Smarts brickworks, California, Birmingham

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.

Child worker in nineteenth century Black Country

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.


Detail from “A Mother Depositing Her Child at a Foundling Hospital”, Henry Nelson O’Neil, 1855

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.

Victorian coach and four.

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!

Carlton Terrace, Leeds. John Lister was probably born at No 7, the first house on the left. His mother lived here when she married Charles Deeley and his father died when he lived there. Image from Leodis.

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.

19thC child workers, like Charles Deeley

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.

A Straunge & Terrible Wunder. By Abraham Fleming [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Recently, someone who will remain nameless told me an interesting account of a huge black dog, seen at dusk in the churchyard at Riccall, near York. I wondered if it’s the most recent sighting of a barghest  – or someone’s Irish wolfhound got loose?

Interestingly, when I Googled ‘black shuck’ – because I know a black shuck story when I see one – I found a reference to church doorways. This is precisely where my anonymous informant says he and a friend saw the big black dog. Needless to say, they legged it.

Genealogy/history needs a context and for me that’s not battles, or the reigns of kings and queens – but ordinary things, and the everyday tales folk spun. I’ve always loved tales of Spring-Heeled Jack, barghests, white ladies and suchlike; this was the world our ancestors inhabited; half-christian, half something older and deeper in the subculture.  Sometimes, I write about textile history or genealogy. But a future book I’m working on takes us into folklore territory, so bear with me, gentle reader – and don’t be scared.

“…I have frequently had it described to me as being a large, four-footed creature, something in the shape of a dog with ‘saucer eyes’ and carrying a portion of chain which it rattled now and again. In this neighbourhood (Tadcaster), what is spoken of as ‘the Barghest’ seems to have been identical with the ‘Padfoot’ of Wakefield, Brighouse, and Halifax… I am told by an old resident of the village of Colton that fifty years ago, if it were heard…under the window of a room where a sick person was lying, it forboded certain death. … Certified teachers and Board Schools will soon  get the upper hand of such superstitions; and a very good thing too, say I.”

From: The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, England), Saturday, February 28th, 1880

Interestingly, one Barghest sighting in late 19thC Stillingfleet parish – was by the board school’s teacher.

Once a common piece of folklore in the North-East of England, ghost dogs were variously known as barghest, black shuck, padfoot, trash, guytrash, skriker, boggard, langar-hede or tatter-foal.

For clarity, I’ll stick with “barghest” here!

The barghest usually took the form of a huge black dog, the size of a pony, with large red eyes that shone like lamps. Seeing a barghest “foreboded calamity and death”.
The word “barghest” originates from beorh- ghost (eg: barrow ghost), or a spirit that guards the barrow. It is as ancient and as the myth of the dragon guarding the underground hoard.  Most local tales of barghests have long fallen out of memory and many Northern villages or towns may no longer be aware they ‘once’ had a barghest. In Yorkshire, the dog is particularly associated with York, Whitby and Grassington. But Leeds, Halifax, Barwick-in-Elmet,  Stillingfleet and other places had their barghests too – long forgotten, now.

By Vmarkousis (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

In Yorkshire, ‘gabble retchets’ were the noisy ghosts of unbaptised children, which took the form of howling black dogs that haunted churchyards:

“An old folklore belief in the Leeds area was that the souls of babies who had died before they were baptised would return to haunt their parents, in the shape of devil dogs known as Gabble Retchets”.

It is maybe no coincidence they were thought to hang around churchyards, given the older associated with burial mounds.  (Blimey – that’s where the person who gave me the recent barghest sighting, saw one).

The ‘Big Black Dog’ legend is a Christianised variant of the Norse Wild Hunt – which explains why stories of barghests were commoner in the North East, the old Danelaw where the Vikings had their base. If you check out the picture of Riccall church door below, you can see the Viking influences in the stone-carving; so the Norse culture informed Yorkshire’s lore in a very tangible way.

