Dales dales knitting Feminism

“Playing With A Piece Of String” – The Story of a Dentdale Knitter in ‘The Retreat’ Asylum, York

First published in ‘Knit Edge’, No 3, May, 2013. Putting a name and finding the life story to one of one Dent knitter.

Margaret Thwaite: A Knitter of Dent in the York Retreat Asylum

“…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,  I was hoping to find some knitting, spinning and costume records in the account books; maybe the odd mention of knitting as an early sort of occupational therapy, in the patients’ case notes. What I found, unexpectedly was… the sad story of one of the ‘terrible knitters of Dent’, who spent seven decades locked away. I went in search of this woman, 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…

The Retreat was founded by Quaker philanthropist, William Tuke, in York in 1796. It pioneered the humane and gentle treatment of the mentally ill and became the model for similar asylums, all round the world.

In 1790, a Quaker woman, Hannah Mills was admitted to the notoriously brutal York Asylum, where inmates were left chained to walls, wearing rags, living on dirty straw in their own excrement, whilst tourists paid money to stand and point. Hannah’s family became suspicious when they weren’t allowed to visit her, and she died a few weeks after being admitted. Local Quakers investigated and found appalling conditions. As a direct result of this, Tuke set up his progressive asylum, mainly for members of the Society of Friends.

I was researching costume references, finding a wealth of mentions of haberdashery; obscure names for cloth, hats, gowns, and mentions of knitting and spinning, when I stumbled upon Margaret Thwaite  in the Admissions records. She was described as being a woman from Dent, and that piqued my interest immediately, as Dent was the powerhouse of 19thC Yorkshire Dales hand-knitting. I decided to track down Margaret’s case notes, and any mention of her in the account books, so I would be able to see if there were any references to knitting – all along suspecting it was highly unlikely I’d find anything.

There is no documentation previously known for any named, individual Dales knitter. These skilled knitters were faceless, nameless ghosts flitting occasionally into books about knitting and textile history. Even to be able to put a name to one, and find out more about her life, would be a fascinating thing.  I didn’t, for one second, expect I was going to be lucky enough to find mention of Margaret’s knitting. But went to look anyway.

Margaret Thwaite (sometimes ‘Thwaites’) was born in 1815, to Quakers James and Ann Thwaite.  James may be the James Thwaite in the Non Conformist records, born to John and Elizabeth Thwaite in Aysgarth, on 10th May, 1770 and married to Ann Blakey in York on 20th February, 1793 . On marriage, his parents are given as John and Elizabeth and her father is Joshua Blakey – James and Ann were to go on to have children called Joshua, John and Elizabeth.. A 90 year old Joshua Blakey can be found living on a farm with his son, at Counterside, Askrigg, in the Dales, in 1841. Several of the Thwaites’ children were born at Counterside and Margaret’s sister was to stay here, decades later.

On successive Censuses, Margaret’s birthplace was given as “Pontefract”. This confused me, as Margaret’s admission notes clearly said she was “from Dent”.  Pontefract is in the heart of the industrial West Riding of Yorkshire; not in the Dales. Birth certificates came along as late as 1837, so anyone born before that date, may well have had only a hazy idea of where they were born. Also, Margaret’s birthplace would have been given by a Retreat attendant, looking at the Admission records, who recorded the last place she was known to be living, prior to admission. Which might not be the place where the patient usually lived.

In fact, Margaret Thwaite was not born in Pontefract although she was admitted to the asylum from there. Her father appears to have lived there, whilst her mother was in the Dales. Margaret was christened in  Richmond,  in the North Riding, on the 14th April, 1815. Richmond is in the Dales, only 13 miles from Dent,  with an imposing castle and, according to Baines’ Directory of 1823, a thriving town with stay-makers, fellmongers, tallow-chandlers, weavers, straw-hat makers,  flax dressers,  surgeons, gun smiths, hair dressers, the two William Vittys Sr and Jr., who were Spinning Wheel and Reel Manufacturers, and numerous taverns some with woolly names like “The Fleece”, “Bishop Blaize” and “The Shoulder of Mutton”. Sometimes, children born in remoter villages like Aysgarth might be christened at some distance – especially if their parents were Non-Conformists.

In a 16thC record of woollen goods in Yorkshire, Thomas Caesar wrote: “In Rychemond there are above 1000 knyters….”  [quoted in ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, p.24]. In 1724, Defoe also described Richmond as a hotbed of knitterly action:

“‘… here you see all the people, great and small, a knitting; and at Richmond you have a market for woollen or yarn stockings….’” [‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, p.25].   It is possible, as Non Conformists, the Thwaites lived 13 miles distant from Richmond, in Aysgarth, but had some of their children christened in the larger town.

