Charlotte Bronte’s Baby Socks

© The Bronte Society


© The Bronte Society




‘The Knitter’, Issue 100, is out now and in the shops. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth, this year, I’ve contributed an article about a fascinating and previously unknown piece of knitting; a pair of baby socks, made for Charlotte’s baby,  which were destined never to be worn.

They were found sewn into a book of Charlotte Bronte’s correspondence  with Mrs Elizabeth Smith, mother of her publisher and friend, George Smith.  So far as I’m aware, ‘The Knitter’ is the first publication ever to publish a photo of these poignant items.

Charlotte was pregnant when she died in 1855 of hyperemesis gravidarum.  I had that with one of my pregnancies – for 20 weeks; all day, every day. It is not the way anyone deserves to die. Charlotte was already weakened, and possibly had incipient TB.  Her friends had expected her to rally – more than one, was busy making baby items. Miss Margaret Wooler, Charlotte’s old teacher, colleague and friend, made an exquisite (not knitted) baby bonnet.  These are possibly amongst the most poignant items in the entire Bronte Society Collection.

I won’t reprise the piece here (buy ‘The Knitter’, gentle Reader!) But I will give you something we couldn’t fit into the article as a bonus for my brilliant blog readers – some of whom I met at Baa Ram Ewe’s season launch, last week. More of that in an upcoming post.

A caveat. This isn’t a true reverse engineered version. I am not a sock knitter – apart from the occasional recreation of a stocking for Living History.  There are things going on in this sock – the toe treatment for one – that I can’t pin down. So I looked at a contemporary published sock pattern, and I looked at the notes I took from looking at the sock in person.

Misses Austin & Mee (left), Off-Piste version (right) drying on the line

I ended up knitting a version of ‘Child’s Sock’ from Cornelia Mee and Miss Austin’s ‘First Series of The Knitter’s Companion’, available here in a very late edition.   Cornelia Mee (1815 – 1875) wrote a number of successful knitting manuals from around the 1840s onwards and often reprised her recipes for children’s socks, so this appears in one form or another, across more than one of her books.

In the 1841 Census, Cornelia, 25,  was married to Charles Mee, ‘Berlin Wool Warehouseman’, and a  teenaged Miss Mary Austin appears to have lived with them, working as their “shopwoman”, on Milsom St,  in fashionable Bath.  Like Jane Gaugain and Elizabeth Jackson; a wool shop owner, publishing her own books.  Mary Austin was no doubt her co-author,  “Miss Austin”.  In 1851, she was mistranscribed as “Amelia” Mee, and now at 18, Daniel St, Bath. The 1851 Census is the first to give birthplaces, and so we learn Cornelia was a native of Bath, and Mary Austin, now 25, is listed as “sister in law” which means she was Cornelia’s sister so the books are co-authored by the sisters; Mary, as eldest unmarried sister, being addressed as “Miss” on the book’s title cover. Charles was still a “Berlin Wool Dealer”.  The household have three servants.  In 1871, Cornelia was visiting a family called the Fishers, in Liverpool and Charles and their family can be found at Brook St, in the parish of St George Hanover Square, London. Mary Austin still lives with them, and is listed as “Berlin Wool worker”.

The blue silk sock  was made with  YarnAddictAnni‘s Pure Silk Laceweight. And then a version of the sock, based on the original, using Sublime Lace Extra Fine Merino Wool, 25g, 100% wool in Colour  0397 (discontinued) – Ecru.  I bought the Sublime on my way home from Haworth, the day I looked at the sock, whilst the precise shade of parchment/ecru of the sock, was still fresh in my mind; dropping in at the fabulous treasure trove that is Coldspring Mill.

Any laceweight would do for these (highly impractical) socks.  But I should point out the originals are neither silk, nor merino; but cotton.  They photograph with a fair bit of lustre so look to be silk in the images but they handled and looked, in reality, like cotton.  It looked to be millspun, but with no loose ends it was hard to tell.  Anyone who wants to Comment below on the skewing that’s going on – I’d be grateful for your opinion.

There were limitations to documenting the socks.  They are sewn flat, into a book of priceless letters. So no turning inside out, and barely possible even to see the wrong side of the knitting.

