I Was Too Far Out All My Life; Not Swaving But Drowning II.

Courtesy Yorkshire Waterways Museum, Goole


That title’s with apologies to Stevie Smith.

Today, an interruption in putting up photos of the gansey patterns in ‘River Ganseys’.

Thought I’d put everything I have about swaving here, in one post.

This is ongoing research and by no means complete so not the last word on the subject- just the first few tentative words. But it may be easier to have this in one place as a jumping off point for other researchers.



Striking t’loop is simply another term for swaving. But what was swaving?


All this time, their knitting goes on with unremitting speed. They sit rocking to and fro, like so many weird wizards. They burn no candle, but knit by the light of the peat fire. And this rocking motion is connected with a mode of knitting peculiar to the place, called swaving; which is difficult to describe.  Ordinary knitting is performed by a variety of little motions, but this is a single uniform tossing motion of both hands at once, and the body often accompanying it, with a sympathetic action…

William Howitt, The Rural Life of England, Volume 1


Howitt’s 1838 account of swaving remains the only contemporaneous one – and so is often quoted.  Yet even experienced knitters find it hard to figure out exactly what swaving would look like. Here’s where a 1956 Dalesman article comes in handy:


“Mrs Cornthwaite, of Sedbergh, was taught to knit by her grandmother, Mrs Dinsdale, who as a child attended a knitting school at Blandses Farm, Frostrow, now in ruins. Mrs Cornthwaite showed me how, with knitting stick and curved needles, the ‘swaving’ movement, called ‘strikin’ t’loop’, was done.

“The skillful downward turn of the curved needle-ends, with the index finger of the right hand ready with the ‘wosset’ (worsted) for them to catch and carry as they turned upwards, reduced the movements to two. This upward and downward movement appears to be merely a sort of shaking of the knitting. ‘Strikin’ t’loop’ was possible only when the knitting was plain. not ribbed pattern. Clever knitters could ‘strike t’loop’ in reverse, producing purl stitch…”


humber k & s
Image Courtesy Humber Keel & Sloop Society. River ganseys often have unpatterned lower halves which would lend themselves to a quick swave!


In one paragraph, Mrs Cornthwaite tells us what William Howitt, the non-knitter, couldn’t: that swaving was only possible for plain stocking stitch fabrics and most easily on knit rounds so less easy for knitters like me, who knit inside out/prefer to purl.


Presumably, when they got to the ribs or any patterns, the swavers stopped still. Some contemporary traditional knitters have tried to recapture swaving as an art, but with only Howitt’s words for reference, have missed this essential piece of information – that swaving was only used for plain (stockinette) knitting.


Swaving appears to have broken knitting down into two actions. This also neatly tells us that the curved needles pointed downwards – and these, in particular, were the ones referred to as ‘pricks’ although just to be confusing the term was sometimes used for any needles. Another fact that has never been made clear, before. So the yarn was tensioned in the right hand, and the curved needles angled in such a way that they struck the loop.


Writing in 1970, Marie Hartley said in researching the book she only met and saw one knitter in action:


“‘… We found and saw one person knitting in the old way, Mrs Crabtree of Flintergill, Dent, then in her 79th year. We were told to go and see her, and when we knocked at her door she opened it with her knitting in her hand and a knitting stick tucked in her apron band.

“We regret that we did not meet her sister, Polly Stephenson, who also used the ‘swaving’ action in knitting…The swift execution in knitting was achieved by the exponent being taught as a child, often by her father. We wish that we had borrowed a cine camera and recorded Mrs Crabtree in action, for this skill is something which has gone, never to be seen again in the Yorkshire Dales…’”

Quest for the Hand-Knitters, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby


More than once, years after their research in the late 1940s, Marie and Joan wished they’d filmed the swaving.


Swaving or strikin’ t’loop – would also only be possible when sitting down. It was called ‘weaving’ in Swaledale [Old Hand-knitters of the Dales].


“…Mrs Crabtree, who is seventy-nine, is one of the very few people who can still knit in the old way. This in Dent is called ‘swaving’, meaning the up and down motion of the arms and body. We were shown how to do it; but it was not easy even to see the loops as they slipped from one needle to another. When we complimented her on the speed of her knitting, she only shook her head, and said that she was always one of the lazy ones, but that ‘My mother’s needles fair made music.’”

The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby,  p.82].