One anonymous 19thC journalist wrote:

“…black dogs, also in Denmark,  guard treasures concealed in grave mounds…”

19thC accounts of barghest sightings often mention the spectral hound’s huge, fiery red eyes “like lamps”.  Barghests had some peculiar properties, too – a sort of in-built hydrophobia (bear in mind well into the 19thC, rabid dogs were not an uncommon sight on UK streets). According to another unnamed journalist writing in 1880 in The Leeds Mercury, the “barghest is supposed to be unable to cross a water…” In Celtic and Viking folklore, bodies of water were often seen to be liminal places; the threshold into magical worlds.

In West Yorkshire, like Leeds and Halifax, they were often called ‘Padfoot’ because the black dog was heard approaching before it was seen.

Like other popular 18thC and 19thC legendary figures such as Spring Heeled Jack, the barghest seemed to die out with the coming of the 20thC.  By the late 19thC, society was changing – and the chattering classes saw old stories like the barghest as silly superstitions that the provisions of the 1870 Education Act could wipe out. Yet, for some elderly locals in Barwick-in-Elmet, Yorkshire, the barghest lingered on after the trains and industry had come:

“…an aged stone-breaker… ‘Things have strangely altered since that time.’ Thoughtfully added the old man. ‘There were no railways when I wor a lad and t’padfoot wi’ saucer-eyes, used on dark nights to come clomping through Barwick town-gate, and ghosts and bargests  haunted houses and churchyards… by they all done away wi’, now.’”

The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, England), Saturday, November 7, 1896

I think this anonymous interviewee can be found in the 1891 Census:

“James Sparling,  married, aged 72, born in 1819, Retired Highway Labourer, born Barwick-in-Elmet,  living with wife, Martha, 68, born Allerton Bywater.”

Still, the faithful black hound persisted into the 20thC and 21st Centuries. There are a couple of 20thC sightings from Grassington, in the Dales:

“Summer 1948, a group of ramblers, while out walking, noticed that the sheep in the field ahead, were bleating loudly and running around in panic. As the group of ramblers approached, they were shocked to see an extremely large hound (Size of a large bear), carrying a fully grown sheep in its jaws. Winter 1955, a local farmer out tending his sheep in the deep snow, noticed a trail of blood leading across the fields, across a stream and up the side of the crag, a distance of almost 1½ Miles. The farmer followed the trail and was shocked to find a large hound with great staring eye’s devouring a sheep, the farmer described the hound as having a look of pure evil, the farmer raised his shotgun and fired at almost point blank range at the hound, but the hound didn’t even flinch, it turned and walked away, the farmer watched open mouth as the hound then vanished into thin air, he noticed that there was no foot prints in the snow….”

From http://unsolvedmysteries.com/

The barghests continue to be seen:

“They were usually referred to as ‘Padfoot’ in Leeds though. Bob Trubshaw’s excellent book ‘Explore Black Dogs’ relates that a man called Nichols, writing in 1828, said :-

‘Leeds has it’s distinct Padfoots, distinguishable one from another (as I am told), for almost every street’.

“There was even a reported sighting last year, in a park somewhere in Leeds (Armley area I think).”


That’s a lot of phantom Black Dogs for one town. I know my grandad told a story of something  inhuman encountered in a dark alleyway. But at this distance in time, I can’t recall the story’s precise details. And he was maybe on the way back from the pub.

Bringing us bang upto date, rehoming centres refer to the ‘curse of the black dog’. Apparently, black dogs are far harder to rehome as people’s negative view of them is so ingrained.  This shows how our folklore reverberates down the ages; even though the barghests of Northern England are now largely “fallen out of time, and mind”.

The person who related the modern day barghest story to me was totally unaware of the folklore and said they (and a friend) saw it at dusk, in the church porch. Maybe these motifs are deep in our psyche and a manifestation of something long forgotten?

Riccall church door

Sadly, due to unforeseen circs, (a race closing off part of the road) the Museum of Farming has cancelled their Harvest event, this coming weekend (10th-11th Oct), so we have decided to re-schedule the workshops for later in the year. Keep your eyes peeled for further info.

Hope this hasn’t inconvenienced anyone, as I know it’s short notice.

