Archives were shut, yesterday, for some reason or other so I had to content myself with the Reference Library instead. Ended up spending some time in the company of Robert Sharp; a shepherd’s son who became schoolmaster at North Cave, East Riding of Yorkshire, from 1804 to 1842.
To entertain his grown up son, who worked away in London, Robert kept a diary of everyday life in North Cave. His extant letters to his son and the diaries that survive, are in print. Sharp was a radical, politically-inclined, mischievous man with a dry sense of humour and great fun to spend some time with, yesterday, as I scoured his diary and letters for clothing references.
Not clothing, this, it was just so random and silly I thought other fans of Georgian England would enjoy it:
Wednesday 20th January, 1830
I was at Old Willy’s one night smoking a pipe, and his Cat set on the Table , and the old Gentleman in a sort of half Doze, when I blew a quiff♥ up the cat’s nose – which made her jump clean over his head on the Flour bin, and then off again, in a crazy sort of way. Bless me he says how my Cat jumps about, it must be a sign of bad weather.
♥ “QUIFF” meant “a curl”.
The Diary of Robert Sharp of South Cave. Life in a Yorkshire Village 1812- 1837,
Eds. Janice E Crowther and Peter A Crowther, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Errata are the bane of the designer’s life. I’m thinking about it because of the Edwardian gloves pattern which has resurfaced, and needed my attention this week just as I was hoping for a few days of no knitting. But also because, alongside writing the next book, I am fixing the errata in the last.
I don’t think of myself as a designer. More an historian who simply renders historical designs of long forgotten folk; I’m more of a writer, less of an artist.
As a Yorkshireperson, I’m culturally obliged to speak my (tiny) mind. And on some matters I have managed to keep silent a long time, maybe rightly so. Today I have to put up some errata for a little, and now rather old, glove pattern so thought I’d write a little about the nature of errata.
What follows is not a criticism of the publisher concerned – just of myself.
‘River Ganseys’ was dogged with errata – some my fault; some unaccountable. (So yes, still my fault). But at the end of the day, all my fault, as it had my name on it. And there were things I hated about its layout and things I had no control over and things which seemed to shift between the last time I saw it and the time it appeared in print – which brought me to the conclusion that I would rather self-publish books, in future, than use publishers, on the whole. No reflection on that particular publisher – just seems to be a common experience, talking to other writers, particularly in the field of knit design, who don’t self publish, that they wish they had…
In retrospect, I wish I’d held RG back as it suddenly, finally, became A Thing in the weeks after my dear friend who had ridden shotgun with me on some of the research, died, and I wasn’t able to concentrate on it, at all.
I hate excuses. And that is still an excuse but I shared it in the interests of full (well nearly full) disclosure. It wasn’t the time for me to publish – it became a necessity during the worst few weeks of the past few years it could have become a necessity. But of course, you are beholden to other people’s possibly perfectly reasonable schedules. Launch Book A at Show C. No-one is going to listen to you mithering one of your dearest friends just died, and you need more time. Especially when you’ve had loads of time, already. If you want the brutal truth: I’d got to the point I assumed the book would never see the light of day – so I hadn’t re-visited it since I hit ‘send’ on it, long since. “Many a slip twixt cup and lip” but somehow, errata happen in that lost space, between a thing being ‘done’ and a thing being ‘out’. I’d had some exchanges that made me feel whatever I did was wrong, or creating too much extra work – so I had sort of written it off as a piece of work which was too sprawling, and difficult despite the text being pretty interesting and had, in the spirit of pragmatism which is all I really know, written it off.
There was much more under the surface with that book, that made me unhappy about it, as well as with it. Including the mysterious loss of what I felt to be the key chapter (indeed, covering something referred to in the book’s sub-title, that made no sense without the relevant chapter). As a writer, I never look at my work once published. That’s it, it’s gone and I’m already mentally on the next thing or the thing after the next thing. I don’t care how it is edited. I am not precious about my words. I don’t usually care what is cut because I’m not reading it once it’s out; I’ll never know. I can’t bear to look at anything I’ve written, even though the name on it isn’t my real life one.
I used to edit, many years ago for a national charity and knew from practice that experienced writers and widely published experts are curiously blase about their work. The inexperienced ones are and can make an editor’s life hell whinging about various cuts, even the slightest thing. Yet international names in the field? Totally not precious about their words. I learned from that. I always give more words than word count precisely so there is plenty to cut. And I don’t give a monkey’s what is cut. Cutting is good. You can tell that just from reading my unedited stuff here, right?
In all my years writing under different names, in different fields, I had never cared one jot what ended up on the cutting room floor. Except just once in my writing life – for this entire, crucial (and happened to be my favourite) chapter, unaccountably vanished. I’d understand if it was badly written. Or irrelevant. Or self indulgent. I didn’t feel it was.
That book had languished too long between my final full stop and going into print. By which time, I’d forgotten too much of it and this is indeed, the nature of errata, sometimes; that we have longeurs, during which things fall down the cracks in the floorboards. I went to the kind of university where you did everything at breakneck speed, and the only way to survive, academically, was to dump everything in your mind and move on to the next thing, and the next, and it has left me with that mind-set. Macbeth one week; Ben Johnson the next, Romantic poets the next…. I can pick up info quickly but also seem to move on from it quickly. A definite downside but it is how certain British universities worked an the only way I know how to research and write.