James and Ann had children christened first in Aysgarth, in the Dales; later, Richmond. In Woodhall, Aysgarth, they had Elizabeth (1794), and Mary (1795), in Richmond they had  Ann (1797), John (1799) then back to Aysgarth, this time at Counterside, to have William (1807), Jane (1810) and  Joshua (1812). In Richmond, Margaret was baptised in 1815, then Sarah in 1817 and Richard in 1819. That may not be the complete family – just the birth records I have been able to find. Ten children and so far as I can see, Elizabeth, Mary, Ann, Jane, Joshua, Margaret, Sarah and Richard made it to adulthood.

Aysgarth was prime knitting territory, in the Dales.

Yore Mills, Aysgarth. CREDIT: Nathaniel Hunt

James Thwaite’s occupation is described only once in all the records. He is listed as “yeoman”. The turn of the 18thC saw yeoman farmers at their most prosperous and thriving. No doubt, he retained some interest in land at Aysgarth, whilst pursuing other business interests in Pontefract. Margaret Thwaite would be a fairly typical early Retreat resident – middle class, land-owning Quaker family who had various business interests, and could pay her bills. We should remember that not all ‘terrible’ (for terrible read ‘awesome’)  knitters of the Dales were working class. Knitting was a universal skill in the Dales.

Non Conformist records noted that in August, 1827   the Thwaites were in Pontefract – James, Ann, Margaret, Sarah and Richard. The James Thwaite born in 1770 in Aysgarth was born to John and Elizabeth Thwaite; Quakers.  Non Conformist records from 1827, describe Margaret as being a Quaker, of Pontefract but “at York”.  She would have been 12 – too young for admission to The Retreat. She may have attended one of the Quaker schools, or with family in the city. Other women on the same pages of the Non Conformist have occupations but for Margaret, they record simply “Spinster”. Which suggests she didn’t have to work for a living. Elsewhere in the same book, James, Ann, Margaret and Sarah are listed – but not Richard, so presumably he was living somewhere else in 1827. James is described as “Out of Business”, which could mean bankrupt, unemployed or simply retired. Ann was “Wife of James” and the two girls were “Daughter of James and Ann”, all of them residing in Pontefract – except Margaret who was, again, listed as “At York”.

Margaret’s status as a Yeoman’s daughter would not make her exempt from knitting. In ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby quote William Howitt, who took us on a ride through the Dales in his 1844 book, The Rural Life of England, written when Margaret had already been away from Dent for six years:

‘… The woman knits when her household work is done… We saw a stout rosy girl driving some cows to the field. She had all the character of a farmer’s servant. Without anything on her head, in her short bed-gown and wooden clogs, she went after them with a great stick in her hand…. As we observed her proceedings from a house opposite, and, amused at the contest between her and the calves said, “Well done! dairymaid!” “O!” said the woman of the house, “that is no dairymaid: she is the farmer’s only daughter, and will have quite a fortune. She is the best knitter in the dale, and makes four bump-caps a day”; that is, the young lady of fortune earned a shilling a day….’”  [The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales, p. 80].

For Margaret knitting would be ‘home’. Although hand-spinning was dying out by the time Margaret was born in 1815, it was by no means dead yet – and survived strongest and longest in remote Dales villages where farming families had spun yarn for their own cloth within living memory, sent it to local clothiers to weave, then had it back to dye at home. And even when that practice waned, many still spun for knitting yarn.

Margaret’s parents appear to have lived apart, by the 1830s if not earlier. Margaret appears to have been admitted briefly in 1836, and released and returned to Dent, but re-admitted in 1838. This time, there would be no release. Her re-admission records state:

“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…..”

It seems that Margaret and her mother were left in a remote cottage somewhere in the Dales, when James and the rest of the family moved to Pontefract. Although James sometimes recorded that they were with him, and no doubt they visited, Margaret maybe fell ill after being confined for “many years” alone with only her manic mother for company. Alone in their home, the women maybe knitted, like so many locals. In the spread-out parish of Aysgarth, many people are listed as Farmer or Knitter on censuses.

