1821 Thursday, 18th October [York]
Went over the bridge at 11 ¼. Went shopping with my aunt… Walked with my aunt around the castle yard (she wanted some knitted nightcaps of the debtors)…”
[Anne Lister’s Diary, p. 175 ‘The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister” (Virago, ed. Helena Whitbread)].
Reading Anne Lister’s diaries was my first glimpse of debtors’ prison inmates knitting to make a little extra money. Being in debtors’ prison was not free of charge. You could improve your food and accommodation – so long as you paid. Debtors would knit small items like night-caps,purses and stockings, and sell them to members of the public to make their lives more bearable.
Many jails had two sides – one for criminals, one for debtors. I have seen the nineteenth century York Castle jailer’s journal, where he records the location of burials of the executed prisoners. Under the paving slabs of this very yard. Anne and her aunt will have stepped on them to buy their night-caps.
The best source to give a glimpse into the 19thC debtors’ prison is Dickens’ ‘Little Dorrit’ – Dickens was no stranger to the sometimes bizarre interior world of the debtors’ gaol, thanks to his father’s time in the Marshalsea, in 1824. Read that for more insight than I could ever give you.
Researching my new book, which will be a foray into the darker side of nineteenth century textile arts; I came across this news story:
LANCASTER CASTLE. During the late assizes, the high sheriff gave an order to the governor of Lancaster castle, not to admit strangers within the walls of the debtors’ side… on the ground that the indiscriminate visits …during the assizes, might possibly introduce disease into the gaol. This was considered a great hardship by the debtors, as they had been accustomed to reap a pretty good harvest during the previous assizes, by the sale of articles of knitting, &c., such as purses, night-caps and other articles, which they manufacture during their imprisonment. The high sheriff was memorialised on the subject by the disappointed debtors, but in vain; the prohibition was not taken off until the assizes had terminated, and most of the visitors had left town.
[The Manchester Times and Gazette, Saturday, March 31st, 1832].
Over on the criminal side of the jails, knitting was sometimes smuggled out, to provide an added income, on release. Prisoners were often given yarn, technically the property of the Governor, to knit items whilst behind bars.
In 1843, one enterprising non-debtor inmate from Morpeth Jail, Ellen McGurch (“a character well known to the turnkeys”) was found on her release, to be wearing a shift with stockings sewn to it and the hem doubled up. In the doubled-up hem, were stuffed a quantity of muffatees. Apparently, “….the female prisoners, instead of knitting the stockings with the yarn given to them, make muffatees and other articles… carry them out of the prison with them, and then dispose of them for money or drink…” [The Newcastle Journal, Saturday, January 28th, 1843].
This is a post for the genealogists – about arcane Masonic documents hidden in tin boxes, and secret compartments in nineteenth century writing slopes and – lots of fun stuff like that.
Genealogy-wise, can you believe we have a tin box that originally belonged to my husband’s great-great grandfather, that a lovely step great aunt gave us maybe twenty years ago, and we have never thoroughly looked through? It was mainly full of paperwork – I had a rough recollection of it being from around the 1890s – having maybe had a cursory root through about 20 years back – and I had spotted something Masonic in it, so assumed it was mainly stuff from his Masonic lodge.
There were also a couple of smaller boxes inside, containing odds and ends, that we’d totally forgotten. Husband’s great grandad was something of an amateur scientist – one box contained a massive beetle he must have ‘collected’. That thing last probably saw a leaf in 1905. Luckily I’m not bothered by spiders and beetles but it did make me cautious, opening the three small boxes inside. Just in case.
Anyway, I was reading yet another Jack The Ripper book the other day (My Gx3 Uncle, with the glorious name of Charlie Varley, was York’s Chief Inspector in 1888, so I have a kind of vicarious interest in the goings on of 1888) and there were so many mentions of London Masonic lodges, I got curious and thought “I’ll go look through that tin box, and see which lodges are mentioned.” We know both his great great grandfather and great grandfather – who had the tin box after him – were keen Masons, and one of them eventually the Grand Master, we think, of a lodge in Kent when they’d left London. I had a vague recollection of this paperwork being from his time as Manager of the Author’s Club in Westminster, at the turn of the century. (He was a friend of the Scott Expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting – whose signature is also on a document in this box! I better scan it… And that is the story for another day as we think we own something very special that was given to great grandad as a child, by Ponting, after the 1911 Expedition).
