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Leagrave Cottages

Leagrave Cottages at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Leagrave Cottages at Chiltern Open Air Museum

This building was at 57, Compton Avenue, Leagrave in Luton. It originally consisted of two thatched single room cottages under one roof, the central chimney serving the back-to-back fireplaces. A coin found in the building suggests that it was built in the 1770s. Around 1912 the cottages were modernised, an upper floor added, and cast-iron ranges fitted. Between 1928 and 1930 the building was converted into one large cottage. By 1979 it had fallen into disrepair and the last occupant was evicted in 1982 since the Borough of Luton considered it unsuitable for human habitation. It was dismantled in 1983 to 1984.The sparse furnishing of one cottage reflects the way the cottage would have looked in the late 18th century. The other cottage is dressed for the 1940s. In 1988 Jim Turner was interviewed and said that he was the last person to live in the cottage before it was demolished. He recalled that friends would not sleep in the bedrooms of the house because they said that there was a ghost of an old man wearing a cap the wrong way round who would walk from the kitchen up the stairs. Jim Turner, however, never saw it. Another former resident, William Dickman, who lived there as a boy of nine in the early 1900s recalls that there was a well in the garden where they got their water. We do not have a well, but there is an apple tree in the garden which nicely fits in with the fact that the area of the cottage was known as Apple Tree Yard. The story goes that Joseph Thomas who we know was living there in 1881 planted an apple pip that grew into a large apple tree.

One of the common activities of the women and children in the Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and north Essex was straw plaiting and in the first cottage can be seen some of their tools. On the wall in Leagrave is a replica post 1800 splint mill which was used to soften straw splints, the split straws used for finer plaits. Pre 1800 the mill was known as a plait mill and was used to flatten the scores of plait before they went to market. A score was a 20 yard length.

Below here follows an article by Vanessa Worship and the Woodlanders Lives and Landscapes project, part of Chalk Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership in the central Chilterns and which I am including with their kind permission. It concerns the life of Nellie Keen, a straw plaiter in the Chilterns.

Nellie Keen was aged 79 when she was interviewed by Stanley Ellis of Leeds University, for the Survey of English Dialects. The recording detailed below offers a fascinating insight into the life of a straw plaiter in Buckland parish in the late 1800s.

“The men had to go round the country to straw ricks and draw all the better straws out the ricks and make ‘em into great big bundles…they used to bring ‘em round to the people…

“Oh, lots of different kinds of plaiting. I always done what they call the pearl plait but there was brilliant plait…beautiful plait that was, and railroad…they used to dye the straws for that you see, a mixture, but I always done the pearl…

[Author’s note: The straw was first split into splints, using a straw splitter. Then the splints were softened using a splint mill – see below]

“And then when you’d done this plait, you used to clip it and mill it… [the mill] was a little thing that’s hooked up on the wall, you could unscrew it and screw it, and with a handle at the side like a little tiny mangle I should call it…

[When the length of plait was finished it was clipped to remove the joined ends, then milled to make it look more even and appealing to the buyers.]

“And then after that you had to do it up round your arm the old-fashioned folk used to do it, in lengths of ten yards you see and then put them together and two ten yards [was] a score of course, and then tie it up with string like this ’ere as you go along – oh dear now I’ve dropped it – and then tie it all up and take it to Tring market to sell it…

Wooden splint mill from the 1800s

Wooden splint mill from the 1800s Photograph courtesy of Veronica Main

“…ooh everybody had to do it years ago to turn a shilling or two. The women and children, everybody…

“They used to have what they called a plaiting school in the children’s holidays…a woman used to have all the children sit round and they used to sit plaiting straws… [parents] paid about three ha’pence a week for the woman having you there…

“You had to bring it back home and your mother’d take it to market and sell it…only four or five pence a score, that wasn’t much was it? And then you’d got to walk to Tring to take it. There used to be an old market house at Tring years ago, they’ve pulled it down now, and they used to go under there and the plait buyers used to come round…

“Yes, all the village people used to plait years ago.

Written by Roger Coode, Museum Volunteer


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