An exquisite little book from 1810, with the catchy title: “Specimens of the Yorkshire Dialect To which is added a GLOSSARY of Such of the Yorkshire words As Are Likely not to be understood by those UNACQUAINTED with the Dialect” (Anon, Published Knaresborough, Price 6d), a girl thinks of her dull and not very wealthy paramour, and hopes at the coming Fair, she can swap him for a rich farmer’s son:

Why sud Ah nut succeed as weel,

And get a man full out genteel

As awd John Darby’s daughter Nelly;

Ah think mysen as good as she

She can’t mak cheese or spin like me….”

Margaret may have learned to knit from a very young age, from parents or grandparents. She was only a teenager when admitted to The Retreat but Dales lasses could spin and knit fast, and she would have had more than a decade’s experience at the point she was admitted to The Retreat. She was to spend her entire remaining life behind its high red-brick walls.  Some Retreat patients were eventually well enough to live out, in a row of cottages at Osbaldwick, living in a sort of sheltered accommodation. Many patients had day trips, even weeks back home and some patients’  stay was only brief anyway. As a severe and long-term patient, Margaret would have been confined to the building and grounds.

Admission notes record Margaret entering The Retreat in  1836, being discharged at some point as she re-entered in May, 1838. Her diagnosis is “frantic”. She was said to be 24, and had been insane for four years; the cause: “religion”.  The Dent doctors had tried the usual 19thC panacea: “Bleeding seems to be the only remedy that has been employed”.

Bleeding – applying leeches to the patient to suck their blood, which supposedly reduced internal inflammation – wasn’t working.

Until age 20, Margaret seems to have shown no signs of illness: “… there was nothing peculiar in her previous habits or manner and no unusual weakness”. Being shut up in a remote place, alone with her mother was the trigger, and seven decades’ incarceration behind the walls of The Retreat would only see this once normal young woman deteriorate into hopeless insanity. The doctor’s note that she was “alone” with her mother is the key. In a large family, teenage Margaret alone was responsible for an insane adult.  Shades of ‘the madwoman in the attic’ in Jane Eyre. And her story was not so unusual or melodramatic as we might think.  People had no resources, or help to deal with violent maniacs in their homes; admission notes for the Retreat patients often detail families in despair, spending years locking a family member in a room where they tear off their clothes, and self harm – utterly terrifying for the families, as well as the insane person. Margaret was a young woman left to cope singlehanded with her manic, but “not dangerous” mother. Knitting, that universal Dales occupation, was maybe an outlet for her. James Thwaite made the fatal decision not to hospitalise his wife – just bury her in the country with one daughter as her carer. According to the first UK census, in 1841, James Thwaite was living in Monkhill, Pontefract and  listed as being 70 and born in Yorkshire. He was “Independent” (retired and living on his own means) and living with daughters Elizabeth (born 1793), Sarah, and son Joshua, a teacher, born 1813.  Ann was living back in Monkhill, with the family – presumably because hiding her away in Dent had been to no avail.

The results of the decision to leave Margaret caring for Ann, alone in the Dales, in the 1830s were catastrophic.

In the early decades of The Retreat, patients were encouraged to carry on with their old hobbies and interests, or occupations, where practical. Account books show them keenly buying books, going on day trips, buying newspapers, alcohol, confectionary, and even knitting yarn and needles. As a form of proto-occupational therapy, in the 1790s, the patients were encouraged to hand-spin yarn which they could knit into stockings, mittens or gloves for themselves or friends, or sell to fellow inmates who couldn’t spin or knit.

Accounts were kept for both Male and Female Patients’ Work, and a typical entry might go like this:

“Men Patients’ Work  1798

5 May

Rec’d for Knitting (J.W)  1 shilling and 6 pence.

31 Dec

Spinning 1 lb  20  [illegible]  10 pence

2 P[ai]r of Yarn Stockings Knitting G.S   3  shillings and 1 pence”.

Or, from an entry for Ruth Sheffield in 1809:

“27 Jan 1809

Worsted for stockings (Knit by Ann Smith)”.

In the same year, Sarah Impey paid “.. Prideaux for a P[ai]r Stockings of her knitting”.

Account books kept track of the wool bought, and what items were spun and knitted by and for the patients. In The Retreat, Margaret would have been allowed to knit. Both men and women patients knitted. One patient, James Hashold seems to have been a prolific knitter, earning around one shilling and sixpence per pair of stockings. Another patient has the world’s first documented stash. Patience King spent over a pound on “stocking worsted” in 1807 and a few months later over two pounds on “knitting worsted”.  That must have been a serious amount of yarn.On 10th September, 1799, Judith Robertson bought: “Knitting needle “ for 3 pence.

