Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket 1888

Masthead ‘Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket’ April 1888

The BLT19 project has digitised a very battered partial copy from April 1888 (just 8 pages) of the rare women’s magazine Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket. You can see from the images below how frayed and torn the edges are. We have a copy of a complete volume, but we wanted to start with this partial copy to show how fragile many of items we have have on BLT19 are – that the history of work is disintegrating before we even know it existed.

Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket was a monthly 2d magazine which was first brought out in 1885 by R.S. Cartwright, a company established in the 1880s and based at 8 and 9 Johnson’s Court, just off Fleet Street.[1]  Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket joined the duo of Leach’s magazines which catered for the practical dressmaking work of middle-class women: Mrs Leach’s Family Dressmaker, and Mrs Leach’s Children’s Dressmaker. The periodical was made up of 24 pages crammed full of complex knitting patterns, instructions for art needlework, crewel, crochet, and embroidery. Illustrations of dextrous fingers demonstrated the myriad of skilful techniques required, as shown in figure 1.  ‘Fancy work’ in its broadest sense could be best described as the opposite of any plain or practical needlework or handicraft.[2] It was a way for skilled women to make money in the spare time they had after housework. No woman could expect to become rich through ‘fancy work,’ but it could add a little which might make a significant difference to small incomes, either because women did not have to get items made or repaired (they could make them themselves) or because they could sell items they made. Plus, they could participate in charity work, as we explain below, and this in turn could gives them entry into networks that could either help themselves or their families find work.

PDF of the whole issue


Downloadable images of the pages

Mrs Leach’s Synergistic Work

‘Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket’ April 1888 (front cover)
Figure 1 The Art of Tatting ‘Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket’ April 1888, (p.122)

There are very limited records available to confirm the magazine’s dates of production, (early issues were undated) or indeed anything much about the publisher or editor. We can, though, reliably confirm that the publication started in 1885. [3] The date the magazine finished is less clear: it appears to have stopped in November 1914 only to restart publication for a few issues in 1915.[4] The editor was the eponymous Mrs Clara Leach herself.[5]  

In addition to Mrs Leach’s collection, R.S. Cartwright published two other magazines aimed at women: the Lady’s Companion and Home Life, neither of which have been studied and about which we know very little – not even the dates they began and ended. By 1914, Cartwright had a printing department and printed all the texts the form published.[6]  There are no records of the original printer W.I. Richardson, who was based at Great Queen Street, Lincoln Inn Fields.

A review of the Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket and its sister publication the Family Dressmaker in the Leigh Chronicle in October 1892 [7] referred to the Family Dressmaker’s offer of a full-size paper pattern of a ‘ladies’ autumn wrap’ and the periodical’s apparently regular give-away of 300 pairs of fashionable gloves. By contrast, its description of the Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket conjured up an altogether different offer for ladies who wanted dabbled in fancy work, embroidery and painting as well as ‘manufacturing dainty little nothings’.

Keen to distance itself from any notion of idleness, Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket’s title page declared that it offered ‘A Profitable and Pleasant Employment for Ladies’. This announcement and others like it hinted at the magazine’s invaluable resource for the growing band of women involved in the charity bazaar phenomenon which was rapidly gaining popularity in the UK. In addition, and perhaps more poignantly, it also alluded to the many ‘distressed gentlewomen’ who had turned to the commercial bazaars to draw in extra income. [8]  In an introduction to crewel work in 1885, Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket referred to the revival of the art and how some had suggested that this work was one of the very few areas in which ‘ladies of slender incomes may employ their leisure hours, and intervals between domestic duties to their pecuniary advantage’. [9]  Annette Shiell’s study of the rise of the charity bazaar in colonial Australia also includes an account of the growth of the bazaar in England: she refers to the commercial bazaars which emulated the charity model and how middle-class daughters were encouraged to rent a stall in these permanent marketplaces as a safe place to sell their handiwork.[10]  Shiell mentions a handful of fancywork publications on which she based her research, which includes Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket which seems to have circulated in Australia and India, and no doubt other British colonies as well. [11]

Figure 2 Advertisement for Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket, The ‘Bookseller September 3, 1887 (p.925)[12]

There are no records on the Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket‘s editor, Mrs Clara Leach, other than local newspaper advertisements for her two London shop premises. They were at 37 New Kent Road (near Elephant ad Castle), where she advertised as a ‘Dress and Mantle Maker…and Designer of Paper Patterns’ [13] and where individual patterns could be obtained by post, and at 15 and 16 Grand Parade Brixton Road (as shown in figure 3 from the South London Press in November 1884). Significantly, these were not expensive areas like Bayswater but neither were they poor: as Charles Booth’s famous map tells us, they were solid middle-class (in his language, “well-to-do”) shopping streets in the 1890s. Mrs Leach targetted a very specific market of respectable ladies without a huge income and knew exactly the importance of location as well as language in doing that. Her publications boosted her shops and her shops boosted her magazine in ways today’s media industry calls “synergistic.”

Yet again we see how work in the media involves the careful creation and advertising of an identity that is then both sold itself in the form of a magazine and also used for selling other items (compare The Wizard, for example). While Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket certainly did run adverts for other products – almost 3 of its 8 pages comprise ads which are very carefully targeted at providing solutions for women’s problems – the real thing being advertised is Mrs Leach herself. She and her products, goes the general claim of the magazine, can help her readers, can improve their lives: whether in her shops or in the magazine, Mrs Leach is selling help to readers so that they can help themselves. This is her “work.”

We may not know much about her now, but given how long Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket lasted – the 30 years from 1885 to at least 1915 – Mrs Leach’s combination of labours in the media and in the dress trade, her selling her help, were evidently very successful!

Figure 3 ‘South London Press’ Saturday 15 November 1884 (p.16)


[1] Willing’s Press Guide 1891: 80

[2] Annette Shiell, Fundraising, Flirtation and Fancywork Charity Bazaars in Nineteenth Century Australia, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2004 (p.8).

[3] Willing’s Press Guide 1891: 80 dates Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket from 1885 as a 2d monthly published by R.S. Cartwright. The Shepton Mallet Journal (5 February 1886, p.2) issue carried a review of the magazine which referred to FWB’s fifth issue. The digitised copy of FWB on the BLT19 website is dated April 1888 issue number 31. A calculation determines that issue no.1 was published in October 1885.

[4] The Waterloo Directory records that BL holds partial runs nos 49-350 plus 1+2 of 1915 when it restarted publication in 1915.

[5] Annual Index of Periodicals and Photographs Index to the Periodicals of 1890-1902. (1891). London: Review of reviews office. P.112

[6] Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History (1914)’s_Who_in_Business:_Company_C

[7] Willing’s Press Guide 1891:80

[8] Sheill p.21

[9] Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket issue 1, (Oct?) 1995

[10] Sheill 19-20

[11] Sheill informs us that Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket alongside other fancywork publications found their way to Australia. (p.68) I have found Mrs Leach’s Fancy Work Basket was also advertised in the Bangalore Spectator (Saturday 14 April 1894, p.4).

[12] Publishers’ Association, and Booksellers Association of Great Britain and Ireland. Bookseller: the Organ of the Book Trade. London: J. Whitaker.

[13] South London Press Saturday 26 August 1882 (p.14).