In 1981, Kathleen Kinder and the Editor of Dalesman magazine, watched Clara Sedgwick at work, hoping she could work up enough speed to swave:


…It was quite a thrill to watch Mrs Sedgwick knit in the old way. Had she got up speed, she would have had to have ‘swayed’ [sic] backwards and forwards, to knock the formed stitches off the needle held in the left hand, on to the one supported by the stick…”



Credit: P Hunt.  Snapshot taken at Filey Museum. “She used a knitting ‘shear’ (sheath), the case of which was made of print about 9 inches long and filled with little sticks…”  Gladys Thompson,  ‘Guernsey and Jersey Patterns’, 1955, p33. Describing a Flamborough knitter. The leather shear in this picture, would simply be more robust than ‘print’ (cotton). This is filled with goose quills.


Swaving With Knitting Sticks

The sticks used along with short, curved needles for swaving, were standard sized (generally around 8”) sticks. Larger, plainer sticks were reserved for knitting with bump yarn. Knitting with bump was common amongst the navvies’ and miners’ wives up in the Dales and further afield, across Yorkshire:


“..A large, clumsy-looking stick, usually plain, was used for bump knitting ..”


That said, it appears you could swave without a knitting stick. No special ‘tools’ were needed. A comment on my blog a while back, from someone who saw swaving in Pateley Bridge, mentioned the fact the lady had no knitting stick. Gladys Thompson describes a particularly fast knitter as knitting with the working needle tucked under one arm. For the convulsive, simultaneously both arms kind of movement  – striking the loop at the right angle for it to fell easily from the needle – a stick would still be a matter of choice.

A curved needle pivots in the hole inside a knitting stick and this would make swaving easier but at least one eye witness tells us they have seen swaving with no knitting stick. With the working needle anchored somehow – even just braced against the knitter’s body – it would work.

Whilst long needles were usually (not always) used for knitting larger objects like jumpers – several of the 1950s’ knitters interviewed in various editions of Dalesman magazine, seem to have implied that swaving was usually done on shorter needles. It would be ideal for lengthy sections of stocking, for example.

As you could only swave when knitting a plain section, it is clearly out of the question for many ganseys with their relief patterns of plain and purls.  I think we can forget it, in the context of ganseys – except for those with stocking stitch lower bodies and arms.  It also may explain why some ganseys are only half-patterned. You could knit the plain section faster!  Also, it may be no coincidence that swaving was taught in the inland Yorkshire knitting schools and that inland (river) ganseys more commonly have a plain section in the lower half of the body…


“Striking t’loop” merely seems to have been a phrase interchangeable with ‘swaving’. It makes sense as anyone who’s used a knitting stick knows, if you hit the next stitch at the right angle/speed, it almost flies itself off the left needle and onto the working needle.

“Swave” is a lost Yorkshire dialect word; so obscure that even the more obscure reaches of the ‘Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society’ couldn’t give many clues. When I couldn’t find anything cognate in the most definitive Anglo Saxon dictionaries, I knew it was probably a medieval (later) word.  If it was interchangeable with “weaving” then that points to a possible cognate.


Courtesy Dales Countryside Museum. Notice needles were blunt and pointier; various gauges. No One True Way of doing things.  1950s’ Dales knitters reported that sometimes they changed from curved to straights mid-project which might imply swaving for a bit, then… not!


I have looked for “swave” in all kinds of obscure books and journals on Yorkshire dialect. Including Specimens of the Yorkshire Dialect To which is added a GLOSSARY of Such of the Yorkshire words As Are Likely not to be understood by those UNACQUAINTED with the Dialect (Anon, Published Knaresborough, 1810, Price 6d). With no luck. Although I passed a very pleasant afternoon at York Reference Library, distracted by that tiny book and it’s always a joy to hold the actual book in your hand.


I finally struck gold in “Yorkshire Words Today. A Glossary of Regional Dialect” David Paynter, Clive Upton & J.D.A Widdowson [Yorkshire Dialect Society, 1997].

Sway-pole  n. see-saw. West Riding.

Sway, various dialects use in Scotland, England…also Lakeland. ‘a see-saw’.

I am taking a leap and betting money that ‘swave’ comes from the late Middle English “sway”, “To cause to move back and forward, side to side” [Shorter OED]. In our context, it means “to rock” like a see-saw. Which is supported by Howitt’s famous observation of the “weird wizards” who were “rocking to and fro”.  Given that definition, it may have had a more scatalogical implication, too.