This must have meant a set of “needles” – it is likely the Retreat employee who kept the ledger wasn’t always au fait with the terminology! A year later, Judith bought:

“Patent knitting needles”  for 3 pence. ‘Patent’ maybe meant slick, shiny steel, or needles with a patented finish.

In the records for August, 1835, Richard and another sister, Jane, are recorded as having moved to the Brighouse Monthly Meeting. Brighouse was also an industrial area in the West Riding. Later, Richard was in Holmfirth, “Assistant with Joseph Pollard”, also in the West Riding, before returning to live and work in the Dales.

On Margaret’s  re-admission in 1838, the doctor had opened the case notes with the words that first attracted my interest: “Margaret Thwaite of Dent”.  Her mother’s mental illness “may fairly be considered as a probably exciting cause of the daughter’s state of mind.”

Margaret’s case notes were completed by various doctors, over decades. An early entry in 1836 described her like this:

“Margaret Thwaite no 518

16th May,  1836

Single, aged 21 years, had been unwell in her mind for 6 or 7 yrs. the disorder has been chiefly manifested in disobedience and irritability of temper. It is supposed to be constitutional, (added above, in tiny letters:  “her mother also a [illegible] to Ellen Dickenson*?)  She has had no distinct paroxyms but has been more perverse latterly. Her previous habits were not [illegible] but her temper was always [illegible]. No medicine means have been used. She has never had fits not palsy. She has sometimes refused food but has shown no disposition to injure herself or others.”

*Ellen Dickenson was another patient.  In 1834, Eleanor Dickenson was recorded in the Retreat’s account books, buying: “stockings, Merino, Diaper”  (diaper was a herringbone weave fabric) for one pound, eight shillings and tuppece.  Ellen was also a knitter, way back in 1822, earning four shillings and sixpence for making, mending, or knitting for other patients.  In the 1841 Census, she is listed as a patient, aged 40, and a schoolmistress born in Yorkshire.

At Margaret’s death, the asylum didn’t notice that she had two admissions – one in 1836 and one in 1838. But she was assigned a different case number in 1838, which suggests she was released, at some point, before being readmitted. It is possible she was to be one of the longest staying patients of the 19thC.

Two years later, when re-admitted, the doctor states Margaret has been ill for four years. It could be that doctors, two years apart, have taken accounts of Margaret’s history from different sources. Maybe, she was brought to The Retreat by different family members in 1836 and ‘8. The 1838 doctor gives us a description:

“M.T. is of the middle stature and medium size; muscular system, flabby; mammary glands, slightly developed; neck rather long; full body, large; head, small rather round; hair light, fine and long. Face rather round; cheeks rather high; complexion, pale but disposed to be florid; a general want of expression; eyes, grey rather sunken with a light bluish halo beneath; moth large; prolabium pale and dry; teeth regular, very yellow; the tongue white, rather furred; appetite tolerably good; bowels disposed to be confined, requiring frequent doses of the domestic medicine; catamenia completely absent and have been so for 6 months prior to admission; pulse 75, rather sharp; does not complain but is stated to look poorly compared with what she was when admitted. Her countenance is frequently distorted by an apparently foolish and unmeaning smile, or titter; and can frequently degenerate into a grimace; and she often is muttering unintelligibly to herself. She is good tempered and tractable, but she frequently indulges in a playful kind  of contradiction; thus, if I ask to see her tongue, she will say “Nay, ger out!” and immediately shew it…. She is generally quiet and easily managed, but occasionally she is noisy at night, sings, is only occasionally employed on going on little errands around the house, now and then she has done a little needlework, but it is so badly done, as to be of little use… She sometimes reads, but scarcely seems to understand. Perhaps the deranged state of the mind may best be characterised by the term of imbecility. I have not detected nor heard of hallucination…”   [29th September, 1838].

From later doctors’ notes, I suspect the “needlework” mentioned here is indeed, knitting.

Sometimes, patients would go through intermittent violent, then calm periods and the doctors would have to intervene, during the times when they were more challenging – even shaving their heads, and using restraints. Presumably at these times, the pointy sticks were firmly taken away from Margaret. When peace resumed, she would be encouraged to do her ‘needlework’ again.

In the 1840s, as Margaret continued at The Retreat without the revolving door syndrome of many of the patients, who were on a permanent cycle of treat, release, re-admit – her family disintegrated. First of all, her father died. The Quaker records stated:

“James Thwaite , of Monk Hill near Pontefract Yeoman, died aged about 71, 23rd March, 1842” He was buried in the Friends’ Burial Ground, Pontefract. Then,  Margaret’s brother the teacher, Joshua died aged 33, on 15th March, 1846 and was also buried there. It is unlikely Margaret was allowed to go to the funerals of family members.