Charlotte Bronte - JH Thompson 1850's(1)
Charlotte Bronte, by J.H.Thompson. © The Bronte Society

The socks were probably not knitted by Charlotte Bronte herself – Charlotte was 5 when her mother died so it is feasible she was the only one of the three surviving Bronte sisters, who may have been taught to knit by her Cornish mother. But the socks came to The Bronte Society via a donation – the Seton-Gordon Collection, donated by Elizabeth Smith’s grand-daughter.   Elizabeth Smith was born in Regency times – before published knitting patterns. So it’s likely this was a sock formula she had in her head. I looked at commercial patterns of the 1840s and slightly later as well, to get an insight into the heel and toe treatments but what we’re looking at here is, essentially, a Regency sock!

You can read more about the Smiths, here.

Cornelia Mee and Miss Austin’s baby socks, had a slightly smaller number of cast on stitches: 53, as opposed to the 60 or 62 on Charlotte’s baby sock. Misses Austin and Mee recommended the knitter use “the finest Shetland wool” or “No.30 Knitting Cotton” and size 17 (1.5mm) needles.   To put that in perspective, most modern knitting needle conversion charts only go down to size 14 – 2mm – needles.

I used Hiya-Hiya dpns – super bendy and work perfectly with a Knitting Belt (my tishie!)

Tishie from Journeyman Leather

In fact, I couldn’t have knitted these sans tishie, somehow – it made the whole process of knitting laceweight on 1.5mm needles not quite unbearable.  (You don’t want to hear what I was saying when I did the 3 needle cast off, put it that way).


I decided to work a Dutch Heel and a Flat Toe. I’m not positive these are the treatments used in the original, but they are close.  In fact, the original  sock’s toe has something unaccountable going on, if you look closely, with some crazy and weird decreasing.


There are a number of recipes for what we’d now call babies’ bootees, in the Victorian knitting manuals – but comparatively few straightforward socks, like these.


NB: The originals had a much more rapid (every round?) decrease for the foot, after the instep and heel flap stitches were joined back in the round, than my Ecru version has. There is also a bit more shaping on the legs of the originals (Possibly one or two more shaping rounds than I did).  These are most definitely not an accurate reverse engineered version, just an approximation for fun.


So, with no further ado, here’s the pattern for the white socks. (Not tech edited, so proceed with due caution).  I just wanted to have a go to see if I could. Neither sock will be getting a companion, any time soon.


Blue sock is Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin’s pattern; ecru sock is my off-piste version of the original sock!



Charlotte Bronte’s Baby Socks

Tension: 12 sts and 16 rounds to 2.5cm

You need:

1 ball laceweight yarn. I used Sublime Lace Extra Fine Merino Wool, 25g, 100% wool in Colour  0397 (discontinued) – Ecru

1.5mm needles


CO 60 sts.
Work in K2 P2 ribbing, for 12mm  [60sts]


Now, to work the plain stocking stitch leg section:


* Rd 1 -14: P1, K59

Rd 15: P1, K2tog, K55, K2 tog  [58sts]


Rep from * once [56 sts]


Now commence the heel.


Dutch Heel

Divide the sts so you have 27 sts for instep on waste yarn, and 29 sts still live, on which you’ll make a heel.  Continue to Purl the purl centre stitch (now centre of heel). Cont to work heel on these remaining 29 sts (centred on P seam st).


Work heel like this:

* Row 1:  K1, Sl 1 rep from * to end row

**Row 2: Sl1, P1, rep from ** to end row


Or conversely, simply work in stocking stitch.


Rep these two rows – or work in stocking st –  til you have made roughly  20 rows, ending with a P row.


Start Shaping Heel:


Row 1:  (RS):  K22, turn

Row 2: (WS):  Sl 1, P to seam st, P7, turn

Row 3: Sl 1, Knit to seam st, P seam st, Knit to end

Row 4: Sl 1, P to end


Rep rows 3 and 4 one more time.


Turn Heel

Row 1: (RS): Sl 1m Knit to seam st, purl seam st, K5, Sl1, K1, PSSO, turn


*Row 2:  Sl 1, P11, p2 tog, turn

Row 3: Sl 1, K5, P1 (seam st), K5,

Sl 1, K1, PSSO, turn

Rep from * til all heel sts are incorporated onto one needle, end with WS row.



Needle 1: Knit across all heel sts. PU and knit 20 sts across side of heel flap

Needle 2: Work instep sts that have been waiting for you on the waste yarn

Needle 3: PU 20 sts along other side of heel flap, and then work the first half of the heel stitches only from Needle 1.  Which means your round now begins at CENTRE heel.

