Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack jump over the candlestick
November 25th is Catterns day; the feast day of St Catherine who is the patron saint of lacemakers, spinners, ropemakers and unmarried women in general (spinsters). It was a day of celebration for lacemakers who had reasons to be thankful to two Catherines on this day; the patron saint Catherine of Alexandria and also Queen Katherine of Aragon who did much to invigorate England’s lace industry whilst she was living at Ampthill Castle, Bedfordshire, in the early 1530s.
In the 1800s lacemaking was a major part of life in the counties of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire and many children went to lace schools to learn the trade. Lace was a luxury product often selling for extortionate amounts of money but the people who made it lived in poverty with many of them suffering from sight related problems owing to the intricate nature of the work. November 25th marked the beginning of the winter season and meant that candles could be used to give them some extra light. However, because they were making such expensive items, lacemakers needed to be very careful not to get any dirt on to the lace they were making. One well-placed candle is better than many; plus as candles were themselves costly items, one candle was often as much as a lace school would wish to pay for. To improve the quality of light from a single candle it was placed in the centre of a number of flasks which held pure water. This helped to refract the light and illuminate a much wider area. Traditionally the water in the flasks should be from melted snow, which perhaps gives us a clue to a time when colder Novembers were the norm.
One feature of Catterns day celebrations was the jumping of the candlestick. One student leapt over the stick whilst the others chanted the rhyme: Jack be nimble; Jack be quick… given that our candlestick is over a metre tall this called for some pretty spectacular athletics.
Curator (Applied Art)