The Junior Spinning Champion of Ireland and the Entente Cordiale

Front page of Le Petit Journal, 20 August 1905.

On the 8th of April 1904, the United Kingdom and the French Republic signed the Entente Cordiale. This set of agreements essentially formalized the peace that had been between the countries since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, and also addressed current concerns regarding colonial expansion.

Edward and Alexandra opening the exhibition in all their finery.

French postcard depicting the Entente.

Railway company poster advertising the event.

Landscape view of the exhibition – see the white plaster and marble buildings.

To celebrate the Entente Cordiale, four years later a huge exhibition was held in London – the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition. Exhibitions had been popular since the famous 1851 one at Crystal Palace, and it seemed just the thing to hold yet another one, this time celebrating the industrial and cultural achievements of both Britain and France. It attracted eight million visitors. The exhibition occupied an area of about half a kilometre squared (marshy farmland until that point), and contained a huge network of white plaster and marble-clad buildings (this district of London is still called White City today, though the original buildings are gone – the BBC are tenants there), and even an artificial lake. It took 12,000 labourers 18 months to build under the direction of the Hungarian, Imre Kiralfy, known as the ‘king of showmen’.

The most popular attractions at the Exhibition were the two “native”  villages from lands that the celebrants had colonised, which had been created to show how awesome imperialism was. One was Senegalese, the other was Irish (thereby representing two countries that France and Britain had ‘brought civilization to’). The misrepresentation of the culture of these colonies as primitive and yet essentially British, especially of Ireland, was an act of propaganda designed to undermine the passionate nationalistic movements that were sweeping through Irish political discourse, and especially the Home Rule effort. At home, it was not seen as all bad, however, and many Irish businesses and artists sent exhibits over to be shown as advertisements for the country – Hugh Lane was one of these.

Senegalese village exhibit.

The “Irish” village was called Ballymaclinton, and 150 women were hired (they had to audition, and were judged on their ‘Irish beauty, charm, and expertise’) as “colleens” to exhibit Irish everyday life. I count three men in the background of the picture postcards also. If you are Irish and reading this, then brace yourself. If you’re interested in textile history (why else would you be on this site!), then you can play ‘spot the spinning wheel’ as you gaze through this parade of manufactured nationality. I think my favourite one is the ludicrous exhibit of Irish colleens washing themselves. Don’t worry, you won’t miss it. The point of these craft-centred displays was to show how far from an industrial revolution Ireland was, and thus how much better the country was in the care of a paternal emperor, such as Edward VII.

“Model Cottage, Ballymaclinton”

“Fortune Telling at Ballymaclinton”

“Colleens Washing, Ballymaclinton, Franco-British Exhibition. London. 1908.”

“Colleens Dancing, Ballymaclinton.”

“Colleens Clamouring For Their Letters, Ballymaclinton.”

“Ballymaclinton Colleens”

“A Ballymaclinton Colleen”

I bet that last woman is thinking ‘Oh Christ, what did I sign up for’.

Kathleen Hicks, Junior Spinning Champion of Ireland.

And all of this post has been as a prelude to this young lady. This was Kathleen Hicks in 1908, a textile celebrity of her day since winning the Junior Spinning Championships of Ireland that year. She travelled to the Franco-British Exhibition along with other famous craft and industry workers from Ireland. Her job there was to flit around helping to collect money for the charities that the Exhibition was supporting – in her case, probably the one ‘devoted to the suppression of consumption in Ireland, where this scourge claims a large number of victims’ (see below).

This is from The Times on 14 May 1908 –

I’ve been hunting up young Kathleen Hicks for a couple of weeks now. I found her living in Waterford in 1911, and aged 15 then, which would put her at 12 in the photo above. Here’s a clickable-enlargeable PDF of the form below. She’s entry number five. Her father was Henry James Hicks (a ship’s carpenter), and her mother was Ellen Josephine. Her own middle name, unusually, was Kevin. She was Roman Catholic, and could read and write. Her older sister by three years worked as a milliner. She had been born in Waterford City, and she spoke both Irish and English. And of course (though the census didn’t ask), she was the proud holder of the Irish Junior Spinning Championship Title of Ireland, three years previously.


The Belleek collectors’ group has very kindly emailed me some photographs of Belleek pottery that was sold at the Exhibition and which commemorated Ballymaclinton. You can read more about Belleek on their website here. Thank you Pat! See especially the interior view on the first pot, which shows a spinning wheel in the background.

This entry was posted in clothing, colour, england, exhibitions, hand-spinning, ireland, personalities, spinning, waterford. Bookmark the permalink.

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