PM at start rd.


Decrease Rounds

Rd 1:

Needle 1:  K to last 3 sts, K2tog,  K1

Needle 2: K across all instep sts

Needle 3: K1, Sl 1, K1, PSSO, K to end of round


Rd 2 : Knit


Rep these 2 rounds til you have your original 56 sts.


Then, work 12 rounds on these 56 sts.


Shape Toe


I worked a Flat Toe.

Make sure half your sts are on instep needle (28 sts on Needle 2) and the other half are split evenly between two other needles (Needle 1 and Needle 2).  (14 sts on each needle).

* Rd 1: Needle 1: K to last 3 sts, K2 tog, K1

Needle 2: K1, Sl 1, K1, PSSO, Knit to last 3 sts, K2tog, K1

Needle 3: K1, Sl, K1,PSSO, Knit to end


Rd 2: K

Rep from * until 16 sts remain.


I finish with a 3 needle cast off, on the right side of the work.


bs50.4close up crop(1)
Charlotte’s self portrait in a letter to Ellen Nussey. © The Bronte Society


With many thanks to Sarah Laycock at the Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth and the Bronte Society.


The Brontes, Juliet Barker, Abacus, 2010

Knitting Vintage Socks, Nancy Bush, Interweave Press, 2005

Charlotte Bronte: A Life, Claire Harman, Viking, 2015

First Series Of The Knitter’s Companion, Cornelia Mee and Miss Austin,  London (date unknown, but sock appears in various Cornelia Mee books, and probably prior to 1855).

Inside The Paracosm: Inside A 1940s’ Dolls’ House


IMG_0060Genealogy, today.  And also, something in the spirit of the blog, where I like to talk about social and domestic history – especially women and children’s lives.



Paracosm ~ a prolonged fantasy world invented by children; can have a definite geography and language and history…”


I have always been fascinated by paracosms. In their most developed forms, they’re imaginary worlds like the Brontes’ Angria and Gondal, or Hartley Coleridge’s Ejuxria.  For many children, though, they were maybe playing with toy soldiers, or dolls’ houses and that whole life of the imagination.

A while ago I stumbled on a homemade 1940s’ dolls’ house. It had been found dumped in the street, outside a charity shop. It came complete with 1940s’ wallpaper, textiles (hand-stitched silk curtains) and a full compliment of handmade 1940s’ dolls’ house furniture, with a few commercially available items like some of the Britain’s Miniature Garden items, thrown in.

Intriguingly, it came with a file of documentation. The file contained wartime letters from a little girl to her father (on active duty). Many letters concerned her dolls’ house and what she was making for it.  Over time, I will share with you, gentle Reader, little Brenda’s story and show you inside the dolls’ house and its items. And, when I’m done, the dolls’ house itself. Not pretty – but made with love.

The letters were carefully filed in date order and are a poignant look into the everyday world of a child in wartime.  The dolls’ house seems to have been emblematic of the bond she felt with her father.  On the outside of the house, Brenda  had written, in pencil, “Roedean”, which when I was told about the house, before I saw it, at first I assumed must be a reference to Brenda’s school. It turned out, it was the name of her beloved home, and the dolls’ house was her Roedean in miniature.

With no further ado, I will start the story.

Not Brenda’s. From my own collection.


I may blog other stuff inbetween, but over some time, will weave in and out of the other stuff, the lovely, touching story of Brenda Reynolds.  Most of her letters are addressed to her dad. But the first is to Father Christmas. The dated letters start in 1942. This could be that year, or earlier.  I traced Brenda and she is no longer alive. She was unmarried and had no direct descendants I could find. Maybe the dolls’ house and letters were found in an attic before they were left on the street?  Once I have shared this with you, I intend to re-home the dolls’ house with either a collector who will know how to preserve it – or a museum.  I think it deserves a wider audience first, though.

FullSizeRenderI managed to trace Brenda on Ancestry and FindMyPast.  FindMyPast has the 1939 Register – a snapshot of the UK on the brink of War, and I was able to use this to locate Brenda and her loved ones. The letters had her address on, which helped.

Someone slipped into the dolls’ house file, a few photos of the family of three. It seems Brenda was an only child.  In wartime, toys were scarce so there were probably more dad-made dolls’ houses than usual.  Until the War, Lines Brothers (trading as ‘Triang’) had probably been the best known dolls’ house makers, but the Triang factory went over to munitions, so as the dolls’ house was made after 1939,  it would be very typical of a wartime dolls’ house.