To sum up, we can say:

  1. “Swaving” means “rocking back and forth”
  2. Swaving was only done on plain stocking stitch (stockinette) rounds/rows
  3. Swaving with usually – not necessarily always – done with curved needles.
  4. Swaving was usually – but not always –  done with a knitting stick. The knitter might also anchor the working needle under their arm, for example.
  5. The phrase “striking t’loop” (striking the loop) was another term for ‘swaving’.
  6. Swaving was done to pick up speed
  7. Swaving was usually – not always – done with shorter needles
  8. Swaving appears to have been a standard technique taught at the Yorkshire ‘Knitting schools’ – most of which were inland, on farms. We have no hard proof that as a technique it ever migrated to the coast. Although it is likely it did, given that we’re uncovering links between the inland knitting schools and coastal knitting schools.


River Ganseys – Whitby Wyrms

Whitby Wyrms

What’s not to love about a man with a log pile? To be honest, after several months sawing logs almost daily I’m definitely more into the logs than the (admittedly lovely) model. As someone else did all the hard work sawing them…

I digress.

Snaky cables were not really a Big Thing along the rivers – although I have seen them in photos of ganseys from elsewhere. Here, cables were generally rather straightforward 6 or 8 stitches wide, all oriented one way and never mirrored across the body. They probably were not mirrored for superstitious reasons I go into in the book, if you’re interested!

My other patterns were named after river vessels but I couldn’t resist calling this one Whitby Wyrms. Because Whitby is famous for its wyrm (dragon).

The Whitby Wyrm was a dragonlike serpent that lived in Whitby, according to folklore. Another local legend tells of Saint Hilda turning a plague of snakes into stone. For this gansey, I did the time-honoured gansey thing and “borrowed” a nice zigzag motif from a sock pattern. Gansey knitters have always borrowed motifs from other knitters. It’s tradition. In fact, it is how motifs became so universal across the British Isles. My other inspiration and starting point was an old photo I was shown, which showed a gansey with an allover pattern that used traveling stitches to create a zigzag design.

This zigzag is simpler but more contemporary – it makes a change from the old pattern Marriage Lines.
That is in the grand tradition of gansey knitting of course – see a pattern that resonates: use it.


The pattern can be found in ‘River Ganseys’, available here:


And here:





River Ganseys – Ebiezzer

Ebiezzer  Image: Cooperative Press


In the next week or so, I am putting up images of all the patterns in ‘River Ganseys’ – if you’re knitting one, or planning on knitting one, the Comments here will be a handy place for questions – and the larger images will be helpful to intrepid knitters, I hope.

If you only have a print copy of the book, please do provide proof of purchase to our help desk – support@cooperativepress.zendesk.com – Cooperative Press can gift you an e copy, where the images are full colour – which helps if you’re planning on knitting these as our environmentally-friendly inks and matte paper don’t give you the details as well as full colour!  I will be publishing a photo of each project here, in the next few weeks, as well.

This started life as a child’s gansey pattern. I designed ‘Ebiezzer’ for my younger sons to wear although as you can see from our photo shoot, it works for women as well!  It is a classic ‘Humber Star’ pattern. For more lore and research about this fascinating and unique motif, check out ‘River Ganseys’. It is thought the Humber Star is the only gansey motif in the entire lexicon, that is unique to one area.

Ebiezzer was a vessel on the Ouse, co-owned by my ancestor, Isaac Moses, and his son, William. When Isaac Sr. died in 1820, he left his shares to pay for the education of his grandchildren, and said it could be run by his (feckless?) son William, on condition William paid all port dues and settled bills on time.

William’s own son, Isaac Mosey, born in York in 1819, was to become Master Mariner, working vessels on the river Trent down in the Midlands, and died at sea in 1862. I originally designed this for Isaac Sr’s great-great-great-greatgreat grandsons to wear.

York’s dock records are lost, and I haven’t been able to trace the Ebiezzer or find out what happened to her after Isaac’s death in Cawood, in 1820.


The pattern can be found in ‘River Ganseys’, available here:


And here:





Uncle Walt’s “Record Off Journeys”

Walt and Ethel, pre 1920 This is the earliest known photo of angoras, in the UK.



Sometimes, even very official looking historical sources get it wrong.

This slightly limb-challenged gentleman is my ‘Uncle Walt’, the miller at South Duffield; born the son of a miller in Braithwaite, Yorkshire.  I have this very photo but don’t appear to have scanned my version, so will link to it, here. Do click on the link. He is a very memorable looking gent!  And I will scan my copy when I can find it.

You can find him in all his glory, (rather bizarrely) on Historic England‘s site. I also own a copy of this image. I have no idea who took the photo or why. Historic England have this moving little whimsy going on:


No details about Mr Ledger are available, but judging by his age he may have been a veteran of the First World War.