Quick back-story: husband’s great great grandma died when her only child was a baby. That child was husband’s great grandad. After a couple of years, Great Great Grandad, re-married. There was one son from the second marriage. That son had a daughter and she gave this tin box of family memorabilia to my husband, many years ago, as much of it concerned his family, and she felt he was the rightful owner. Lovely lady.
Turned out there was only a little Masonic material in the box. I haven’t had time to scan the document yet, which seems to be certifying that G-G-grandad in law had been through the initiation ceremony for ‘X’ Lodge in Westminster – prime Jack the Ripper suspect territory, that little roomful of people, if ever there was any – but will put it up on here when it’s scanned, in case anyone stumbles on this and is interested in the Freemasons’ history. As well as the certificate, and a gold pentacle believe it or not, which we assume must be Masonic, there is a small leather pouch we assume he carried to meetings, with his initials and a Masonic symbol in gold tooling.
Also in the box were the deeds to numerous houses (if only husband owned one of the several houses in Pimlico, or Kent hotels we seem to have copies of deeds for!)
A tip to genealogists: look up your ancestors’ addresses on Zoopla or similar to get an idea of their current value. One of these houses is now worth a cool few million (it is now divided into flats and each flat is worth over a million quid, put it that way!) At the same time, go and look in the 19thC censuses at your ancestor and not just your ancestor, but his and her neighbours. Check out the occupations. This street was fairly ordinary in the 1870s – in fact, there was a pretty sordid murder 3 doors down in 1875 as I found by doing an address search in a database of nineteenth century newspapers.
Whenever I find my target on the Census I look at the immediate streets around. It gives you a real sense of your ancestor’s life. Obviously, Pimlico in 2017 is not remotely like Pimlico of the 1880s.
Many a gentrified street now peopled by the wealthy, was once simply lived in by coach-builders, factory workers and servants; ostlers and clerks.
Bear with me, gentle Reader, whilst I go off on a tangent for a bit.
Talking of clerks, I recently got interested in 19thC writing slopes. They’re a sort of portable desk – some have secret compartments. I like the ergonomics of writing on a sloped surface, so decided to get one to use, not as an ornament. Regency ones often have a drawer in the side and later, Victorian ones a secret compartment. Like this one in mine:
The slope, when it came, had a stunning blue velvet skiver (not unlike the vivid purple on in Emily Bronte’s slope, although I can only here find a picture of Charlotte’s) .
In the case of my slope, the velvet was rotten and had holes in where someone seems to have closed it hastily with maybe a dip pen nib still in there, that damaged the wood and badly abraded the velvet on both sides of the slope. So we stripped off the old skiver and replaced with blue leather, after filling in the gouges in the slope’s wood, and sanding it. That was painful to me as a textile historian. But I did it because I wanted this thing to use, not admire.
We did manage to keep the original Greek key skiver surrounding as that was only slightly damaged. There are compartments for paper storage (or sealing wax, or wafers, or whatever in the nineteenth century) behind both surfaces of these slopes.
The slope is hinged only with fabric so the central bit is reinforced – luckily I had some vintage, wide cotton tape which was perfect for the job. As you can see, I have the original glass ink well whichI was pleased about, given the fact I only paid £30-odd for the slope. It has lost its key but I’m told the locks are simple, and often an old key can be found that will fit.
What has any of this got to do with husband’s tin box? Well, in amongst the little box of treasures inside, we had totally forgotten about, was a wax seal. Son 2 and I experimented yesterday and he managed to do this (The black bits were caused by us having to light our wax from a candle. Victorians knew not to do this!):
For scale, with a penny:
Sons and husband now know that their family sigil is a parrot. Appropriate.
Also in the box were some notes by step great aunt. I guessed they dated from the 1960s or 70s as these , I’m guessing by Aunt Elizabeth were written in biro.
