The interesting life story of Thomas Gilbert, Wycombe lace dealer

I am grateful to Susan Holmes of the Woodlanders Project who has provided this article. In the first article by Susan (Nostalgia December 18, 2020) we looked at the origins of the lace trade in High Wycombe and the role of lace dealers. The importance of the connection between tradesmen such as drapers and grocers, and the lace-makers, was emphasised with reference to Daniel Hearn.

He started in business as a draper and grocer in Easton Street, High Wycombe and became a wealthy businessman through his role as a lace-dealer. Daniel died in 1851 and in his will left generous bequests to his staff, including Thomas Gilbert. This is Thomas’s story.

Early Years Thomas Gilbert was born in August 1825 in Princes Risborough, the son of James and Frances Gilbert who ran the George Inn in the High Street. In 1838, when he was aged about 13, Thomas was apprenticed to Daniel Hearn.

At the time of the census of 1841 he was living with the Hearn family at their residence and shop in Easton St, High Wycombe, with other apprentices and lace-men employed in the business. Ten years later, when the 1851 census was taken, Thomas was living in the household of Daniel Hearn’s business partner William Kendle in Cheapside, London. Kendle was a “British & Foreign lace-dealer” and Thomas was employed as a “commercial traveller”.

Daniel Hearn died a few weeks later and in his will Thomas was described as his “managing laceman”. The fact that he bequeathed Thomas not only nineteen guineas (equivalent to nearly GBP3000 today) but also his organ, which it is fair to assume would have been was one of his prized possessions, indicates that he thought highly of Thomas. Career in Business

In fact it seems that Thomas quickly became responsible for all of the Hearn business interests, because in 1853 he appears in the High Wycombe section of a trade directory as “Gilbert, Thomas and Co., grocers, tea dealers, provision merchants, linen and woollen drapers, silk mercers, hosiers, hatters, and lace manufacturers, High St” . This rapid elevation was probably helped by Thomas’s marriage in 1852 to local girl Anne Matilda White, which took place at the church of St Vedast, Foster Lane in the City of London. Anne was the daughter of Joseph White, the Collector of Taxes for High Wycombe, who lived in Bedford Row in the London Road, just east of the town centre.

Joseph was also a property and land-owner. Thomas and Anne had five daughters and lived at Buckingham House (known locally at that time as “Bobbins Castle” !) in the High St, High Wycombe, before later moving to Bedford House, London Rd. The lace business continued to be very successful, even exhibiting pillow lace-goods at the International Exhibition in London in 1862.

In that same year Thomas was invited to give evidence to the Children’s Employment Commission. He claimed to be the most important lace manufacturer and buyer in southern Buckinghamshire and the adjoining “strip of Oxfordshire”, employing, indirectly, about 3,000 persons. “They are not absolutely engaged by me as workpeople, but I sell them the materials, that is patterns, and silk or thread; and there is a mutual understanding, although no obligation, that I should take all lace for which I have sold the patterns, whether there be demand for it or not, and that the lacemakers should bring it to me and not to any other buyer.

For some I buy in their own villages …..[others] I do not deal directly with the lacemakers themselves but through the agency of small buyers, to whom I supply the materials and pattern …. These small buyers, who have general shops, have a way of giving goods on credit for lace before it is bought. It (this is the Truck System, which was explained in the first article) is a bad plan but one that many adopt in villages.

The earnings of children are a great inducement to parents to put them to lace as soon as they can … commonly at about 6 years old. Till the elder children reach this age a family is only expense, but a mother with some of her little girls at lace may make nearly as much as the father. Machine lace is constantly pressing upon pillow lace, and the only means of keeping the latter manufacture alive is by constantly introducing new designs and kinds of lace as fast as the old are made on the machine.”

As with other industries such as paper-making, mechanisation eventually completely dominated lace-making. Thomas diversified into Yak lace, a coarse bobbin lace typically made from wool, which was cheaper and faster to make, and often used on mourning garments, and also into beaded work, but to no avail. In 1876 he was forced to file for Bankruptcy and in 1878 his entire business was liquidated, paying a final dividend of 5 3/4 d.

However, two of his daughters Emily and Anne, continued as beading and fancy trimmings manufacturers and agents until the 20th century. Public Service Thomas played a full part in the public life of High Wycombe.

He was a prominent Liberal and “a strong supporter of the interests of the borough when the town and the chief landowner of the neighbourhood were not always in complete amity. He was especially strong in his Free Trade views ……and the convictions of a lifetime made him strongly antagonistic towards the recent attacks on the principles of Free Trade. He supported with purse and personal assistance, associations for recreation, sport and literary culture.”

He was one of the oldest surviving members of the Wycombe’s Literary & Scientific Institute and was actively involved in its management. In his younger days he was a keen cricketer, and was then a regular spectator at local matches. He was also a good chess-player.

He was a member of the Town Council of High Wycombe from 1860 to 1880, and was Mayor in 1873/4 during an important period in the history of the town. The Council had promoted a Bill in Parliament for an extension to the boundary of the Borough. The Bill also contained provisions for the construction of Castle Street, which meant taking a part of the churchyard and adjoining farm buildings.

Rejection of the Bill meant that an urgent decision had to be made as to whether to proceed with the construction of Castle Street. The Mayor, after consulting with the Town Clerk, decided that the work should continue. Castle Street was duly constructed.

Thomas Gilbert died from natural causes on May 5, 1904. ‘The research for this article was undertaken by Susan Holmes for The Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes project, a partnership between Bucks New University and the Chilterns Conservation Board. The project is part of the Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership running in the Central Chilterns, funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund https://www.chilternsaonb.org/woodlanders-lives.html’

The full Woodlanders article can be seen at https://www.chilternsaonb.org/news/458/19/The-story-of-Thomas-Gilbert-Lace-Dealer-of-Wycombe.html or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/woodlanderslives/posts/398575094842692 If any reader has information about, or ancestors who were involved in, the local lacemaking trade, Susan would be very pleased to hear from you, email her at susan.x.holmes@gmail.com Next Week: The centenary of Chequers

Today January 8 2021 is a centenary anniversary in the history of Chequers, the UK Prime Minister’s weekend retreat.

Find out why in next week’s Nostalgia page.

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