Nineteenth Century Doctor at work

Nineteenth Century Doctor at work


Last year, someone asked me to go look at a fascinating textile  – some kind of embroidered sampler – they had in storage at the Thackray Medical Museum, in Leeds. They wondered if I could shed any light on it, in view of my fascination with eighteenth and nineteenth century asylums, and the crafts done in them.

I went – not reluctantly, but not expecting much. Embroidery and samplers are slightly out of my comfort zone. Plus… I was a bit put off,  to find out the thing I was going to see was maybe Edwardian, so “after my time”. But went anyway.  I didn’t come away disappointed.  Turned out, the ‘sampler’ was in fact a twelve foot long embroidered rant by a woman called Lorina Bulwer; a sort of Tweet (well an entire prolific Twitter user’s entire account’s worth of Tweets) from the past.

You can read more about the embroidered letters and the indomitable Lorina here, on the excellent Frayed: Textiles on the Edge  blog.

Briefly, Lorina Bulwer was christened 13th May, 1838, in Beccles, Suffolk; her father: William John Bulwer; mother: Ann Turner.  She grew up in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk where her parents had a modest chain of several grocery shops. Lorina appears to have been well educated and probably lived a fairly comfortable life with her parents and siblings, Edgar, Anna Maria, Amelia, and Walter. When her father died, and with all her siblings having left home, Lorina met that fate common to many women of that time and her social class – she helped her mother and their home became a ‘boarding house’. Letting rooms to strangers being one way to keep some kind of roof over your head.

I will not repeat here the info you will be able to find in my article in June’s ‘Family Tree Magazine’. In that article, I’ll be talking about crafts and asylums generally, and what kind of info genealogists might be able to find about their asylum inmate ancestors.  Here, I am going to go in search of a character whose story is worked into Lorina’s samplers.

And I’m going to tell you why this is so close to home for me.  Lorina’s letters were remarkably like over 700 illiterate, unpunctuated, 90 page long emails full of biblical quotes and random threats I received last year, over a period of 12 months,  from someone who has since received a suspended prison sentence and a restraining order. (You’ll be glad to know the blood and thunder emails have now stopped).  I received emails in bold and caps lock (the modern equivalent of green ink?) emails so epic in scale, the police couldn’t afford to print them out;  full of rage against various targets, and copied in to as many as over one hundred people, including myself. I found myself starring as the major hate figure in the sender’s emails, just as Lorina’s sister, Anna Maria Young (AKA Anna Maria Pinching), figured in the three extant embroidered rants. I started to feel a certain sympathy for Anna Maria.

If she lived now, Lorina might well use the medium of CAPS LOCK email and the ‘CC’ button. The beauty of her embroideries is, of course, their permanence as a medium. Had she written letters rather than embroidered lengthy scrolls, they would no doubt have ended up in the bin.  To complain about your lot and rail against the world using the medium of embroidery does seem to me to be remarkably apt for a nineteenth century/early twentieth century woman. Using the very activity meant to subjugate; to protest.

Insanity and how it is diverted into creativity or destruction, was of great interest to me, at this period of feeling under siege. Most researchers see it sympathetically, from Lorina’s point of view, but I have to admit, I had a sneaking regard for her arch-enemies, who were at the sharp end of the rants, as well!

The sampler was about to go to Norfolk to go on display with their “Lorina” (also several metres long, and similar rants although the Norfolk sampler is thought to pre-date the Leeds one by several years). Antiques Roadshow-style a third sampler has recently come to light, found in an attic in County Durham.

Now, my day at the Thackray Medical Museum had an added bonus as one of the Thackray’s incredible staff showed us ‘behind the scenes’ and it turned out, the museum is the old Leeds workhouse. Many working class folk or ‘paupers’ as they were stigmatised, once their working lives were over, ended up in workhouse hospitals or asylums. I entered the Museum by the grand entrance hall (intended for dignitaries and  the Great and Good) but ended up seeing the still intact inmates’ staircase, hidden  behind the scenes, and although the building has been extensively re-modelled, was shown the few original bits of the workhouse, that remain.

I noticed, from the Frayed blog, Ruth Burwood from the Norwich Castle Museum saying:

There is without a doubt much more research to do! I have followed up quite a few of the 70 or so names that she mentions, and they all seem to be real people.  Save one…Dr Pinching.  I can find no trace of “Dr Pinching of Walthamstow, Essex” who is worryingly linked to her sister; “Anna Maria Young alias Dr Pinching”.  Intrigued? You should be.  You will have to visit the sampler on show to read what, according to Lorina, Dr Pinching does to her…

Well, Gentle Reader, you know me…  Always up for a genealogical challenge.

So I found Dr Pinching.

“Anna Maria Young” is mentioned a lot in both the known samplers.




When it came to Anna Maria Young, Lorina wrote several variations on this theme:


It didn’t take me long to find Lorina had a sister, born in 1837  , called Anna Maria. In The Essex Standard, May 11th, 1860:

“Marriages.  May 1st 1860 at Yarmouth, Mr George Walter Young, of Walthamstow, to Miss Anna Maria Bulwer”


And I found Anna Maria Young on the 1861 Census, living in Walthamstow, Essex, with her  husband George Young (“Agent – Spirits”) and two stepchildren, his children from a previous marriage and their own baby, Walter G Young. I remembered Ruth Burwood’s mention of “Dr Pinching of Walthamstow” and wondered if there was a connection. Lorina lived with her parents, later with her widowed mother, in Great Yarmouth and there was no obvious Walthamstow connection until I found Anna Maria there with her new husband and baby.