If anyone wants one-to-one spinning tuition in the meantime, message me here or email penelopehemingwayATgmail.com and I’ll be happy to help!


River Ganseys coverFinally, here it is.

River Ganseys – Striking t’loop, Swaving, and other Yorkshire Curiosities Revived From the Archives is out on Ravelry.

Your actual hard copies will hopefully be ready for Rhinebeck (The New York State Sheep & Wool Festival).

The rather wonderful Schoolhouse Press will be stocking the book.  That makes me happy on so many levels. Most especially because Elizabeth Zimmermann was always and always will be my favourite knitting writer.

In River Ganseys I tried to stay with EZ’s philosophy of giving the reader the tools to go out and create, themselves, using the broad principles and motif charts in the book, if they don’t want to knit the patterns. River gansey knitting was always like this anyway; patterns all kept “in the head”, every individual knitter finding their own constellation of motifs and ideas, and going with them.

Those of us in the UK; ask your friendly local yarn shop or trader of choice to get on the Cooperative Press website and order copies in.

There may or may not be copies available at the Bakewell Wool Gathering – depending on how soon the printed copies arrive –  but The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales is definitely still available from Freyalyn’s Fibres, who will be at Bakewell. We’ll be there too but not with our Great Wheel or Luddites show – just wandering around. It’s weird for me not to be dressed as a Georgian woman, doing these kind of things, these days!

River Ganseys could have been a parochial book by its very nature; concentrating on the history of Yorkshire knitting. But the story that emerged, as I researched, was of a kind of universality – this history is every knitter’s history; a shared history.

One reason I started this blog was so that people would know I was still alive whilst I was working on the book. So I hope you loyal-and-rather-brilliant-if-I-say-it-myself blog readers, will enjoy. Many of the comments, emails and messages on Ravelry sparked by discussion here, helped with developing the book.

Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in the rain. CREDIT: Nathaniel Hunt

IMAG1417I’m a textile historian,  handspinner and natural dyer with over thirty years of experience in the textile arts. And also happen to be a qualified teacher, because it’s one thing knowing ‘stuff’ – another thing knowing how to teach it or how learners learn!

I’ve had work published in the UK and US: ‘Ply’, ‘Knit Edge’. ‘Knitting Traditions’ and ‘Piecework’ have published my stuff, amongst others. And worked on the new edition of the classic book about Yorkshire knitting history, ‘The Old Hand Knitters of the Dales’.  My own ‘River Ganseys’ is due out in the next few weeks and I’m already working on the next book. (And the next. Yes I can multitask!)

Last year I entered Spinzilla the international spinning event (with no notice to myself!)  and came second in the maverick spinners. The winner was a US spinner so I am currently billing myself as “Europe’s fastest spinner”. Which is no doubt being creative with the truth. But fun.  This year, the 10th and 11th of October are the final two days of Spinzilla and I thought I’d spend a couple of hours out from my spinning marathon… er… spinning.

I’m hoping to offer workshops regularly, near York, in the coming year but am also available for one to one tuition in traditional Yorkshire knitting, spinning and dyeing. If here’s something you’d like to learn, get in touch and we’ll see if we can set up a workshop or a one to one course, tailored to your needs.

Here’s what’s happening next month.

Where: Yorkshire Museum of Farming. To coincide with ‘Harvest Weekend’.

When:  Saturday October 10th and Sunday October 11th

Saturday workshop: 2. PM – 4 PM Learn To Spindle Spin

Sunday workshop:  1 PM  – 4 PM Open Spinning Clinic for spinners of all abilities

Price:  £15 per workshop, to include museum entry.

Booking:  Pay on the day. If you’re thinking of coming, would be great if you could email me on penelopehemingwayATgmail.com so we have a vague idea of numbers.

Sloes in flower, Yorkshire Museum of Farming, April, 2015

Sloes in flower, Yorkshire Museum of Farming, April, 2015


Saturday;  Beginner Spinners

Learn to spin on a drop spindle

To celebrate the museum’s new Bronze Age huts, we’re going to run a workshop on how to spindle spin. If you’ve never spun before but want to learn, or have tried (and failed), this is the workshop for you!  We will have spindles available for the duration of the workshop, or bring your own!  (Top whorl are easier to learn on).

