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Lace Making

Over 100 years of history

A stitch in time saves nine.{d}

Lace making started here in the 19th Century and continues today

Lace Making


The first record we have of lace making on St Helena is when Clara George began teaching it to the enslaved and formerly enslaved in her school in the 1820s. Lace was very fashionable at the time but there is no record to suggest that products from the school were commercially marketed, perhaps being given to relatives and friends as presents.

Another of the founders of St Helena’s commercial lace making industry was Emily Louise Jackson (née Warren){3} who came to St Helena in 1889 as a Headmistress of Schools. She had the idea of starting lace making here, similar to the industries in Malta, Madeira, and Madagascar.

Lace by Emily Jackson (Museum of St Helena)
Lace by Emily Jackson (Museum of St Helena)

She spent eight months in the UK learning lace making and returned to St Helena in the late 1890s to start teaching local people.

It was an immediate success. Governor Gallwey was so impressed that, encouraged by Bishop Holbech, he arranged for a lace making expert to visit. On 15th May 1907 Ms Penderel Moody arrived and a Government grant of £470 was obtained to further the work. Ms Moody introduced strict quality control, ensuring that every item was individually inspected before being put on sale. An exhibition of work was held on 23rd March 1908.

In 1908 Ms Moody was replaced by Helen Girdwood, who on 1st July established the first Government Lace School, based in what is now the Post Office building in Jamestown. Within 18 months the school had 135 students, of which around 70 could be described as skilled. Work produced by the school was sold and from 1912-1914 the income from sales was more than £1,500. The income helped the island’s economy at a critical point when the garrison was being withdrawn and the Flax industry was only just getting started.

Towards the end of 1916 Helen Girdwood became ill and had to leave St Helena. The school closed at the beginning of 1917, but was re-opened in June 1920 by Solomons. Described as a ‘Lace Depot’, it had both workshops and retail sales. But this too was short-lived.

In the 1940s it was revived again due to the fortuitous arrival of somebody with the necessary skills, sisters Nelly & Minnie Finnigan (later Minnie Broadway{4}), with the Government of St Helena again in control. Classes moved into the island’s schools and Public Library. Minnie had the title ‘Primary Needle Work Teacher’. In the 1970s ‘Home Industries’ was founded and funded by the Government of St Helena to promote, inter-alia, lace making. Exhibitions of the craft formed a part of the St Helena Day celebrations{5}. Teaching passed to local women, including Jessica March of Blue Hill, whose works include making a lace tablecloth embroidered with an Arum Lily for HRH Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother’s 100th Birthday in 2000. Another was Phyllis Peters of Sandy Bay and her sister Audrey, who together made a lace table setting for Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh when he visited St Helena in 1957. Gillian Knipe was the last official teacher at the Government Lace School, which closed when Prince Andrew School opened in 1989.

Originally it was intended that lace making would be part of the curriculum at Prince Andrew School, but this never happened. A Lace & Handicraft Adviser arrived on 4th February 1984 with the aim of reviving the industry, to no apparent effect. Such lace making as was done was supported by the St Helena Handicrafts Association.

Here are some 1908 photos from the National Archives{e}:

The first photo shows Governor Gallwey in the centre of the group. Photo #2 was taken at the back of the (now) Post Office building{6}. We assume the lady shown in images 3-5 to be either Penderel Moody or Helen Girdwood. If you can identify anybody else please contact us.

Lace making today

Miss St Helena has a go, 2008
Miss St Helena has a go, 2008

Lace making skills are still passed on, mostly from mother to daughter though the Education Directorate does sporadically offer lace making evening classes, as and when a teacher is available. Few of the younger women are learning the skills and it seems likely that lace making, like so many other island crafts, could die out in the near future.

The island’s few remaining lace makers produce a small amount of lace for sale, mostly in the Art & Crafts Association Shop, in Main Street, Jamestown. Wanda Isaac also produces lace at Abiwan’s in Market Street, in the old Foresters’ Hall building.

Current lace making

Read More

Below: Article: St Helena Lace & NeedleworkArticle: Jessica March MBE, Lace Maker

Article: St Helena Lace & Needlework

You can read a more detailed article about St Helena Lace & Needlework by Ian Bruce, originally published in ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{7} #47, October 2018{8}.

Article: Jessica March MBE, Lace Maker

Extracted from an interview with Jessica March by Cathy Hopkins, published in the St Helena Herald 7th May 2010{8}

Jessica’s work in progress
Jessica’s work in progress

She recalls that her mother made lace. Butterflies and things like that. One nursing sister was out here, she used to tend people…she was a lace maker. And they got talking, her and my Mumma…she said she had one bumble bee and she couldn’t work it. She ask my Mumma if she could work it. My Mumma tell her no, she won’ be able to do that, but my Mumma tell her don’t know if I will be able to do it. So she tell Mumma to bring it home and ask me. And Jessica worked the bumble bee pattern and her mother took it back the following week when she went to town for her treatment. And when she look at it , she was astonished. She say that she’ll never be able to work that! So what she done, she give Mumma the pattern bring back and give it to me.

Jessica then went on to tell me about how she learnt lace at the Lace School in what is now the Public Library - she used to take her mother’s lace to town to the Handicrafts to sell and one day when she got there, Lady Bain-Gray (wife of Governor Bain-Gray) was in the Handicrafts and asked Jessica what she did at home? I tell her I do the water, cooking, get wood in. That not good enough. She say that I got to do that work too (referring to lace work).