Apparently, one of her family names had a cockerel as their ‘sign’ and their motto, according to the notes was “Whilst I live, I crow!” Finding this, I assumed the gilt fob seal I found was a cockerel (bad eyesight and these things as TINY!) But in fact, it was a parrot. It would, of course, be unusual to find a letter addressed to someone with the same seal on as you found in a box of their possessions.
I did find several (sadly, empty) envelopes addressed to husband’s G-G-G Aunt, postmarked from 1875, which did indeed have a wax seal with a cockerel on and this may be what prompted Great Aunt to write her note – but in fact the step family only became family a generation after these letters were sent, so I think it’s a coincidence. Intaglio fob seals like these were no doubt mass produced. We also have a blank one in the box, so maybe sometimes people took them to be customised/engraved after they bought them. Others would have been produced with generic symbols and mottos on.
They will have been made en masse after the introduction of the Penny Post and letter-writing became cheap and accessible for everyone. Previously, it was cheaper to send a parcel and smuggle a letter inside it, than to send a single sheet letter…
After she died, Emily Bronte’s writing slope was found to contain wafers – a sort of gummed paper seal you’d use to seal an envelope – sometimes use in conjunction with wax seals, wafers meant for informal correspondence. Many of Emily’s have oddly flirtatious mottos – no-one knows who they were meant for. For most letters though, you’d seal the envelope with wax. The seals we have are maybe only 1cm long, if that.
I have been researching 19thC Birmingham pen-makers for another project, and had recently come across the profession – many of whom side-stepped into being pen-makers – of “Gilt Toy Maker”. (Toy = any small frippery). I suspect these seals were mass produced in Brummagem by Gilt Toy Makers.
Anyway, upshot is – the ‘family seal’ now lives in the secret compartment of our writing slope (alongside the previous owner’s interesting vellum recipe).
I only had time to hastily scan this – from everything in the box. Because I found the lady on the right’s clothing fascinating. But I’ll be scanning it all. The oldest photo in the box dates to around 1856. It is probably the oldest thing in the box. As a young man, the gent below, was a carpenter working on a church restoration (Very Thomas Hardy) and the architect photographed him. It is brilliant.
I will have to spend a couple of days scanning to get everything but yes. A genealogist can have a box of genealogical treasures in their house for twenty years and barely get round to opening it…
Mudags, aka: muirlags, Crealagh and craidhleag (creels) were egg-shaped baskets with a ‘post hole’, used for holding wool ready to spin. They are known to have been a thing in Scotland – and so, hopefully, Ireland, Wales and England too.
You placed your mudag close to the fire, for the wool’s lanolin to melt a little, and make fibre easier to spin.
This probably went hand in hand with the old Northern superstition mentioned by Wordsworth in ‘Song Of The Spinning Wheel’ – that wool spun more easily when the sheep were asleep:
Now, beneath the starry sky,
Couch the widely-scattered sheep;—
Ply the pleasant labour, ply!
For the spindle, while they sleep,
Runs with speed more smooth and fine,
Gathering up a trustier line.
Baskets are perishable. This kind of basket was probably made from willow; maybe sometimes, hazel. I think the mudag at the National Museum of Scotland is thought to possibly date ‘only’ from the 1920s or 30s. As the mudags were often kept close to the fire, the willow would dry out and sometimes old ones are scorched on one side.
We are lucky enough to live close to the river, and there are basketmakers of great skill in our village. I know they’re good because when I have taken their work to living history events or wool shows, other experience basket weavers often come up and comment how they’ve used a really unusual or old technique.
So we took a description and dimensions to them and they attempted to make a mudag but weren’t quite happy with how it turned out. I’m sure they were just perfectionists! Meantime, I had started a thread on Ravelry, asking the knowledgeable folk there about mudags and a kind Raveller in Scotland offered to sell me a mudag she had and wasn’t using. The parcel duly arrived – looking like a bubble-wrapped dinosaur egg! I didn’t give up the Quest to find a local maker, however, because I thought these would be a great thing to sell at wool shows, and in keeping with our demos on traditional spinning. Also the mudag is highly practical as a way to keep ready to spin wool in an airy condition – and will keep enquiring hands from rolags or tops. Useful for shows.
I thought briefly about making one myself but decided it’s a craft too far and besides, what with getting stock ready to sell over the winter, and writing my next book, and commissions, I knew that was unrealistic to find the time.
