This is not the first time bondagers have been seen in London many miles away from their home area of Northumberland and South East Scotland.
In 1935 Ion Jamieson trained a team of dancers and took them all the way to London to show off their dancing skills at a Country Dance Exhibition in the Albert Hall. The women were dressed as bondagers and the men as hinds (skilled ploughmen) and a great deal of care was given to make the costumes even more attractive than the more everyday outfits used for work.
Recently I was privileged to meet Bessie (she is on the far right in this photograph) who was one of the team of dancers. I hope to speak to Bessie again soon but she did tell me that they travelled overnight by charabanc all the way from Lauder in the Scottish Borders arriving in London on Friday morning. They did their demonstration dancing and also toured London taking in Buckingham Palace and Downing Street before heading home on the Sunday.
“The folk in London must have wondered what was happening when we travelled through the city in an open-topped bus in our bondager costumes. I mind being awful tired when we got back to Lauder.”
The bondager was often the hind’s wife or daughter and if this was the case her daily earnings helped the family budget. If the hind did not have a family member who could work as the bondager he would need to hire a woman from the hirings and pay her a half year’s wages in advance. He recouped this financial outlay when the farmer paid him a daily rate for the bondager’s work.
The hind and his family, as part of his bond, had to find room in their cottage to house the bondager. This was a great imposition on the hind and his family because the cottages were very small. Sometimes the cottages had two rooms or ‘two ends’ as was the local term but more often than not there was one room only. The hind and his family partitioned this space using box-beds to give a little privacy but housing a stranger with their family was difficult. There were many grumbles about bondagers telling tales, gossiping or being lazy and unwilling to help the hind’s wife with household tasks. The hinds hired the bondagers as their ‘servants’ and strictly speaking they should have worked at anything they were asked to do by the hinds and their wives but a common comment was that the ‘bondagers were not fond of household work’ and Munby in his diaries commented that the bondager might ‘lounge about like a lad and whistle and snooze, until she be ordered afield’.
Despite these improvements any farmer who could not readily get extra workers from a nearby town made no secret that they would look for ‘good families’ at the hirings! By this they meant families with a number of members who were able to work – the dad as the hind, a son as the ‘odd laddie’ and one or two daughters as bondagers.
The Bondage System did eventually disappear but this was gradually over many, many years with women still being employed as part of the hind’s contract at the beginning of the 20th century.
The costume was very colourful and distinctive and was worn very much as a uniform for work. The women were well aware of fashion and wore fashionable clothes on Sunday. A large shady hat was a particular feature of the costume and there were two very different styles. One of these hats was made of black straw and highly decorated with ruching round the crown. The ruching was trimmed with buttons, beads, flowers, feathers and plaited straw favours. Another hat, latterly worn in East Lothian, was a large cotton bonnet called an ugly which was supported by cane to give it its unique shape. Under the hat the bondagers wore a wimple or ‘heid hankie’. This cloth head covering together with the hat, shaded the workers from the sun. The bondagers wore a sprigged or striped cotton blouse and a shawl with stripy skirt known as a petticoat. The petticoat was quite short and just covered the knee. Over this was worn various aprons depending on the work in progress. For the very dirtiest work they wore a hessian apron known as a ‘brat’ or ‘brattie’. The bondagers’ work involved a lot of lifting and they liked to wear stays because they felt this strengthened their back. They also liked a good leather belt for the same reason. Black hand-knitted stockings, divided drawers, leggings and tackety boots completed the outfit.
Wish us luck at Who Do You Think You Are Live. It promises to be a great show, and we are all looking forward to meeting lots of you there.
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