Jessica March in 2010
Jessica March in 2010

But this wasn’t quite as straightforward as it might have been. For one thing Jessica’s parents felt they needed her at home to help round the house and they also felt it was a long way for a young girl to go - there was no public transport in those days! For three weeks they resisted her pleas to join the classes until finally they said she could give it a try. And the following Tuesday was her first day at the Lace School. She recalls it well!

I get up early every morning, no lying in bed, but I never used to do no work before I go. I get my bath and I get my food and then I go. So, OK, when I get down there by the Governor’s garden gate (The Castle Gardens gate) I was ’shamed, I couldn’t go in, I stand out there like I was frightened. I stand up out there by the gate. And Miss Finnegan, she must be see me, looking out at me. So she come out meet me and put her arms round me…and she could feel I was frightened…I was little t’ing, see? Anyway, she went inside with Miss Finnegan and found all the young women sitting around the big table at work on their lace or embroidery. I had to sit separately by myself. I never done no work that day, I had to prepare, wind on my bobbins. So while I was wind on my bobbins one man come in…Mr Robert Broadway, he was Miss Finnegan’s boyfriend. OK, he tell her he was going to send her eleven o’clock tea down by one servant so she tell him I was from way out country…so he say he will send tea down for me too. And after that when he came down again, he told her that she must go up to his house and have some food to eat whenever she came to town, not just when she went to class. The next time I went to class I had to start my lace, the second day. So that day I went town, I done my lace. Miss Finnegan say I good enough to take the cushion home. Ho, Ho! …I excited now. I used to bring my bread home, now I’d take two bags in case rain. I couldn’t help rain…now I had one bag with my loaves of bread and one bag with my cushion.

Jessica went up the Ladder on her way home and at the top she met people coming up with their donkeys. Blanche Caswell and all those people…they say, it’s very kind you know, they say I can put my load on their donkeys. However, Jessica felt she could move quicker on her own and kept on walking! I carry on all the way thinking which way I got to put my bobbins. She was anxious not to forget what she’d learnt so she could work the lace correctly. When she got home, she had some tea and her mother told her Don’t cook tonight, she say she’ll do the cooking. I went start my lace. My Mumma come over look at it. But she couldn’t help Jessica with it as she didn’t know the pattern. When Jessica went down the next Tuesday, Miss Finnegan looked at it. She said I had it perfect, every pin hole was right! So she was able to take it home with her all the time. She worked the lace square and then asked Miss Finnegan what it was called. But she say it had no name, it was a pattern she make up. So what she do…I was the first one to work it, she name it ‘Jessica’.

Jessica can remember the date when she began lace classes - 19th May 1942; she was nearly 16 years old.

Additional notes: Jessica March was awarded the MBE in the 2001 Birthday Honours. She lived until 7th May 2017.


{a} Tim Cattley{b} Alan Russell{c} Caroline Gaden{d} English Proverb{e} UK National Archives on Flickr™{8}{9}{f} Hugh Crallan


{1} Tim Cattley writes: Pat Musk has identified the lady teaching my sister Janis Cattley how to make St Helena lace in 1947. It was Mrs Prisilla Williams, one of the most accomplished on the island at the time who lived in Jamestown opposite the Botanical Gardens. The photo was taken either at Prisilla’s house in the town or ours up at the Briars.{2} The girl in the image is 15 year old Ethel Peters, chosen by her lace-making tutor to pose for the photo in 1948.{3} Who was also one of the island’s historians.{4} Her husband, Robert Broadway, was ‘Overseer of the Poor’.{5} Island-born Joanna Crowie wrote the following on Social Media: Found your article interesting John, and accurate, though I am surprised that the 70s revival wasn’t mentioned (this is why ‘Home Industries’ was founded and funded by the Government). Gillian Knipe I remember well, neat precise work (in keeping with her good-self) - she might have started the craft with Mrs March, but she was one of the ‘revival’ persons I recall (in the mid to late 70s). Mrs Priscilla Williams (wife of the guy affectionately called ‘Issac Ka Lunchie’) was a great crafts lady, as was Mrs Bizaare (the late Arthur’s Mum), Mrs Gertie Le Breton, Miss Elsa Smith, Mrs Beatrice Henry (Harold’s Mum), Mrs Violet Johnson, Mrs Iris Clingham and many, many, many more, including Mrs Hilda Leo. Mrs D Leo of St Pauls (Tony’s Mum), really excelled at embroidery, there were others who were also masters of their art, but Mrs Leo’s work was ‘crème da la crème’! Exhibitions of Craft which formed a part of the St Helena Day celebrations threw up some amazing work (and rather dormant till then) amazing calibre and quality which left the mouth ‘O’ shaped with admiration. Ms Beattice Maggot’s crocheting, among others that crocheted, was out of this world! I remember that first ‘LARGE’ exhibition as if it were yesterday! It might also be worth mentioning that Ms Alice Francis and Mrs Carryn Jones (both in UK) are not just doing themselves proud, but doing the island proud as they continue (and expand) their St Helena-borne skills.{6} The two grand arches to the right - arguably one of the building’s best features - were, sometime before 1974, covered in by a modern structure that provides additional office space. More proof that conservation is new to St Helena! [Image, right]

Crallan, 1974
Crallan, 1974{f}.

{7} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{8} @@RepDis@@{9} Images are labelled ‘No known copyright restrictions’. Not to be confused with the St Helena Archives.