So revisiting errata doesn’t come naturally. (Obviously, duty to your readers over-rides any natural tendencies to constantly move on or avoid looking at your own published stuff).
I had researched the story of the writers of ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’ – and that book too, languished several years on the publisher’s desk before seeing the light of day. Whilst the publisher brought out “vital” books on pig breeding, etc. Writing straightforward history is different to writing patterns, of course.
A kind of similar experience Elizabeth Zimmerman had with her work, in print. Not that I’m putting myself in such august company. But she came to a similar conclusion, having seen a design or two butchered by magazines. Although my experience of magazines has been much more positive and I have no intention of not publishing articles and short pieces and the occasional pattern as widely as possible, for certain favourite magazine editors as the tech editors, sub editors and editors of magazines I have worked with, have usually caught my glaring errors before they saw the light of day.
I wrote the Edwardian gloves pattern long before I had great experience of publishing knitting patterns, of course. I have since learned so much from magazine writing that there is no way I’d ever want to stop that learning curve.
More of book woes further down the line, when the second edition of ‘River Ganseys’ is about to come out. Don’t get me wrong. It was a labour of love. I still feel it is a good read and written with real passion; all the errors (apart from the loss of an entire chapter between the last draft I recall and the published thing), confined to the patterns where they got chopped around too much presumably to fit in with book formatting. (All my charts were complete, not chopped up into separate motifs. Now I’m aware that re-jigging them I face the same challenge in terms of page layout, the publisher did). The history of Yorkshire knitting, the text itself, is fine and I stand by it. I will feel better about it when that book is truly “mine” but at least I have back the rights.
Some of my early concerns were dismissed by a sub-editor was “first time writer’s jitters” which I found intensely patronising. I guess she wasn’t to know I had written in other fields, under other names, and my first time writer’s jitters were back around 1990… But the things that upset me about the book, as published, were not put right, and concerns I raised were, apparently, just my misguided naivete. Never mind the person who emailed me this was probably in primary school the first time I published a book, and maybe not born the first time I wrote an article that made it into print… You can’t blame people for what they don’t know. But that was patronising and would have been, if I had been a first time writer.
Anyone with a first edition of ‘River Ganseys’ will be able to access the new version, gratis, of course, and more of that when it happens. Which I intend to bring out simultaneously with my new, shiny, and rather exciting, if gothic, book. There will be patterns, a few well chosen ones, amongst the stories and seams of historical ore I’ve been mining for some time.
At wool fairs, I have often been asked if there are any books on Yorkshire ganseys. I stayed silent that I’d written one, as I knew, for many months, I had the chance of getting back the rights. If you want to read it and didn’t yet get it – hold on. I’ll trumpet here, when it’s out.
I love writing for magazines, and work hard with tech and sub editors to catch the glitches in the machine. For the most part, we succeed. The Edwardian Fingerless Gloves pattern finally (apparently – I hadn’t noticed) came down from the Blacker Yarns site where it had been a free download for a few years.
These were test knitted by others, at the time, and I made at least two pairs which I wore constantly, through several winters, when feeding/mucking out my angora bunnies. So the originals I had (not the ones pictured) may still exist but wouldn’t be worth photoing.
Although I made them using the lovely Blacker Yarns DK (it would work with any of their DKs), you can of course, use leftover oddments of DK or even leftovers of 5 ply guernsey yarn. Results may vary and a tension sample might be wise, but not vital.
I would add – feel free to swap out the Flags for a small guernsey motif you prefer, if knitting these. Structurally, they are the same as some Edwardian glove patterns I found at the time, and the motif itself came from an Edwardian jersey, IIRC but there are a few variants of flag patterns in guernsey knittings – and most more sophisticated than this. Gloves are a small canvas, and require the simplest version of a motif, sometimes.
Over Christmas, I got a request to put this now ancient pattern up myself, online. And I did but the pattern was so old, it was written in a way I felt was not very clear so I did a drastic re-write. But I don’t have the will to test knit it again after all these years, when I have so much more ‘deadline knitting’ on hand, I just can’t. As a result, I added in some errors. Not egregious ones, and the sort any knitter with a little common sense could spot and deal with, but still…
When it comes to my readers, I have always agreed with Jane Austen who once remarked:
“I do not write for such dull Elves
As have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.”
But that does not mean I’d gloss over errata or have no sympathy for anyone dealing with my errors. This will be several months of putting right errata as well as trying to avoid them in the new book. They are not totally unavoidable but I’ll give it my best shot – this time, in control of the parts of the process I wasn’t able to control, before. So the odds are favourable.
I’m wresting back control. Moral of this story? Never re-visit an 8 year old pattern, with re-writes, in the middle of Christmas! Thing is, if I hadn’t dealt with it instantly, I’d have forgotten, having a lot of more current work in the pipeline.
