Leitmotifs, motifs… and sharks!

By kind permission of The Polperro Heritage Press

Here’s Lewis Harding’s 1870 (ish) image of two little Polperro girls, Mary Jane Langmaid and Elizabeth Joliff, knitting. This is the iconic photo for people interested in the history of traditional knitting.  A couple of people used it in their presentations at Ganseyfest, and folk wondered if the photo was staged. One or two even remarked it looked like they weren’t really knitting or knitters. In response…
I can answer that one. Genealogy comes to our aid!

Some time back, (August 2010), I wrote the piece that follows for ‘Yarn Forward’ magazine. I know they won’t mind me reproducing it here, for those who missed it first time round.

But before I do, would just like to say others have written about, and got great photos of, Ganseyfest. So I refer you, dear Reader, to the blogs of the inestimable Liz Lovick, Northernlace, or  Gordon Reid’s intriguing Ganseys.com.

Ganseyfest? For me, it is impossible to pick out any one speaker, or gansey, or thing. It was all good. Highlights included attending a workshop given by Beth Brown-Reinsel, and the talks given by Anne Coombs on the Herring girls, and Liz Lovick on the forgotten Orkney ganseys. Maybe the greatest honour was meeting Margaret Bennett, folklorist and singer, brought up on the Isle of Skye, who outlined the way knitting and folk traditions interweave.  Margaret mentioned the fisher families’ shibboleths, including the belief that a caul was lucky, and that sometimes they were preserved and sold, as it was thought they gave protection against drowning.

Grandad (red jumper)shark fishing in Ireland

Now my eyes lit up as my grandad – born in landlocked Leeds – was born with a caul, and his whole life had a fascination with boats and the sea. He bought a boat in the 1960s, and kept it on the Ouse but he’d disappear off to the West coast of Ireland for months at a time, fishing. He’d really wanted a seagoing boat, but settled for one on the river. He almost bought the now famous Bridlington coble, Three Brothers, but backed out at the last minute (I seem to recall my dad said he wasn’t confident he could restore it?) Notice he’s wearing what looks like a handknit jumper there – my grandmother had been dead ten years or so by the time he was in Ireland, so I have no clue who could have knitted that. I have quite a few photos taken onboard Irish fishing vessels and not an Aran or gansey is ever in sight! He’s 70 in that photo. NB: see how he has turned up the welt, in that photo, like a ‘proper’ fisherman? Gansey wearers often mention wanting to turn up the welt when they went to sea, to be like their fathers. Billie (grandad’s) father owned a printing business in central Leeds. He was a foundling, and wheeler-dealer who was such an accomplished conman, he was once approached and asked to run as a Conservative candidate… He lived in a large, imposing house which he rented from my other great grandad, Tom Boothman.  Apparently, he took rent paying as ‘optional’.Billie, by way of contrast, was a very hardworking, honourable man who paid off his father’s debts when he died, and worked then ran the Boothmans’ dairy business. Not a fishing gene in sight.  My oldest son, William (named after Billie) was also born with a caul, coincidentally. I didn’t keep it. Too grossed out.

Margaret’s talk was of particular interest to me, as I have a whole chapter in my forthcoming book, on superstitions or should I say, belief systems and culture and their influence on motifs and patterns. Here on the river, they were a superstitious and sometimes religious lot and that bleeds through into the patterns, sometimes. Just as folklore has leitmotifs, ganseys have motifs that shift and change, refracted through the lenses of different communities.

Every talk was great at Ganseyfest, but one that especially caught my interest was the talk given by Dr Malcolm Smith of Durham University, “Gansey Patterns and Cultural Evolution”. Dr Smith is applying academic rigour to the study of motifs, and their migration along the coastline with the herring.