By the 1871 Census, I couldn’t find George Young at all, and neither could I find one of his daughters, or his son with Anna Maria -  although the other step-daughter was living with her grandparents; a general servant and gardener and his wife, in Littlebury, Essex (where George Young himself had been born). What had happened? If George Young had died, why was his daughter not with Anna Maria, her step-mother?  And where was Anna Maria?  In the samplers, Lorina claimed to have no sisters – maybe she felt alienated from them, as on the night of the 1861 Census, Anna Maria had had a visitor – her sister Amelia. Maybe Lorina felt both Anna Maria and Amelia were “imposters”. Lorina seems to have believed she and some family members had been swapped for young royals. Much of her obsession seemed to centre round her siblings Edgar, who it is thought, had her committed to the asylum, and Anna Maria – whose role was more nebulous.

So who was the mysterious Dr Pinching?  In one sampler, Lorina said:


Richard Lloyd Pinching was born around 1810, in Ireland. At some point, he came to England, qualified as a surgeon in London in 1833 and married a Londoner whose first names were Mary Martha. According to the 1851 Census, Dr Pinching and family lived on Marsh St, Walthamstow, where he was listed as “General Practitioner, M.R.C.S, England” with three sons, “W.H.G” (12) “H N” (9) and “R L” (8), all born Walthamstow.

I was able to pick up the story of Richard Lloyd Pinching in the newspapers as he was at the centre of ‘The Walthamstow Scandal’.

In 1855, Dr Pinching was appointed a Guardian of the West Ham Union (of workhouses) for Walthamstow.   In 1859, The Lancet reported Dr Richard Lloyd Pinching of Walthamstow was being investigated for indecency with a 13 year old girl. (Reynold’s Newspaper, March 13th, 1859) and there were calls for him to be struck off the medical register. The following week, the same paper printed a threat by Pinching to litigate “…Mr Pinching has maintained an honourable position as a surgeon in a large practice in Walthamstow for upwards of twenty years…” (‘The Alleged Walthamstow Scandal’). Dr Pinching seems to have exonerated himself – apparently he blamed “strong tea” for the incident, and didn’t deny sending the child many explicit letters.  Pinching continued to practice as he hit the national headlines again.

In 1860, he was described as the deceased’s ‘medical attendant’ in an infamous lawsuit involving a legacy. It seemed his patient, the testator,  tore up a will he had made in favour of a certain person, and Pinching was in the process of persuading him to make a new one when he died.

1825 Doctor.

“..A doctor, one Richard Lloyd Pinching,who acknowledged to unsavoury antecedents,  and who attended the dying man from February to the end of April, charged the enormous sum of £962, besides £76 14s and 3d to his son for medicines!” (The Bury & Norwich Post, December 11th, 1860).

During the Dent Legacy court case, Pinching was asked about “The Walthamstow Scandal”, and gave his side of the story, artfully changing the age of the child and glibly wriggling off the hook:

‘In the early part of 1859 unpleasant circumstances had occurred at Walthamstow. I was formerly the medical attendant of the Infant Orphan Asylum at Walthamstow. I was attending a family one of the members of which was a girl of the age of 15. I had been invited to their table, and they had treated me as their intimate friend and medical attendant, placing every confidence in me. I was charged with a deliberate attempt to seduce the daughter. I had frequently written letters to the girl clandestinely. There was no legal charge made against me. I consulted Mr M Chambers, and I was advised not to justify my conduct, and I resigned my appointment at the asylum…’

Lorina was not admitted to the Great Yarmouth workhouse, until decades later. If he did indeed examine Lorina and find her to be “a properly shaped woman” (I think we can guess what kind of examination that was, and how mortifying it must have been for her), he did it before 1870 and when she was still a young woman; possibly in his capacity as her sister, Anna Maria’s ‘doctor’.

I have not yet found a death record for Anna Maria’s husband, George Young, or their baby son, Walter – but within two years of the Walthamstow Scandal, the notorious (and married) Dr Pinching had a son by Anna Maria Young. And, as Lorina reported in one of the letters, Anna Maria passed herself off as Dr Pinching’s wife:







As The Walthamstow Scandal and later, the Dent Legacy case, both hit the national newspapers, there can’t have been many of Walthamstow’s residents who didn’t know about Dr Pinching, or encounter the negative press.I doubt Anna Maria was ignorant of the cases as they were so well reported.

The reason I could not find the Good Doctor or Anna Maria on the 1871 Census was that in 1870, one Anna Maria Pinching arrived in California, with 8 year old son, Herbert, and husband, Dr Richard Lloyd Pinching, born Ireland ca 1820. (Pinching had knocked a decade off his true age, presumably to impress the new ‘wife’). According to censuses, his legal wife, Mary Martha, lived -  and on the 1881 Census,  Mary Martha Pinching was alive and well, and living with her son, stockbroker, Horatio Nelson Pinching, at Beulah Rd, Walthamstow.

The story was taken up for me by a fellow genealogist, Melissa, who kindly traced the Dr’s trail stateside and further afield. (I only have UK Ancestry.com).

The 1870 US Census had Anna Maria, ambiguously listed as ‘Keeping House’ in San Francisco  for the Physician. Son, Herbert was eight, born in England and had the surname Pinching which means whether George Young was dead within a year of the 1861 England Census or not, Anna Maria had a child allegedly by Dr Pinching, around 1862. There is no trace of Anna Maria’s children or stepchildren from her marriage to Young. The Pinchings lived at 312, Sutter and Dr Richard Lloyd Pinching was naturalised as an American citizen in 1873, his ‘nativity’ erroneously listed as ‘England’.

