antique textiles Their Darkest Materials

“Their Darkest Materials”

I knew all along I wanted to publish this one myself. It represents a lot of hard work and research, started around 2011 and is my (admittedly rather scary) baby that I didn’t want to entrust to anyone else.  My favourite writers in this field publish themselves, presumably for similar reasons, as all of us are widely published elsewhere, by others, for articles, etc.  But this book?  I want to do this myself.

CREDIT: Hazel P. Mason,

We’ve been presenting talks about my next book, “Their Darkest Materials”, to rave reviews.  Today, I’ve put up a Kickstarter, to help fund us publishing the book:

I knew all along I wanted to publish this one myself. It represents a lot of hard work and research, started around 2011 and is my (admittedly rather scary) baby that I didn’t want to entrust to anyone else.  My favourite writers in this field publish themselves, presumably for similar reasons, as all of us are widely published elsewhere, by others, for articles, etc.  But this book?  I want to do this myself.

Working out and writing the Kickstarter has been one of the hardest things I’ve done – far harder than writing the book, if I’m honest.  Please support us if you can. 

Chapters include:

The Partly-Murdered Knitter – Grim and Less Grim Deaths;

Murder and Mayhem  (including murders where knitting or textiles were vital evidence);

The Dyer Who Watched Storms – Insanity;

The Idea of the Victorian Needlewoman;

Runaways and Slaves;

Virtute et Industria – Child Labour and the Trope of the Elderly Knitter;

And chapters on folklore as well as knitting in prisons, charity schools and work-houses.  There’s also a chapter about a knitting pub landlord inmate of York Debtors’ Prison who became a knitting school master.

As ever, I examine the clothing of the man on the Clapham omnibus and the woman in Petticoat Lane.

With no further ado, here’s an extract from ‘Their Darkest Materials’. It’s from the chapter on crime and punishment.  Come over to Kickstarter to see a brief extract from “The Dyer Who Watched Storms” and if you can, make us a pledge at any level.  I’ve been privileged to meet a fair few readers of my published history pieces and blog followers this year and hope to reach lots of new readers too.  We share this and together – we keep it alive.

Oh – and if you want to book our spectacular, no holds barred talk “Their Darkest Materials” for 2020 – message me here. We’re taking bookings now.  This talk has gone down a storm, so far.

Their Darkest Materials, cover art. CREDIT: Hazel P. Mason,

…Being sentenced to death for larceny was a bit of what we’d now call a postcode lottery. Between 1750-75, only one person was hung in Wales for property crime; 590 were hung in London for the same. Data suggests that in Cornwall, Westmorland, Durham, Montgomeryshire, Pembrokeshire, Denbighshire Northumberland, Anglesey, Glamorgan and Merioneth, the average person would only see one hanging for property crime in their lifetime. The whole of the N.E, and Yorkshire and Lancashire had very low numbers of hangings. Essex had the highest. In Scotland, the Lowlands and central areas had higher levels of hanging. (‘Re-Thinking the Bloody Code’, King and Ward, 2015).

The American War of Independence (Revolutionary Wars) gave the judiciary system a crisis in the 1770s, when the UK lost its customary penal colony – America. But by the 1790s, the First Fleets had sailed for Australia and there was a new penal colony in place.

Many people committing property crimes were to find themselves transported, for a multiple of 7 years – usually a 7 year sentence. It is not uncommon, when reading the late eighteenth century/early nineteenth century newspapers, to find a felon, sentenced to transportation, begging the judge to hang them instead; such was the fear of the terrifying journey on a prison ship, and the life of unpaid drudgery, that lay ahead.

“Yesterday morning early a Stocking Shop in Whitechapel was broke open, and robbed of Silk and Worsted Stockings, &c., to a very considerable Amount…”
Daily Advertiser, Tuesday, February 3, 1778.

Sometimes, knitted items and haberdashery were stolen. Other times, they were requisitioned by felons to disguise themselves. Descriptions of felons often include their clothing. This housebreaker sounds interesting:

“…One of his … Band was Suppos’d to be a Female with a man’s Great-coat on, and a Woman’s black Hat flapp’d, and tied down under her Chin with her Garter…”

London Evening Post, April 12, 1740 – April 15, 1740

And from a century later, knitted clothing items were worn by burglars:

“… three men broke into the house by the kitchen window, and went to her room. They wore Guernsey frocks, knitted caps, the tassels of which hung over their shoulders, and had their faces disguised with sheep red…”

The Hull Packet, Friday, July 24, 1840

Here, a case of caveat vendor. This shop lost a considerable haul of yarn:

“Tradesmen should be careful not to expose goods at their shop doors after night-fall: – At Warwick, a few nights ago, a truss belonging to Mr Checkley, hosier, and standing at his shop-door, was cut open, and robbed of 24lbs of knitting worsted.”

