convicts handspinning History Knitting

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.


One reply on “Stonebreaking, Picking Oakum or… Knitting?”

I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that knitting could be regarded as a punishment – but of course it could, and it was nothing more than tedious toil for many others, as well. Hmm… thoughful post.

And I’m looking forward to the TV drama too – though perhaps a little nervously….


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