My local basket-weavers recommended a basketmaker in another village – and so I emailed him various links to pictures and descriptions and he said thought he could make one. And he did.
We went to pick up the mudag after a couple of weeks. The lovely basketmaker was concerned it looks a bit elongated but that is actually perfect for the table of our Great Wheel. He has been making baskets all his life – his family have been basketmakers since the mid nineteenth century in this area – and he said, he had never made anything quite like this. He had to make a former specially for this first mudag (which we have asked him to keep as we’re ordering more from him). He is confident that now he has made one, the next ones will be a bit less elongated.
He said his first ever baskets were for the local farmers’ potatoes. I realised that his father probably knew and did business with my grandad and great grandad as the farm where my mum was born is not far away. We have found what look like deliberately planted small stands of willow here, along the river – no longer harvested. Often the willow seems to be in little inlets or ‘ings’, some of which may have been dug out from the river bank. The basketmaker told us that until the 1950s, basketmakers here would pay the farmers who owned land abutting the river, a small fee to collect the willow every year. I know from an 1830s’ tithe map that my family owned a field or two in the ings here, and presumably this would have been a nice extra earner for the farmers, alongside renting out horses and ‘horse marines’ to tow the keels and sloops when the tow path ran along their land.
We forget there was once a world before cardboard boxes. With many small docks here along the rivers, as well as fishermen, and also so much good arable land and farming going on – there would have been a huge demand for baskets. Apparently, in the nineteenth century there were seven basketmakers in this small village alone.
The basketmaker’s family started in the same village as mine, and moved out roughly in the same direction as the years passed. We will, no doubt, have had ancestors who were friends, if not relatives (He mentioned one local surname I have seen was a witness, several times in the eighteenth century, to family weddings so we were at the very least, family friends). My uncle lived for around 60 years in the same village as the basketmaker – as he was a jockey, and left the village where mum and my aunty remained, a few miles away.
The baskets are still made in a workshop which is part of the now uninhabited cottage. I have long been fascinated by abandoned and empty cottages in this area, and would give my right arm for one like this. (If you have an abandoned croft going spare, you know who to give it to!) From the old, bricked-in doorway you can see it was two cottages knocked into one – still unspoilt by the hand of gentrification:
I’m not sure if mudags were even used in England, and if so, what they were called or how they were shaped. Sometimes Great Wheels had inbuilt boxes on the table. In the Walker engraving, the spinning woman has simply draped rolags over the table but of course, those being stored ready to go may well have been in some sort of container on the hearth.
All being well we hope to have some of our basketmaker’s mudags at Masham Sheep Fair, for anyone who wants to buy one, made by a professional basket-maker from a long line of Yorkshire basketmakers. And over the winter will be making an Etsy or Folksy shop to sell these and some other handmade goods.
Visit us at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, and LEARN TO KNIT PORTUGUESE-STYLE!
Portuguese knitters work with the yarn tensioned round their neck, or secured on a hook attached to the chest. No special equipment is needed, but you can use a knitting pin (as in the pictures, here).
Knit and purl stitches are both made with the yarn at front of the work. Come along & learn how!
Portuguese-style knitting is efficient and comfortable. You can use this technique to knit on two needles or in the round; ordinary, bog-standard everyday one colour knitting or stranded knitting with two or more colours. Everything on my Ravelry project pages was knitted using Portuguese style knitting; ganseys, Fair Isle, vintage style knits – the lot.
All you need to bring is a current single colour knitting project you have going, on its needles.
Learn from one of the UK’s few experienced Portuguese-style knitters, (me!)
So how many miles could a Great Wheel spinner walk in a month? 120 miles?
To reprise; in “Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning”, Patricia Baines wrote:
…It is said that spinners who worked in the textile industry in Yorkshire and Lancashire walked the equivalent of 30 miles a week spinning wool…
[Baines, Batsford 1977 Edition, p.61]
I wanted to see if that was even remotely accurate. Not that I doubt Patricia Baines – have learned and continue to learn so much from her book. But you know how these things get currency, without ever quite being tested out.