Pinching may have been in further trouble, as in 1882, the elderly “Dr R.L.Pinching”  sailed on the ship Zealandia, from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia, in steerage so not the most salubrious of crossings. In the New Zealand Gazette, Register of Medical Practitioners, Dr Richard Lloyd Pinching was recorded as being certified with the Royal College of Surgeons, in 1833.

He must have returned to the U.S, although was not with Anna Maria at the time of his death. On 10th August, 1888, Dr Pinching burned to death in a fire at a friend’s house, at Cherry Creek, Nevada. Cherry Creek is now a ‘Ghost Town’ (videos on YouTube) and looks like an abandoned mining settlement. It’s possible Pinching ended his days as a mining town pox doctor.  Cherry Creek was a world away from Walthamstow, in every way. He was still resident in San Francisco, officially, at the time of death and his “widow”, Anna Maria, survived him.

In 1920, their son, Herbert, was a copper miner in Primal, Arizona. I could not find a ‘Herbert Pinching’ on the Births Index of Free Births Marriages & Deaths, for 1862 or indeed, any date. I have, however, found a ‘Herbert Young’ born in the second quarter of 1862, and registered in West Ham. Walthamstow is part of West Ham registration district. I would have to buy the birth certificate to see the Mother’s name. But I have a feeling it may be… Anna Maria Young, of Walthamstow.


I would love to link to Lorina images but haven’t got permissions. If you Google images for ‘Lorina Bulwer’ – you can fill your boots! They are truly amazing.

Thanks to the Librarian, Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds

Melissa in the US who traced Dr Pinching after 1870





‘Costumes of Yorkshire’, George Walker, 1814


‘Yarnmaker’ No 18 is just out, and with it a piece I did about Great Wheels .


On a Ravelry thread in the Yarnmaker Group this week, someone referred to this picture, (above) and asked what the elderly lady was doing. The answer is… that is a click  or clock reel. AKA “weasel”. This style of reel in fact seems to have been differentiated with the name “weasel”.
Mabel Ross defined a “click reel” as:

A reel which includes a mechanical means of indicating by an audible ‘click’ that a certain number of turns of the reel have been made. This facilitates the correct and speedy measurement of handspun yarn.

[Encyclopedia of Handspinning, Mabel Ross, Batsford, 1988]
(Incidentally, that woman looks to be spinning worsted from the fold. See the fibre on the wheel’s bed? Doesn’t look like rolags..?)
Here’s a picture we took of a IMG_0648weasel in the bowels of Halifax’s Bankfield Museum.  Clever the way gears are used to speed up the process (I wonder if Mr Minor, inventor of the Minor’s Head that accelerated the Great Wheel, saw a weasel and got his idea?)
Clothiers and manufacturers expected hand-spinners to provide them yarn in predictable lengths – the industry standard for a hank of worsted being 560 yards. A weasel would speed up the process and provide uniform hanks.
In the 1780s, Catharine Cappe set up the York Spinning School for girls, a charity school. The wool spinning teacher she engaged was a woman from Halifax, who knew her stuff (quite literally). When this West Riding teacher left her, she had a hard time replacing her with a teacher as competent. The Wool Room Superintendent had to:
“…superintend the wool-spinning; to see that it reaches the proper counts; that every pound is marked with the girl’s name who spun it; that it is reeled right; that the Mistress keeps her spinning closet in order, and spinning book with accuracy, to correspond with the manufacturer; keep all the accounts; receive the money earned by spinning;.. and to see every pound of yarn weighed before it is returned to the manufacturer…”[From: "An Account of Two Charity Schools For the Education of Girls: And of A Female Friendly Society in York. Interspersed With reflections on Charity Schools and Friendly Societies in General", Catharine Cappe, York,1800]
From this we can see that “reeling right” was a priority. In an household, the elderly and children would be pressed into service for jobs like wool carding and reeling.
I think it’s entirely possible that the cryptic nursery rhyme, that expounds the fleeting nature of money, how easy it is to spend – might be referring to the weasel being ‘popped’ into the pawn shop at the start of a week:
“Half a pound of tupenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel!”

 I will leave you with another image we took in the bowels of the Bankfield – you can also find it in Yarnmaker 18. These lovely leaves were carved on the underside of a Great Wheel bench (a wheel from Wales). No-one was ever intended to see them, or even know they were there, except for maybe the spinner. And even when this wheel was on display, years ago, it must have kept its Folk Art secret.

Underside of a Welsh Great Wheel, Bankfield. Credit: Caro Heyworth

Underside of a Welsh Great Wheel, Bankfield. Credit: Caro Heyworth


This weekend, I’ll be mostly going on about the history of Dales knitting. So just a reminder to anyone who fancies a day out at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming. It’s Country Crafts weekend, so there will be various living history folk, and craftspeople in costume, around the museum. I will be there in full 1800 period kit.

Talk  A.M., workshops P.M both days of this coming weekend. Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th April.

Just turn up for the talk (morning). If you’re interested in the workshop (afternoon), let me know by email (below) so we can pencil you in.

Talk (Mornings): The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales

I’ll be going on (and on) about Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby’s book, ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’. How it was researched and  written in 1949.  And how we have put together the new edition. And also generally, the history of knitting in Yorkshire, and how as a genealogist, I went about putting names, faces and life stories to the forgotten knitters of Yorkshire. I will also cover techniques of the old hand knitters like swaving and using a knitting stick. But of course, if you read this blog you might have other questions about knitting/genealogy stuff and I’d love to have a go at answering them!

Time: 10:30 to 12:00 am.

Price: £10 including museum entry. If you’re interested in attending the talk, either day – just turn up.  I will go on (and show you pictures and actual Things) for some of the time, and  then you can throw questions at me.

