my family tree seemed to be plaiters and progressed on to hat sewers All the men were agricultural labourers. They started out in the Flamstead area but as the 1900s approached went to live in High town an area of Luton renown for hat factories. My Grandfather was a porter in the straw market halls.
    On my mothers side all my aunties worked as hat machinists in Luton.

  • J Dunbar

    My ggg grandma and her four daughters were straw plaiters in Berkhamsted Herts. I discovered the fact when searching my ancestors. The census of 1861 states that this was so. I had no idea what a straw plaiter was and find the discovery very interesting.

  • Karen Hughes

    My family ( the Castles) came from the Baldock area and were straw plaiters . Like so many who have already posted, I have no pictures to share as I have no direct link to this branch of the family any more. I am looking forward to this publication

  • Kathrine

    My ancestors were straw plaiters also from Hertfordshire, which is funny now that Hainslock is the family name. There are also a few straw plaiter-descendants in the care home I work in too.

  • Alannah

    Just discovered my g g g grandmother (just found this family) Fanny Garner was a plaiter in 1851 census Cholesbury buckinghamshire. They were listed under the Magistrate who lived in the Braziers End House which is where in 1899 the lord of the manor of Cholesbury Manor House lived. I had to look up what a Braider was and found this site.

  • Gerry Glyde

    My great grandfather Henry Roe was a hat manufacturer at North Street Luton. He was married in Greenwich and moved to Luton around 1890. His wife died in child birth in 1897 at which time they had six children. He married one of his employees nine months later. he was 40 and his new wife was aged 22 and become step mother to the children. The eldest my grandmother soon went into service. In 1900 Henry having gone bankrupt(possibly for the second time)went in to the Three Counties Asylum where he died later that year from general paralysis of the insane.( possibily a mix of syphilitic poisoning and mercury poisoning from use on the straw hats. The step mother sarah jane was unable to look after the children who were then split up. Two went into Banardos and my grandmother age 16 had to sign an undertaking that if the chikldren misbehaved she would agree to take them out. Record is taken of her wages. I have the asylum and Barnados and another orphanage records. Barnados records records followed the boys to Canada and went up to young adulthood. Gerry Glyde

  • natalie

    I’ve just started on my family tree, and I have yet received certificates to confirm my genealogy. However, I’ve done quite a bit of digging on my mothers side of the family, my grandfather, paternal grandmother, and grandmother, and I’ve yet to find anyone born outside of Bedfordshire, and they were nearly all hatters, or ag workers!

  • Mullett

    Hi My Grandfather and Father owned MF Mullett and Son Hat Manufacturers in Luton

  • Liz Wright

    My great great grandmother whose surname was Dane is recorded on the census of 1851 as a strawmaker in Milton, Kent.