More Myth-busting. "I See No Ganseys!"

“The Yorkshire Mary Rose”

The Grand Turk, Whitby
The Grand Turk, Whitby

Few scholars, costume historians or keen students of knitting history seriously believe for a minute that ganseys (or any knitted jumpers for seamen) existed prior to the back end of the 18thC.  But the myth does get promulgated, occasionally on places like ‘Ravelry’,  and neophytes may get taken in. And I like to think of myself as a kind of iconoclast. Sacred cows are for exploding. Let’s do some more…

Apparently, the “reason” we have no earlier evidence of mariner ganseys is due to the slop chests – even of abandoned ships – being plundered. Clothes were valuable, etc etc. Plus, of course, the conditions on a sunken vessel are not conducive to textile preservation, archaeologically speaking.  Sounds logical, right?

Until you’ve heard of The General Carleton.

A couple of months ago, we visited the Captain Cook Memorial  Museum in Whitby. By some total fluke – ’twas an impulse visit – there, on the top floor, was a temporary exhibition. And in that exhibition were… some knitted artefacts from a vessel, The General Carleton of Whitby, which sank in the port at Gdansk, Poland, in 1785. They are on temporary display at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum – and well worth a visit before they return to Poland!

The General Carleton artefacts can normally be found at the Polish Maritime Museum.

We couldn’t photo the artefacts for yous with no permissions in place – but look out for a future ‘Knitting Genealogist’ article in ‘Yarn Forward’, where we hope to share some with you, if we can get the permissions we need!

You can see pics of some of the hat and serge jacket here:

http://freespace.virgin.net/suesteph.baines/The%20Yorkshire%20Mary%20Rose.html

The story of The General Carleton and the rescue archaeology that brought the Yorkshire ship’s artefacts to the Polish Maritime Museum is best told on his website, or in his book “The Yorkshire Mary Rose”,  by Yorkshire born and bred writer, Stephen Baines.

Mr Baines’ ancestors were Whitby mariners in the 18thC and 19thC –  who better to tell the story!

Suffice to say here, the ship’s contents (around 775 artefacts) were saved by a weird and wonderful chance.  The day it sank, The General Carleton had a cargo of pine tar, which mixed with the Baltic seawater and sand, formed a matrix which acted as a protective barrier, preserving even the contents of maybe 9 or 10 slop chests.

Aboard the vessel were the Captain, William Hustler; John Pearson, carpenter; John Swan, second mate; 6 new seamen – Nicholas Theaker;  George Taylor;  John Purvis; Andrew Gibson; Andrew Noble and Thomas Edes; and the apprentices, James Hart, John Thompson, John Noble, John Fraiser, Richard Neale, John Johnson and Richard Trueman.  Only Hustler and Theaker perished during the storm – local tradition has it that the other mariners made it to shore.

Several of the knitted artefacts (excavated in 1995 and previously only on display in Gdansk), are on loan to the Captain Cook Memorial Museum. These include stockings, mittens, gloves and, most glorious of all, a colourwork thrummed cap.

Amongst the retrieved body of artefacts are gloves, mittens, stockings, waistcoats, sailors’ serge jackets, shoes, – basically almost the entire and intact contents of the crew’s slop chests.  Some of the items look to be traded – most obviously, some very Latvian style mittens.  Others – notably the stockings, and the beautiful Shetland patterned hat with a thrummed border, look to be Yorkshire knit. The hat is a natural white, with orangey and browny/green forming the patterns. I suspect it is locally knit because I have found an image of ‘whalebone scrapers’ in the 1814 ‘Costume of Yorkshire’ (George Walker), which are almost identical – white knitted caps, patterned with bright orange and green.  The repro pattern has a tension of 20 st to 10cm.  I will try and get up there to study and document it accurately before it leaves Yorkshire, but Appendix 4 of Stephen’s lovely book, ‘The Yorkshire Mary Rose’ has a pattern already worked out for a repro of the hat – which no doubt is accurate!

There is a photo in Stephen Baines’ book of some of the clothing, as it was excavated, still neatly folded with a felt hat on top – exactly as it was left in the slop chest (which must have rotted away from around it).

Mr. Baines writes:

“A sailor’s most valuable possessions were his clothes, which might include a jacket or two, a waistcoat or two, three shirts, a pair of trousers and a pair of breeches, two pairs of drawers, two or three pairs of stockings, two pairs of shoes, a couple of handkerchiefs, a pair of mittens, a hat and a cap….  The surviving clothes were all from the stern section of the ship, and so are likely to have comprised the contents of the sea-chests of the master, mate, and the servants – possibly the carpenter – in all nine or ten people…”

From “The Yorkshire Mary Rose”, Stephen Baines,  Blackthorn Press, 2010

This book is a cracking read, and has good images of some of the knitted artefacts.

The sailors were of course, wearing clothes when the ship went down (most – but not all –  hands survived) and so, given the fairly liberal amounts of clothing found on the wreck, from this we can imagine they were pretty well provided with clothing.  Do I need to add – there is not a shred or trace of a gansey or anything that could be a fragment of one?  And I doubt pine tar discriminates.  There is a serge jacket in a remarkable state of preservation – as are the knitted items currently on display at Whitby.

So there we have it. A perfect time capsule of a Yorkshire vessel with a named crew (the original muster rolls for every voyage survive) out of a Yorkshire port in the 1780s – no ganseys. Only woven waistcoats, and woven jackets. 15 jackets/jacket parts survive  and 27 stockings/stocking parts. [Pg 67]. Mr Baines remarks that less than half of the extant stockings were machine knitted. Looking at Whitby businesses of the time, and extant clothiers’ records,  he concludes the mariners’ clothing was probably a complex mix of shop bought, commercially made clothing and home-made.

Experienced sailors would buy their clothing from specialist slop-shops that could be found near docks in most ports. Young mentions that in 1816 Whitby had six slop-shops and there would certainly be some in 1777, with the proprietors of such establishments appearing in the parish records as shop keepers…

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Yorkshire-Mary-Rose-General-Carleton/dp/1906259208

I stumbled on this exhibition the very week I’d been at York Reference Library, researching the York charity schools – hotbed of stocking knitting in 1780s’ Yorkshire.  So very odd to have held Catharine Cappe’s 1799 book in my actual hands and then, within days, see some actual 1780s’ Yorkshire stockings!  The hat is what really grabbed me, though.  Look out for a future ‘Knitting Genealogist’  feature in ‘Yarn Forward’ – I’ll try and share it with yous!

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5 thoughts on “More Myth-busting. "I See No Ganseys!"

  1. I just found your blog. Very interesting! I hope you had a chance to look more closely at that colorwork cap. I’ve seen good photos of it, and the pattern in that book is not all that close. Among other things, the shape is just wrong.

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  2. You have written before that seamen wore street clothes and that street clothes included linen. Did you see any linen in the sailor’s sea chests?

    How many sailor’s bodies were found in the pine tar? Would the sailors have been wearing their sailor’s shirts as they left the sinking ship? Thus, how many sailors shirts would we expect to find?

    When I go sailing, I take one wool undershirt and one gansey. In a storm, I put both on. If the ship should founder, and you salvage it, unless you find my body, you will not find my gansey. You may find my sea bag with mittens and socks in it, but not my gansey. Failure to find a gansey on a wreck is not proof that the sailors did not wear ganseys when sailing.

    Moreover, ganseys that have been worn (on a wooden sailing ship) at sea stink. A sailor wearing such a garment cannot get within 15 feet of a woman, not his wife, mother, sister, or a whore in port. A sailor would have other garments (woven) to wear in port on leave. Some of the garments found may well have been “going-to- town” clothes, rather than clothes worn while working aboard.

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    1. “…A sailor’s most valuable possessions were his clothes, which might include a jacket or two, a waistcoat or two, three shirts, a pair of trousers and a pair of breeches… Examples of all these were recovered from the wreck of The General Carleton…….” [Stephen Baines, ‘The Yorkshire Mary Rose’, p. 67].

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