April 5th and 6th is the 2014 opening weekend at the museum, and my talks/workshops are just a small part of Murton Park’s Country Crafts weekend. So there will be other things to see and do.


Courtesy Dales Countryside Museum

Courtesy Dales Countryside Museum

Workshop (Afternoons): Knitting The Old Dales Way ~ How To Use a Knitting Stick or Shetland Knitting Belt (Beginners)

A rare chance to learn this brilliant, simple but obscure method of knitting.

This workshop will show you how to knit like the old Dales knitters! I can’t promise to make you into a ‘terrible knitter of Dent’ in a couple of hours. But you will learn how to use a knitting stick and be part of the revival of this almost-lost art.

There are very limited places on these workshops – mainly so everyone gets as much one-to-one as they need. There has been a bit of interest though so don’t despair if you can’t make this weekend, I will be offering this workshop again soon.

Time: 1:30pm – 3:30pm

Price: £12.50 (includes Museum admission). If you already paid admission earlier,  workshop price is minus admission price.

Suitable for: knitters who know how to cast on!

Bring: yourself, and a belt (or apron with a waistband). You’ll tuck your stick into this. Materials will be provided at workshop. We will loan you a stick, and needles, on the day, for you to learn with.  But feel free to acquire your own and bring them along. Needles: if bringing your own, 8” or longer stainless steel dpns are best.

Saturday workshop is now FULL but there are still a couple of places left for Sunday. If you’re interested, email me: penelopehemingwayATgmail.com and I will add your name to the list.




1809 Fashion Plate, Wikimedia Commons


Still  employing myself studying the (historical) crazy. Digging around in some York archives, last week. For an upcoming article in a genealogy magazine about crafts and eighteenth/nineteenth century insanity. Here are some snippets I thought might interest readers, but I can’t shoehorn into the piece ~ some more fascinating reasons for inmates being “a fit object for confinement in a House for the reception of Lunatics”.

Trawled from the certifications ~ this time, from the 1820s. See how many of these boxes you tick :

“Too close application to literary pursuits”

“Brain fever”

“Hereditary taint and a weak mind”

“Hipocondriac” [sic]

“Over-exertion at extinguishing a Fire in the 25th of 12 mo[nth] 1824″


“Overstrain’d Nerves especially on religious subjects”

“Since the death of her husband, she has suffered a series of disappointments”

“Intemperate drinking”

“Religious melancholy”

“…he led a dissolute and idle life. About the 9th mo[nth] 1826 all other resources having failed he enlisted in the army… He was then in Chatham Barracks… he gave me a clear and succinct account of what he had undergone since I saw him and described persecution and cruel treatment… I saw him repeatedly til the 19th of the 1st mo[nth] 1827 when I procured his liberation. This circumstance did not appear to exhilarate him…”

And, as ever, the old favourite of doctors locking up early nineteenth century people, simply one word: “Religion”. Which always catches my eye in the context of a Quaker-run asylum, as you’d think they’d overlook that kind of thing…


I also took a quick look at the patients’ occupations on some of the certificates. Interesting that there are a few textile-related ones. Here are some entries under the question “Occupation?”:

“Not any”

“A servant”

“In early life was closely employed in needlework”

“Surgeon Apothecary”

“Cabinet maker and upholsterer”

“Paper Maker”

“Grocer & Tea Dealer”

“Linen Draper”


“Worsted Spinner” [This is a man, and from that and the date, 1821, we can infer he spun on the water frame]

“Farmer & Maltster”


“An inmate at her Father’s house”

“Cotton Spinner and Manufacturer” [A man from Gledwick Clough, admitted 1823]

“None of late. He was for a short time with a Chemist, his genius for that and botany” [a Guernsey man]

“A Weaver”

“A Manufacturer & Merchant”

“Toy & Turnery Workshop”

[The Retreat, Register of Certificates, 1796-1819].


(Toy & turnery manufacturers often made fancy parlour wheels; companies such as one maker often considered the finest wheel-maker in late eighteenth century England who advertised as:


 “JOHN JAMESON his TOY & TURNERY MANUFACTORY in Carlisle Buildings, Little Alice-Lane, in the City of YORK”


Site of Jamesons’ spinning wheel shop. Photo Credit: Nathaniel Hunt

There is so much that is poignant, in the asylum records.  Amongst the case notes, you often glimpse a personality. Re. Penelope Rathbone, from Liverpool, admitted in 1814 aged 70, the doctor recorded: “A person (gentlewoman) of a remarkable kind, charitable disposition of late became so imprudent as to give away all her property and borrow upon interest to give away when all was gone she lived for some time upon almost nothing… and thought it right to destroy herself… She died with water in the chest, 1814″. At the bottom of the page, in pencil, some anonymous person scrawled:

“Very amiable gentlewoman”.


Lion statue, Lion Buildings, Huddersfield. Image © Copyright David Ward

Huddersfield, yesterday. And having an hour to kill, I found the Local History section of the Library.  I didn’t have time to look for my Huddersfield ancestors, wool weavers and dyers the Smiths, Dawsons and Listers ~ but did find this info I wanted to share, in a fascinating book, ‘The Water-Spinners’, by Chris Aspin, (Helmshire Local History Society, 2003).

The book discusses the textile industry’s widespread adoption of Arkwright’s Water Frame, and why and how it overtook the older invention, Hargreaves’ Spinning Jenny.