During my own research, I had found an account of a Hull lass who became a herring girl, based in Scarborough but often staying up in Scotland in what she called ‘a hut’. Now, for 50 years or more, knitting historians have vaguely mentioned the possible migration of patterns and motifs, but using genealogy we can pin that right down with hard, concrete examples.  It turned out, one of the little girls in the famous Harding photo gave me some hard evidence of this process Dr. Smith is studying.

Here is the story of the two Polperro fisher girls…

This is a shot taken in Harding’s studio. The two girls wear bead necklaces – probably studio props, as many of the children in Harding’s studio portraits wear identical ones.  Mary Jane has ear-rings and her pinafore is torn. Another of Harding’s subjects said in old age that he’d ruffle sitters’ hair to make them look more ‘natural’.

Knitting sheaths were routinely used by 19thC contract knitters, to get up to speeds like 200 stitches per minute.  When I magnified the image, I could just make out Ann’s knitting sheath under her right arm – but she is not actively using it – probably because Harding posed the girls with knitting artfully angled towards the camera so we are not looking at an ‘authentic’ image of what 19thC knitting looked like, just two girls holding their knitting. This picture is unique as it is the earliest ‘close up’ probably of a real contract knitter, with a sheath even if it’s barely visible! Posing children would have been difficult, as subjects had to sit absolutely still for 20-30 seconds.

The girls use blunt-tipped steel needles that look very crooked and well used. Mary Jane is working the body of a gansey so is working on five needles.  Ann is working on a sleeve so down to three needles. Mary Jane’s gansey seems to have a very deep 2X2 rib welt with an allover pattern above. With Ann’s, you can just see the ridge and furrow shoulder, (rows of purl stitches) at the top of the arm which appears to have a narrow pattern near the top (before decreases), between lines of purl.  The camera flash shows the glossiness of the 5 ply worsted wound into balls on Ann’s lap.  Ganseys were made from lustrous longwool, millspun in Yorkshire, although some people fondly imagine it was handspun* the reality was, ganseys only came about after the Industrial Revolution when millspun was widely available.  Wool would be delivered to knitters in 2lb hanks, and they’d wind it into balls before knitting.

In fishing communities, girls and women could make a living knitting, even earning a higher wage than a domestic servant – if they could knit fast enough.  The chances are, the girls are knitting ‘fancy’ ganseys for sale.  Several of Ann’s Jolliff fishermen relatives are on the famous Harding panel and in other photos Harding took around the village. To give it some perspective:

“…At the beginning of the century, women were paid 3s.6d (17 1/2 pence) for a ‘fancy’ knit-frock; 2s 6d (12 1/2 pence)..for a plain one…only 2s. was paid if a mistake was found in the knitting…An experienced contract worker could complete a guernsey in about a week….”
[‘Cornish Guernseys & Knit-frocks’, Mary Wright, Polperro Press, 1988].

At this date a servant earned 9d a week (4p), so if you could knit at speed you could earn more and stay at home.

I was able to find both girls on the 1871 Census. Mary Jane was on Lansallos St, aged 8 and living with her parents Joseph (fisherman) and Ellen. Ellen was born in Grimsby,Yorkshire fishing port – which would have influenced Mary Jane’s knitting and given her different patterns to the Cornish ones, no doubt. Mary Jane  had three younger siblings.  Meanwhile, Ann was also on Lansallos St, with her fisherman father Charles Jolliff, mother, Mary and nine siblings.  Both girls are described as ‘Scholar’ (standard term for children in Censuses), yet were competent knitters already by age 10 or so.

Looking at the photo, that means we can date the image to the early 1870s: Ann was born around 1863 and Mary Jane, around 1861.

By 1881,  Mary Jane, age now given 17, has her profession is ‘Frock Knitting’  (‘Frock’ is the old word for jumper).

In 1891, Mary Jane’s mother Ellen is described as ‘Knitter’.

I used Free BMD, http://www.freebmd.org.uk/  to find Ann’s marriage – in 1875, to fisherman Charles Puckey. In 1891, they live on Lansallos St and Ann’s profession is ‘Knitting Fancy’.