As I put up the letters, I will put up the items that Brenda mentions.  The first, (above)  is a Britain’s garden fork.  Pre-War these toys were made of lead.  During the War, they weren’t manufactured and returned in plastic, re-named Britain’s Floral Garden, in the 1960s.  It’ s quite startling to read of an item in the letters, then find it in the shoe-box where they currently reside.




The First Day of The Somme

Billie, just after WW1
Billie (left) presumably when he was officially old enough to join up. His brother Norris – a year older than him, who was to die at Passchendaele, on th eright.

I have an almost-16 year old son. I can’t imagine him being at the First Day of the Somme.  Yet my great grandmother was in that situation, on the 1st July, 1916.  In fact, it’s likely both her sons were there – her eldest, barely 18,  was in The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

My grandad, Billie, was only 15 when he ran away to join the Army. His first action was the first day of the Somme. He was a bugle boy, in the West Yorkshires Regiment.  I can’t imagine a 15 year old child walking into the bloodiest battle in history – over 30,000 soldiers died that day.  He was there. He came out alive.  His brother was to die at Passchendaele, the following year.

Not long after, he was brought home but re-enlisted the first chance he got.  When he returned home to Leeds, he was the only young man of his age for streets around, according to a younger brother.

My grandfather went on to live  – and fight – through two World Wars. After the War, he was a sargeant in the TA so called up on the first day of WWII.



My favourite WW1 poem is by fellow Leeds lad, Isaac Rosenberg. Another one who didn’t make it out alive.


Break Of Day In The Trenches

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.


Billie, just after WW1
Billie, just after WW1



Dales Knitting Alphabets

Dales gloves. (Originally pink and cream). I've reverse engineered these - pattern will be up soon!
Dales gloves. (Originally pink and cream). I've reverse engineered these - pattern will be up soon!
Dales gloves from The Dales Countryside Museum. PHOTO CREDIT: Belinda May. (These gloves were originally pink and cream). I reverse engineered these some time back, from the originals. The pattern is just discernible “in the wool”.

Here are the upper and lower case alphabet charts, I use for knitting Dales gloves. They could be used for anything where you need letters that are only a few rounds/rows deep.  These are trickier to figure out than alphabet charts where you have a few more rounds for manoeuvre.

Thought I’d share them here, as there’s not much like them, online.  Some of the lower case letters in particular are straightforward copies of ones on extant 19thC gloves. Others, I had to make up “in the style of”.  Click on the links to see as PDFs. Feel free to use these.



The gloves pictured are a child’s pair, with the name “Mary” on the welt. I decyphered them several years back but have yet to publish the pattern. There will be ‘Mary’ glove kits available at ‘The Luddites’ stand at the British Wool Show and the Armley show, both in June. And I will get on with publishing the pattern on Ravelry – promise!


Badger-Faced Shenanigans

IMAG1868_1The sun came out, so yesterday I washed about 1lb of fleece for the ‘Spinning For Beginners’ Workshop, here at the Farming Museum this weekend!

In the morning, we have our first ‘Like Fair Isle… But Yorkshire!’ workshop, which is going to look at Yorkshire two colour knitting.

In the afternoon, Beginner spindlers will be at work.  There are still a couple of places left at either workshop (but email me to let me know if you’re coming!)


The spindlers will be trying their hand at spinning wool from our prize-winning flock of Badger-Faced sheep.  As you can see, the fleece I unrolled yesterday is nice quality.  These crimpier staples come from the neck – where you usually find some of the best wool on a sheep.

I have put in some of the first quality, and a little of the second (as well as some of the darker staples, for a bit of variety).  The second quality will be easier to learn with – but our spinners can take some of the first quality back home with them, to continue to practice.

We’ll be spinning with hand spindles. Come and join us if you’d like to learn how to spin on a spindle, or have tried before and can’t quite get the hang of it.


This is a breed I’ve never spun before, so am looking forward to it!

The Brontes’ Knitting Sticks


Today (April 21st)  is the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth.


To celebrate, here is the text of a piece I wrote for a magazine, in 2012.  This piece concentrates on the knitting sticks in the Bronte Parsonage Museum’s collection.


