The Mad Knitter of Dent

Knit Edge Three

“…remains without material change. July 28 .. She still knits away with a piece of string and pieces of wool and needles producing only a tangle—if she cannot get anything to employ herself in this manner with she rubs her hands together all day long till she rubs the skin off then she rubs away at the sore…” [From Case Notes of Margaret Thwaite, 1874. March 1, The Retreat].

When I started looking at the records of The Retreat, a progressive asylum near York, England, I was hoping to find in the account books and patients’ case notes some knitting, spinning, and costume.  I did indeed stumble on loads of interesting references in the Patients’ Accounts, to knitting and spinning materials, and realised knitting was being used, as early as the 1790s, as a form of occupational therapy.

I had a bit less hope of finding anything relevant in the Patients’ Case Notes, but decided to look anyway… What I found, unexpectedly, was the sad story of Margaret Thwaite, one of the “terrible knitters of Dent,” who spent seven decades locked away. Fascinated and horrified, I went in search of more information about Margaret Thwaite, hoping to piece together her story and share it with her modern-day descendants—the not-always-entirely- sane modern knitters of Dent (and everywhere else).

Margaret was born in 1815, at Counterside, in the Dales. She seems to have been briefly admitted as a patient to The Retreat in 1836, aged only 21, released then re-admitted in 1838.  The 1838 doctor noted:

 M.T. has lived at home for the greater part of her life in a country situation with her mother, who has been for many years in a state of mental excitement chiefly connected with religious subjects, and though not requiring confinement on account of her own or others’ safety, has been decidedly deranged.

Margaret’s parents seem to have been separated, and Margaret left to care for her mother in a remote Dales cottage, whilst the rest of the family lived sixty miles away, in Pontefract, where her father was a successful Quaker businessman. In the time left alone in the cottage, Margaret’s mental health deteriorated to the point the family felt all they could do for her, was to send her to The Retreat.

The second time, she was never to come out again. She died, still a patient, in 1900 and must be one of the patients who lived there the longest, in the Retreat’s history.

Over her seven decades in The Retreat, I followed her inexorable decline. She first presented as incoherent, “foolish” in the words of one doctor,  but tractable. As the decades passed, she became more violent and unmanageable, sometimes ripping her clothes off, soiling herself and refusing to eat for days on end.  In the early years, a doctor remarked that she was trying but failing to do “needlework”; unravelling all she made. I wondered if this needlework was, in fact, knitting..? Then, this case note entry from 1882:

is in fair bodily health. Much demented, and frequently more or less excited; when in the latter state she chatters incoherently and unintelligibly, and often swears and usually has a piece of tape or string and bit of wood in her hands, with which she goes through the manoeuvre of making a stitch in knitting, immediately dropping the stitch, this is incessantly repeated.

The “piece of tape and bit of wood” which looked so demented to the doctor, was clearly a knitting stick. Something the doctor was maybe unfamiliar with. I found this very poignant, and so went about researching Margaret and her family, and piecing together her story, as well as I could, as I realised I had stumbled on a remarkable, and rare, account of a Dales knitter.

Margaret’s harrowing story can be found in Knit Edge Three. Issue Four is now out, and look out for future issues with some more articles and Yorkshire knitting history, from me, but the single issue Three  is still available.

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