Harding didn’t pose the girls with knitting as a prop – both were already contract knitters.

FIND OUT MORE:

Lewis Harding Cornwall’s Pioneer Photographer, Philip M. Correll, Polperro Heritage Press,  ISBN 0 953001245
Cornish Guernseys & Knit Frocks, Mary Wright, Polperro Heritage Press, ISBN 978-0955364884

About Lewis Harding

Harding was born in Somers Town, London, in 1807 to a wealthy but down-at-heel family.  Before he retired to Polperro, he had a colourful life, minsitering to convicts on Norfolk Island for some time, before returning to England and settling in the fishing village of Polperro, Cornwall, living the life of a ‘gentleman’.  He took up photography in the 1850s, now middle-aged, using a cutting edge technique. Harding took some of the earliest and finest surviving photos – his subjects being Polperro scenes and people. He is best known for a panel of 80 portraits of Polperro fishermen, from the 1860s.  But several of his photos show knitters at work. This is the finest.

“Mary Jane Langmaid and Ann Eizabeth Joliff, Knitting”.  (Undated) Polperro, Cornwall, by Lewis Harding. Image courtesy of Polperro Press, http://www.polperropress.co.uk/

* I’m talking English ganseys here. Some Scottish ones were handspun.

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10 thoughts on “Leitmotifs, motifs… and sharks!

  1. Hi – me again, Mary Jane Langmaid is probably related to me too, but more distantly as my 6th great grandfather is a Langmaid, and he is possibly her ancestor, but I haven’t researched her line in detail. Anyway, the two girls are most likely cousins. The Polperro fishing families had a lot os inter-marriage between them and are all related to some extent,

    Lyn

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  2. Hi. The girl on the right is Ann Elizabeth Jolliff my maternal great great grandmother,in other words my grandmothers grandmother. Strangely, I can see my features in her (maybe coincidence). The family were part of a very ‘close -knit’ ( excuse the phrase!) fishing community in Polperro which continues to this day. My mother when she was a little girl went to live with her grandmother, Anne’s daughter, when she was evacuated from Plymouth in the war, and was taught to knit by her.

    I believe she is knitting what is locally know as a ‘knit frock’, as worn by local fishermen. Apparently, each fisherman had a different pattern that could be identified by the local women folk for the rather gruesome reason that if a fisherman was lost at sea (all too common), it was not always easy to recognise features if the body was in the water for a while, but the women could identify the men by their individual knit frocks.

    thank you for your fascinating blog, and I am so lucky this picture survives. I have one other photo of her, but it is when she is quite elderly.

    best wishes,

    Lyn

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  3. I have been watching the big bookseller sites and “Traditional Knitting” by Michael Pearson is well overdue with no date, and It isn’t even showing on Dover’s site (I believe that is who is supposed to be reissuing it). I am watching out for it as I have a query about something in the original, and am wondering if anything has been changed. I don’t really want to put this out in the full public eye, but if you want to know what I am wittering about, please e-mail me and I will let you know.

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  4. Donice, this is an excellent synopsis of the Harding image, really accurate facts and analysis. Too often, as Liz Lovick and I have bemoaned, there is a plethora of myth related to traditional knitting, and insufficient accurate information. ecomodista will post a link to this. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks, Donice. The frightening thing is, am already accumulating more info I can’t shoehorn in, so book 2 will have to happen as well at some point! It’s going to be a good year for knitting history books, as the rumour is Michael Pearson’s excellent ‘Traditional Knitting’ is due to be republished, and Cooperative Press will be reissuing ‘Old Hand Knitters of the Dales’. I’ll have to post about that!

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    1. Aw ta. Our vague date is spring or early summer 2012, I’m guessing! We’re right on the home stretch now – if the book was a gansey I’d be on the last third of the second sleeve, put it like that! Text is written, just writing up the patterns and getting em test knitted, adding more charts, and tweaking, Mrs.

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