As well as sticks, there are extant Bronte textiles, including knitted items. Recently, I was back behind the scenes at the Parsonage, with a new and very exciting – if poignant – piece of research, that takes a look at a piece of knitting done for Charlotte’s unborn baby, in 1855.  This will be published very soon in ‘The Knitter’ – so keep an eye out for it!


In the meantime,  here is an article on some of the Brontes’ knitting sticks.



…A knitting sheath, &c., to be fastened on the waist of the knitter, towards the right hand, for the purpose of keeping the needle in a steady and proper position….

From a list of ‘necessary implements for knitting’

‘Ladies’ Handbook Of Knitting Netting And Crochet’, London, 1843,  Jane Gaugain .




For the past few years, I have been privileged to be let loose amongst the collections of knitted items and knitting paraphernalia of a number of museums. Nothing I have seen was quite so exciting to me, as the items I saw recently at the Bronte Parsonage Museum.
Knitting sheathsI grew up about thirty miles away in another part of the old West Riding. ‘Jane Eyre’ is the first novel I remember reading, cover to cover, aged eight. By the time I sat O Level English – ‘Wuthering Heights’ was a set text –  I had read every Bronte novel, and just about every book in print at that time, about the Brontes.  (Not that my English teachers would have known it, as I was wordless in class).


I was especially enthralled by Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte’ and Winifred Gerin’s biographies of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell. One figure in the story intrigued me, in particular, as she remained in the shadows. The Brontes’ mother, Maria. She died when the children ranged between seven to one years of age and having grown up motherless myself, I understood that.


Almost everything the family owned – from Charlotte’s going away dress to the contents of the women’s work-baskets, was preserved and kept.



Searching the Bronte Parsonage Museum’s online collection catalogue, I spotted several knitting sticks. And knew I had to see these in person.  (ETA: Check out the catalogue with a search for ‘knitting sticks’, and you wil find them!  I don’t have permissions to share the images here, but most are catalogued online).


The most interesting stick in the collection, is the one that looks superficially, the least exciting, numbered H201:2. It is a simple stick of a coarser grained wood, like oak, that is 16.5cm long and has a comparatively deep hole for the knitting needle, which is 6cm deep. “Interesting” because it is marked “M.B”. It is likely this was “M.B” for “Maria Bronte” or “Maria Branwell” (Mrs Bronte’s maiden name). Sadly, as her initial didn’t change on marriage, that was no help with dating it, but I’d put it around 1800, looking hand turned, not machined. It’s provenance could be Penzance or Keighley – impossible to tell, but I’d lean towards it being from Maria’s native Cornwall, as the Yorkshire sticks, even ‘primitive’ home-made ones, tended towards the elaborate. Carved sticks – often initialled and/or dated – sometimes were a lover’s token. But might also be made by a brother, or friend. We have no idea if Patrick whittled this stick – but it is possible. We should also bear in mind “M.B” could refer to Maria’s eldest daughter, another Maria, model for the virtuous but fated Helen Burns in “Jane Eyre”.
This stick is also interesting because it is so simple. Compared to most sticks in collections, it is almost unusually plain. No doubt it only survived as Patrick and the children would have treasured it, as something so personal to Maria and possibly in daily use; a familiar symbol of childhood.


Original Regency fashion plates I picked up at a car boot – thinking they were nice repros! The fashionable young ladies of Penzance may well have looked like this…

Maria Branwell was born in 1785,  eighth of eleven children; daughter of grocer, property owner and tea-merchant Thomas Branwell of Chapel St, Penzance, and Anne Carne, a silversmith’s daughter.  Branwell family names were to be recycled for the entire brood of Bronte children; Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte being the three Branwell sisters’ names, and later the three Bronte sisters’. Penzance was a small but busy port with bonded warehouses and custom houses, concert and Assembly Rooms, bustling and lively. In Maria’s childhood, knitting would not yet be “the thing” for wealthy and middle class women; but the Branwells and Carnes were pragmatic Methodists; the young Maria and Elizabeth may well have heard Wesley preach in the 1780s when he was in Penzance.
Later in life, Charlotte’s friend Mary Taylor noted Elizabeth Branwell’s gruelling charity sewing, and challenged her about it. Elizabeth Branwell  said she “made her nieces sew, with purpose or without…it was not for the good of the recipients, but of the sewers. ‘It was proper for them to do it’, she said.”  [Gaskell, 577].