Chris Aspin starts off by  discussing some of the reasons handspun was superseded by millspun yarn and the eventual pre-eminence of Arkwright’s Water Frame over older technologies like spinning wheels and the Jenny. The Jenny had come about partly as a response to clothiers needed more yarn than handspinners could provide. But it had its limitations. Handspinners had yet more…

“As well as reaching the manufacturer in irregular sizes, home-spun yarn… was the subject of complaint for many years…” He says. He goes on to quote the historian of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, who was discussing the poor quality of homespun flax, said that manufacturers understood handspun’s faults only “too well” – and to their cost. Common faults included:

‘…Slack twine, ill thum’d and spun dry, hard twine, thumb knots, different colours in the same hank, slip ekes [slubby lengths?], coarse pieces, roaney or having the show of straw adhering, spun beyond the grist and hairy, check spales, [badly prepared flax] lumpy, low-spun [not enough twist], etc… ‘ These faults the directors attribute in a great measure to carelessness and inattention, as well as ignorance of the art of spinning. ‘Many,’ they say, ‘where yarn is spun, do not even know how to make a “weaver’s knot”…’

We all know about handspinners spinning “too thick”. But what about those who spin “too thin”? Ie: Spinning “beyond the (Bradford) Count” ~ which is apparently, something some contemporary spinners feel they should aim for.  Yet it is a pointless exercise. Anyone who is routinely spinning beyond Count would, in any case, be spinning cheese-wire and failing to understand how to harness the characteristics of a given wool.

For one thing, Bradford Counts were intended for measuring the grist (thickness) of worsted, not woollen yarn – yet spinning so fine the spinner goes beyond Count is something mentioned in the context of woollen spinning, as well as worsted. For another – the Counts were only a guideline, and deliberately spinning below them was, to our ancestors, the hallmark of a poor spinner. As Mabel Ross remarks in her ‘Encyclopedia of Handspinning’, the Counts were rarely spun to, in industry. They were a broad indication of the fineness of the wool’s staple, and as such, a hint how fine to spin the wool. Ignoring the Count by going beyond it,  is a failure to understand the nature of your raw material.

But there was another reason cited, for poor spinning. And although the source here is discussing Midlands manufacturers, it would be equally true for our West Riding wool spinners, bearing in mind that spinning was, most definitely, fitted in around agricultural labour and household chores.

William Gardiner, the Leicester hosier, gave another reason for irregular [handspun] yarn. ‘As an old manufacturer, I may mention that for the first month after harvest, the work was always worse done than at any other time, owing to the hardening of hands in the harvest work…

West Riding clothiers had to wait on handspinners less in the winter months, when they had more time to spin, according to various sources.(See booklist here).

My final bit of rapid reading gave me this fascinating insight, also from William Gardiner:

In the year 1780, I assisted in knocking to pieces for firewood Hargreaves’ spinning jennies… in consequence of their being superseded by Arkwright’s invention…


A 1775 Water Frame, now at Manchester Museum of Science & Technology. Image from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy Chris55

Arkwright’s Water Frame spun a superior yarn to the Jenny – finally a machine was able to spin a yarn that could compete with a Great Wheel spun wool warp although, as we have seen, it took another thirty years or so to thoroughly oust the Great Wheel from farms and cottages.

  Arkwright’s Water Frame was pre-eminent by the 1780s and manufacturers could begin to rely on wool spun more consistently than by the handspinner or the jenny. And one thing they wanted to eliminate was… wool spun “beyond Count”.

Will be back in Huddersfield next month and this time for a day in the Archives.



Victorian ladies. (They left their ivory knitting sticks at home)

Ever wanted to know how the writers went about researching and writing ‘The Old Hand Knitters of the Dales’? Or do you want to know more about ‘the terrible knitters of Dent’?  How people knitted at commercial speeds in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in the Yorkshire Dales? And what did they knit? What is ‘swaving’? Who were the hand knitters of the Dales? Wonder no more.

I’ll be ‘doing a talk’ about The Old Hand Knitters of the Dales on both Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th April  at the Yorkshire Farming Museum. Time: 10 30 to 12 00 am. Price: £10 including museum entry. If you’re interested in attending the talk, either day – just turn up.  I will go on (and show you pictures and actual Things) for some of the time, and  then you can throw questions at me.

April 5th and 6th is the 2014 opening weekend at the museum, and my talks/workshops are just a small part of Murton Park’s Country Crafts weekend. So there will be other things to see and do at the Farming Museum on the day!

There are still just a few places left on the afternoon workshops, both days, ‘Knitting The Old Dales Way’.  A rare opportunity to learn how to knit with a knitting stick. Details here. 

The workshop (same both days) is to teach and practice the dying Yorkshire art, knitting with a knitting stick. I will also go into more detail about the other paraphernalia Dales knitters used. If you’d like to book a workshop place, email penelopehemingway@gmail.com and I’ll pencil you in.

Image courtesy Dales Countryside Museum (stick from Marie Hartley's personal collection).

Image courtesy Dales Countryside Museum (stick from Marie Hartley’s personal collection).

Woman At Spinning Wheel, The source of this file is http://www.llgc.org.uk. National Library of Wales. NB: Looks like this image has been reversed!

I’ve hesitated about writing this post. In the same way I hesitate about commenting on YouTube videos that claim to be showing a certain spinning technique – and aren’t.

But great wheels are one of my ‘things’. And I couldn’t bear to see inaccuracies stand as ‘facts’.

So in the spirit of preserving this craft (only a handful of British spinners can great wheel spin)… and after some thought, I decided I’d like to examine the historical ‘facts’ about great wheels, found on a blog.  For no other reason than the internet can perpetuate some extreme inaccuracies, and opinions stated as ‘fact’ can confuse the unwary.

Just as there is Bad Science in the world, there is Bad History. History not backed up by sources, or hard facts. What we’d like to believe was logical or right for the past, as most re-enactors/living historians know, is not what we should believe.

