A few hundred years ago England subsisted very largely by her village industries. The weaver, the spinner, the embroiderer were women who sat by their hearthside, for the skilful found it was not difficult to earn money in those days. Then machinery was introduced, and this took the work from the village women's hands, and gave it to the town-dwellers who were ready to work in factories. Not only did this deprive country-people of work, and so of wages, but it often drove them into the towns to less healthy surroundings, keener competition, and a by no means beneficial pressure of work.
In the year 1876 a writer named C. J. Leland published a book, "The Minor Arts," in which he advised the holding of village classes. A small society, named the Cottage Arts Association, arose out of this. Its name not being sufficiently embracing, it became, in 1884, the Home Arts and Industries Association. Its first treasurer was the novelist Sir Walter Besant, and one of its most ardent and helpful workers was the late Mr. G. F. Watts, R.a.
As time went on the Association grew in numbers, and teachers and class-holders, chiefly ladies of the district who interested themselves in the work, became more numerous. This year (1911) the number of pupils is over 5,000, and very good work is being done in almost every class.
Queen Alexandra, always ready to assist every good cause, soon became interested in the scheme, and, five years after its foundation, started schools of her own on the Sandringham estate. Shortly afterwards she became Patron of the Association, with Earl Brownlow as President.
There are 103 classes now working in England, exclusive of those in London, ten in Ireland, and six in Scotland. Most of these are self-supporting, though in every case there are voluntary teachers and ladies willing to do the clerical and business part of the work.
All the industries are interesting, and some of the older ones' have a fine history behind them. Queen Alexandra's schools at Sandringham train girls and boys, the girls learning all kinds of needlework, and the boys furniture-making, carving, and metalwork. At Bemerton, in Wiltshire, rugs and mats are made by women and girls, widows or cripples, in their own homes. The work is beautiful, and the women derive real pleasure, as well as useful profit, from the work. Another instance of what can be done by otherwise incapable women is shown by the Birmingham rug industry. In two homes for the feeble-minded outside Birmingham a number of girls are taught rug-making, and it is really marvellous how well and intelligently they work.
An industry with a long history is the Buckingham lace industry. This lace was made in the county many centuries ago, and was one of the first industries to be revived by the Association. Over fifty women are now employed, and every year the work becomes more beautiful.
Queen Katharine of Aragon, who used to tear up her lace when trade was dull, and give the lace-makers of Northamptonshire orders to make new, is still remembered in this district, and "Catteron's Day," November 25, is not yet forgotten.
The counties of Northampton, Bedford, and Buckingham work together as the Midland Lace Association, and employ a great number of women and girls. Princess Henry of Battenberg is President, and Lady Sarah Spencer Vice-president.
Several industries in Devonshire carry on the world-famous "Honiton " lace, one of the few village industries which have never quite died out. Spinning and weaving are taught in various places, chiefly in Wiltshire, where the Downs sheep are close at hand to supply the necessary wool. The Guild of the Brave Poor Things and the Guild of Cripples work together, with headquarters at Kingston-on-thames, for the benefit of crippled and disabled men and women and girls, and it is surprising to see what beautiful work is executed.
In Ireland the Countess of Bessborough has arranged classes for embroidery and needlework, and now there are sixty women and girls working. The County Meath Home Industries employ 120 women and girls at lace-making (the famous Carrickmacross lace), knitting, and linen-work. In Scotland are the well-known tweeds of Sandsting and Glengarry, which entirely support a number of women and girls.
The presidents of all these, and many other industries, are able to say that their aim has to a very large extent been fulfilled. Not only has prosperity been brought into homes and villages where once was poverty, but the moral effect of interesting work on the workers is very noticeable.
The Association acts as chief instructress in all these various industries, and is always ready to send designs or to teach the crafts locally, if there is no one with a knowledge of them in the district. Every year the Association holds an exhibition, usually at the Royal Albert Hall, London, and the workers find that the sales there provide them with working funds for another year."