“Is it a Memorial about his own history that he is writing, aunt?’
‘Yes, child,’ said my aunt, rubbing her nose again. ‘He is memorializing the Lord Chancellor, or the Lord Somebody or other—one of those people, at all events, who are paid to be memorialized—about his affairs. I suppose it will go in, one of these days. He hasn’t been able to draw it up yet, without introducing that mode of expressing himself; but it don’t signify; it keeps him employed.’
In fact, I found out afterwards that Mr. Dick had been for upwards of ten years endeavouring to keep King Charles the First out of the Memorial; but he had been constantly getting into it, and was there now.
‘I say again,’ said my aunt, ‘nobody knows what that man’s mind is except myself; and he’s the most amenable and friendly creature in existence. If he likes to fly a kite sometimes, what of that! Franklin used to fly a kite. He was a Quaker, or something of that sort, if I am not mistaken. And a Quaker flying a kite is a much more ridiculous object than anybody else.’
‘David Copperfield’, Charles Dickens.
Sometimes I feel like Dickens’ Mr Dick, writing a book that never seems to be quite finished, although I have only one appearance by Charles I in it…
People are asking me when The Book is out, and we have just had a bit of a delay as our wonderful tech editor has been very ill. In the way of Yorkshirewomen, she is fighting back and getting better now, and we’ll soon be on with the final stages. I have been test knitting the last two designs, whilst we have some wonderful sample knitters champing at the bit to get started, when the patterns have had the once-over.
The delay has has a good side-effect. It’s given me time to squeeze in one last flurry of research and adding in yet more info I have found.
I had an idea that the famous, humane, Quaker run 18thC lunatic asylum, The Retreat, here in York, might have used knitting or spinning as therapy for the patients. But the records were so extensive, I had no time to shoehorn this in to The Book originally. With our unexpected little bit of extra time, I managed to start trawling the thousands of documents deposited at the Borthwick Institute and yes – hit paydirt.
I will hold back the real seam of knitting history gold for The Book. But here, I will fly you a kite made from a patchwork of the records I will not be able to shoehorn in.
But, for your delectation, here are some of the items from the Patients’ Accounts (patients were charged for minor purchases, and a record was kept. As I suspected, yarn and knitting goodies, as well as clothing items, cropped up in these lists). For the knitters and spinners, hold on til later this year and all will be revealed.
The Retreat encouraged the men and “some of the women” to spin or knit. The stockings made would be sold on to other inmates, presumably those who were too ill to knit, or couldn’t knit.
I took detailed notes on the women’s fabric purchases/ haberdashery items from the late 18thC/early 19thC as I know a few living historians read this and so far as I am aware, this stuff is unpublished elsewhere. For those not old enough to remember ‘old money’ – the day it happened, my 1 shilling bars of chocolate became a mighty 5p. So, below:
s = shilling
d = pence
It’s interesting to see the comparative cost of things in the 1790s. There are endless entries for shoe repair (which implies the patients were up, about, and wearing down shoe leather!), sometimes shoes are re-heeled, or the wales of the shoes repaired. I also found stay, stocking and other repairs itemised. Patient Susan Reynolds paid 1s. 4d on 20 Aug, 1799 for “A skirt dying over again”. It was a make do and mend world. Patients seem to keep up with fashions, too, according to their resources. Most buy worsted stockings – but one or two ordered silk, or part silk. Around 1800, as the almost transparent, floaty fabrics came in, you have patients ordering dimity, “gauze” and cotton prints.
From the itemised lists, it’s possible to figure out the average amounts of yarn used for a pair of stockings. Ann Barrans on 2 May 1799, bought 4oz of “Stocking worsted” for a shilling and a penny. In 1796, Mary Pyle and Ann Noble Barrow both had paid 1 s 8d for a finished pair of stockings, each. Yet on 23rd March of the same year, Hannah Foster paid 3d for “stocking worsted”. This smaller amount may have been for just enough worsted to darn stockings. Other items refer to a few pence worth of worsted “for Darning”. Two pair of completed worsted stockings cost Elizabeth Thompson 4s. 6d, in 1797. Which means each pair came in at double the price paid by Mary and Ann. This implies different qualities of stocking.
In other words, in some circumstances, the yarn cost about 50% of the price of the finished item. In others, the yarn cost only pennies less than the finished stocking. There are variables at work, here.
On the 4 May of that year, Hannah Ponsonby was billed for “Worsted for stockings paid H. Hull 3 s 8d”. H. Hull may well have been another inmate or it could be a supplier. But if just over a shilling bought you 4 oz of stocking worsted, then three-and-eight must have bought over 1lb of yarn. From other entries, Hannah Ponsonby seems to have been a keen needlewoman, so it’s likely she knitted four pairs of stockings for herself. Mary Pyle paid 2s 5d in the summer of 1797, for a pound of “wool for stockings”. (Bear in mind the UK fuzziness when it comes to using terms like ‘worsted’ and ‘wool’. Stocking yarn seems to have generally been worsted but, to the uninitiated, including men who write account books, it’s sometimes all just “wool”). Notice too, yarn counts are never specified. (Nor were they in the detailed records of the Knitting and Spinning Schools – again, more in The Book!)