They are wrong. Walter Ledger was not a worker as they appear to believe but the miller, (reserved occupation?). He lost both limbs courtesy of the windmill behind him in the picture (or the mill at South Milford, or one of the others he owned, at various dates). You’d think the whacking great windmill behind him and his artful use of a flour sack as a prosthetic limb might give them a clue as to the nature of the accident that led to his lack of limbs.  As you can see, the picture (they claim taken in 1943) shows that these slight inconveniences didn’t put him off his work.

Walt has a steam engine!


Walt was born around 1873, according to various Censuses.  Which would make him too old to fight in WW1. Historic England may have the date of the photo wrong or maybe that’s an accession date for a collection, they’re confusing with the date the photo was taken.  Either way – this shows the need for caution when using sources like Historic England’s database of images,  to research.

Walter married my great grandmother’s sister, Kate Hemingway. Walt and Kate had one child; Ethel.   Ethel (my grandma’s cousin) was a pretty girl who never married because – it was said – Walt chased off any suitor with a shotgun.  Quite impressive for a one-armed man!  I seem to recall Ethel saying her dad lost his leg in one accident, and his arm in another. Which seems careless.

By the 1911 Census; Walter, Kate and 7 year old Ethel were living at Low Mill, South Milford. Walt is down as “Farmer & Miller”. I have photos dating from this time, including an aerial shot or two, of South Milford. I am guessing when the next Census is finally published, I will find them, in 1921, in South Duffield.

When I was a kid in the late 60s/early 70s, ‘Auntie Ethel’ was like a sort of grandma figure to me – as both my grandmas died before I was born so my great aunts and parents and grandparents’ cousins were the much loved old ladies in my life.

She was a lovely elderly lady. She eventually sold South Duffield mill and bought a bungalow in a nearby village. I stayed with her a couple of times and have fond memories of going with her to her friend’s garden to get quinces for her quince jelly. She had a cat and when she moved, dad asked her if the cat would be OK going from being a ‘farm cat’ with full run of the mill, the outhouses, and a few acres, to being an indoors cat. Ethel reassured Dad:

“He’ll get enough fresh air through the letter-box.”

This photo belonged to Ethel Ledger


My parents were very fond of Ethel, largely for my late grandma’s sake – the two cousins had been very close as young women in the 1920s.  When Ethel’s parents died, the mill became derelict but Ethel scraped by, living in the lovely house and growing veg and raising poultry. She had a massive outbuilding, that was sort of partially underground and you’d go in to be greeted by a load of turkeys.  She also had what you’d now call ‘free range’ hens.


Of course, the desolate mill was fascinating to us kids. The sails were long gone, and the roof (later it was converted into a house), and I don’t recall any steps or stairs to the higher levels. But we’d go and play in there. It was creepy and rather wonderful.

Somewhere I have all Ethel’s recipe books, and a Staffordshire figure that no-one else wanted – ironically, because it has a limb missing…   When she died I also was given all the Ledger family photos as I was the only one interested in family history (I was about 14 when she went).  If you are related to the Ledgers of Chapel Haddlesey/South Milford/South Duffield – do get in touch as I can scan the photos I have. It’s frightening when you think how ready people were in the recent past, to throw out ‘old’ photos – my mother in law destroyed a stack of all photos and certificates, “because they were dog-eared”!


IMAG1602A couple of years back I went to an event at Hemingbrough church, and met a lady there who, it turned out, grew up in South Duff. I told her my Aunty was the miller’s daughter and she said:

“Oh, I knew her! I used to be sent to the mill every week to buy the eggs, and we were told we had to address her as ‘Miss Ledger'”.

Somehow, I found that deference as very touching.

I found the same deference in Walt’s own ‘Record Off Journeys’ (sic).  Walt, like many millers, was rather well off and an early owner of a car. I wish I’d scanned the photo of him in it, but it appears I haven’t yet! He reminded me of Toad of Toad Hall in that picture…

In amongst Ethel’s recipe books, was a diary from 1910 – Walt frugally amended to ‘1917’.  Over decades, well into the era of Biros, and with increasingly shaky handwriting,  Ethel scrawled odd recipes in her father’s old diary.  Their frugality is the only reason I have it.

Cousin Lillie. This is a copy of the photo Ethel kept.


That deferential ‘Miss Boothman’ he went to fetch from the station in August 1917,  was Walt’s niece, my grandma, Lillie Boothman.

Lillie, around the time she visited the mill

On this trip to the mill, Lillie would have been 13 years old.  Her brother was in he trenches and would die in a few months.