Knitting was not mentioned, but we can infer it went on in the Parsonage, from the knitting sticks at the Parsonage Museum, and the two knitting needles from a “work-basket belonging to one of the Bronte sisters”. [HAOBP: H176:2 and 3]. The needles I examined had fine gauges, around 1mm-1.5mm, and one had a slight curve which would suggest it was used with a knitting stick.  (Roughly old UK size 17 or 18).

Middle class girls like Maria Branwell, in the 1790s would spend their knitting time making stockings – with a cast on of around 150 stitches on 1mm or finer needles. I have found mentions of the Retreat Lunatics’ Asylum in York at these dates, buying in “patent knitting needles” at 3d.,  for the patients to knit stockings. The Parsonage Museum needles have a slight sheen to them, the colour of oil on water, and it occurred to me these might be “patent”.  The fact the faintly curved needle came from a work basket belonging to one of Maria’s daughters, suggests that the Bronte sisters knitted the old Cornish way, like their mother, using a knitting stick. Patrick’s own family in Ireland may well have knitted, too. Ditto Tabby Ackroyd, their Yorkshire servant.

Knitting sticks aided speed, and also helped make knitting portable. It would be wrong to assume sticks were only used by production knitters and the working classes. Some very elegant sticks survive; silver and ivory. In fact, Maria’s silversmithing grandfather might well have made a few sticks in his time.

Knitting sheaths 2Amongst the Parsonage knitting sticks are some finer ones  H200 and H201; one made from a fine fruitwood, the other most likely oak; the first one’s hole would take a needle of upto 5.5mm in gauge, and was 5.5 cm deep; the second one had a pretty acorn turning, looked machine turned and had a shallower hole, only 2.5mm deep – ideal for smaller socks and stockings, and glove knitting.  The relatively deep holes in three of the sticks suggest they may have been used with longer needles; anything between 8” and 14”; the dates are too early for any type of pullover knitting; so stocking knitting would be the most likely activity with slightly longer needles.

In 1790, Maria’s aunt, Jane Branwell  married John Fennell, headmaster at the Wesleyan Methodist School in Penzance. Thomas Branwell died in 1808, and daughters Maria, Charlotte and Elizabeth were left an annual income of £50 each; brother Richard was left the property. In 1811, Richard also died, and this left the women in limbo.  Charlotte Branwell married; Maria decided to go North and live with her aunt and uncle Fennell who were now running the new school for Methodist Ministers’ Sons at Woodhouse Grove, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. At this point, it is not known where Elizabeth went.
It would be a mistake to think of 19thC Penzance as just a tourist spot. Cornwall was at the heart of some of the most intensive tin mining in the world. Amongst the more sedate ‘drawing room’ style wooden knitting sticks at the Parsonage Museum, are two tin heart shaped sticks. These heart shaped sticks were not unknown in Yorkshire – one can just about be seen on the little girl in George Walker’s 1814 engraving of Hawes knitters, in the Dales. Most of the Yorkshire ones I have seen are brass, not tin. It is entirely possible these two heart shaped sticks came from Cornwall, with Maria or, later,  Elizabeth Branwell.
Extant heart shaped sticks are often of a fancier design, than the two preserved at Haworth H210:2 has seven tie holes punched through it and traces remain of a tabby weave tape, 16mm width, that once held it on to the knitter’s belt.  The hole depth of 5.5 cm is consistent with the wooden sticks’ holes. H210:1 is 11.5cm long, and the brass-necked hole has a depth of 6.5cm which would fit needles upto 5mm diameter. It has to remains of a brown tabby weave tape tie, only 8mm wide. Both tin hearts are considerably more workaday style knitting sticks than the wooden ones. It is very likely they have an earlier 19thC date; and given that they are tin, more than likely they belonged to Maria and or Elizabeth Branwell. Although it is an intriguing thought that when the Bronte sisters sat down to knit, they may well have used any or all of the older generation’s sticks – very likely given the bent knitting needle in one of the younger women’s work-baskets.
It is possible that when Maria – or later, Elizabeth Branwell – travelled to the West Riding, they had a knitting stick or two amongst their luggage.

“From the softness of the Cornish climate and the comfortable, close-knit social world of Penzance, Maria travelled over 400 miles to the comparative austerity and friendlessness of a boys’ boarding school in the heart of a depressed and restless industrial West Riding…”

[Barker, 51].