NB: To ‘get’ this post you need to know that there were two types of spinning wheel. The first, invented in medieval times, was ‘the great wheel’ – a simple spindle mounted sideways, driven by a huge wheel. This was faster than the older method of spinning with a hand-spindle. Then, around the 16thC, the flyer wheel – a smaller wheel the spinner could sit at. The wheel was now driven by a treadle, freeing both hands for the spinner to work. It also evolved a ‘flyer’ – the wool now automatically wound on a bobbin. These two types of wheel continued to co-exist but evidence suggests the great wheel never died out because it was faster and more efficient at spinning some yarns. Meanwhile, the little flyer wheel was better for spinning flax because you need two hands for that and it is slower than spinning wool.

One reason I want to do this is that sometimes ‘bad history’ can lead us to the motherlode. By teasing apart misconceptions, we can get to the truth. And I guess what I really want to do here, is to go on about great wheels and why this medieval invention did something wonderful  and unaccountable – surviving first the flyer wheel’s introduction, and later, machine spinning. As the great wheel co-existed with both – the flyer wheel for hundreds of years and the spinning mule by decades. I’m always amazed, reading about the history of spinning, we aren’t more taken by this particular miracle. So, to The Blog. Let’s see what we can learn.

Apparently, according to The Blog, there are a “significant number” of flyer wheels with “accelerators”.

Are there? Where? What do you mean by ‘accelerator’? I’ve seen more ‘old’ spinning wheels than I can shake a stick at. But never seen one with an ‘accelerator’, let alone ‘significant numbers’ with accelerators. I’m not even sure what is meant here, by ‘accelerator’.

When there were large numbers of professional spinners and hand spinning was a competitive industry, they knew about accelerators to allow them to spin faster.

Did they? Where’s the proof? Why don’t they exist in museums or on the old wheels many of us own? How do you know what people in the past ‘knew’?  And if they knew this – why don’t we see any evidence of them doing this?

The romantic, rather fetching, concept of ‘professional spinners’ betrays a lack of understanding of how the system worked. If you’re talking about the UK, anyway.

Spinners in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in the West Riding at least, did more than just spin. At halfpence per pound spun and, at best, a pound spun per day – there was little incentive to become Britain’s Next Top Spinster.

Great Wheel hub and spokes

Great Wheel hub and spokes

Spinners’ wages were so low, they would often decamp to the fields – being an agricultural labourer, generally the poorest of the poor, was still better paid than spinning.  Clothiers, or their agents, might travel considerable distances to find their spinners.  Writing in the 1850s, John James interviewed an elderly Otley (Yorkshire) clothier who recalled employing spinners as far afield as Cheshire and North Derbyshire. William Jennings, an “aged manufacturer” recalled finding his handspinners “twenty or thirty miles distant” (James, p.325). In the age of handspinning,  spinners were hard to find, and in demand. Yet being ‘in demand’ in a capitalist system, does not always translate into being ‘well paid’. Spinning was not a skilled job or a ‘mystery’ and you didn’t have to pay a years’ wages for three years for an apprenticeship to learn it. So it was undervalued. The late 18thC even saw spinners’ wages dropping, at times and there were points, throughout history, where the later spinner was paid precisely the same per day as the medieval spinner had been.

Clothiers accepted sub-standard yarn – and wove with it. Spinners were not paid extra for excellence. There was little or no incentive to be the ‘best’ spinner for a clothier. To think it was ‘competitive’ is very romantic. But untrue.

Sometimes the clothiers employed shopkeepers or farmers, local to their spinners, as agents, to distribute the wool and gather up the spun yarn. Sometimes, spinners themselves would act as agents, to earn more money.  Spinners were not ‘professionals’ working in cottages with roses round the door with a wonderful work ethic and a determination to spin perfect yarn. It was very much a last ditch ‘job’ – witnessed by the large number of charity schools from Tudor times onwards, who made the poorest children into spinners, at least to make them ‘useful’.  Heaton, the foremost textile historian who wrote the definitive book on the Yorkshire woollen and worsted industries, says:

The work was largely carried off by the female members of the family or by the children… Around the spinning wheel has centred the Arcadian conception of eighteenth-century bliss; but like most  popular opinions of the charms of ‘the good old times’, it must be taken with a great deal of caution….


He describes families fitting in the spinning around other household chores, and daily life.  Worse still, the use of child labour meant the product was never perfect or uniform:

… The employment of children was a cause of imperfect workmanship, and the clothier had to pay for the tuition of his future work people in uneven and badly spun threads. Also, it was well nigh impossible to secure uniformity of yarn…

Rough and ready original repair on a great wheel's rim.

Rough and ready original repair on a great wheel’s rim.

In various sources, clothiers are always bemoaning the quality of handspun (see book list below). Most warp chains were made from a random mix of the work of at least ten spinners. The concept of there having been any one perfect, wonderful, ‘professional’ spinner providing an entire warp or weft for any one clothier, is ridiculous.

In  ‘Reminiscences of an Octogenarian’ by Hall, printed in John James, a clothier said of spinners:

some spun to 16 hanks per pound,  others to 24 hanks. When the manufacturer got his yarn back it had to be sorted, and the hard yarn used for warp, the soft for weft. ( 339)

Does this sound like “a competitive industry”?

16 hanks per pound would be one 560 yard hank of 1 ounce weight.  This is coarsely spun yarn. Not the superfines mentioned in the blog as standard. 24s would be pretty fat yarn, too!

Not even out of paragraph 1 of The Blog, and yet another incorrect ‘fact’:

…they knew about accelerators … They did not put them on great wheels.