Berrow’s Worcester Journal, Thursday, January 3, 1822

A theft of property of this magnitude would have resulted in a weighty sentence and most likely, transportation, if the thief had ever been found. Other shopkeepers were victim to ingenious heists:

“… a robbery of a most daring description was committed on the premises of Mr Windram, Bishopsgate-street, Leicester… the thieves….wer obliged to cut away a large piece of the casing of the door before they…forced the locks… and took away several 12lb bundles of four-thread black and blue marble knitting worsted, three bundles of black and white, and two of dark blue…”

Northampton Mercury , Saturday, February 11th, 1832

Birstall, Yorkshire, had a woolly criminal underground, by all accounts:

“DARING ROBBERY – Early on Tuesday morning, some villain or villains broke into the warehouse of Mr Burnley of Gomersall, and stole therefrom a number of six pounds bundles of fine three-fold lambs’ wool mixture knitting-yarn. There are several very bad characters at Birstal and… it is hoped ere long the gang will be broken up.”

The Bradford Observer, Thursday, August 7th, 1834

Not all knitters were nice:

“On Tuesday evening, a tramping female…told the landlady, Mrs Burton, a dismal tale, she took compassion on her, and gave her a night lodging. On the following morning, the wretch, in return for the kindness she had experienced, robbed the landlady of a quantity of linen. The following is a description of the ungrateful mendicant: – She was about 24 years of age, wore a green stuff bonnet, dark gown, red coloured shawl, black stockings and shoes down at the heel, and had with her a small bundle, containing knitting pins.”

Leicester Journal, and Midland Counties General Advertiser, Friday, May 29, 1840

Elizabeth Jackson of York’s 1846 stockings

Stolen stockings were sometimes identifiable by their knitters, as was the case when Joseph Griffiths stole from Joseph Sterling, in Westhide. Mr Sterling: “…went … and found prisoner about two miles and a half away from Hereford, with his stockings on the prisoner’s legs… Eliza Jones remembered knitting a pair of stockings for the prosecutor, and identified those produced as the same… Verdict: Guilty. 12 months’ imprisonment and hard labour…”

The Hereford Times, Friday, July 31st, 1841

Intriguingly, in Scotland, even court officials knew the difference between sewn initials and knitted ones:

“A case of theft of a pair of stockings was then taken up, remarkable for nothing but contradictory evidence, and the assertion of the prosecuting female and her witness that the initials in the stocking were sewn in; when it was ‘as plain as a pikestaff’, and was proved to a demonstration, that they were knitted. The case was of course dismissed, and a sharp rebuke administered to the female for bringing such a case before the court.”

The Elgin Courant, and Morayshire Advertiser , Friday, June 16th, 1854

Well into the nineteenth century, knitted stockings remained a favourite target for thieves:

“On Saturday night last, around eight o’clock, a lonely cottage on the outskirts of Womersley, near Doncaster, occupied by an old couple named John and Mary Bowling, was entered by a man… The ruffian succeeded in taking away the following articles: – A new overcoat, made of black pilot cloth… a half-worn coat of the same description; a plaid waistcoat, half new, jean sleeves… new ditto, with green and black flowers… a pair of knitted stockings of blue yarn; a pair of cotton ditto with white toes and tops… a pair of Wellington shoes; a pound of cheese and a loaf of bread.”

The Leeds Mercury, Thursday, January 7th, 1858

Some famous prisoners wiled away the time in prison with knitting. Most notably, deposed French Queen, Marie-Antoinette. Her daughter, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, was the only member of the royal family to escape execution, and was exchanged as a hostage; living in Vienna, and later in England:

“…The French Princess on her exchange upon the Frontiers, returned every thing which had been given her in France, except a small packet which she herself had made up on her departure, consisting of some linen, three medals…also are a pair of garters, which the ill-fated Queen had knitted from some threads she had pickt [sic] out of an old carpet in the apartment of her captivity.

General Evening Post, February 2, 1796 – February 4th, 1796


Another political prisoner, this time in England, was Jeremiah Brandreth, 1785 – 1817. Jeremiah was a stocking maker and Luddite who fought for workers’ rights in Nottinghamshire. He was thought to have been involved in the Luddite actions of 1811, and in 1817, decided to levy a force of 20,000 men to march on London and storm the Tower. His group was infilitrated by government spies. Brandreth led the Pentrich Rising – an uprising of 1817 during which he shot through the window of a house and killed a servant. He was executed at Derby jail after being set up by a spy. He was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered along with two other men but the Prince Regent commuted the quartered part of the sentence – they were to be hung then beheaded.

Although a stocking frame (machine) knitter, Jeremiah would have been able to knit by hand as well, to turn heels, or do complex operations the stocking frame couldn’t perform. Contemporary accounts of Jeremiah’s time in prison said:

“… During those hours in which Brandreth was not occupied in prayer, he occupied himself in knitting a work-bag for his wife, upon the surface of which he had contrived to form, with different coloured cottons, various ornaments: – This he mentioned in a letter written just before his execution, as his last relic…”

Caledonian Mercury, Saturday, November 15th, 1817

In his final letter to his wife, Jeremiah Brandreth mentions ‘… one work-bag, two balls of worsted, and one of cotton; and a handkerchief, an old pair of stockings and shirt…Adieu! Adieu to all for ever…’  The chaplain present remarked that Brandreth went to his death resolutely.