In early summer, look out for a totally revised and corrected version of ‘River Ganseys’ as I now have the rights back and can publish it myself, so put right all the things that were annoying me about it. (More on that very soon). I also have a fair few articles/patterns coming out in magazines, more distant pieces are beginning to come together, and on top of all of that, the new book – this time I will be in control of it, so any egregious errors will be my fault entirely. That involves some large projects (Shetland lace, new gansey pattern or two, and some really cool stuff base on historical knitting). So this was me being ‘efficient’, today – thinking about the nature of being inefficient.
You can download Edwardian Gloves for free, here (scroll down for link):
Anyway. To conclude. The nature of errata is that we learn from our mistakes.
I hope this is it for the cursed-seeming Edwardian Gloves. But of course, there will still be the possibility of… errata.
I need to link to errata on the Edwardian Gloves’ Ravelry pattern page, so here’s the errata. I re-wrote the entire section, so it is easier to follow:
Work this finger on first 7 sts of Needle 1, and last 7 sts of Needle 3. (ie: side of hand centred roughly over those final 2 plain knit sts, you worked at end of rnds. Place rest of sts (leave sts 7- 36 on waste yarn). Knit these 14 sts, M 4 sts [18 sts]. Knit round on these 18 sts for 5 rounds or for as long as seems good to you. Cast off loosely.
Take 6 sts from one end of waste yarn, and 5 from the other and put 6 on one needle, and 5 on another needle (ie: next to where you just made Finger 1). K 6, M 3 sts, K5, M3 sts [17 sts].
Knit round on these 17 sts for 5 rounds or for as long as seems good to you. Cast off loosely.
Work as Finger 2.
Knit across remaining 11 sts, M 4 [15 sts], K 5 rounds or as many as you fancy, then cast off loosely.
NB: One trick to avoid gaps, when picking up sts between fingers, is to pick up twice as many sts as required (eg: for Finger 2, P.U 6 st on a spare needle, then work immediately across them, K 2 tog so you end up with 3 sts, where you just picked up 6).
I made these quick muffatees from some leftover Wendy Guernsey yarn in shade 590 Crimson. The stunning red reminds me of the heroines in my favourite operas, Tosca and Carmen. Here’s the pattern for anyone who wants to use up a little leftover guernsey yarn – they would work in DK, too – but you might need to do a bit of due diligence re. the tension.
You Need: 1 ball Wendy’s 5 Guernsey yarn. (or leftovers from a guernsey project). Or: Use 100g 1 ball DK. (245 yards, 224 metres).
1 ball will probably make two pairs, so you may get a pair from leftovers.
2.5mm dpn or circular needles, or needles right size to get tension
Size: Average woman’s (Palm = 18cm, wrist = 17cm). NB There is a fair bit of negative ease – this stitch pattern is stretchy, so make smaller than you need. I had 1cm negative ease in my sample. If you need to add some sts to make larger, work a margin of sts in stocking stitch centrally placed below and above the thumb, so as to keep pattern repeats complete, horizontally. Or for even more stretch, work this panel of stitches in moss st.
Tension: Cast on 38 sts in pattern give glove with 17cm palm – 1cm of negative ease. Or: 10cm = 22sts in pattern
Using longtail or any stretchy but firm method, cast on 38 sts. Join in round without twisting. Place Marker at start of round.
Rds 1 -3: *(P1, K1), rep to end round
Rd 4: Purl
Rds 5 – 12 : Rep from *, three times (ie: til you have 4 bands of purls and 4 bands of ribbing).
K 1, P1 round.
Main Part of Glove Establish Pattern
All subsequent rounds: Follow chart, starting with round 1. Motif is multiple of 12. At end of rnd, you will have 2 extra sts. PM before the first of these. Work these 2 sts in stocking st when you hit them. You will place your thumb here, shortly.
Work 5 rounds. 2 sts from end of round 6; continue to work according to chart, whilst making thumb gusset:
Establish thumb gusset above your 2 plain stocking sts. When you hit first of these 2 sts: PM, K1, M 1purlwise, K1. Work in pattern to end round.
Rnd 7: Work according to chart. When you hit marker, K1, P1, K1
Rnd 8: This time when you hit marker, K1, P1, Mk 1 knitwise, M1 purlwise, K1
Rnd 9: Wok round hand in patt acc to chart. When you hit marker: K1, P1, K1, P1, K1.
Now continue to work acc to chart, and inc two sts knitwise, immediately inside the 2 purl sts, every other round til you have 15 thumb sts. (ie: You are increasing every even numbered round). [55sts when thumb gusset is complete, including the 2 P sts].
When you have 55 sts, work one more round then leave all thumb sts including the 2 P sts on waste yarn or st holder.
Rejoin in round and work in K1 P1 ribbing. K last 2 sts of rnd (the single K sts, one from each side of the thumb) together [37sts].
Cont working in ribbing, and moss st that final st – K one rnd, P it the next.
Work for 2cm or longer if preferred.
Cast off in ribbing.
Using smaller needles, PU 17 sts waiting for you.
M 2 sts from body of mitt. [19sts]
On next rnd, K2tog, work to end of rnd in K1 P1 ribbing [18 sts]
Cont in K1, P1 rib for 4 rounds. Cast off.
“I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing!” It was not the last time that he wished that!