The Minor’s Head is a figment of our collective imaginations, then..? As someone who has owned and used one, I must have been imagining it for the past 20 years.  So was the doyenne of spinning, Mabel Ross, who wrote in her ‘Encyclopedia of Handspinning’:

MINOR’S HEAD  A developed form of the spinning head of the great wheel, incorporating a simple gearing which increases the speed at which the yarn can be twisted… invented in America by Amos Minor about 1810…

I think you’ll find they did put them on great wheels.  The Blogger appears to believe accelerators were made for flyer wheels. The original patent may be lost, but anyone who has seen or used one, knows it can only attach to a spindle wheel.

Minor's Head, image courtesy "Lynne-marie", from Ravelry 'Spindle Wheels' group.

Minor’s Head, image courtesy “Lynne-marie”, from Ravelry ‘Spindle Wheels’ group.

Minor’s Heads were put on great wheels in their thousands.  In the US. Britain is a different story. By 1810, handspinning was in its death throes in the UK. Cotton had been spun by machinery for decades, but it was not widely adopted for worsted spinning til the 1790s. Bradford only got its first mill to machine spin worsted as late as 1800. Spinning wheels – specifically great wheels – were still very, very common on farms and in houses all over Britain. But once the mills had perfected the process, the wheels fell slowly silent.

In 1813, Seacroft toff George Walker was touring Yorkshire, recording the clothing of ordinary people for ‘The Costume of Yorkshire’ (1814). One working woman’s costume he documented was a ‘woman spinning’. Walker wrote:

Since the general use of machinery for…manufacture, the spinning by a wheel…has been very much laid aside. It is however still in some degree necessary, particularly for the warp of woollen stuffs, in which a strong hard twisted thread is required…

The wheel Walker illustrated? A great wheel, of course. Which contradicts our Blogger’s assertion that warps must have been spun at very high speed only on flyer wheels:

When you must spin a great deal of fine worsted, it [a doctored flyer] is the tool of choice.

It may well, but just because you can do it on a heavily doctored Ashford Traditional, doesn’t mean that MUST be how everyone did it in the past. And as we shall see, contemporaries believed the great wheel made a superior worsted warp thread as well as a superior lightly twisted woollen weft.

Like other sources (See Heaton and James), Walker quotes the spinners’  “low wages of about one halfpenny per pound weight”.

The constant mention of low wages for spinners also militates against our Blogger’s determination to prove that flyer wheels were the only way wool was spun for warps. Spinners bought their own machines, and had them at home not in manufactories. J.Geraint Jenkins wrote: “… Spinning was carried out on a great wheel, the value of which  in the late eighteenth century varied between 1 shilling and 6 pence and 5 shillings…”  Flax (flyer) wheels were more expensive, and seen as the province of the flax spinner or a toy for the middle class or wealthy.

In ‘Wool Manufacture of Halifax’, R Patterson described the standard type of spinning wheel used in the West Riding, around the end of the eighteenth century and typical amount spun:

… This was the great wheel, or the one-thread wheel… a spinster could spin about 5lbs of fine yarn or 7lbs of medium yarn per week. This meant continuous work for twelve hours per day, including Sundays…

Our Blogger asserts:

Great wheels were the Medieval technology of choice.  The Renascence tool was the flyer, and the flyer was faster and more compact.  Certainly great wheels were cheaper and deeply bedding in myth and romance, but as a tool for a professional spinner was the tool of choice.  No great wheel can keep up with a flyer/bobbin wheel properly designed for the grist; not spinning worsted or woolen.

Ah. Where to start with this lot?  Let’s look at what people who were contemporary to both great and flyer wheels being in use had to say. Our Blogger would have us believe the great wheel was  on its way to becoming defunct after ‘The Renascence”. But the sources tell a different story.

Traditionally, great wheels were seen as producing a superior woollen thread; flyer wheels more suitable for flax spinning, ‘hobby’ spinning of grand ladies who wanted a pretty wheel, or worsted spinning. Later, as we can see from George Walker’s words, the great wheel was also seen as spinning a superior worsted. Maybe because you can stand still once you’ve drafted back and keep putting as many twists per inch as you like into great wheel spun yarn. You can control the twist in ways flyer wheel spinners can only dream of.

The great wheel was also called  ‘the one-thread wheel’ ,amongst many other names. This distinguishing it from the double drive band of the flyer wheel.

A sixteenth century writer said:

‘ Spinnings of wooll are of three sortes, viz either upon the great wheele which is called woolen yarne…or upon the small wheele, which is called Garnsey or Jarsey yarne, bicause that manner of spynning was first practiced in the Isle of Garnsey… or upon the rock, which is called worsted yarne… Jarsey and Worsted yarnes be made of combed wooll…. Jarsey yarne maketh warpe for the finest stuffes…’

[Thomas Caesar, 1596, quoted in ‘Textiles and Materials of the Common Man and Woman 1580-1660’, Edited by Stuart Peachey, 2001, p8].

In 1875, Edward Baines remarked in his ‘Account of the Woollen Manufacture of England’:

“…Woollen [yarns] were spun on the big wheel, worsteds on the…flyer…”

One contemporary eighteenth century commentator didn’t reckon flyer wheels even came into it:

‘In my memory,’ stated the writer of a treatise on Silk, Wool, Worsted, Cotton and Thread (1779), ‘wool was spun on the long wheel only..’

[From ‘The History of the English Woollen and Worsted Industries’, E Lipson, 1921]

‘The long wheel’ was a common name for the great wheel. Great wheels – not flyer wheels – remained firmly the weapon of choice in the West Riding, powerhouse of world wool production – right into the early nineteenth century; long outliving flyer wheels as a ‘serious’ tool in the industry and even co-existing with machine spinning for decades, before finally being subsumed.