At the British Wool Show, on the Saturday I tried to use a pedometer. Only to realise my highly accurate 3D pedometer is highly accurate because – it only starts counting after ten consecutive steps. It wants to accurately measure your average stride length over those ten first steps, I think. And I was doing less than ten, per length of yarn spun! So it was barely counting my steps at all.
So, on Sunday, we measured the average distance I walked in spinning one length of yarn; firstly, walking backwards whilst spinning and then back towards the wheel’s head, placing the newly spun yarn onto the spindle. In making each length of yarn, I walked about two metres – half of it backwards. Slightly more than 2m, but I settled on 2m to make my final figure a conservative estimate.
We then measured, several times, how many lengths like this were spun over a period of five minutes. And then figured out an average.
So we knew that in 5 minutes, on average, I walked a given distance (roughly). Bear in mind I’m mathematically challenged.
We then figured out how many metres I’d walk in ten minutes, then 60 minutes. Then one working day (which in the late eighteenth century might typically be around 12 hours, but we took two hours off that for other household tasks/eating, child wrangling etc). Then we assumed a six day week.
In all, we ended up with a figure of around 57600m in a month. Which comes in at… 35.79 miles.
Obviously, that’s just a rough figure. But does indeed verify that 30 miles a month is possible, assuming a 10 hour day and 6 day week.
30 miles a week? I’d have to be spinning four times faster. (To be fair, my ‘fastest’ spinning yielded a much higher figure than this, but I was very inconsistent and usually at the slower end of the spectrum, so I made everything my most conservative estimate). A show probably isn’t a fair test of distance – home, uninterrupted, (see the child is doing the cooking in the 1814 George Walker engraving?) – would give a more accurate figure. The difference between the amount spun in 5 minutes – ie: walking backwards and forwards – at the start of the day, and once ‘warmed up’ was significantly different.
I think all this proves, rather than disproves, Baines’ assertion. A speed considerably faster than mine (ie: the number of times the spinner walks backwards from then back towards the spindle) would be entirely possible for someone younger, fitter, who had been GW spinning since a young age, and who wasn’t at a show stopping to chat to people!
But the uncontested highlight of my weekend was spinning on the Great Wheel whilst being told a (very apt) Yorkshire folk story by none other than Ann Kingstone. It’s always a joy to bump into Ann and Marie. Knitting people are the best kind of people anyway. Ann is, of course, a designer of great renown – but she also is a passionate enthusiast and expert about Yorkshire lore and Yorkshire knitting history. Ann told me about The Thrangness of Keziah Throp which was fascinating. And I told her about the weasel – the reeling device that was used to measure the length of spinners’ skeins.
I will be making a quick appearance at Ann’s Yorkshire Knitting Tour, with a talk on the history of Yorkshire Ganseys. We’ll demonstrate knitting sticks, and all the paraphernalia of 19thC gansey knitting, etc (But not a weasel – unless I stumble on one in a junk shop in the next few months).
There were some interesting exhibitors at The British Wool Show. My favourites included Margaret L. Glackin and Catherine Faley, who make ceramics and crafts fantastic boxes, and other things from reclaimed wood. Some of the wood comes from demolished buildings in North Leeds, my dad’s old stamping ground – so I found the boxes fascinating as well as beautiful. I am now plotting to get to Leeds, to treat myself to one of the boxes as I regretted not buying one at the weekend!
Their ‘Craft Boxes’ look like boxes I have seen stood on the tables of old Great Wheels in pictures. I have just had a basket-maker in my village make me a mudag (well, he’s making it as we speak), so I will soon have a way to store rolags on my wheel. Otherwise one of the Craft Boxes would be perfect. But my current Object Of Desire is one of Margaret and Catherine’s lidded boxes. The yarn bowls look stunning too, but I can’t justify one after recently buying my fab one with a crow painted on it.
And of course, my fellow Great Wheel Spinning folk, Mad About Wool. It makes me proud that at a wool show in Yorkshire, once the epicentre of Great Wheel spinning, you can still find not one but two Great Wheels in action. I noticed Chris was spinning from tops, worsted-style, when I wandered past. And I’d been demonstrating with rolags, woollen-style. So anyone who walked round that show, potentially got to see two very different sorts of spinning going on, on these beautiful wheels. That’s a rare thing, under one roof!