The Hobbit, J.R.R.Tolkien, 1937, Chapter 2.
Two years ago, I decided to do something not at all Living History, veering slightly into Cosplay. I decided to make one of my sons a version of Bilbo’s dressing gown, from ‘An Unexpected Journey’, the first film in ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy. Mainly because he’d made wistful remarks about wishing he had one. Also, because I wanted to make the Christmas presents for my older sons, to save money and so they would always have special things made for them, with love.
So I looked at sites to see who else had ventured into patchwork dressing gown territory and quickly realised surprisingly few people – even Tolkien geeks like myself – had done a similar project. All those online are lovely but where they seemed to miss the mark was in the colour tone/depth of hue – picking colours too bold, or light. I watched , re-watched and paused the scene with Bilbo wearing his dressing gown and started to analyse the designer’s colour choices. There were earthy tones of browns and burgundy, with some primrose yellow, pale but dull-ish blue, and dusky rose colours. All colours from nature. The printed fabrics also reflected hobbits’ love of nature; flowers and foliage.
Based on analysis of images from the movie, and other bloggers’ recommendations, I decided to go with making the gown using 2 squares and a rectangle – measured in inches because hobbits aren’t metric! The two squares would be 6” x 6” and 3” x 3”; the rectangle, 3” x 6”. I made templates from old plastic ice cream or margarine tubs, and added ½” seam allowance. I have a measuring gauge on the throat plate of my sewing machine (also pre-decimal because it’s on my 1956 Singer 221K) so I knew I could piece sort of accurately if I cut accurately and used the throat plate’s gauge.
When I started to piece the sleeves, laying out the patches on the cut-out lining, I compared my sleeve to the one in the film and realised there was no way the patches, the sizes recommended, would be right – far too large. So I revised them down to 16cm x 9cm and 9cm x 9cm, totally dropping the large squares. (Measurements include seam allowances. And I forgot to keep them imperial so when I re-make this, will revert to imperial!) Just counting down roughly the number of patches in the sleeves and body, from the movie’s version, it was apparent they were smaller than I’d thought.
I meant to do the sleeves like this and leave the body with larger patches, but when it came to it I realised the disparity in patch size from sleeves to body, would look a bit odd, so ended up re-cutting the oblongs and squares I’d already cut out, down to the smaller size. This doubled the amount of cutting out I had to do.
The original seemed to combine texture as well as colour; brocaded and other relief patterned fabrics, velvets and silks. Most of the other makers of replicas, so far, had stuck mainly with cottons – understandable as fat quarters are so readily available. But I was lucky, like a hobbit, to have a hoard of fairly rich looking silks and some brocades even a light green textured linen, from years of re-enactment and living history which meant I could incorporate texture, as well as colour, into my version. And yes, I’d happily make these on commission, but I’d have to figure out a fair price as it is incredibly labour intensive. Essentially you are designing and making a fabric, as well as a garment.
My self-imposed limitation was to only use up scraps I already had – so to make this for zero cost – with a rough colour criteria in my head as I sorted. I wanted this to cost as close to zero £s as possible and at the same time, use up scraps that had been lying around just in case, for years. Hopefully, we’d end up with a useful garment that would also clear a couple of bags of scraps from the airing cupboard.
So old patchwork fat quarters bought in a fit of enthusiasm a decade ago and never used; combined with recycled clothes and upholstery fabric and some living history fabrics were to be used. Surprisingly, my own palette wasn’t as far off the costume designer’s as I’d imagined it might be. Only think I lacked were rusty oranges/umbers. I resisted the temptation to buy any fabric. I knew somewhere I had the perfect offcut of burgundy velvet; but was unsure if I could lay my hands on it. So if I couldn’t find it, would have to buy that. And that was going to be my only expenditure. All threads I use as vintage; bought at car-boot sales. So I would use neutral cotton thread that came to hand. More than once in recent years, I was lucky enough to score huge boxes of 1950s – ‘70s threads at a car boot for derisory prices. For this project, I selected mainly ‘Silcarn’ brand and all the threads used had to be sound. Over many years of secondhand thread buying, I’ve noticed the threads that seem to degrade to the point they are unusable tend to be certain colours, which suggests their dyes are more corrosive – black and dark blues in particular. I always try and yank apart vintage cotton when I buy it and if it stays intact, I keep it – if it breaks easily, I discard.
Later, after I cut the squares, I sorted for depth of colour – ignoring each patch’s actual colour but sorting into two piles – darker and lighter. Then, when piecing each section, gave precedence to the darker patches, only using the lighter when darker ran out. In the end I used cottons, silk, linen, and the dark brown velvet was a recycled old smock-like top I’d had and not worn for years which turned out to be viscose and silk mix. There was a small amount of wool/cashmere leftover from a coat I made a couple of years back. I’d hoarded nice silk for years; leftovers from linings for re-enactment costumes and old tops I’d worn in ‘real life’ – if I got too fat for something made of silk – I never threw that out. Now the hoard came into its own. I can honestly say not a patch of this fabric is something I went out to buy; it was like something from The Shire, made from genuine scraps, leftovers and old clothing; not a single piece of the patchwork was something I went out to buy. All of it therefore pre-washed and shrunk, and some of it aged like fine wine.
