antique textiles Halifax handspinning History Huddersfield Textile Arts West Riding

Magenta Divine

Sample from the Pattern book of Sam Hill, 18thC Soyland clothier. From Calderdale Council’s site.

They say “blood will out”, and so it seems to have proved.

We broke the last brick wall in my family tree a few months back. Names included:  Lister, Smith, Dawson and Crabtree;  a long line of wool weavers, clothiers, and mill-owners in Longwood, near Huddersfield, and in Halifax.  My surname should have been the clue – “Lister”, meaning “dyer” is a West Riding wool trade name, dating back to the Middle Ages.

Except, I was brought up with the story that my great grandfather, John Lister, was a Leeds foundling who randomly chose the name “Lister” when he was nineteen. In fact, his father, Tom Lister,  a “press setter” (cropper in the woollen mills), died when John was very young. His mother Hannah Lister nee Smith,  re-married – her second husband was a Birmingham-born blacksmith, Charles Deeley. On Censuses, John appeared with his step-father’s surname, sometimes misspelled as “Daley”, to compound the confusion, so we had been unable to find a “John Lister” of the right age, at the right place. Which, in turn, made us assume he was not lying about being born a foundling with a different name.

It appears he was brought up partly by Hannah and Deeley and partly by his much older sister, Elizabeth Helen Gillespie, nee Lister. He was not with the Gillespies on any Census night but years later told family they brought him up (although he also told people they were randomers who fostered him – not relatives).

Knowing this, research led me to my wool trade ancestors – the entire paternal line of my paternal grandfather were in the West Riding wool trade, as far back as we can trace, at the moment. The Listers were Halifax weavers/small clothiers.  Alternate generations, the eldest sons seem to have been croppers. Croppers were the elite of the wool trade; their job so skilled it added huge value to the cloth. They were the men put out of work by the frame cropping machines in 1812. Halifax and Huddersfield croppers were the backbone of the Luddite movement. It is possible the Listers were on one side of the Luddite struggle; whilst the more prosperous Smiths and Dawsons were on the other.

I know, from records, my grt grandfather x 5,  Ely Crabtree was a weaver, as well. But have yet to find out much about the Crabtrees.

A woollen weaver might call himself a clothier if he completed roughly one piece a week and took it to the Cloth Hall. According to ulnage rules, we know most woollen pieces were over twenty yards in length; varying according to spec.

Many small clothiers were also small farmers, with a few acres. The Smiths and Dawsons appear to have been clothiers, then manufacturers, on a grander scale. In the 19thC, my great grandad X 4, Thomas Smith went into business with a clothier neighbour called Hanson, and they manufactured “Fancy Woollens”. At an earlier date, his father seemed to have been trading with a clothier family called the Dawsons – indeed  Tom’s wife was one Betty Dawson, also from Longwood.  Tom and Betty were Non-Conformists, like many in the West Riding, and are buried at Salendine Nook Baptist church.

Some clothiers kept records of their output and from these records, we know that they might weave anything between four and nine yards or so a day – when they had time to weave. This might add up to thirty or more pieces per year, given there were times in the year when weaving was not a priority; farm-work was.    (Incidentally, warps were usually sized outdoors, from pegs in walls and seems to have gone on outside whatever the weather).

These larger scale clothiers/mill-owners like the Smiths and Dawsons would manufacture some pieces for themselves but also buy pieces from smaller weavers.

Reading “Some Aspects of the 18thC Woollen & Worsted Trade in Halifax”, Ed. Frank Atkinson, Halifax Museums, 1956, I stumbled on this reference to familiar names. In the Day Book of John Sutcliffe, clothier, 1791:

Sold Messrs Dawson & Smith

1 Dble Russel  @ 62 shillings

Ditto  @ 72 shillings

1 Sat.quild lasting  @ 63 shillings

Ditto  @ 75 shillings….

I can’t say for sure the Dawson & Smith that Sutcliffe transacted with were my great x 5 grandfathers – but it seems more than possible.

