Women of Straw

Written by Carole Llewellyn
Review by Geoffrey Harfield

Set in Luton, a market town just north of London, Women of Straw centres on the straw hat industry of the late 1860s. Using straw from wheat threshing, an Irish family on hard times runs a plaiting business employing school children out of hours. Mother Rose Devlin, with her now-fatherless children, Liam and Kate, live on Plaiters Way. Liam works and boards on a local farm whilst Kate supervises the plait school.

The lengths of plaited straw cut to a measured length are bundled and supplied under contract to a local hat maker by Kate’s uncle and his horse and cart. In the evening, when the children have gone home, ever-resourceful Kate is becoming proficient at making straw hats and bonnets. Trouble brews when Kate’s drunken uncle claims to be the new owner of their house. Secretly he changes the measure of the plaits they sell to the hat-making Stratton family, which brings a police visit with accusations of overcharging. The family moves house, and the romance between Kate and Luke, the younger son of the Strattons, takes a new turn.

This is a cheerful book about overcoming misfortunes and a developing relationship between a young man and woman from different classes. After initial scene setting, the book continues mainly in dialogue, hinting at future conflicts, enlarging characters, foreshadowing romance and predicting characters yet to appear. It benefits from Victorian dialect words and idioms derived from the naval tradition, like ‘show ‘em the ropes’. The joy of handling this Robert Hale hardback is surpassed only by its brilliant and page-turning story.