The work-bag alluded to was made by Brandreth himself, knitted from cotton, and was about eight inches square, drawn together at the top, and ornamented on each side with bunches of flowers worked in different coloured cottons. This, as well as the other things specified, were inclosed in a small canvas bag, which was extremely dirty.

Work in progress. Unfinished illustration (has to be inked!) The book is now complete and the last couple of illustrations are being finished as we speak. CREDIT: DAVID HUNT

After Brandreth and his two co-defendants were hung, their bodies were cut down and their heads severed with an axe. When the executor held up Jeremiah’s head by the hair and shouted the customary: “Behold, the head of a traitor!” the crowd stood balefully, refusing to cheer. The government had dispatched mounted cavalry amongst the crowd with orders to start attacking them at the first sign of any insurrection. Within two years, the infamous Peterloo massacre happened when local Yeomanry attacked a crowd in Manchester, gathered at a political rally. Fortunately for Jeremiah’s crowd, the uneasy silence failed to break out into an actual riot so this time the citizens were spared the government’s wrath.

Marie-Antoinette and Jeremiah Brandreth chose to knit to pass the time in prison but sometimes in the UK, prisoners were made to knit as part of their punishment and also to save the authorities money; knitting stockings for themselves and fellow inmates, as well as sewing their uniforms:

“The system adopted by Mrs Fry … for reclaiming and improving the condition of the female prisoners in Newgate, has been eminently successful. Within a period of little more than three months the women and girls have made nearly 4000 shirts &c. They have knitted 220 pairs of socks and stockings, and have lately commenced the spinning of flax. The amelioration in their morals has kept place with their progress in habits of industry.

The Morning Post, Monday, August 11th, 1817

In November 1831, Jane Robinson, a debtor imprisoned in Lincoln Castle, said to a fellow inmate:

“As I have just got my knitting done, I will now read the Bible to you.” and the very next second, dropped down dead. The coroner’s inquest returned a verdict, ‘Died by the visitation of God, occasioned by the rupture of an internal blood-vessel.’ Jane had been a ‘respectable’ woman who was known to be religious. She was 61. A heartbreaking codicil to the story appeared in the newspaper, the day after the first article about Jane’s sudden death:

“..Her friends made application to her creditor for her body, that it might be taken home for interment, to which he assented; but this being opposed by his attorney, on the ground of its illegality, the deceased was buried in the usual place in the Castle-yard, on Saturday afternoon…”

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser, Saturday, November 12th, 1831

The creditor was the person to whom Jane had owed money, who will have obtained the court order to have her imprisoned and it was their decision whether this hardworking, pious woman’s body could be returned to her loved ones or suffer the eternal indignity of being buried with criminals.

In 1843, one Northumberland prisoner was revealed to be a merciless muffattee (fingerless mitts) smuggler:

“Ellen McGurch, a character well known to the turnkeys in Morpeth Gaol, was brought before the Mayor of Morpeth… charged with having stolen a quantity of articles, the property of the Governor of Morpeth Gaol, previous to her discharge from prison a few days previously. … it appears that Mr. Cousis gives each prisoner about half a pound of yarn at a time to knit stockings with – that the stockings are not weighed after being made… the prisoner went to Campbell’s lodging house, where a bundle, containing a quantity of stockings, was seen in her possession – that she was also seen undressed – with a large quantity of stockings sewed round her shift – that her shift was doubled up at the bottom and a quantity of muffatees filled into the double … that she sold two pair of stockings to Mrs. Young of the Wheat Sheaf Inn… the female prisoners, instead of knitting the stockings with the yarn given to them, make muffatees and other articles… carry them out of the prison with them, and then dispose of them for money or drink…”

The Newcastle Journal, Saturday, January 28, 1843

Who’d have thought that knitted items and yarn was a currency in the criminal underworld.”


4 replies on ““Their Darkest Materials””

It all sounds absolutely fascinating – once again, you’ll have done a cracking job with it. Well done. (I thought it was ‘hanged’ when referring to a person’s execution, and ‘hung’ for meat or coats?}



My name is Clare and I am the owner and writer for a recently launched venture,, I am an active knitter, crocheter and spinner and feel that this site fills a gap in providing information to yarn crafters. I am endeavouring to share all the knitting, crochet, yarn and fibre related news with British interest I can find. The news I post is also shared to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so visitors can access the news from whichever platform they prefer. I am focused on trying to gather all the best news to share and make the site something which provides a good experience for visitors.

The reason I am emailing you is that I have created a post about your Kickstarter campaign , your book sounds fascinating and I’m certain that it will be of interest to my readers, I hope that you agree, I would love to include future relevant news from your business on my site, please do feel free to send me anything you’d like to see shared.

If you have any questions or feedback please feel free to contact me,

Kind regards, Clare

On Wed, 25 Sep 2019 at 14:04, The Knitting Genealogist – Hemingway & Hunt wrote:

> PLH posted: ” We’ve been presenting talks about my next book, “Their > Darkest Materials”, to rave reviews. Today, I’ve put up a Kickstarter, to > help fund us publishing the book: > > I knew all alo” >


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