In 1812, the West Riding was in turmoil;  Luddites had been hung at York, for breaking up textile machinery that was putting them out of work. Patrick Bronte was to carry a gun for the rest of his life, and occasionally – along with Emily, it is said – honed his skills with a bit of target practice. We shouldn’t underestimate the enormity of Maria Branwell’s move North, at the precise time the West Riding was at the epicentre of what looked like Revolution. Maria’s annual legacy would have given her some independence, but like many unmarried women, she still would have had a degree of dependency on male relatives. Helping with the domestic side of the school at Woodhouse Grove, would strike the right balance for her. It is interesting that she took this more pro-active role than sisters Charlotte and Elizabeth.
Within weeks of her move to Woodhouse Grove, Maria had met Patrick Bronte, minister at Hartshead – then 35, at that time considered positively middle aged. Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ (1817) describes a world where an unmarried  woman of  twenty-nine considered herself on the shelf. So the marriage would have been regarded as a ‘late in life’ one – as such, there was no real reason for a lengthy courtship. Patrick proposed on a day-trip to Kirkstall Abbey and he and Maria were married within months of meeting.


Late in 1812, Maria had sent for her belongings to come, by ship, from Penzance. They represented the sum total of her life’s possessions. Disaster struck. Maria wrote to Patrick:
“I suppose you never expected to be much the richer for me but I am sorry to inform you that I am still poorer than I thought myself – I mentioned having sent for my books, clothes, &c On Saturday evg about the time when you were writing the description of your imaginary shipwreck, I was …feeling the effects of a real one, having then received a letter from my sister giving me an account of the vessel in which she had sent my box, being stranded on the coast of Devonshire, in consequence of which the box was dashed to pieces with the violence of the sea & all my little property, with the exception of a very few articles, swallowed up in the mighty deep…”    [Barker, 55-6].

It is a poignant thought, that, if Maria’s “M.B” knitting stick is from her Penzance days, it must have been precious enough to have been with her, amongst the few possessions she’d been able to take to Woodhouse Grove, or else it was amongst the ”very few articles” salvaged from the wreck. Many Georgian women kept a huswife (container for threads, needles, scissors) and knitting stick with them. One or more of the extant knitting sticks may, or may not, have been with Maria already, in Yorkshire. Certainly the tin hearts and the simple stick marked “M.B” seem likely to have a Cornish provenance, to me – but they may also have travelled up later, when Maria’s sister, Elizabeth, came North.

Knitting sticks weren’t immune to accidents. There is another wooden stick, H.211 which appears to have some damage (a small burn?) half a cm from its base. If a stick fell from your belt when knitting by the light of the fire, it might get that kind of damage.

Maria’s letters to Patrick survive, and they betray a lively, engaging, active mind; but still Maria evades us and remains a shadowy figure; who had a Georgian kind of grace and wit , combining arch flirtation with piety.  Writing to Patrick: “‘I firmly believe the Almighty has set us apart for eachother….may we, by earnest, frequent prayer, & every possible exertion, endeavour to fulfil his will in all things!’”  [Barker, 55].

On the 29th December, 1812, Maria Branwell married Patrick Bronte, in a joint wedding ceremony with her cousin, Jane Fennell, who married a colleague of Patrick’s, Dr. William Morgan. The two ordained ministers took turns to be bridegroom, and officiating minister.

Patrick Bronte was a remarkable man; unique in the 19thC, even. His life had taken an amazing trajectory, from birth in a two roomed cottage in County Down, to becoming a sizar at St John’s College, Cambridge; eventually becoming ordained.

From Hartshead, the Brontes moved to Thornton, near Bradford, in 1815. Maria’s sister, Elizabeth, came to stay with her; a second daughter born that Spring,  was named Elizabeth after her. In the six years 1814-1820, Maria gave birth to six children; Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne. The rigours of this took a toll on her health. The little family were not wealthy; Patrick’s living was a small one, and Maria’s annuity of £50 possibly kept them afloat. No doubt, Elizabeth and Maria put their knitting sticks to good use, as there would be endless baby stockings, caps and bed-covers to knit. Maria, who some biographers describe as a “bluestocking”, wrote “The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns”, concluding that charity to the poor, their “instruction and conversion” should be the primary goal of the more privileged. We see echoes of sister Elizabeth’s zealous charity-basket, here.