Interesting how the politesse reverberated down the ages when the lady in Hemingbrough church told me about ‘Miss Ledger’…  and here is Walt writing about ‘Miss Boothman’.

To her dying day, in her living room Ethel had one family photo – a signed 1920’s shot of my grandma. Or rather, “Miss Boothman”!



Fearnought (But the Captain)

Courtesy Hull Maritime Museum. Victim William Papper (centre) and suspects; Rycroft, Brand, Yates and Blackburn, in a similar case.
hull maritime2
Courtesy Hull Maritime Museum. Victim William Papper (centre) and suspects; Rycroft, Brand, Yates and Blackburn, in a similar case.

In next month’s The Knitter magazine, (Issue 93), I’ve written an article about how I used crime reports to gather information about nineteenth century clothing.

Here’s a news story that is not in the article, but still interesting – as it explodes the myth promulgated in recent years, that ganseys were incredibly warm, waterproof; basically all you needed to wear at sea to keep warm.

Clothes got mentioned in newspaper stories often in the context of harrowing events like murder, suicide, and on the inland waterways, the frequent ‘Found Drowneds’. Sometimes, clothes were mentioned to identify bodies; sometimes, because clothing – or the lack of it – part of the reason for death.

From The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Monday, September 26th, 1842:


[Phillip Partridge, a sea Captain of Jarrow, was accused of murdering a Spanish seaman, Jose Maria Balager. The day before, he had been cleared of killing another sailor, called Mariani. Witness John Fisher describes  the captain beating Mariani. Fisher was relieved by Mariani at the ship’s wheel]:


…the weather was very cold, and he had a pea-jacket on him, and some old rags over it to keep him warm…Partridge ordered him to take off his jacket … and [the captain] threw it overboard…


[Witness Henry Allen described how the Captain made Mariano stand, almost naked, in the rigging for hours, flogging him if he tried to come down]:


 He had only a little Guernsey frock on him….The weather was too cold for a man to be without his jacket.


The ‘jacket’ , here a ‘pea jacket’, was often the ‘Fearnought’ – made from heavy, woven wool. (Fearnought trousers were also worn so it appears to be a name for the heavy duty woollen fabric used). Pea-jackets may or may not have been made from Fearnought type fabric. The Fearnought jacket pictured in the link, is from a Yorkshire ship of the 1780s – and so the wool was very likely to have been manufactured in Leeds or thereabouts.

The use of Fearnought also, of course, belies the myth that somehow ganseys were magical garments, impervious to the elements. As does this news story.

Crime reports have to be used with caution but often they give valuable context for and insights into, clothing history.


Knitting As Punishment

MARY Bowler, a young woman and an inmate of the Faringdon Union [workhouse], was on the 5th inst., brought before the Rev. J.F.Cleaver and Sir R.G. Throckmorton, charged by the Governor with having refused to perform the work assigned her, namely, knitting socks; she was committed to Reading Gaol for 21 days’ hard labour.

Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Saturday, January 10th, 1852


Mary is on the 1851 census. She was at Farringdon District Union Workhouse, in Berkshire; Occupation: Ag Lab., born Great Farringdon, Berks., in 1827. She was 25 when she refused to knit socks! Mary was also in the workhouse on the 1841 census, aged only 15.

Imagine being sent to prison for refusing to knit socks at the workhouse. Especially as some female prisoners were also expected to… knit stockings.



Jules Breton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jules_Adolphe_Breton_-_Jeune_fille_tricotant.jpg





The Faux Foundling

One for the genealogists today so you might want to look away now if you’re not into this stuff!

This is a blog post I have tried to start, many times. And given up on. Due to its complexity. So here it is – finally –  the  lengthy (sorry) story of how we finally broke through the biggest brick wall in my family tree. It has a bit of a twist in the tail, as you’ll see. And involves the kind of coincidence that even Dickens would think was stretching plot credibility a bit… Yet it happened.

I started genealogy back in the 1980s, when we lived in our first house; a small one-bedroomed terrace, in Bartley Green, Birmingham.

Our row of houses had the distinction of once being the smallest district of Birmingham – that lone terrace  and a nearby farm, brickworks and inn had once been called ‘California’.  It had been on the very edges of Birmingham. Older people along the row still called it “California”.  But it had been subsumed into the larger postal district of Bartley Green by the time we lived there.

We lived in the end house at California, for almost ten years.

