Prisoner of War Straw Work Box


French POW Straw Work Box

We know very little about the artisan who made the box and how the person we acquired it from got hold of it.

There were thousands of French prisoners in England at the height of the Napoleonic wars held in traditional prisons and on prison “hulks” – moored up ships. Alternatively, it may have come from one of the larger prison camps such as Norman Cross near Peterborough which operated from 1797 to 1815. Napoleonic prisoner of war straw work was a highly skilled craft. Prisoners were encouraged to occupy themselves and earn some money (with which they would buy extra food and improved conditions) by applying themselves to the creation of hand-crafted items. Creating straw marquetry was one such occupation as was scrimshaw bone-carving. All the tools and materials were readily available to the prisoners who used scrap metals, glue from boiled down animal bones and straw stalks salvaged from the local farms.
The box is of two layers and is made of cheap materials including pine wood, straw and bone. The maker utilised simple construction methods, cutting and gluing the straw that covered the box, but it is nonetheless intricately made. This begs the question whether the craftsman brought the skill with him or learnt it in prison. Either way we are presented with what would, in its day, have been an eye-catching piece with every surface (inside and out) made up of a large assortment of geometric patterns, all emphasised by straws that differ in colour, tone and heaviness. The appearance and method is akin to marquetry, a skilful European woodworking technique that became popular in the 17th Century. Straw versions that utilised a similar process, cutting and arranging and gluing into complicated patterns to create a smooth veneer, began to be produced in England in the 18th Century and were probably introduced from France and Holland. The straw designs on our box are quite complex, (there are nine distinctive geometric patterns), and were clearly completed by someone with considerable skill. The straws were frequently dyed. In our example when you lift the lid on the box you can get an idea of what a colourful piece it was in its original state before the outside became sun-bleached.

Its not entirely clear what the box was used for. It has several compartments and may have been used for trinkets or for gaming cards, counters and dice. Whatever its use it has very obviously been well-used and loved over the years, worn as to be expected in places but that adds to its charm and character, in my view a later addition lock and key has been fitted making it a more functional piece.

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