A couple of months after Joshua’s death, Margaret’s sister Sarah married Vincent Swithen Bloomhall; a merchant from New York, USA, the son of John Bloomhall, cabinet maker. She had her father listed as “James Thwaite, gentleman”. “Yeoman” and “gentleman” were often interchangeable terms in the 19thC. In the 1880 US census, Vincent and Sarah could be found in Conshohocken, Montgomery, Pennsylvania. It is likely she is the same Sarah Bloomhall, aged 75, to be found in 1891 at Bainbridge, Wensleydale, (Richmond district and close to Counterside where the Thwaites and her mother’s family, the Blakeys, had lived), living on own means.  Sarah gave her birthplace as Bainbridge – but was recorded as “wife” not “widow”. A few months later, Sarah was noted on outward passenger lists, as leaving Liverpool bound for Philadelphia. We can only wonder whether Sarah visited her long lost sister, in the York Retreat, on her journeys home?

The 1840s had seen the family decimated. Margaret’s older sister, Elizabeth died aged 53  on 28th August, 1848 and was buried at the Friends’ Burial Ground in Pontefract. A month later, she was joined by her mother, Ann.

Younger brother Richard lived on, and it may have been Richard who paid Margaret’s Retreat bills. He may well be the Richard  who married Charlotte Harker, at Wensley on 10th January, 1846 . Charlotte Harker was born in 1826, daughter of a Wensley blacksmith. In ‘Costume of Yorkshire’, George Walker wrote about the people of Wensley Dale “…In any business where the assistance of the hands is not necessary, they universally resort to knitting…” (1814).

Richard was a cattle then pig dealer near Leyburn. The Harkers lived with them on High St, Leyburn in 1861. Charlotte was a  straw bonnet maker. Leyburn is only ten miles from Richmond and so, although there are several Richard Thwaites of a similar age, from the similar area, I think this one is our most likely target. A John Harker, aged 12, lived with James, Ann and the (grown up) children in Pontefract in 1841.

Richard’s life as a dealer in livestock in the idyllic Dales, and Sarah’s as a Pennsylvanian merchant’s wife couldn’t be more far removed from Margaret’s proscribed life behind the walls of The Retreat. The doctors’ case notes were written up sporadically, over the decades, giving us the occasional glimpse of Margaret slowly deteriorating as she became institutionalised. Tragically for her but interestingly for us, Margaret’s mental illness manifested itself in her knitting (or attempting to knit):

“1860  [no month] she is in a state of advanced dementia… She has been induced to employ herself at knitting, but the work she performs is more a tangled web, which, like Penelope of old, she pulls out as fast as she does it, working away, hour after hour, with no other result. Her health is tolerably good, but she is thin and pale and has periods of vivacity intermitted with periods in which she is very still, silent and sullen…”

This is so poignant. By 1860, Margaret was in her fourth decade of committal.

“March 1st, 1874.

…remains without material change. July 28th… 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…”

A couple of years later, a different doctor’s handwriting tells us there may have been a positive improvement in Margaret’s condition:

“Dec 3rd 1876… … Does needlework… Seems useful”

In the 1870s. Margaret seemed to spiral into periods of violence alternating with periods of calm:

“1877 Dec 3rd

… she has made no progress… has been more apathetic and inactive, at times has been violent – kicking and hitting her fellow patients and attendants. .. feet cold, face blueish, appetite and functions… regular…

7th Is more lively, does needlework; and the [illegible] seems awful.”

18thc stickThen, the most fascinating entry of all:

“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.”

By 1885, the decline is clear: “Is extremely demented, and very dirty in her habits. All her food is administered by hand. Occasionally says a few incoherent words, but never talks intelligently. Is in fairly good bodily health….”

Five years later, and fifty years into her stay at The Retreat, Margaret is still, pathetically, trying to knit:

“May 1st 1887 sits all day playing with a piece of string and every now and again breaks out laughing in an idiotic manner…”

And later, the same year: “Sits all day long playing with a piece of string and wood. The feet are quite blue and are always. Although very feeble…is very dirty in her habits.”