Our house was maybe built around the 1880s or 90s,  on the site of some long demolished nailmakers’ cottages. It was a hard house for the council to let as a bad conversion meant it only had one bedroom, so it was no use for a family. We jumped at it when offered as otherwise all we’d have got was a high-rise flat and so we couldn’t believe our luck, being a (then) childless couple and getting a whole house! It was also three storeys at the back, and two at the front. The staircase down to the kitchen was concrete and locals soon told us our kitchen had been the terrace’s fish and chip shop.

We lived in the end house, by the chapel. We loved it not only as our first home, but because it had a huge garden and was right on the edge of the city, so surrounded by country park, and beyond that, reservoirs and woods.

We were so close to the edge of Harborne, that some people thought California was in Harborne. It had been Warwickshire before the new county boundaries made it ‘West Midlands’ but on 19thC censuses, it had been Staffordshire; the heart of the Midlands’ nail, chain and needle-making industry. Bang on the border, in other words.

Whilst living there, I got involved in genealogy. In the days before the internet, and I quickly realised I didn’t have the money to travel backwards and forwards to Yorkshire, where pretty well all my family history was sitting in archives (or, in those days, at Somerset House). But one thing was obvious. I was never going to be able to trace my real surname, or find out fully who I really was, anyway.

My great grandfather, John Lister, had told everyone that he was a foundling, dumped at birth at a Leeds orphanage. Later, he said, he was sent to a baby farm then fostered by a family, the Gillespies. Their daughter, Florrie, a couple of years younger than him, was a lifelong friend – so close to him that long after he died, she was the only person to continue to take flowers to his grave.

John brought up his five sons telling them they had no known grandparents and they had a surname that didn’t even belong to them. In parts of the West Riding, being called ‘Lister’ you might as well be called ‘Smith’. I heard that line myself more than once and wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t originate with my great grandad, John. “John Lister” might as well be “John Smith” round here.

John also told the story that when he reached 19 years old, he decided to visit “a rich mill-owner” and claim he was his illegitimate relative. All anyone knew was, he left home a penniless mechanic in the printing industry and returned with money. Everyone assumed he must have pulled his con on the Listers of Bradford.

Whilst I lived in Brum, I searched the indices of the birth certificates held at the Reference Library and could find no John Lister registered in the year he claimed to have been born, or several years either side. Which backed up his story he was a foundling. I still haven’t got his birth certificate all these years on!

In the age of the internet, we got on Ancestry and searched the 1881 and 1891 Censuses with a fine toothcomb, and still there was not a child of the right age, in Leeds, called ‘John Lister’. We knew John was a notorious con-man. But his story that he was a foundling, first in an orphanage, then a baby farm, then adopted by the Gillespies, seemed to stack up. Although in the relevant censuses, he wasn’t in the Gillespies’ house on Census night.

Emily and John with sons Billie and Norris

The other reason we believed John’s tale of being a foundling, so untraceable, was that my great grandmother, Emily Lister nee Stephenson, told dad  she had gone to a solicitor, in the 1920s, to check if she was even legally married. Because she was worried that if ‘Lister’ wasn’t John’s real name, maybe her marriage was null and void. The solicitor reassured her, apparently.

A few years back, we sent for John and Emily’s marriage certificate. John, this man who said he had no known parents, (and convinced Emily he had none?) said his father was “Thomas Lister” and his father’s occupation was “Press Setter”. Knowing my great grandad was a printer, I wrongly assumed that was something to do with printing.

By the 1920s, John was living in a large Victorian house in Shadwell, owned by my other great grandfather, Tom Boothman.  My grandfather was the second son of five boys (John and Emily also had  a daughter, Mary, twin of one of the boys, who died aged 10).

A couple of John’s sayings were recalled by my dad. One was “A gentleman never works for a living”. Apparently, when he felt War was coming, he bought up Leeds’ entire stock of paper then slowly sold it back to the other printers for an extortionate amount.

By some point in the 1920s, Emily and John were estranged. The story is, John died of a heart attack in 1931,  at his mistress’s house. Which would be entirely in character. Whether Emily’s visit to the solicitor coincided with all this hitting the fan or not, I am not sure.

I have a perfume bottle made of Venetian glass and was always told it was one of a pair and whoever descends from John’s mistress, has the other one!  So if your grandma/great grandma lived in Shadwell or Leeds in the 1920s, and you have a pretty green Venetian glass perfume bottle covered in hand-painted flowers… do get in touch! We might be related.  Apparently I am related to a lot of people in Leeds, via John.