If you’re in the area, we’re doing an Old Hand knitters of the Dales talk at Tynedale Guild of Spinners, Weavers & Dyers, on Saturday morning. We won’t be in costume (I find it hard to ‘sissy that walk’ effectively in clogs!)
Talking of which, honourable mention should also go to the lovely people from Baavet. I met the lovely gent last year, who couldn’t resist asking me about my clogs, when he heard me clomping past from a mile away, when we were demo-ing. He used to wear clogs, he said.
He wore his clogs on Saturday this year, just to show me them. Impressive, they were, too. Much fancier than mine. Mine came from a farm, somewhere near Haworth and were from the 1950s or 60s, but essentially are identical to 19thC clogs.
Mr Baavet had to revert to normal shoes at some point in the afternoon of the first day of the show. But I carried on. Because I had research to do!
So yes, we can confirm, you would be walking possibly over 30 miles a week, if Great Wheel spinning all day – if you were fast. A lot faster than me! (I do think it is feasible as in some outlying 5 minute sections, I was much faster than others – just not feasible for me). And I did my challenge in 1800 kit (well, no head gear – which would make me essentially a nudist in 1800). But yes – uncomfortable stays and heavy clogs. (I did wear a dress as well…)
And I thought it might be useful for other fans of vintage haberdashery and knitters of old patterns. Many charts available only go down in size to the more useful needle sizes for contemporary knitting – ie: around 3.25mm.
Yet many Victorian patterns call for 1mm or smaller. You can see from gaps in the Old UK sizes’ numbers below, there were some intermediate sizes, based on old imperial wire gauges between 05.mm and 1mm – that were very non metric, therefore less easily available now. Otherwise, this is a slightly more complete Old UK/metric conversion chart; useful for vintage knitters – or rather, knitters of the vintage.
We’ll be taking our Jack Greene-made Great Wheel, and finally trying out an experiment we’ve been threatening to do, for years. If you’ve ever seen us demo-ing the Great Wheel, you’ll probably know what it is.
Sources mention how much it was possible to spin in a day; an experienced Great Wheel spinner, working fairly flat out. This question has intrigued me for a long time. But another question has also intrigued us for a long time and some experimental archaeology beckons.
In “Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning”, Patricia Baines wrote:
…It is said that spinners who worked in the textile industry in Yorkshire and Lancashire walked the equivalent of 30 miles a week spinning wool…
[Baines, Batsford 1977 Edition, p.61]
Usual caveats apply to “It is said” as I’m sure Patricia Baines would be the first to point out. This 30 mile figure has often been cited, including by ourselves.
30 miles. That’s 5 miles per day, assuming a six day week. We have long threatened to try to spin for a complete day, wearing a pedometer, and just see if that even looks feasible.
I have been spinning on the walking wheel since the mid 1990s, probably. I originally had one of the few Timbertops Great Wheels ever made, which was custom built for me. Since sold as lovely as it was, I couldn’t use it for multi-period Living History, like the Jack Greene wheel and let’s be honest, we barely had space for one big wheel, let alone two. (By “barely had” I mean “don’t have”).
I reckon after 20 odd years my level of competence on the big wheel now is roughly on a par with an eighteenth century 7 year old’s. Plus I am slow, unfit, distractable, and at shows inevitably have a lot of stop and start – which will skew our figures quite a bit. But anyway, one of the two days at the British Wool Show, I am going to attempt to spin as much as possible, and see how far I walk. Which will at least give us a ball park realistic-ish Miles Per Day figure…. for a fat, distractable eighteenth century 7 year old’s probable distance covered.
But… 30 miles over a 6 day week (as no-one worked on a Sunday in the eighteenth century – well, actually quite a few did but that’s another blog post)..? Will that look credible? Let’s see. If I have walked the required 5 miles at the end of a single day, it would, frankly, be a miracle. But that’s where we’re aiming. I’m using a fairly accurate but very basic 3D pedometer which will only give me the step count not the distance, so maths may be involved.
Of course, all this pre-supposes we have enough rolags. So I’m carding our lovely Norfolk Horn all week, between other things.
If you’re planning a trip to Thirsk this weekend, come and see how we’re getting on with the 30 mile challenge!