Escaping the Cage – The Story of Elizabeth Jackson

This article was first published in Yarnwise, 2012, under the title “A Tale of Two Cities – Elizabeth Jackson (1809-1890)”.

The Knitting Genie stumbled on a cryptic reference to an 1840s’ knitting manual by “Mrs Jackson of York”, and felt compelled to find out more about this enigmatic lady, less well known than some of her contemporary knitting manual writers. This is what she uncovered….

In Regency times, York and Edinburgh were fashionable and elegant places to live, full of places to be seen; with Palladian architecture, stylish Assembly Rooms and high-end shops. Both cities became home to pioneers of  knitting publishing, who made the craft genteel and modish, where once it had been utilitarian.

Elizabeth Ruddock was born on the 26th March, 1809, at Horbury, Wakefield; the daughter of a cloth manufacturer, David Ruddock and his wife, Mary Armitage.

One of eleven children, Elizabeth’s childhood changed, with the early death of her father. Seeing their mother struggling to raise a large family on a diminished income, gave the Ruddock children considerable drive to succeed in later life.  Elizabeth’s brother, George, emigrated to St Petersburg, Russia in the 1830’s, and a number of the family followed him there. St Petersburg exported linen to the UK in the early 19thC and imported West Riding textile know-how. It had a thriving English ex pat community.

Elizabeth was born into a world where middle class women were expected to be more ornamental than useful.  West Riding manufacturers’ daughters were “supposed” to sit at home and paint pictures on silk, not get personally involved in the very commerce that paid for their ‘Fancy Works’. Another West Riding cloth manufacturer’s daughter, and contemporary of Elizabeth Ruddock, the Brontes’ friend, feisty Mary Taylor wanted to earn her own money. To do it, Mary had to emigrate to New Zealand where she lived or fourteen years, running her own shop, and trying to ‘stay out of the cage’, as she put it.

The early 19thC middle class women rarely knitted anything useful or even very much that was ornamental. Knitting was a working class trade/necessity. Somehow, in the late 1830s, as Queen Victoria came to the throne, knitting went recreational.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars trade had become easier, and ambitious London merchants like John James Gaugain, profited from the fad for imported Berlin wools.  In 1824, J.J. Gaugain advertised the latest Parisian fashions, and haberdashery at his shop ‘The Foreign Warehouse’, at  65 New Buildings, North Bridge,  Edinburgh; where, his advertisement said, he was sure his patrons would continue their support “since the removal of his establishment from London to this city” . [Caledonian Mercury, October 28th, 1824].

In the 1830s, the smart money was on wool. Berlin wool. Seeing the strong, bright colours, suddenly middle and upper class women everywhere wanted to knit. Who better to define ‘Berlin wool’ for us, than Jane Gaugain herself:

“German wool is the produce of the Merino breed…and is the best sheep’s wool that we possess. The merino fleece is brought to the greatest perfection in Saxony…It is chiefly manufactured at Gotha; the dying [sic] of it performed at Berlin… ” (1843).

In 1824,  whilst J.J.Gaugain made his move to fashionable Edinburgh; in another elegant city, York goldsmith and jeweller, Edward Jackson was listed as bankrupt. Edward, born 1786 in York,  somehow continued trading, on York’s busiest thoroughfare, Coney St, but must have been searching for a new string to his bow.

Jane Alison married J.J.Gaugain around 1823, started publishing in the 1830s, and went on to become one of the most prolific writers of knitting manuals. Her books were not cheap at over five shillings, (the same price as Dickens’ 1840s’ novels)  but their success can be gauged by this ad:

“Mrs G’s Works may be had of all Booksellers”.

Jane’s manuals went into countless editions, and included : ‘Small Work on Fancy Knitting’ (1837), ‘The Lady’s Assistant’ (1840), ‘Mrs Gaugain’s Miniature Knitting Netting and Crochet book’ (1843), ‘The accompaniment to second volume of Mrs Gaugain’s work on knitting, netting and crochet’ (1845),  ‘The Knitters’ Friend’ (1846), ‘Mrs Gaugain’s Knit Polka book’ (1847).

The fact Jane’s books came thick and fast in the 1840s, suggests the exponential rise in popularity of knitting manuals. They were a whole new publishing phenomenon.

