The making of hats was a major industry in Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire in the 1600s to the early 1900s.

Luton football club is known as 'The Hatters'. Some 17000 people were employed in the industry in the surrounding counties and, of course, it was a major source of employment in Shillington for both adults and children. This use of child labour was rife and caused much upset.

Straw plaiting in St Albans.
From 'The Illustrated London News' 1853

It was common to find the women sitting by their doors and the illustration also shows a child. It was common for very young children to be taught in the plaiting schools how to plait, possibly at the expense of their three R's. In the Shillington school logbook of July 6, 1871 that 'several of the girls were absent plaiting'. On 6 October, a similar lament is made that fewer girls than boys attend due to the existence of plaiting schools where the girls learn to plait straw that they can then sell. 

The schools were effectively workshops. Children under ten were expected to work for 5-8 hours per day and those over ten for 10 hours. There were five plaiting schools in Shillington and the children would take their own straw and sell their plaits.

Nonetheless, valuable income was derived from the industry and this supplemented the wages of the men who were employed as farm labourers or in some form of support activity, blacksmithing, shoemaking etc.

The plaits were either sent to Luton for making into hats or sold in the market in Hitchin.

A straw hat is a straw hat, but, as in modern times, the job titles of the people involved seem to indicate rather more complexity!

Occupations in the industry include Bleacher Of Straw Plait,   Blocker,  Bonnet  Sewer,  Brazilian Hat Manufacturer,  Clerk In Straw Factory,  Commercial Traveller Straw Hats,  Felt And Straw Hat Manufacturer,  Hat & Bonnet Sewer,  Hat Blocker,  Hat Sewer,  Hat Stiffener,  Hat Trimmer,  Plait Basket Maker,  Plait Maker,  Plait Miller,  Plait Sewer,  Straw Basket Maker,  Straw Finisher,  Straw Hat Blocker,  Straw Hat Finisher,  Straw Hat Machinist,  Straw Hat Maker,  Straw Hat Manufacturer,  Straw Hat Packer,  Straw Hat Sewer,  Straw Hat Stiffener,  Straw Hat Trimmer,  Straw Plaiter,  Straw Sewer,  Straw Tailor.

Straw plaiting competition in Pirton in 1923

More information about straw plaiting

History of Straw Plaiting in Hertfordshire
Economics of Straw Plaiting 1801
Splitting Straw in the 19th century

A general background

Stealing straw was a mistake for a Shillington man!

A Google search on 'straw plaiting shillington' brings up many references to people and the industry. Dropping the word 'shillington' ranges wider.