Sunday: Open Spinning Clinic

Whether you have a spindle or wheel, you’re welcome to come and join us for tea, spinning and cake! You can also witness my meltdown as I get towards the end of a week of frantic spinning. I’ll bring all I have spun so far during the preceding week along with me. Be great to see you whether you’re entering Spinzilla (or anything else) – or not.

If you have a problem with your wheel, bring it along and we’ll see if we can figure it out. Want to finally understand the difference between woollen and worsted? Let a Yorkshire spinner with over thirty years’ experience help you out. Any burning questions or techniques you’re interested in? Come along and see what we can do.   Whether you’re in a Guild or you’re a maverick lone wolf spinner, you’re most welcome to join us.

Some of Day 2's spinning - Lleyn (white) and Boreray.

Some of Day 2’s spinning – Lleyn (white) and Boreray.

IMAG1370Not textiles, but colour related so I thought this would interest some of yous.



The old Cumberland pencil factory, Keswick.

Yesterday we went to the Pencil Museum in Keswick. (I know how to have a good time).

The museum is a former canteen, standing in the grounds of the now empty, old Cumberland Pencils factory. It would make a brilliant set for a re-make of ‘I’m Alright Jack’ or ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’.

Derwentwater, Lakeside, Keswick

Derwentwater, Lakeside, Keswick

Production has moved to Workington now, so the pencils are still from Cumbria. The story is that it all started in 16thC Borrowdale during a violent storm where an old tree was uprooted; amongst its roots were shards of graphite.

Older pigments used in pencil production

Older pigments used in pencil production

I’ve always wanted to see Derwentwater – remembering the pictures on the pencil tins we had at school in the 1960s and 70s.  Some weird nostalgia gets hold of me when I think of those pencil tins with the ‘Lakeland’ logo and  picture of Derwentwater on the front. Am sure I never had those pencils at home, where I probably had the ‘Happy Shopper’ equivalent. But at school, getting those tins out of the cupboard was always a happy sort of thing. Maybe less to do, at the time, with the colours and more to do with the fact ‘colouring in’ was easier than actual work.

Found online. I think this is one I actually had!

Found online. I think this is one I actually had!

I also have fond memories of the endless paint boxes I had at home; thinking about it, my interest in colour (and old, pretty tins which I have accumulated for a lifetime) probably started there. Many textile artists like to play with colour, and it is easier to experiment with watercolours or coloured pencils, than it is to mess with fabric or yarn.

People had been telling me forever “You have to go to the Pencil Museum. You’d love it!” Not sure how to take that really but anyway, we were up in Cumbria for something in the morning and thought we’d spend the rest of the day at Keswick, as we’d spent out on petrol to get up there, anyway. When we got in there, there were so many lovely things – I thought those of you who love pigments, dyes and colour in all its forms, might enjoy this.


IMAG1342The museum is small but very interesting. And that pencilly smell hit us as we went through the door – the same smell you got as a kid at primary school when you were the honoured one who was allowed to open The New Pencil Tin.

Graphie mining

Graphite mining

The first Keswick pencil factory was opened in 1832.  The Museum has a couple of pencils dating to the early 1830s which must have used natural (mainly mineral?) pigments. The familiar ‘Lakeland’ pencils weren’t developed until nearly 100 years later.  Pencils were originally graphite (which occurs naturally in Borrowdale). Coloured pencils were a later development, when pigments (first natural, later synthetic) were combined with binding agents and wax or oil. Derwent pencils are wax based.

Artists’ coloured pencils have higher concentrations of pigment, and are now extensively tested for light-fastness – how fast pigments lose their “colour integrity” –  and are graded accordingly. The concept of fugitive colour is nothing new to dyers. Trial, error and experience have told many of us that x natural dye is more fugitive than y.