There were some old fat quarters I’d cut into for a never-to-be-finished project. These were slightly too small for my smallest size patches, but I cut them into small squares anyway, and put them aside to use for the edges and shaping – particularly on the edges of the sleeves; determined not to waste a scrap. I used my vintage pinking shears – another £1 car-boot find – to cut fabric where I could, to minimise fraying.
Cutting out the squares – the first time – and rectangles took just over a day solid. I took apart an old dressing gown being determined not to spend a penny, not even on a pattern. This was one I was about to throw away anyway. The fleece was later recycled to make a cosy cat bed (after I unpicked half the dressing gown, laid it out flat, and used it to make a paper pattern). I could then make the lining and put it together first, before risking messing up the precious patchwork. I made a pocket in the lining. We slipped a repro ‘One Ring’ into it.
I laid out the patches roughly on each cut-out lining piece to make an approximate calculation of how many squares I’d need (adding on a rough extra 10% or so, for seam allowances between the patches). It looked like I’d need roughly 4 large, 20 medium and 20 small patches for the back.
I’d intended to use some burgundy velvet I knew I had somewhere, for the facing and cuffs but it stayed elusive so in the end, I had to relent and spend a bit of money. £12 on eBay for 2 metres of 100% cotton velvet, which, when it turned up was nice but not quite right right shade of ‘wine’. So back to eBay to buy some burgundy Procion dyes and fixative. Having to over-dye the velvet slowed the project down but it was already slowed down anyway, whilst I fixed the size of the patches. This gave me longer to arrange the patches on the front and constantly comparing to the Hobbit stills, I realised I needed a few more dusky rose colours and old golds as well as some olives. So a further raid of fabric stashes was done, more patches cut, and I was ready to finally piece the front. My mistakes had slowed me down enough to give me time to really figure out how to get the front as good as I possibly could. More haste, less speed. I pieced together bits of silk to make the piping round the edges, from scratch. Never made piping before but it was easy. To finish, I sewed a tag inside for him to hang it up and embroidered his initials in Dwarvish runes.
In the end, the burgundy dyes set me back under £10 which meant I spent less than £22 for the velvet edging; but ended up with enough for two dressing gowns meaning this one essentially cost £11. No doubt the burgundy velvet I knew I had will turn up again once I don’t need it.
In the end, son got this for Yule, 2015, but only just – so I had little time to photo it before I wrapped it up for him and we forgot to get a shot of him in it when he was home for Christmas. He went back to uni and we both kept forgetting to get shots of it.
In amongst the fabrics were some scraps of genuine 19thC printed cotton (mainly bird and flower prints) I bought in 2011 to make reticules as thank yous to Caro and Emma, for doing living history at Dove Cottage with us.
I’m blogging this now as I’m about to re-make it using a more 18thC shape for the gown (banyan). I’ll share the results here.
I wanted to go into detail on how I did this project as it is my favourite thing I ever sewed, and also – when I wanted to make one, there was a dearth of info out there so I had to largely wing it. Hopefully, this will help someone else tackle this project. Essentially, you need to draft or buy a dressing gown pattern, or pull apart an old dressing gown, or draft or buy an 18thC banyan pattern; then make panels of fabric (one for the back, two narrower for the front, and 2 for the sleeves). Then cut into the panels (reinforcing wherever you cut into by re-sewing) to create the shape. Then, sew together. The belt and edging were cotton velvet; the piping was homemade from silk, pieced by being cut straight not on the bias, which is how it was often done in the 18thC. It photographs almost white but is, in reality, much softer in hue.
I loved every second of this project, to the point I’m about to make another one, using the 18thC banyan pattern we drafted last year. This time, for myself. And mainly because I still have enough leftover scraps of various fabrics. My only regret with Bilbo’s Dressing Gown was that I didn’t make it from a banyan pattern, to give it more of an eighteenth century shape with a waist and flared out shape.
But anyway. I’m about to go there and back again – again. Wish me luck.
In Europe the handspindle was the only tool for spinning yarn until the early Renaissance, when the spinning wheel appeared. Simple spindles produced all the thread, yarns and cordage for household use, for commerce and for war, for at least 9,000 years. The handspindle met all these human needs: clothing, household linens, uniforms for the armies, cloth wrapping and cordage for packages, trappings for animals, rugs and tapestries, sails for all the ships…
Not many spinners know this, but there is one UK battlefield memorial stone that commemorates not just the men, but also the women, affected by the conflict. And it depicts a hand-spinner.
Saxton is where I used to go horse-riding with a friend, when we were teenagers (and I could borrow a horse) and Saxton church happens to be the burial place of Lord Dacre who died during the battle and was, according to local myth, buried sitting on his horse. (Not likely, I’m guessing. But captured our imaginations as kids).
At nearby Saxton church, is the memorial to the Battle of Towton, fought on a snowy day in April, 1461 – allegedly the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. As kids, we were told the nearby beck ran red with blood.
As Brown Owl and Guide Leader in our village, in the 1960s, my mum used to be part of a memorial ceremony there every year so it was a place of some significance to me, growing up. If you are one of the Sherburn 1940s-60s Guides or Brownies, and remember this – do get in touch. Mary’s daughter, here.