Anyway, when I lived in Birmingham’s California, in the 1980s, I did my first bit of genealogy – tracing John’s eldest son, Norris, killed in WW1, and discovering he was not on the Tyne Cot memorial – where his family had been told he was commemorated. Lots of correspondence with the War Graves Commission and the upshot was, Cpl Norris Charles Lister was, for a time, the last name on the memorial.

My grandad was long dead, but one of John Lister’s five sons, and Norriss’s brother, was still alive: my Uncle Jack. We went to see Jack showing him the photos of the memorial, someone from the War Graves Commission kindly took for us. And told him we were now interested in genealogy and could he tell us all he knew about his dad, John, so we could see if we could figure out who we really were, what our real surname was. We were hoping he might remember which orphanage John claimed to have been left at.

There was a whole elaborate story my grandad, Billie, had told me of John being visited once a year on his birthday by a grand lady “in a coach and four” who’d give him books. Jack was by now in his 80s but very sharp and intelligent, like grandad. He also recalled the coach and four story.

He went on to say that Billie had zero interest in his family history and had never wanted to find out the truth or shown the slightest bit of interest in what our name really was.  Jack, however, was curious to find out more about John Lister. Jack said he had found something out but was sworn to secrecy and could never tell anyone what he knew, but it was something to do with the name ‘Gillyflower’ and… Ireland; a grand Irish lady, in fact.  He also made some remark, whilst laughing, so I assumed he was feeding us a red herring, about ‘Might as well be called Smith round here, as Lister’ – saying words to the effect that John probably picked Lister as his new surname because it would in effect, make him untraceable.

Every lead was a dead end.  We were left with some anomalies, as time went on. How could Emily think her husband had no family if, on her wedding day, she must have heard him tell the registrar his ‘father”s name and occupation?   Why, if he was brought up by Florrie’s family, the Gillespies and called Gillespie til he was 19, was he not living with them on any Census?

Florrie and Emily knew eachother. Florrie was the only person – allegedly – who had known John as a child, and before he married Emily.

Florrie Gillespie was close to John and kept his secrets well. He kept her secrets even better, as I was to find out.

Billie and Florrie, Maryport, some time post-War

And she kept them so well I would have continued to be a genealogist who couldn’t trace her paternal line at all, past a couple of generations if it hadn’t been for a chance break-through.

We kept returning to this brick wall, periodically, but couldn’t get any further with it. It seemed I’d never really know who I was.

Then the 1911 Census came out.  We decided to go to look for Florrie again – I could find John Lister by the 1901 Census, although nothing for his childhood.  We weren’t expecting to find anything new.  John was long married with children and now easy to locate as using the name Lister. Florrie had never married.

In 1911, Florrie was living in Ellenborough, Cumberland, a boarder with a couple called the Jardines, aged 34, a District Nurse (as we knew) but… her name was down as… “Florence Lister Gillespie”. What?  She was a Lister?

This sent me back in time in the censuses – knowing a surname as a middle name is usually the mother’s maiden name. So Florence’s mum was related to John Lister? Or someone called Lister… I knew I’d have to track down Florrie’s mum to stand a chance of finding out who her ‘adoptive son’, John, was.

Florence was born in 1877, apparently the daughter of John Gillespie, a tailor (born Scotland) and Elizabeth Ellen (sometimes ‘Helen’)  Lister.  Elizabeth was born in 1857, in Huddersfield, to Tom Lister and his wife, Hannah Smith. Tom was…  a Press Setter (cropper in the wool industry) and Hannah’s father was a Fancy Woollen Manufacturer (mill owner) in Longwood, Huddersfield.  This was the Tom Lister, ‘Press Setter’ of the marriage certificate – we’d assumed him to be fictional, knowing what a fantasist John was. And that ‘press’ was to do with printing.  And John’s grandfather? A mill owner. Might as well be called Smith as Lister in the West Riding? Well, we were called both!  Some elements of truth in all the lies.

I had found my great great grandparents. And the name I had been told my entire life, was not really my name, did indeed belong to me. Turns out the Listers were in the wool trade, an old Halifax family; moving to Huddersfield in Regency times, and later to Leeds. So far all the Halifax Listers I have traced have been wool weavers, croppers (Press setters!) and a wool merchant.

Florrie’s mother, Elizabeth, was a Lister; her brother was John’s father.  I’d never bothered to get Florrie’s birth certificate because I’d assumed as ‘adoptive’ family, there was no blood link so the Gillespies were of no interest.

Although there was a fly in the ointment, as on the 1881 Census, a three year old “Florence Lister” is recorded as “niece” to John and Elizabeth Gillespie… not daughter. Later, she is recorded as “daughter”.  Yes, I will have to get the birth certificate!