In 1797, Mary Pyle had something fancier than woollen stockings: “1 Pr stockings ¾ silk 3 s. 7d”
In March 1799, Hannah Foster had bought “Knitting yarn” for 3s - 7d. So the 3d for “worsted” possibly refers to a smaller quantity, used for darning and repair. Interestingly, on the same day she had bought the knitting wool, Hannah also bought 1 1/2 d worth of “silk” and yet “Crewel” (which is woollen yarn) cost double that, at 3d. We can’t know the quantities. In 1799, Mary Pyle bought “10 oz of Knitting yarn of cotton thread 5 -/ 1d”. This is the first reference I know of, to date, of cotton knitting yarn. It seems Rowan Yarns weren’t the first in Yorkshire to have that idea.
Hannah Ponsonby in 1798, was charged 10d for “shaving her head and postage”. A note said the postage was 7d of that. Inmates did not routinely have their hair shaved off as they did at the cruel and inhumane York Asylum, nearby. But it was a standard treatment if you had a fever, so maybe Hannah Ponsonby was ill. (And fired off a letter first!)
Some of the interesting flotsam and jetsam from the accounts, dates between 1796-1807:
pumps ~ 4s.4d (the patients had regular dances)
thimble ~ 2d
silk handkerchief ~ 6s
sugarcandy – 6d
knitting needles – 3d (most likely a set of four!)
“Patent” [shiny?] knitting needles 3d
gloves ~ 1s. 8d
“shaving and gravedigging” ~ 1s.8d
2 cotton Caps ~ 2s
“shrowd” ~ 7s. 6d
coffin ~ 42s.
“7 yards raw linen” ~ £16 9s 4d
“Thread, buttons, worsted” ~ 10d
“Cloth for waistcoat” ~ 4 -/ 2d
“Black worsted 6oz and white yarn 1 oz” ~ 1s. 6 ½ d
“4 ½ yd check” ~ 6-/ 4 ½ d
“10 yds worsted Crape” ~ 11s. 8d
“Lining for gown” ~1s
“dimity for sleeve ” ~ 1s.1d
“2 check Aprons” ~ 6s.1d
“½ yd muslin” ~ 2s. 9d
“Callamanco” ~ 1s.4d
“Printed cotton For yd 10d” ~ 1s.4d
“Irish cloth 7 ½ d do. Gown-lining 1 -/ 10d ” ~ 2 s. 5 ½ d
“E.Lister” is often mentioned as a dressmaker. It is likely she was an inmate (I can cross reference this with patient lists at a future date).
A typical entry from 1799:
“Gownmaking E. Lister 1-/ 8d [?] 3 ½ d 1s. 11 ½ d “
It seems Ms Lister made up the fabrics bought by the inmates. Many of the recovering inmates were allowed to visit town, and so could browse Regency York’s shops and indulge in a bit of retail therapy, although some will have made a selection, and sent out later. There also seems to have been a certain amount of cloth as well as yarn in stock, as this entry for the silk-clad Mary Pyle shows:
“31 Oct, 1797 Flannel 12 yd which belong’d Retreat 2-/ 6d” [their underline].
We’re busy making 1800(ish) clothing for a ‘Terrible Knitters’ living history, this summer, so all references to this period’s costume are useful! I hope you found this useful and or interesting, Gentle Reader.
And I will leave you with Mr Dick and David Copperfield. Flying kites made from words:
‘What do you think of that for a kite?’ he said.
I answered that it was a beautiful one. I should think it must have been as much as seven feet high.
‘I made it. We’ll go and fly it, you and I,’ said Mr. Dick. ‘Do you see this?’
He showed me that it was covered with manuscript, very closely and laboriously written; but so plainly, that as I looked along the lines, I thought I saw some allusion to King Charles the First’s head again, in one or two places.
‘There’s plenty of string,’ said Mr. Dick, ‘and when it flies high, it takes the facts a long way. That’s my manner of diffusing ‘em. I don’t know where they may come down. It’s according to circumstances, and the wind, and so forth; but I take my chance of that.’
Items deposited at the Borthwick Institute, York University. Reference: Ret 3/10/1/1
Image: courtesy of Morgaine le Fay’s Antique Textiles. Quick! Go lust at the original 18thC and 19thC textiles! This site keeps me off the streets for hours…
Note on 2nd image: Richard Dadd, the artist, developed a psychosis and murdered his father, in 1843. He spent the rest of his life in first Bethlem, then Broadmoor Hospitals. He had been born at Chatham, Kent in 1817, incidentally where the 4 year old Dickens and his family had moved the year before. In ‘Crazy Jane’, Dadd painted Rochester Castle – deeply familiar to Dickens – in the background. He painted from memory. Dickens’ Mr Dick’s ‘full name’ was ‘Richard Babley’ which some commentators believe may echo ‘Richard Dadd’. Mr Dick also lives in Kent, and has been rescued from an Asylum – or the threat of being returned to it – by David Copperfield’s Aunt.
Morgaine’s site is a great resource for re-enactors, as well as a place to look at amazing repro 18thC wooden dolls, etc. And yes – the actual textiles are actually for sale!
Morgaine blogs here. Fascinating stuff.
Based in Wisconsin, but ships to the UK, and competitive prices, too.
Text of David Copperfield here.
We were at the launch of this, the day before Dickens’ bicentenary, at Pocklington Arts Centre, near York. Dickens was a great fan of York, as he visited his brother here, many times. Marvellous book by one of the best actors of his generation. If you ever get a chance to see Mr.Callow reading Dickens – go go go!