Knitting stick at work. Grasmere, 2012
Knitting stick at work. Grasmere, 2012

What we may be looking at, is an unintentional description of Margaret trying to use a knitting stick (“bit of wood”). Maybe Richard or some other relative brought her a knitting stick from the Dales. What looked bizarre and insane to the doctor, would have made sense to anyone in the Dales. By 1887, knitting sticks were falling out from the common memory, generally.
We can see the decline from the “tractable” girl of the 1830s, to the seriously demented woman of the 1850s onwards. Margaret’s mental illness – created by being holed up in a remote place with a religious maniac as a teenager – was simply exacerbated by decades in the asylum. It is hard to reconcile the “rounded” and “flabby” young woman of the 1830s with the skeletal elderly woman.  Margaret’s  weight was recorded in 1881 as being a shocking  7 st 1lb (99lb).

By 1882, doctors remark: “Is frequently in a condition of mild excitement, running about the gallery chattering, and sometimes swearing. Occasionally tears her clothes..”

Sometimes, Margaret had to be hand-fed, and sometimes, she ripped off her clothes. Some asylums had special “strong dresses” for female inmates – heavily quilted and made from tough, uncomfortable but indestructable materials.

By 1887, brother Richard was dead and Sarah, in the U.S. Her other siblings were long dead. Margaret had no-one to buy her yarn anymore, no doubt, hence the reports of her playing with “string”. Her Retreat bills must have been dutifully paid, or she would have been committed to the less humane York Asylum. It is possible her sister, or sister’s family in the US paid for her treatment. I wonder if Sarah realised that might have been her fate, had she been chosen to be the daughter left alone to look after Ann Thwaite in Dent? Indirectly, Margaret had sacrificed her potential life of normality, but her siblings  were free.

Margaret spent 62 years at The Retreat.She is there from the first UK Census in 1841, to 1891. Her full name was only ever given once, over sixty years, on the first Census. From 1851 – 1891, she is listed as “MT”, with no occupation, and often, no birthplace. It seems in an effort to be discrete, inmates were only recorded as initials. “MT is still recognisable, by correlating the age to the initials. In 1861, ‘71 and ‘81, her birthplace, as usual,  is recorded as “Pontefract”.

She died in 1900, aged 85. Amongst the Retreat records, I found the official notice of death:

“Date of Reception Order: 12th May 1836

I hereby give you notice that Margaret Thwaite a private patient received into the hospital on the 16th day of May 1836 died therein on the 19th day of January 1900


85 years


Profession none

Place of abode immediately before being placed under care… Monkhill in Pontefract

Apparent cause of death Senile Decay

Post mortem: No

Time of death 7:15 am

No injuries

Duration of disease… Some months

Names and desc of persons present at death… Annie Boyes, Charge Nurse Susan Bell, Nurse, The Retreat, York

Whether or not mechnaical restraint was applied to deceased within seven days previously to death… No

Signed Henry J Mackenzie, acting medical superintendent.”

This gave me a new piece of information not in the case notes; that Margaret had been received in 1836, from Pontefract, although the doctor at the time recorded her as living in Dent alone with her mother. Presumably, the situation in the remote cottage had deteriorated and Margaret and Ann were brought to Pontefract, before Margaret was taken to the asylum. This may explain why census enumerators were always told Margaret was from Pontefract. Had I been dependent on censuses alone, I would never have suspected The Retreat even had a terrible knitter of Dent amongst its patients.

The Retreat’s graveyard. Many York Quakers were buried here, not just patients. CREDIT: Nathaniel Hunt

The Quaker burial records said:

“Margaret Thwaites (sic) died 19.1.1900 Residence: Pontefract Spinster  date of burial 23.1.1900 Place of burial: Friends Burial Gd, York  District registered York”.

Her family had been buried at the Friends’ Burial Ground in Pontefract, but Margaret was laid to rest in the Friends’ Burial Ground in the grounds of The Retreat. She was not even to escape from its boundaries in death.

Apt graffiti on a wall, The Retreat. CREDIT: Nathaniel Hunt

Compiled from records of The Retreat, held at the Borthwick Institute, York University. Admission Notes, Case Notes, and Patients’ Disbursement ledgers. Also death notice.

Also compiled from Census data, parish records, and BMD index.


5 replies on ““Playing With A Piece Of String” – The Story of a Dentdale Knitter in ‘The Retreat’ Asylum, York”

Such interesting history of treatment of mental illness, knitting, Yorkshire and Quakers. One’s heart weeps for the patients who, today, could mostly be treated and live.


Very sad. My ggg aunt was confined in one of these places only in the US and at a slightly later date. She was not allowed to be buried with her family either.


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