For the Gaugains, business might have been booming, but their marriage was unhappy. They were eventually to live apart. Maybe J.J was getting itchy feet as early as the mid 1830s – he was already expanding his woolly empire South of the border in the summer of 1836:

“Berlin Stitching Patterns

Mr Gaugain, Importer of German Patterns, Wools, &c., in EDINBURGH, has established  a Branch Warehouse in YORK, under the management of Mrs Gaugain’s Sister…

Saloon, 14, CONEY STREET.”

[York Herald]

No 14 was a light, airy ‘saloon’, once used for travelling exhibitions and freak shows.

The shop adjoining ‘Mr Gaugain’s Berlin Wool Depot’, belonged to none other than Edward Jackson, goldsmith and jeweller. Fresh from his bankruptcy, Edward must have eyed the fashionable ladies going in and out of the neighbouring shop, and formed a plan. A later advertisement hints how the Jacksons linked embroidery and crafts to goldsmithing:  “Every article requisite for the work-table constantly on sale… Instructions in the various branches of Ladies’ Fancy-Work. Arms, Crests, and Other Designs, drawn to order…”

In 1836, J.J.Gaugain decided to retrench operations, and Edward Jackson took over the shop. ‘Mr Gaugain’s Berlin Wool Depot’ became ‘The Berlin Rooms’.

In the Spring of 1838, Edward Jackson married 29 year old Elizabeth Ruddock, daughter of the late West Riding cloth manufacturer, at St Olave’s in York. It is possible Elizabeth was one of the embroiderers in his workshop.

Just as tourist traps in the city now sell armorial crests, the 1830s’ tradespeople of York profited from them, too. Upmarket craft services and supplies appealed to everyone; the aristocrats with their embroidered arms, and the middle classes, who wanted to be seen shopping where the fashionable folk shopped. The mid 19thC yarn store had only to hint at its royal or aristocratic patrons, to get the less royal and aristocratic flooding in. In her Preface to the second edition of her book, Elizabeth wrote that she was indebted to “several Ladies high in rank and station” who were long-term customers at her shop. Jane Gaugain’s manuals were dedicated to various aristocratic ladies, even royalty.

In 1839, the Coney St shop was still advertised as Edward’s; by 1841, it was Elizabeth’s.

Only three years married, the 1841 Census reveals that Elizabeth had more on her hands than just a thriving business. 15 Coney St housed the 50 year old Edward; three children; Edward’s nephew/apprentice; and four women working as ‘fancy embroiderers’, including relative Caroline Ruddock. There were two servants.

Elizabeth was not at home on the night of that Census, but her absence might be explained by the fact she had just opened a new branch of the Berlin Rooms on New Bond St, in Leeds and was maybe in transit between shops. Her widowed mother, Mary was still living with her in 1851 and again, points to the usual fate of unmarried or widowed women; dependency. Elizabeth’s contemporary, straight talking Mary Taylor defended women with young children going out to work, saying:

“They are earning money that, the more affectionate they are, the more anxious they are to get. The work of earning it…is their first duty…”

We should not underestimate women like Jane Gaugain and Elizabeth Jackson, who turned craft into commerce and escaped “the cage”.

Elizabeth wasn’t without competitors; one of whom was probably Mr Gaugain’s sister in law, who appears to have stayed behind in York, and started up her own shop in competition to the Jacksons’:

“MISS CURRIE from Mr Gaugain’s Depot for Ladies’ Fancy Works, 14 CONEYSTREET YORK, begs respectfully to inform the Ladies of Yorkshire, particularly those who have kindly promised her their Patronage, that she will open the shop, NO 47 OPPOSITE THE CHURCH, on the 16th of January, for the sale of Berlin Wools,…December 27th, 1836”

Directly under this ad, was Elizabeth’s own.

A year later, Catherine Currie’s ad ended with the rather pointed: “N.B. C-C wishes to state that she has No Connexion  [sic] with any other House in this City” . According to the 1841 Census, Catherine Currie was still trading from 47 Coney St, and listed as “Berlin Wool Dealer”. She was gone by 1851.  In 1845, Elizabeth traded from 15 Coney St, sharing the premises with the goldsmith’s, and the ‘Berlin Rooms’ were renamed ‘Jackson’s Emporium’. Elizabeth now had shops in York, Harrogate and Leeds.