There was an interesting video about a James Bond style top secret wartime mission to create a pencil containing a hidden compass and map for RAF servicemen and how the company have made a modern repro – not an easy task as it turned out, as the ‘secret pencils’ were made at night, and no records kept of precisely how it was done.



I might have accidentally bought a couple of things in the Museum shop where the majority of items seemed to be very well discounted and as a result, I will be back!

Colours in nature are sometimes the best inspiration for textile and other art work and your tourist-y photos can also become great references and sources of inspiration.

We finished the day at nearby Castlerigg stone circle. We visit this after every Woolfest. I have never seen the Lakes this time of year with the heather on the hillsides. It is so beautiful, I’ll return soon.



When I’m not knitting or genealogy-ing, I like to fix up vintage sewing machines and sew with them.

I spent some time, earlier this year, fixing up Victorian/Edwardian hand crank machines; £11 – £15 car-boot bargains;  a Singer 28K and a couple of Jones Family C.S machines.

Singer 66K

My 1910 Singer 66K

Vintage, metal machines have none of the built-in obsolescence of modern, electronic machines with their dodgy plastic gears and starting-frying-the-day-you-pick-it-up circuitry. In fact, they were intended to be serviced and even fixed by the owners if anything dropped off or went wrong. Mechanically, they are so well built, there is very little to drop off or go wrong. Most I have seen have just needed a new needle, a clean and oiling. My own old treadle machine which was stored badly, was another story. That took 18 months of jiggling, threatening, and soaking in a rust-freeing agent, to bring it back to life.

Our car boot machines were pretty, had no sentimental value, so were good to learn on. Now they’re cleaned and fixed, I’ve passed them on to my adult sons and one of my son’s friends.

1956 Singer 221K

1956 Singer 221K

Once I got the hang of how to strip down, clean and fix up machines, I started looking round for an ‘interesting’ and older machine to play with. Funds are limited – that’s a polite way of putting it – but I sold a couple of things on eBay to finance it and the same week, along came a 1956 Singer 221K and a 1885 Singer 12K. Sewing machine afficionados will know a 221K (“Featherweight”) is a much prized thing. They were made in several Singer factories from the 1930s-1960s. British ones were made in Kilbowie, Scotland. As was my 1885 Singer 12K.

Sewing machines were developed from around 1851. But the first truly popular Singer was the 12. Those made in Scotland are designated “12K”; the “K” for “Kilbowie”.

The 12K was patented in 1861, so although mine dates from 1885 it is essentially the same as one made during the American Civil War.

1885 Singer 12K BEFORE

1885 Singer 12K BEFORE


1885 Singer 12K AFTER

I got mine for a stupidly cheap price.

I thought if I could fix this machine up, I could even make some later 19thC living history kit, using it. Research online told me it took an unusual – and expensive at £5 a pop – needle. Also the shuttle is odd – you have to tension it by snaking the bobbin thread in and out through a series of holes and it’s very much trial and error which threading pattern works.

Manuals for old Singers can be downloaded online for free. The 12K manual is here.

The seller was not into sewing, so couldn’t even tell me if there was a bobbin in so he thought not. He said he couldn’t open the slide plates, to see. I just wanted a fiddle-base old sewing machine.   I knew a replacement shuttle and one bobbin might set me back almost as much as I paid for the machine, and the bobbin winder in the picture looked bizarre, so that might need replacing too… but I was happy with that bargain price.  It came in its original case with two rusty, ancient keys attached. The case alone is a piece of cabinet maker’s art; the machine, when it’s unlocked, slides out from the case. I was thrilled to get the case too, as research online told me it was original.

Mechanism inside face-plate

I expected this machine to have some bits missing and maybe the mechanics would be seized like this 12K’s. It looks distinctive compared to the later, more common vintage machines with its japanned face plate and balance wheel.

When it came, it took very little brute force to free up the throat plate and discover it not only had an immaculate shuttle inside, but one lone bobbin as well.  That was a few quid saved! I bought a spare needle and bobbin from Helen Howes , who sells old sewing machine parts at a very reasonable price and gives excellent advice, too.