According to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary:

Russell. A ribbed or corded fabric formerly in use”.

And according to the Glossary in the Atkinson Book:

Lasting: Kind of durable cloth”.  (As in “everlasting”). I’m guessing this was likely to be woollen, as this is what these weavers were generally working with. “Quild” may be “quilted”, or it could refer to some kind of surface patterning? I am not sure.

These are pieces bought by Dawson and Smith from Sutcliffe; Sutcliffe, in turn, commissioned various weavers to make them; procured the wool, had combers comb it, hand-spinners to spin it and supplemented that by buying machine spun yarn as well.

Lastings and russells were made from a combed warp and weft. “Stuff” was fabric made from combed warp and weft, and “cloth” when it was from carded fibres. According to E.Lipson in “The History of the English Woollen & Worsted Industries” (1921).  Interestingly, another ancestor, Halifax wool weaver William Lister, is described in one parish record as “stuff maker”. Combed wool was premium value and quality and used in some of the high-end pieces, but sometimes just made a good warp. But by no means always : many cloths had a carded warp, which might scare modern handweavers but seems to have been done.

For at least two generations the Dawsons and Smiths specialised in weaving various forms of combed or carded wool into “Fancy Woollens”, although some family members, like David Dawson, seem to have branched out into the dye-house.

Also in the village of Longwood along with the Smiths, were Dawson cousins; some clothiers, some small farmers, butchers, and inn-keepers.

I have not been able to pin this down yet, but a preliminary search makes me think my great grandmother X 4 Betty’s cousin, was the  Longwood dyer, David Dawson.

Next time my kids moan about the smell from my dye-pots, I will tell them about David Dawson’s son, Dan. Because it’s all in the genes, you know….

DSCF2870Dan was about twenty years old, in 1860, and started messing around in the kitchen at home, trying to perfect his idea for making a chemical dye. Most hand-spinners, weavers and dyers have heard of William Perkins, the pioneer of aniline dyeing, who took the world by storm with his synthetic mauve dye.  In the scintillatingly titled ‘Chemistry, Society & Environment’, By Colin Archibald Russell  (Royal Society of Chemistry), on Google Books, I found this titillating glimpse into one of my relative’s kitchens:

By 1863-1864, not more than five artificial dyes were available, namely Mauve, Aniline Blue, Magenta, Imperial Violet and Phosphine.  Modest weights were produced at the beginning.  Production often started in household equipment, as with Dan Dawson, who dried Magenta in a domestic oven ca. 1860 (Specks of Magenta appearing on  bread for weeks afterwards)…

I have been dyeing for over thirty years but never used synthetic dyes. One of the things that makes me vain and proud is getting a good, true red from madder – a fine and subtle art, and not straightforward – as opposed to the dirty brick red it likes to dye wool. An hundred years before I was born, Dan Dawson was also in search of a good red, in his home kitchen. Finding something about that sends chills down my genealogical spine!

This also means that, whilst I could write you a book on natural dyeing in maybe a fortnight I have always known nothing and cared less about synthetic dyes, and feel embarrassed to have been so dismissive of them!

A little Google fu, so far shows me some fascinating insights. In any history of synthetic dyeing, the early names to conjure with are William Perkins, and two German dyers, Heinrich Caro and August Wilhelm von Hofman.   In a footnote, to ‘Knowledge and Competitive Advantage: The Coevolution of Firms’, by Johann Peter Murmann, (Google Books)  Dan pops up again, when the author is discussing the close relationship between German and English pioneers of dyeing:

A good example is Dan Dawson. After founding a dye firm in Great Britain, Dawson, at age thirty-eight, decided to let his brothers run the business while he went to the University of Berlin in 1874, to study with Hofman…

Dan’s firm went from strength to strength as he worked on new processes, and developed different colours, moving beyond his original experiments with Magenta, to Soluble Blue, Chrysoidine and Bismarck Brown. These latter clearly showing Hofman’s influence. He also seems to have received patents for various processes for fixing (mordanting) the new dyes on cotton fibre – always a trickier process than wool, as dyers here will know.