Not long after the birth of Charlotte, Aunt Elizabeth returned to Penzance and her place was filled by the charity school girl, servant Nancy Garrs. Nancy came from the Bradford School of Industry which, like most Yorkshire charity schools at that date, concentrated on giving girls the skills to be servants. Knitting and sewing would have been on the curriculum. Charity school girls were issued one huswif and one knitting stick per year, and paid for breakages. Left motherless, the Bronte girls would still have seen servants knitting in their down-time. (Nelly Dean brings along her sewing so her hands are busy whilst she narrates the goings-on at Wuthering Heights to Mr Lockwood). Living “a useful life” was a very Methodist concept, and Methodism continued to exert its influence in the Bronte children’s lives, long after Maria was gone, via Aunt Branwell.

In April 1820, the family moved to Haworth. By January, 1821, Maria was seriously ill, probably with uterine cancer. Elizabeth Branwell arrived from Cornwall, to take care of her sister and the six children and on 15th September, 1821, Maria died. Years later, Nancy Garrs remarked that in the final months of her life, Maria was deeply concerned with the fate of her children, but could only see them one at a time, or was overcome with grief.  Patrick did the usual thing for a widowed man with young children, and after a respectable amount of time had elapsed, proposed to three women in short succession. All three turned him down. Elizabeth Branwell had intended to step into the breach temporarily – fully intending to return to Penzance in due course. When it became clear Patrick wasn’t going to find a new wife, ‘Aunt Branwell’ stayed, albeit reluctantly. It’s rather like a character from a lively town in a Jane Austen novel had stepped into the bleak landscape of ‘Wuthering Heights’.



If Maria’s influence remained, it was a vicarious one, played out via her sister. Elizabeth Branwell is usually described by people who knew her in later life; eccentric, clinging to the Regency fashions of her youth; and her idea of the “education” of girls  consisting of little more than the relentless charity sewing basket and “good works”.


Four years after Maria’s death, her elder daughters Maria and Elizabeth died.  Charlotte was now the oldest surviving Bronte sibling.

Knitting manual writer, Elizabeth Jackson of York’s 1846 stockings. ©Interweave Press. Knitting Traditions, Spring, 2013



Aunt Branwell’s stern domestic influence was counterpointed by the constant presence in the small house of the Brontes’ servants, Nancy and Sarah Garrs and later, Tabitha Ackroyd. Tabby’s stock of local stories and tales of the supernatural bled into the women’s writing; most especially ‘Wuthering Heights’ where the farm’s kitchen in its heyday reminds us of Emily’s 1834 Diary Paper,  that reads like a Tweet from her kitchen, the heart of her home:
“…. Taby said on my putting a pen in her face Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate I answered O Dear, O Dear, O dear I will directly with that I get up, take a knife and begin pilling (finished) pilling the potatoes…”

For Emily, in adult life, home was to become the only place she could function, and Tabby was at the heart of it. Of the surviving Bronte children, only Charlotte and Branwell had vague memories of their mother, so Maria’s knitting stick, like memories of Tabby sitting knitting by the kitchen fire, may well have been a symbol of love, affection and that very 19thC icon;  home.
I imagine Tabby, of an evening, sitting in the kitchen with her knitting stick, working a stocking as she told the girls stories, like the elderly lady in Charlotte’s juvenilia “An Adventure In Ireland”:
“…When we arrived at the castle I was shown into a large parlour, in which was an old lady sitting in an armchair by the  fireside, knitting. On the rug lay a very pretty tortoise-shell cat….”
For Charlotte, knitting was at the heart of domestic safety. Knitting was home.




The Brontes, Juliet Barker, Phoenix Press, 1994
The Brontes: Tales of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal, Ed. Christine Alexander, Oxford World Classics, 2010.
The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, Penguin, 1998 (originally published 1857).


Illustrations: David Hunt

Photos: Alfi Lister, Penelope Hemingway


Anne Bronte’s grave, Scarborough, April 2016



Hemingway Mystery

One day, I’m going to have to get the death certificates.  But check out the death dates on this gravestone. These are my great grandma, Annie Hemingway’s, siblings. The children were buried at Hensall, in the old West Riding.  Their parents were William Hemingway and Charlotte nee Lambert. The Hemingways were Master Wheelwrights for generations, in Hensall, coming to Snaith around 1750. Annie moved to Leeds and married great grandad, Tom Boothman. You can sort of see why she wanted to leave Hensall behind…


IMAG0036Think I’m staying in bed all day on June 7th…