Many years later, as a founder member of a re-enactment society, my husband had the honour of laying the wreath during the memorial ceremony, for a couple of years. No-one there but me knew it, but he was linking those ceremonies of the 1950s and ’60s, with the twenty first century.
I vaguely remember something about the laying of flowers with my mother, and as a keen rose grower/collector with maybe 100 roses, as well as a local, it’s entirely likely she may have grown the elusive, now possibly lost, ‘Towton rose’ at some point (see below). Again, I have some really vague memory of it, I can’t quite get at. The Towton rose was strikingly pied – both red (Lancashire) and white (Yorkshire).
Although there is a weatherworn (Victorian?) memorial stone up on the battlefield, a stone cross, where my mother and the churchgoers used to lay flowers annually if I remember rightly, there was never a monument to the battle, per se, until the early 2000s, when one was commissioned from artist Stephen Hines – after the mass burials on the battlefield were uncovered, up there. The memorial was carved on local stone from Morley.
My husband and a re-enactment group he formed, were instrumental in efforts to get a memorial placed at nearby Saxton churchyard. Around that time, I did a talk for the Towton Battlefield Society about medieval women and spinning, and unknown to me, in the audience was the then-putative memorial’s sculptor, Stephen Hines.
Imagine my surprise when we went to the grand unveiling, somewhere round about 2004, only to find the memorial depicted not only the soldiers who fought that day; but a lone, anonymous woman – with a hand spindle, to honour the women who lived and died, in this area and their contribution – whilst men were fighting battles; women were getting on with the real business of life.
Husband says one of the men on the memorial, is wearing ‘his’ repro 15thC helmet, which he lent to the artist, and apparently the faces of the soldiers are of local people, but I rather like it that the spinner remains anonymous, with her back to us.
We went up to look at the memorial again last Saturday, on impulse, as we were dropping one of our sons off nearby and had an afternoon to kill, before we picked him up again. There is a slight family history connection, in that the Warringtons, a farming family mine married into in the nineteenth century, farmed for some time at Lead Church; a tiny, medieval chapel in the middle of a field, not far from the battlefield. We didn’t attempt Lead Church on Saturday as we had the dog with us, and she is scared of sheep! As we stood taking photos of the memorial, a dog-walker came up to us and said he was there the day it was unveiled, and his kids’ photos were in the local press. He looked surprised when we answered – so were we. We were the re-enactors present, and my son was in the papers, as well. He was two, and wearing 15thC costume, so a shoo-in for the local press photographer. Nice to meet someone else who was there at the unveiling, as we stood in the churchyard.
Lead spindle whorls and loom weights have been found on the battlefield (not much evidence of housing, or spoil heaps, if I recall correctly – so these finds are just random things dropped in the fields, at unknown dates). Lead whorls are, of curse, found all over the UK and usually out of context. Yesterday’s battlefield becomes tomorrow’s pasture, arable or back garden. Although not so much at the blasted, rugged corner of Yorkshire that is Towton, so the presence of spindles up there is intriguing.
The local villages are badly gentrified now, but in my memory they are still like something from ‘The Famous Five’ – unspoilt, slightly tumbledown limestone houses with red and yellow pantile rooves, with pinnied elderly ladies in the front gardens, waving at us as we passed. As we drove there, I was recounting the names of the elderly ladies, I recalled from many years back. I saw every single name in the churchyard, later – one after the other.
The local ‘big’ family during the War of the Roses, the Vavasours, were devoutly Roman Catholic and carefully kept out of the conflict that led to the bloodiest battle in English history, happening on their doorstep. Again, I may have a very faint link to the 18thC Vavasours, so in a tangential way, this is genealogy, as well! Parish records in the area tend to start around the 1480s, so just after this period.
As kids, we’d often cycle up to the battlefield and hang around hoping to see ghosts. At my talk, was a gent who had not long since moved into a barn conversion at the other end of the battlefield, and he told me he had come along to the Towton Battlefield Society out of curiosity, because he kept being woken up in the middle of the night – by the sound of soldiers marching through the ground floor below! We were never ‘lucky’ enough to see anything up there, but it was bleak and very ‘Wuthering Heights’, so appealed to us as kids and later, as teenagers, we went up there often.
There is a sense in which almost everything we do in life is, to borrow Keats’ phrase, “writ in water” – it’s all ephemeral. So I rather enjoy the fact that somewhere, set in stone, is an oblique record of a talk I gave, probably nearly 14 years ago. We sometimes forget what an heroic effort it was, when every single textile in the world was made on hand-spindles or great wheels. And so the thing I love about the Towton memorial, is that it honours women, and spinning.
We still have gaps in our diary for talks for 2018, by the way. Current talks include: George Walker’s 1814 Tour of Yorkshire; History of Hand Spinning; Great Wheel Spinning; Land Girls; The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales and Yorkshire Ganseys. But we are happy to tailor a talk to your specific requirements. So message me here if you’re a group secretary trying to set up your schedule and if we can fit you in, we will!
If you come to one of our talks and want to memorialise it in stone – fill your boots!