J.Geraint Jenkins describes how, in Wales, the hand spindle co-existed with the great wheel into the nineteenth century. No mention of the flyer wheel:

Until the end of the eighteenth century, these methods of hand spinning [ie: spindle and great wheel] were the only ones known to the inhabitants of Wales, indeed hand spinning was widely practiced long after the widespread adoption of Jennies, jacks and mules. Even the poorest cottages could afford a spinning wheel; for example, in eighteenth-century Montgomeryshire ‘great’ wheels, could be bought from local carpenters for as little as 5 shillings. One did not need a special machinery manufacturer to make them, so that wheels were readily available in all parts of the country….(56)

‘Woman Spinning’. From ‘Costume of Yorkshire’. George Walker, 1814.

Heaton also makes no mention of flyer wheels supplying the mighty behemoth that was the West Riding wool trade, whatsoever. He too believed only the great wheel was used:

“Spinning was done on the old distaff or on the single-thread spinning wheel. The former was still retained to some extent in east Anglia, but in the west riding it had entirely disappeared, and the spinning wheel was a common feature in the equipment of almost every Yorkshire home.”  (335)

R.Patterson, writing of the wool trade round Halifax, stated that “the one-thread wheel” was the wheel used.  Can all these authorities be ‘wrong’? John James, who spoke directly to many elderly survivors of the wool industry in the late eighteenth century, still alive when he wrote, goes even further, saying that the great wheel was faster for worsted (Blogger better take a seat and fan himself)  and even describes a spinning method that modern spinners would recognise as the semi-worsted ‘spinning from the fold’  (ie: they were spinning worsted on the great wheel, with no distaff which is backed up by the pictorial evidence):

The main advantage of the one-thread wheel evidently arose from its capability of producing a larger quantity of yarn. Spinning by this rude implement (still to be seen in very many farm houses in the north of England,) is thus described… But in the worsted business there was a peculiarity in yarn spun by this wheel which gave it a great advantage over mill spun yarn, namely, the thread was spun from the middle part of the sliver, thus drawing the wool out even and fine. The best spinners would, on this wheel, spin fine qualities of wool to as high counts as fifties, that is where they required fifty hanks, each five hundred and sixty yards in length, to a pound of yarn… (James, 337).

This gives us parameters for the fineness of yarn, as well. From the low of 16s, (Bradford Count) quoted above, to the ‘high’ of mid 50s (generally the finest British wool was spun til the widespread introduction of merino from Germany and elsewhere in post Napoleonic times). ie: spinners were not spinning the frogs’ eyelashes our Blogger is so fond of – but realistically, spinning to count or far below it (fatter grist). Welsh spinners spinning ‘Abb’ yarn, would spin incredibly fat yarn.

In other words – when spinning wheels were producing yarn for industry, the preferred wheel for all woollen yarns and often, a semi worsted warp – was the great wheel.

Sources don’t omit to mention the flyer wheel. What they do, is mention it as a wheel suitable for flax spinning, or for children or fine ladies, ‘playing’ at spinning. In ‘The Idler’, in 1758, no less than Samuel Johnson wrote a piece purporting to be from an upper class gent, bemoaning his wife’s failure to educate their daughters with the ‘three Rs’. Instead, she preferred to teach them practical things and bought them three tiny, ornamental flax wheels to spin huckaback for the servants’ table cloth:

I remonstrated, that with larger wheels they might despatch in an hour what must now cost them a day; but she told me, with irresistable authority … that when these wheels are set upon a table, with mats under them, they will turn without noise and will keep the girls upright; that great wheels are not fit for gentlewomen, and that with these, small as they are, she does not doubt that the three girls, if they are kept close, will spin every year as much cloth as would cost five pounds if one were to buy it.”  [15]

James dismissed the flyer wheel as almost a footnote to the great wheel, implying it was one for the hobby spinners:

Another spinning machine was also in use at the commencement  of the eighteenth century, and received the name of the small or Saxon wheel.  Though a more perfect apparatus than that last-mentioned, yet except in particular instances , it could only be applied to the spinning of flax. .. spinning by it formed the favourite occupation of the lady spinsters of Britain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  (337)

Our Blogger triumphantly concludes:

Expertise in the flyer has been lost.  A flyer will do a lot more than most spinners are aware.

Tell that to every single authority on the history of the wool and worsted industries. And the eighteenth century spinners and clothiers too, whilst you’re at it. As they all seemed to think of the flyer wheel as (i) a flax wheel or (ii) a toy.

For more info, check out the excellent Longdraw and Spindle Wheel Group pages on Ravelry. Some Minor’s Heads can be seen if you scroll down, here:


Also, check out The Guild of Longdraw Spinners.

An elegant great wheel. By Jacob.jose (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading

Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning, Patricia Baines, Batsford, 1977

Textile History and Economic History,  (Essay collection) Chapter One. D.C.Coleman,  Manchester University Press, 1973

The Yorkshire Woollen and Worsted Industries, Herbert Heaton, Oxford, 1965

History of the Worsted Manufacture in England from Earliest Times, J. James, London, 1857

The Welsh Woollen Industry, J. Geraint Jenkins,  The National Museum of Wales, Welsh Folk Museum, Cardiff, 1969

The History of the English Woollen and Worsted Industries, E Lipson, A & C Black, 1921

Wool Manufacture in Halifax, R Patterson, ‘Journal of the Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers’, Vol 2, Nos 24 and 25, 1958

Textiles and Materials of the Common Man and Woman 1580-1660, Edited by Stuart Peachey,  2001

Encyclopedia of Handspinning, Mabel Ross, Batsford, 1988

Costumes of Yorkshire, George Walker, 1814


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 627 other followers

%d bloggers like this: