The Quest for the Popped ‘Un.

The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales, 1951

Today, I thought I’d take you on the Quest for the Popped ‘Un.

Years ago, when I read ‘The Knitting Bishop”s ‘History of Hand Knitting’, I first heard of a little book by Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby, called ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’.

I searched high and low for a copy – but it was out of print in the mid 1980s. In the days before Amazon and Ebay, the best you could do with an OOP book was hope it might turn up some day in a charity shop or secondhand book store. And although we haunted those places, we failed to stumble on a copy.

I never forgot about it, and as the years went on, it was always still the first book looked for on every book scavanging adventure. Didn’t even find it in the fabled town of books, Hay on Wye – and we visited there quite a few times.

One day, sometime in the 1990s, with The Old Hand-Knitters the last thing on my mind, we went on a day trip to Haworth, Yorkshire – and there it was, in the Tourist Information centre: a brand-new edition. Mine was paperback – and over the years I read it til it fell to pieces. The pages literally fell out. I stuffed them back in, and was still using it last month, despite its tragic appearance.

When it went OOP again, I saw other editions of it – usually at fairly high prices. Once I even saw a first edition (1951) but that was around £40.

Finally, a couple of weeks back, I caught a copy on half price sale, online. £15. It claimed to be a first edition too, and with an intact dust-jacket, but I didn’t really care about that – it was hardback and so presumably, less liable to fall apart like my 1990s one. When it came, it did indeed have an intact dust-jacket, and was indeed, a first edition. Marie and Joan posted the manuscript to their publisher in 1949, but there were delays and, incredibly, their book didn’t see the light of day til two years later!  My edition was in good nick as it was an ex library book, cancelled stock from Somerset County Library. The last date stamp on the ticket inside is 22 OCT 1963. I was two years old, the last time this library book was on loan!

Martha Dinsdale

All this preamble, to get to the point.  In the past couple of years, I have been reconstructing some knitted items, from single paragraphs of descriptions in The Old Hand-Knitters.  One item that really interested me was ‘the Popped ‘un’. Marie and Joan interviewed Mrs.Martha Dinsdale, of Appersett, near Hawes:

…She used to knit sailors’ jerseys with long sleeves, some high-necked and some open-necked, for which she was paid 6-/  (30p) for six. There were also ‘popped jackets’ or ‘popped ‘uns’. These had three rows of white knitting and then one of blue making circular bands all round the body and arms. ‘How many pops ‘a ye deun?’ was a familiar question. They used to carry the finished articles to Hawes Mill, and then ‘lagged some more wool home’.

The phrase ‘popped ‘un’ might make more sense to some US readers than UK, as yous lot talk about motifs/patterns ‘popping’ – Brits have kind of forgotten what it once meant!

By the back end of the 19thC, the Dales did a roaring trade in cycling stockings, socks and jerseys. Sporting  jumpers might more logically, have been frame-knit not hand-knit – yet here we have evidence that  some were definitely hand-knit in the Dales.  The Dales knitters’ work was exported literally throughout the world.

Knit 37

Finding a photo of a popped ‘un seemed an impossible task. Then, a few months back, we stumbled on the Flickr album of the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland. And there he was. Mr Laing (or ‘Laine’ – no-one can quite read the handwriting).  I don’t have permission to reproduce his rather stunning image here, although we did get permission to use it in ‘Knit’ magazine, 37 – and it’s still on the shelves (just!)  The photo was by the famous Edinburgh photographers, Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill, and is dated 1843.

If that is not a popped ‘un, I’ll eat my hat. And Edinburgh or not, the chances are, it may have been knit in Yorkshire, given the sheer volume of knitting exported from Wensleydale.

If you’d like to read more about the Quest for the Popped ‘Un, track down the gorgeous Mr Laing/Laine in all his glory, in Knit 37. We have another beauty coming up next month, but no Knitting Genie ‘target’ will ever, for a second, quite rival Mr Laing for my heart.  Fine man.

P.S: Is it so very wrong to fancy a man from 1843?


Stonebreaking, Picking Oakum or… Knitting?

For those of you looking forward to the forthcoming TV drama,  based on Kate Summerscale’s brilliant book, ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’, here’s a little something I stumbled upon.

Knitting hasn’t always been a genteel, calming pursuit for nice ladies round the fireside. At one time, it was considered punishment. At York House of Correction: “… the female prisoners committed for hard labour had been employed in knitting, sewing, and washing for the other prisoners, &c….”

(The York Herald, July 10, 1858).

If men picked oakum and broke stones – the female equivalent was knitting. At industrial speeds and relentlessly, it would probably, be quite punishing! A child of seven was expected to knit a stocking a week, at the very least. Women – given the right tools for the job – might do more.

In 1874, a staff reporter for London’s Daily News, described a visit to a female prison.  The account mentioned one infamous inmate, knitting stockings:

“…stocking knitting…is carried on extensively during the hours  when the prisoners are allowed to sit in the corridors, each at her own cell door, in silence for one term,  and freely chatting through the second. Passing a file of stocking-knitters on my way out of the prison, I noticed a woman of about thirty standing at the end of the row.  She was full-featured, of sallow complexion, with dark eyes, and had her short, dark hair, pushed back under her cap. She was noticeable amongst the crowd because, whilst all the rest curtsied as the Lady Superintendent passed, and looked eagerly for the ever-ready smile of recognition, she, after casting one sharp, angry glance at the approaching visitors, stood sullenly regarding the floor. “Who is that?” I asked Mrs Gibson when we were out of sight and hearing. “That,” said the Lady Superintendent, “is Constance Kent and a very hard subject she is to deal with. She is one of the few women in the prison whom I cannot ‘get at’.”

FEMALE PRISON LIFE IN ENGLAND, Daily News, December 30, 1874

Constance was the young girl at the centre of a notorious child murder in 1865.  Constance’s infant half-brother’s body had been found stuffed down a toilet. Constance served 20 years – after the original Death sentence was commuted. Some of that time was in Millbank prison, London, where my own convict relative, William Potter, had been held, prior to transportation.

It was said by the time Constance was finally released from prison, she was so degraded as a human being (despite the high falutin’ claims for the penal system of the staff writer above), she had forgotten how to use a knife and fork. She emigrated to Australia with her brother, William, and qualified as a nurse in 1892, nearly 20 years after this chance meeting in a prison corridor. She went on to spend 40 years as a nurse, living a useful life.

There is a brilliant twist to the story, which I won’t spoil for you here.

“A Real Rogue… A Bad Little Fellow”

Lizzie Varley, George's wife

How often do you find a direct line ancestor mentioned in a book? Judging by what I found yesterday – it’s not always a desirable thing.

I was killing time at York Library yesterday after a fun morning at the dentist’s, waiting for my lift home, when I spied this on the Local History shelf, ‘My Dear Son: Letters to America, 1852 – 1901″ by Marjorie J. Harrison.  And from the blurb, realised it concerned a family in Appleton Roebuck. Their son emigrated to America in 1852, and the book collects letters from home written to him, detailing village life and his old friends back home.

Some of my ancestors came from Appleton. So… I speed-read it, and found this, about my great-great grandfather, George Varley. Which made me fall off my chair.  The genealogist in me loves this kind of thing. Another part of me feels edgy about it. What? Me? Descend from villains?

Saturday, June 11th, 1864

George Varley has turned out a real rogue. I should think that a hundred and fifty pounds would not clear him of debt. He owes money to almost everyone you talk to in Appleton. He owes some to father that he will never get; he is a bad little fellow

There was only one George Varley in Appleton. My great great grandad! The elderly man to whom he owed money, was unable to work due to illness, and had a paltry income from some cottages he rented out. They became valueless and impossible even to rent out and eventually stood empty, generating no income. So conning this aged, sick man does not reflect well on George at all.

Intriguing, even to get that physical hint with ‘little’ – as this is a man we have no photos of, and who was ‘just’ a labourer, probably not even literate, so would have left no trace of his 78 years on earth – except this one, intriguing, unflattering paragraph.  The woman who wrote it and her brother, the emigre, were both contemporaries of George’s and will have grown up with him.