1821 Thursday, 18th October [York]
Went over the bridge at 11 ¼. Went shopping with my aunt… Walked with my aunt around the castle yard (she wanted some knitted nightcaps of the debtors)…”
[Anne Lister’s Diary, p. 175 ‘The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister” (Virago, ed. Helena Whitbread)].
Reading Anne Lister’s diaries was my first glimpse of debtors’ prison inmates knitting to make a little extra money. Being in debtors’ prison was not free of charge. You could improve your food and accommodation – so long as you paid. Debtors would knit small items like night-caps,purses and stockings, and sell them to members of the public to make their lives more bearable.
Many jails had two sides – one for criminals, one for debtors. I have seen the nineteenth century York Castle jailer’s journal, where he records the location of burials of the executed prisoners. Under the paving slabs of this very yard. Anne and her aunt will have stepped on them to buy their night-caps.
The best source to give a glimpse into the 19thC debtors’ prison is Dickens’ ‘Little Dorrit’ – Dickens was no stranger to the sometimes bizarre interior world of the debtors’ gaol, thanks to his father’s time in the Marshalsea, in 1824. Read that for more insight than I could ever give you.
Researching my new book, which will be a foray into the darker side of nineteenth century textile arts; I came across this news story:
LANCASTER CASTLE. During the late assizes, the high sheriff gave an order to the governor of Lancaster castle, not to admit strangers within the walls of the debtors’ side… on the ground that the indiscriminate visits …during the assizes, might possibly introduce disease into the gaol. This was considered a great hardship by the debtors, as they had been accustomed to reap a pretty good harvest during the previous assizes, by the sale of articles of knitting, &c., such as purses, night-caps and other articles, which they manufacture during their imprisonment. The high sheriff was memorialised on the subject by the disappointed debtors, but in vain; the prohibition was not taken off until the assizes had terminated, and most of the visitors had left town.
[The Manchester Times and Gazette, Saturday, March 31st, 1832].
Over on the criminal side of the jails, knitting was sometimes smuggled out, to provide an added income, on release. Prisoners were often given yarn, technically the property of the Governor, to knit items whilst behind bars.
In 1843, one enterprising non-debtor inmate from Morpeth Jail, Ellen McGurch (“a character well known to the turnkeys”) was found on her release, to be wearing a shift with stockings sewn to it and the hem doubled up. In the doubled-up hem, were stuffed a quantity of muffatees. Apparently, “….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 28th, 1843].
This is a post for the genealogists – about arcane Masonic documents hidden in tin boxes, and secret compartments in nineteenth century writing slopes and – lots of fun stuff like that.
Genealogy-wise, can you believe we have a tin box that originally belonged to my husband’s great-great grandfather, that a lovely step great aunt gave us maybe twenty years ago, and we have never thoroughly looked through? It was mainly full of paperwork – I had a rough recollection of it being from around the 1890s – having maybe had a cursory root through about 20 years back – and I had spotted something Masonic in it, so assumed it was mainly stuff from his Masonic lodge.
There were also a couple of smaller boxes inside, containing odds and ends, that we’d totally forgotten. Husband’s great grandad was something of an amateur scientist – one box contained a massive beetle he must have ‘collected’. That thing last probably saw a leaf in 1905. Luckily I’m not bothered by spiders and beetles but it did make me cautious, opening the three small boxes inside. Just in case.
Anyway, I was reading yet another Jack The Ripper book the other day (My Gx3 Uncle, with the glorious name of Charlie Varley, was York’s Chief Inspector in 1888, so I have a kind of vicarious interest in the goings on of 1888) and there were so many mentions of London Masonic lodges, I got curious and thought “I’ll go look through that tin box, and see which lodges are mentioned.” We know both his great great grandfather and great grandfather – who had the tin box after him – were keen Masons, and one of them eventually the Grand Master, we think, of a lodge in Kent when they’d left London. I had a vague recollection of this paperwork being from his time as Manager of the Author’s Club in Westminster, at the turn of the century. (He was a friend of the Scott Expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting – whose signature is also on a document in this box! I better scan it… And that is the story for another day as we think we own something very special that was given to great grandad as a child, by Ponting, after the 1911 Expedition).
Quick back-story: husband’s great great grandma died when her only child was a baby. That child was husband’s great grandad. After a couple of years, Great Great Grandad, re-married. There was one son from the second marriage. That son had a daughter and she gave this tin box of family memorabilia to my husband, many years ago, as much of it concerned his family, and she felt he was the rightful owner. Lovely lady.
Turned out there was only a little Masonic material in the box. I haven’t had time to scan the document yet, which seems to be certifying that G-G-grandad in law had been through the initiation ceremony for ‘X’ Lodge in Westminster – prime Jack the Ripper suspect territory, that little roomful of people, if ever there was any – but will put it up on here when it’s scanned, in case anyone stumbles on this and is interested in the Freemasons’ history. As well as the certificate, and a gold pentacle believe it or not, which we assume must be Masonic, there is a small leather pouch we assume he carried to meetings, with his initials and a Masonic symbol in gold tooling.