All the bright-work was rusted – as you can see in the Before and After shots, I managed to get the worst of it off.

On the day the machine came, with a pair of keys tied to its rusty handle with a nasty piece of nylon twine, I wondered if the ancient lock would even work, and whether we’d even be able to get it out of the case. Even though the seller on eBay must have, as he’d photographed it. But with one turn of the key, it slid out of the box no problem.

Behind the faceplate...

Behind the faceplate…

Amazingly, the machine was not seized – just a bit sluggish. The feed dogs still moved; the presser bar still worked; the needlebar was not frozen in time like my own 66K had been. This is a machine so ‘obsolete’ – and ‘ugly’ by mid twentieth century standards if beautiful by our’s – that you can bet it has spent most of the past 70 years or so in an attic.  It was dirty, sure, and full of dusty cobwebs underneath – but the decals were in better condition than we’d expected, and a bit of mild, soapy water and some cotton wool buds followed by a gentle polish on the paintwork with sewing machine oil, soon had it looking clean again. I carefully dismantled enough of it to clean inside.

I always think of the people who used a machine decades ago, when I find the lint in the bobbin race, and the few remaining threads on the bobbin. In this case a rather fetching vivid purple silk seems to be the last thread ever used. I wonder what it made? This machine may have been quietly put aside as long ago as pre WW2.

I have cleaned up several old machines now and never had a receipt forgotten in a drawer, or any provenance so expected nothing to get my genealogical teeth into, with this.

But when we looked at the old case, with a view to cleaning up the wood, there was some writing, so heavily scored out we could barely decypher it, in black ink or paint on the back side of the case. It hadn’t shown up in the eBay photos. It appeared to be a name.

1885 case

1885 case

I used Maas metal polish on the machine’s bright-work and  Parker & Bailey’s Orange Oil Polish to clean up the wood. Both are US products, available for an arm and a leg at Lakeland, in the UK. I cleaned very gently over that writing, in case I damaged it. I didn’t. And out in the daylight there we saw, under all the crossing out, the name “E. SHOPPEE”. It took a while to figure it out. I wasn’t even sure “Shoppee” was a name.

“E. Shoppee”

Maybe s/he wasn’t the first owner, but the chances were, an “E Shoppee” owned the little 12K somewhere round the back end of the nineteenth century, as the machine was still new and valuable enough for her to want to emblazon her name all over it.  I will assume ‘her’ as professional tailors and seamstresses generally used other, more industrial machines like the Singer 13K: the 12K was the first big household sewing machine. The 12K remained in production for a long time, even though later, better machines superceded it. By 1910, a tailor  or seamstress might well want a Singer 66K with its larger harp space, but not the little 12K. So the chances are its earlier owner is likely to have been female, subsequent owners even more likely to have been women. The 12K was originally known as “The New Family” machine, because it was intended for domestic use.  Jones had the similarly named “Family C.S” (Cylindrical Shuttle) which was aimed at the same market.

A search of Ancestry brings up almost only one family group of people called “Shoppee” in and around London in the late 19thC. Thank the gods the owner wasn’t Elizabeth Smith! An obit in The Daily News for 1897, said that the family’s great grandfather was a Huguenot called “Chapuis”, which may explain the fact I could only find one family group with this name.

I can’t be sure which of the female Elizabeth, Emma or Emily Shoppees, over several generations, owned the 1885 Singer but there is a stronger candidate, given the ages and family occupations of some Shoppees, compared to others.  If I’m right she is unlikely to have been the first owner, but was an early one.

“My” E Shoppee could be a Shoppee by birth or by marriage.

Which begs the question – who would be likely to own a Singer 12K made in 1885?

The 12K hit the British market around 1866. It has been described as:

…the finest sewing machine the world had ever seen at the time and the pinnacle of inventive genius from the design team at Singers.

It became the world’s best selling sewing machine and kept that predominance til production ended in 1902.

