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THE BOYS BEHIND THE LACE
When you’re fighting off that ogling oligarch, pertinacious prince, or just meandering down the mall in your millinery marvel, keep in mind those boys in Luton…
BOON & LANE THE HAT BLOCK ALCHEMISTS.
STORY & PICTURES GARRY RIGBY © 2022
Transforming base metals into gold or in the words of that magus of millinery Stephen Jones, “my dreams into realities”, Boon & Lane are one of the last left in the UK, producing moulded blocks on which the milliner will shape their hat. Steve Lane and Alan Davies create bespoke wooden and cast-aluminium hat blocks for a global market including the UK’s leading milliners Boyd, Jones and Treacy. With the majority of hats now mass-produced from Chinese-made metal blocks, it is a testimony to their skill and tenacity they survive and thrive; they cannot compete on price, only quality, of which they have noodles.
From the grace and lace of Knightsbridge to the dirt and dust of a Luton workshop, Boon & Lane continue a craft that had Luton as its centre since the 18th century. Producing around 70 million hats a year at its height in the 1930’s, the region witnessed a rapid decline after 1945 and by 1960 was almost dead in the water. In 1966, after 20 years in the milliner market and two grand, Steve’s late father Peter Lane and partner John Boon formed their own hat block business… mad as if not for all that quality mentioned above.
WHAT TO WEAR
Looming out of the fog in visor, gloves and 3 foot ladle, more reminiscent of a Steampunk knight or space-age Cyclops and literally just mess everywhere, the hat blockers’ attire is a far cry from the neat and tasteful milliners’ salon in the finer parts of town. Wearing an ensemble more suitable for US Steel (some obscure safety law regarding children working 16 hour days with no protection), Steve has been transmuting since leaving school at 16 and brought his old school friend Alan into the business a few years later; pals and their shared addictions a well known problem in the small town milieu. At its peak the industry employed thousands of young men, Boon & Lane have just two.
Up at the crack of dawn with the alchemists catching dew, Steve and Alan fashion their blocks from wood or moulded plaster which is tightly packed in a sandbox, filled with molten aluminium and allowed to cool like cannon-balls in a crucible. With a deftness and dexteriy now almost forgotten, the base wood or metal is transformed into a hat block to produce the infinite variety of millinery in their sans pneumatic world.
HANDS TO WORK. HEARTS TO GOD
The hat industry around Luton was founded upon the success of one material – straw. Originally a centre of plait production for straw hats in the late 17th century, by the 1870’s cheap foreign plaits, those pesky Orientals again, led to a shift towards general hat manufacture. Thousands of children were used in the industry although the 1867 Workshops Act banned the employment of children under the age of 8. Prior to this, children as young as four could be expected to produce plait in a six hour working day; child labour was crucial for Britain’s Industrial Revolution and by the early 1800’s had more than a million child workers. Skilled labour required nimble fingers and that meant get ’em young. In the words of the historian E. P. Thompson, such practice produced places of “sexual license, foul language, cruelty, violent accidents, and alien manners”. But to stay competitive and fight off the ever increasing foreign horde, little hands were essential and as that kindly cleric and theologian, leader in the abolition of slavery John Wesley reminded us, child labor was a means of preventing youthful vice and idleness… hands to work and hearts to God.
TAKING THE PISS
And so, if you were lucky enough to survive the rigours of childhood and all that bad language, you now had the ale and mercury to contend with. Firstly the ale and all that defricatus urina. Alchemists had spent many years in the attempt to extract gold from urine. Albertus Magnus to Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, the alchemist had long realised the versatility and fecundity of piss. Uric acid from urine was used to soften pelts and had been for centuries all over the world. And hatters need pelts and soft pelts at that. Households could sell a bucket of piss for a penny and alot of hats needed alot of piss, equaled alot of money. Those machiavellian merchants would brew beer for their workers, encourage a hearty appetite and collect the urine at the end of the day… literally taking the piss. And so, if you didn’t die of cirrhosis of the liver and or loose morals, there was still the mercury to get you, of which we come to next.
Mad As, a prime example: Boston Corbett – who bumped off John Wilkes Booth – who bumped off President Abe Lincoln was a hatter. Suffering from mercury poisoning, he shot Wilkes Booth, castrated HIMSELF with a pair of scissors, had dinner (sausage, mash and onions no less) and then went to a prayer meeting. Probably sick of all that pissing or just f**king barking. Anyway, to Mercurius. The mid 17th century brought to the hatter the creation of felt carroting and its sinister sister mercuric nitrate as an agent to remove the fur from the pelt. An insatiable desire for hats created a furore for fur and an epidemic of mercury poisoning slowly swept the land – see Boston Corbett above – in extreme cases bringing insanity, paralysis, coma, and death. The process was prohibited in 1941 as the world fell head first into an even greater madness. For the foreseeable future, from Frome to Fukushima, Caithness to Cape Town, the hard metal helmet would become the hat of choice and the MK Battle Bowler – John Leopold Brodie – US Patent number: 1251959 would become… the world’s most popular hat. Mad As aye.
Nonetheless, when you’re fighting off that ogling oligarch, pertinacious prince, or just meandering down the mall in your millinery marvel… just keep in mind all that piss.
“Fashion is a vampiric thing, it’s the hoover on your brain. That’s why I wear the hats, to keep everyone away.” Isabella Blow
“Alchemy, then, is the Great Work of nature that perfects this chaotic matter, whether it be expressed as the metals, the cosmos, or the substance of our souls.” Armand Barbault