His factory became known as Colne Vale Dyeworks, and was in Milnsbridge, Huddersfield.  By the 1880s, Dan Dawson’s sons were setting up dye factories in Philadelphia although were bankrupted by a hike in import taxation on some of their raw materials.  The Huddersfield dyeworks continued, though. His relative, my great uncle X 4, Dawson Smith, had emigrated to America in 1860 where he fought with distinction for the Union, ran woollen mills in Indiana, and eventually re-trained as a lawyer and become the County Attorney. It seems these wool trade Longwood Smith and Dawson lads ran between two countries; some settling in America, with their cutting edge expertise and some returning to Yorkshire. In later years, Dan travelled extensively in Europe. My great grandmother X 2, Hannah Smith, seems to have married cropper Tom Lister, and made it as far as Leeds and that was it; despite eventually having two brothers in the US, and several cousins and nephews. It may be from hearing tales of the “rich” mill and dyework owning relatives that my great grandad formulated the story he was in later years to tell his wife and his six children – that he was a foundling who randomly settled on the name “Lister” after visiting mill-owners.  Although the story as he told it was that they were not relatives, just people he was scamming. Most good liars have an element of truth in there to lend their stories some realism, and after three generations were confused by John’s tale, we have at last found the truth.

As a printer, he worked with colours (my father longed to train as a lithographer, remembering childhood visits to the printing shop). Magenta is rather important in printing. Maybe some of those colours John Lister used, were related to the synthetic dyes his family developed?  People always wondered where he got the capital to start his business, and maybe – just maybe – there is an element of truth in the story about the expedition to con a mill-owner. Even if estranged from his mother, John may have met his Smith and Dawson relations at some time in childhood.

Myself, I will stick with my natural dyes but maybe from now on, have more appreciation for those chemical ones, as well.


8 replies on “Magenta Divine”

I have stumbled upon your very interesting blog pages after googling further information on my family history. I am fascinated and really appreciative of all of your incredibly well researched work as I’m descended from the Dawson family of Huddersfield. Namely David and Selinah / Sam (Dan’s brother) and Sarah / Dan (my great grandfather) and Daisy. I have returned to my family history just recently following a DNA result which has put me in touch with descendents of 2 other of Sam and Sarah’s sons who emigrated to New Zealand at the turn of the century. I’m really excited to have found all of this incredible and fascinating information, thanks so much for sharing this online. I’m very happy to share further info on the Dawson’s from what I’ve discovered although it sounds like you’re much further ahead than me! Thanks very much again.
Very best wishes


WAGES OF WOOL-COMBERS.—We understand that the master- manufacturers of Keighley have reduced the wages of their wool- combers one farthing per Ib., with the understanding that they shall be advanced again as soon as any perceptible improvement in trade will justify such a step. The prices of weaving were also reduced at the same time from 6d. to 3d. per cut. We are sorry that the manufacturers should have thought it necessary or advisable to reduce the wages of their servants, because a reduction even to this small extent inflicts a hardship upon the poor weaver or comber ranch greater than the advantage derived by the consumer, or even the manufacturer himself; and the demand for goods is seldom increased by the fall in prices,-— Leeds Intelligencer.


Fascinating 🙂 I read an interesting book recently about Perkin’s mauve:

It was very interesting, one of the things I was shocked by was the Victorians’ use of these chemical dyes as food colourings without checking they were safe! Your comment about the magenta bread reminded me 🙂 Also some of the dyes seem to have been dangerous to wear next to the skin.


Scary! I pinned the article to remind me to exercise caution before buying anything green and Victorian (I collect Victorian clothes and textile related stuff, don’t want to be the most recent victim!) And of course, when uranium was discovered, that must have health benefits, it glows 🙂


I loved reading this, I have a Crabtree in Mum’s side. She came from Luddendenfoot. Joe Crabtree married Maude Buckley (my Great Aunt) in st Mary’s church Luddendenfoot in December 1921


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.