I don’t understand what made me not consider tracing Elizabeth Gillespie, or start figuring out who she was. The answer was in front of us the whole time.

John’s parentage is pretty clear – Tom and Hannah Lister. Florrie, on the other hand – when she first appeared on a census was Elizabeth Gillespie’s ‘niece’. John Gillespie married Elizabeth Lister in Leeds on June 7th, 1877. This would make it just about possible that Florence was their child. Free BMD lists a Florence Lister whose birth was registered in Leeds in the same quarter that John and Elizabeth married. So it is also possible, the most likely scenario in fact, that Florrie was John and Elizabeth’s illegitimate baby, born just before they married, hence having the legal surname Lister. All the subterfuge obscuring not only John’s birth, but Florrie’s. Maybe all along, the whole elaborate tale was a strange, gentlemanly facade designed to protect Florrie from the stigma of illegitimacy. Certainly the shame of illegitimacy seems to have lingered even if your parents did subsequently marry.

Tom and Hannah Lister moved from Huddersfield to Leeds and continued having children well into middle age; I traced their Leeds-born children via baptism records, across several of Leeds’ poorer parishes; child after child, dying in infancy. One of these ‘late’ children, and the only survivor, was my great grandad, John. We have not been able to find his baptism record – maybe he was never christened. The Listers seem to have been Non Conformists in Halifax and Huddersfield but reverted to Church of England, in Leeds.

Elizabeth was 20 years older than John, so maybe did look after him for much of his childhood. Florrie was an only child so possibly did grow up in the company of her cousin. She knew, all her adult life, precisely who John was – that he was a Lister, that he was her cousin – yet backed him up with his story that he was a foundling with no name. This remains the biggest mystery of all to me. My dad died before we broke through this last brick wall – I wonder what he’d have made of it? When John died, Florrie alone took flowers to his grave, whenever she could. She remained loyal to him, to the end.

John Lister had told the truth on his wedding certificate yet lied to his wife and children.  So why was he unfindable in the censuses of his childhood?

When John was about three,  his dad,Tom Lister, died. Hannah remarried. A man from Birmingham, called Charles Deeley. Deeley was varuiously recorded through censuses as a chainmaker, foundry worker and blacksmith. Census enumerators maybe struggled with Deeley’s Brummie accent as he was mistranscribed as ‘Daley’ after marriage to Hannah and his little stepson, my great grandad, was not in an orphanage or baby farm or even with his ‘adopted’ family the Gillespies – but right there in Holbeck at home with his mother and stepfather. Hidden in plain sight and on the Censuses all along as ‘John Daley’. I could have stared at that on a census forever, of course, and had no way of knowing that little John Daley was actually John Lister. Growing up, his name must have been his stepfather’s and at 19 when he took the name Lister after visiting a wealthy millowner – he may well have been in Huddersfield visiting his own family, the Smiths or the Dawsons, who were mill-owners – Dawsons having one of the most successful dyeworks in the world – and returned to Leeds using his birth name. He had probably never been John Gillespie. He had been John Deeley. And there were elements of truth in the tall tale. Maybe the Dawsons or Smiths paid him off to get rid of him… And that is how he reappeared in Leeds with a “new” surname and a wad of money, as he went from being a printer’s mechanic to a printer in his own right.

There was no coach and four, or Irish grand lady.

Unaccountably, on the 1901 Census John and Emily and their burgeoning young family live maybe one street away from Hannah and Charles Deeley. My grandfather is on that Census, in that house and yet had no idea he even had grandparents.  Stranger still, John gave his first-born ‘Charles’ as a middle name. Charles is not a family name – not used once – amongst the Listers, Smiths, Crabtrees, Dawsons or other immediate family of John Lister. Nor is it a name used in Emily’s family.  Why did John name his eldest son after the stepfather whose existence he denied?

But the final chapter of this whole story is the most strange.

Curious about who Charles Deeley, my great grandfather’s stepfather, I went to look for him. He appeared to be a blacksmith, working in a large Holbeck foundry.According to censuses, he was born around 1850, in Birmingham and across different censuses gave slightly different birth places – county boundaries across Birmingham changed at different points and, of course, many 19thC folk were unsure of their precise birthplace, if their parents died young and they were shunted around a lot. Charles had worked from a childhood; been born to a single mother, had an incredibly tough life where he seems to have been moved around from pillar to post. But I managed to find him as an infant, in the 1851 Census son of Ann Deeley, a nailmaker. In the lone row of cottages they called…. California.

In the end house.