Also in the box were the deeds to numerous houses (if only husband owned one of the several houses in Pimlico, or Kent hotels we seem to have copies of deeds for!)
A tip to genealogists: look up your ancestors’ addresses on Zoopla or similar to get an idea of their current value. One of these houses is now worth a cool few million (it is now divided into flats and each flat is worth over a million quid, put it that way!) At the same time, go and look in the 19thC censuses at your ancestor and not just your ancestor, but his and her neighbours. Check out the occupations. This street was fairly ordinary in the 1870s – in fact, there was a pretty sordid murder 3 doors down in 1875 as I found by doing an address search in a database of nineteenth century newspapers.
Whenever I find my target on the Census I look at the immediate streets around. It gives you a real sense of your ancestor’s life. Obviously, Pimlico in 2017 is not remotely like Pimlico of the 1880s.
Many a gentrified street now peopled by the wealthy, was once simply lived in by coach-builders, factory workers and servants; ostlers and clerks.
Bear with me, gentle Reader, whilst I go off on a tangent for a bit.
Talking of clerks, I recently got interested in 19thC writing slopes. They’re a sort of portable desk – some have secret compartments. I like the ergonomics of writing on a sloped surface, so decided to get one to use, not as an ornament. Regency ones often have a drawer in the side and later, Victorian ones a secret compartment. Like this one in mine:
The slope, when it came, had a stunning blue velvet skiver (not unlike the vivid purple on in Emily Bronte’s slope, although I can only here find a picture of Charlotte’s) .
In the case of my slope, the velvet was rotten and had holes in where someone seems to have closed it hastily with maybe a dip pen nib still in there, that damaged the wood and badly abraded the velvet on both sides of the slope. So we stripped off the old skiver and replaced with blue leather, after filling in the gouges in the slope’s wood, and sanding it. That was painful to me as a textile historian. But I did it because I wanted this thing to use, not admire.
We did manage to keep the original Greek key skiver surrounding as that was only slightly damaged. There are compartments for paper storage (or sealing wax, or wafers, or whatever in the nineteenth century) behind both surfaces of these slopes.
The slope is hinged only with fabric so the central bit is reinforced – luckily I had some vintage, wide cotton tape which was perfect for the job. As you can see, I have the original glass ink well whichI was pleased about, given the fact I only paid £30-odd for the slope. It has lost its key but I’m told the locks are simple, and often an old key can be found that will fit.
What has any of this got to do with husband’s tin box? Well, in amongst the little box of treasures inside, we had totally forgotten about, was a wax seal. Son 2 and I experimented yesterday and he managed to do this (The black bits were caused by us having to light our wax from a candle. Victorians knew not to do this!):
For scale, with a penny:
Sons and husband now know that their family sigil is a parrot. Appropriate.
Also in the box were some notes by step great aunt. I guessed they dated from the 1960s or 70s as these , I’m guessing by Aunt Elizabeth were written in biro.
Apparently, one of her family names had a cockerel as their ‘sign’ and their motto, according to the notes was “Whilst I live, I crow!” Finding this, I assumed the gilt fob seal I found was a cockerel (bad eyesight and these things as TINY!) But in fact, it was a parrot. It would, of course, be unusual to find a letter addressed to someone with the same seal on as you found in a box of their possessions.
I did find several (sadly, empty) envelopes addressed to husband’s G-G-G Aunt, postmarked from 1875, which did indeed have a wax seal with a cockerel on and this may be what prompted Great Aunt to write her note – but in fact the step family only became family a generation after these letters were sent, so I think it’s a coincidence. Intaglio fob seals like these were no doubt mass produced. We also have a blank one in the box, so maybe sometimes people took them to be customised/engraved after they bought them. Others would have been produced with generic symbols and mottos on.
They will have been made en masse after the introduction of the Penny Post and letter-writing became cheap and accessible for everyone. Previously, it was cheaper to send a parcel and smuggle a letter inside it, than to send a single sheet letter…
After she died, Emily Bronte’s writing slope was found to contain wafers – a sort of gummed paper seal you’d use to seal an envelope – sometimes use in conjunction with wax seals, wafers meant for informal correspondence. Many of Emily’s have oddly flirtatious mottos – no-one knows who they were meant for. For most letters though, you’d seal the envelope with wax. The seals we have are maybe only 1cm long, if that.
I have been researching 19thC Birmingham pen-makers for another project, and had recently come across the profession – many of whom side-stepped into being pen-makers – of “Gilt Toy Maker”. (Toy = any small frippery). I suspect these seals were mass produced in Brummagem by Gilt Toy Makers.
Anyway, upshot is – the ‘family seal’ now lives in the secret compartment of our writing slope (alongside the previous owner’s interesting vellum recipe).
I only had time to hastily scan this – from everything in the box. Because I found the lady on the right’s clothing fascinating. But I’ll be scanning it all. The oldest photo in the box dates to around 1856. It is probably the oldest thing in the box. As a young man, the gent below, was a carpenter working on a church restoration (Very Thomas Hardy) and the architect photographed him. It is brilliant.
I will have to spend a couple of days scanning to get everything but yes. A genealogist can have a box of genealogical treasures in their house for twenty years and barely get round to opening it…