Elizabeth’s knitting book, ‘The Practical Companion to the Work-Table’ appeared in 1844 and was re-issued the following year with more illustrations. Like Jane Gaugain’s books, it was a runaway hit and “Mrs Jackson of York” became a name to conjure with.  Jane Gaugain’s innovation was the introduction of the first knitters’ shorthand. Elizabeth’s instructions made no attempt to abbreviate, or chart, and a page long pattern might be delivered in a single sentence. Whereas some Victorian knitting manuals are notoriously unreliable and sketchy, both Jane’s and Elizabeth’s were comparatively practical.

Elizabeth’s book showed influences from her St Petersburg family, as she had patterns for A Siberian Muff, A Russian Shawl, Another Russian Shawl,  Shaded Russian Knit Bag,  Siberian Cuffs, and A  Receipt for Russian Stitch. Most of the Russian items are colour-work – mainly stripes. No doubt her St Petersburg relatives, who came and went at Coney St, returned to York with Russian shawls and gloves.

Jane Gaugain and Elizabeth Jackson both profited from publication, using the vast circulation of subscribers and readers to promote their shops.

The 1851 census saw Elizabeth back at home, and the house less busy. Edward was now retired, although she was still listed  as ‘Berlin Wool Dealer’.  Her 65 year old mother was still living with them.

Edward died in 1858.

Elizabeth’s book went into other editions, and in 1849, she had brought out ‘The Polka Book’. Maybe slightly late to the polka party, as Mrs Gaugain’s ‘Knit Polka Book’ and Mrs George Curling’s ‘The Knitting Book for Polka Dresses’, had both come out in 1847.

Polkas were a kind of jacket or frock worn by children or women.

It could be sales for this book were disappointing, or maybe the Berlin trade was in decline anyway. Either way, Elizabeth’s life seemed to continue on, lively and active.

In 1861, the Census found Elizabeth still a ‘Berlin Wool Dealer’ at 15 Coney St,living with a son, a daughter and a servant.  St Petersburg Ruddocks and Lee relatives visited.

In 1862, a rather august guest, the Hon. Louisa Lane Fox, was delivered of a daughter, Charlotte, at 15 Coney St, announced in the national newspapers. The Lane Foxs were old Yorkshire aristocracy and Louisa lived at Grimston Lodge. A surviving copy of Elizabeth’s 1844 book digitised by Southampton University was owned by Mary Ann Butler – a farmer’s daughter on the Grimston estate. Coincidence, or maybe a gift to tenants’ daughters from ‘the Lady of the Manor’ – who knows? But it hints that Elizabeth’s book was read across the social scale. In 1846, Elizabeth had contributed an embroidery of a hawking party to the York Institute Bazaar. The choice of subject matter hinting at her patrician links.

The fashion for imported wools declined. Elizabeth Jackson ended her days in Northumberland, living with her step-son, William.

Elizabeth’s obituary reads:

“On March 30th, at 11, Northumberland terrace, Tynemouth, in her 82nd year, Elizabeth, wife of the late Edward Jackson, of York”

The Yorkshire Herald, Wednesday, April 2nd, 1890

Like her own mother before her, by the end, she lived with some degree of dependency, as widowed women often had to. But from the 1830s-1860s,  Elizabeth had thrived successfully outside “the cage”, thanks to the middle classes’ burgeoning love of knitting.


1840s’ knitting manuals are available online:

With thanks to Elizabeth’s descendent, Marina.

2 thoughts on “Escaping the Cage – The Story of Elizabeth Jackson

  1. Very interesting article. This is exactly the sort of thing I wish I could write! I’m researching my own family tree and they have links to the Lancashire textile trade. I’ve read quite a lot, but don’t know enough about the industry to form a complete picture like you’ve done here – did the family work in the same mill (or as a family unit)? What were conditions like at the mill? What did the individual jobs (doffer, carders etc) involve? Perhaps after enough reading I’ll be able to tell the story of the cotton industry through that of my Salford and Manchester ancestors, like you’ve done here.


    1. Hi Rebecca. And cheers. If you need any help with your research, drop me an email, and I will see what can be pieced together… I know more about the woollen industry this side of the Pennines, than the cotton industry at t’other – but both are pretty well documented. Just went to Platt Hall musueum in Manc the other day and even walking around Manc, am always struck by the number of mills and warehouses still standing. It is possible to figure out from censuses, what kind of jobs ancestors had in mills, and what progression they made… There’s some great incidental mill info in Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Shirley’ and Mrs Gaskell’s ‘North & South’, which you probably know already!


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