The letter to America was written in 1864, when George and Lizzie had been married several years and at least two more children had been born since Annie (whose birthday was exactly one hundred years and one day before my own!)

River Ouse at Acaster Selby

George was born in Acaster Selby, probably in 1824. He was never baptised, although most of his siblings were.

He came from an old farming family who had farmed successfully in Acaster Selby for a few  generations. After the farmland was enclosed, like many small farmers, the Varleys  fell on hard times. George’s father was a labourer, with no farm or tenancy of one to inherit.

George married twice, and therein lies a tale, too. His first wife, Hannah Preston, came from Wistow. They moved to Wistow where George was an ‘Ag Lab’ and had five children, and then Hannah probably died in childbirth.  Whilst his wife was pregnant with the last baby, George seems to have taken up with local ne’er-do-well Lizzie Roberts back in his home village of Acaster. Lizzie already had given birth an illegitimate child, Mary Elizabeth Roberts, in Barwick-in-Elmet workhouse in 1860.

I have other examples in the tree of the birth father eventually marrying the mother of an illegitimate child, but the child retaining mum’s maiden name, rather than taking dad’s surname. So that seemed common practice (surprising when you think of the stigma attached to illegitimacy then). Which means, although Mary Elizabeth’s surname wasn’t changed to Varley after George and Lizzie married – that does not infer she wasn’t George’s child. If you follow me.

As George’s wife lay dying, Lizzie Roberts was pregnant again. So when Hannah died, George remarried with fairly obscene haste, to Lizzie, and just before baby Annie was born so she wasn’t illegitimate. The shame seems to have been too much though.  They moved back to Acaster and then along to the next village – Appleton Roebuck, George always listed as ‘labourer’.

The nearly-illegitimate baby was Annie – my great grandma.  Inexplicably, George and Lizzie kept the older illegitimate child  but sent baby Annie to Leeds to be brought up by relatives.

I found Annie on the 1871 Census, as ‘visitor’ to her oldest half-brother, John. He was a Railway Clerk.  The other branch of my family -descendants of the legitimate branch – tell me that family legend had it that John treated little Annie like a slave. Her life was made a misery. Her parents wouldn’t let her come home, so she lived 30 or so miles away in Leeds whilst George and Lizzie went on to have countless more children – all of which they kept.

When she was of age, Annie returned to Acaster, and met and married my great grandfather, John Henry Thompson. They had a large farm and a comfortable life. Annie is singled out in Bernard Kettlewell’s ‘Memories of Cawood’, when Bernard recalled walking to get a jug full of milk for his mother:

I wonder what kids would say today, if they’d go to like Frankie Green and Ted Ward and such as them, and I’ve gone on a night too, right across to what’s Experimental Farm now; it were John Henry Thompson’s then. Mrs Bussey there in High Street, it was her mother. I’ve fetched it from there many a time… Ted Ward and Frankie Green and them used to have to go right across t’fields. You used to go yon end of the Ramper at that stone bridge, and then you used to take in across a field there. then across two other of Thompson’s fields, and that’s what you had to do… She were a good old sort were Mrs Thompson. When it were cold and you were off across, she always had you in and let you get to t’fire while she got you it [the milk], and then she’d give you a bit of biscuit or summat…


Auntie Annie

Mrs Bussey was my Auntie Annie, pictured here in the 1950s. From all I’ve been told by the legitimate Varley descendants,  Auntie Annie will have never seen her grandparents, George or Lizzie Varley in her life.

On the 1901 Census, George was now 77 and ‘feeble-minded’ is scrawled in the final column of the Census, against his name. No doubt, he had dementia. He died the following year. Lizzie died in 1921.


Silk memorial bookmark for Annie Sr.

My great grandma Annie cut off all contact with all the Varleys. Family legend (again from the legitimate side! I’d never heard any of this when I started..) has it that when George died, a brother turned up at Stockbridge Farm to tell Annie her dad was dead. She sent the brother away with a flea in his ear – saying her dad had abandoned her as a baby, so why should she care if he lived or died? Go grandma!

Interesting that the two ancestors who turn up being mentioned in books were a father and daughter – and what a contrast in their characters!