In the early years, a 12K would cost an average year’s wages. Singer pioneered the Hire Purchase model of trading, so many people bought their 12K over a period of years. Which democratised the sewing machine as a household item but it still would have been out of the reach, financially, of many people.   A charwoman would have been less likely to own a sewing machine, in the early days, than a school teacher. For decades, the sewing machine was the single most expensive item in many a home. These old hand-cranks we can pick up for a tenner at a car boot were once someone’s most treasured possession – it’s easy to forget that. They revolutionised women’s lives, a bit like the washing machine was to do.

You can date your Singer machine using its serial number  here.   Singer numbered every part so if a part of your machine is shot, the chances are you will be able to replace it – and much more cheaply than a modern machine part would cost. The eBay seller had shown the serial number in close up, so I had known the date of the machine before I bought it. Mine has the most common Acanthus Leaves decals but some later ones have the spectacular, and more rare, Ottoman Carnations – which are probably my favourite Singer decals ever. There was also a gilt and mother of pearl  roses 12K. Identify your Singer decals here.

The Shoppees seem to have been exemplars of that mid nineteenth century urban phenomenon – social mobility. In the early part of the century, they were builders but by the latter end of the century, it was a family of architects and surveyors, doctors and other professionals. London offered more scope for this than most British cities.

My favourite candidate for “my” E Shoppee is Emma E. Shoppee, who on the 1901 Census was 26 and living in Hornsey, London with her husband, Joseph W. Shoppee, a London-born Commission Merchant’s Clerk.  As the machine dates to 1885, she would not be its first owner but maybe it was passed on to her. It may even have come from her family in York, or the Shoppees in London. As a hand-crank, she’d be able to travel with it. You would certainly want to pass on your sewing machine to a relative or friend. So this one may have come from either her York or her London family, if Emma was the owner.

Free BMD told me that Emma Elizabeth Hawkswell married Joseph W Shoppee in the second quarter of 1899 in York.

From gutenberg.org

The 1881 Census found Emma E Hawkswell living down the road from me, at 19, Stonegate, York – somewhere in the centre of Stonegate – it must have been re-numbered since – as the Census enumerator veers off down Coffee Yard straight after visiting the Hawkswells’ house.  In 1881, Emma lived with her parents, Ralph and Emma. Ralph was a lithographic printer with 3 employees.  The Hawkswells, like the Shoppees, were firmly middle class. In 1891, she was still at 19, Stonegate and now a Pupil Teacher, aged 16.

Emma married Joseph Shoppee at the Salem Congregational Church in York, June 14th, 1899.

On the last available census, 1911, Emma had two children and was living at 38 Womersley Rd with Joseph and her younger brother, Stanley, a jeweller’s shop assistant; still in Hornsey. By 1911, Emma’s father, Ralph was now retired from lithography, now working as an Antiques Dealer, still at 19, Stonegate.

It might be that my machine had an early owner who was a York woman, and it has ended up, 130 years later, very close to York! She won’t have been its original owner, though, as the machine was already 14 years old by the time Emma Hawkswell was Emma Shoppee…

I did find several other possible E. Shoppees but they looked less likely than Emma; elderly by 1885, or too young, or had married and lost the Shoppee surname prior to 1885…  It is very likely the machine belonged to one of this family. One of the better bets was Elsie Shoppee, a doctor’s daughter, who married Stacey Hammond in 1895. Which would mean she had ten years as E Shoppee from 1885 on. But she was only 6 when the machine was made.  Other E Shoppees seem to have been out of the country in the 1880s/90s.  One Elizabeth Shoppee died in 1886 – a year after the machine was made – in Uxbridge, aged 63.  She was another possibility but a remote one.

The machine is almost restored. I really have to bite the bullet now and try and thread up the shuttle and get the needle in the right position. Both of these variables will throw a machine out, so it may need a few hours’ experimentation to get it right. But I will post pictures if and when  I get it sewing!


This post is in memory of my very dear friend, the supreme living history needlewoman, and Dove Cottage’s own Dorothy Wordsworth,  Caro.  I never got to tell her the tale of E Shoppee and the Singer 12K. She’d have loved it, though, so this one is for you, Pretty Lady.


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