“The Murmuring Wheel”

Caro outside Dove Cottage

Two weeks ago today, we were privileged to spend the weekend doing living history at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, where William Wordsworth and his family lived from 1799-1808.

Wordsworth was a revolutionary; writing about ordinary people going about their everyday lives; finding poetry in the mundane and his environment. He wrote about beggars, leech-gatherers, the disenfranchised, and those on the margins of society.

So that is what we portrayed: ordinary people.

In her Journal written at Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy wrote about their neighbours, who were small yeoman farming families just like my own Yorkshire and Westmorland ancestors, having to get up at dawn each day to card and spin wool before the rest of their day’s work, to try and earn enough money to hang onto their land. Wordsworth was later to write how sad he was about the spinning wheels going silent:

“Grief, thou hast lost an ever-ready friend,

Now that the cottage spinning-wheel is mute…”

In the silence that fell on the house, between parties of visitors, we could hear nothing but the Wordsworths’ clock and the murmur and whirr of our own wheel, which was rather special. And something he would have liked to hear too, I suspect.

In 1812, he wrote this:

“Song for the Spinning Wheel

Swiftly turn the murmuring wheel!
Night has brought the welcome hour,
When the weary fingers feel
Help, as if from faery power;
Dewy night o’ershades the ground;
Turn the swift wheel round and round!

Now, beneath the starry sky,
Couch the widely-scattered sheep;–
Ply the pleasant labour, ply!
For the spindle, while they sleep,
Runs with speed more smooth and fine,
Gathering up a trustier line.

Short-lived likings may be bred
By a glance from fickle eyes;
But true love is like the thread
Which the kindly wool supplies,
When the flocks are all at rest
Sleeping on the mountain’s breast.”

Emma at the Gossip Wheel

Caro, Emma and I spun and knitted in the Wordsworths’ children’s bedroom. Which provided its own challenges in terms of the light quality (exactly the same as that 18thC and 19thC spinners had to contend with!) And also the fact I bought this Timbertops 2 flyered Chair wheel, back in the mid 1990s, but had never once set it up for two people to spin on, or even seen two spinners on such a wheel. It took us two days to figure out how to configure the drive bands, but finally, on Sunday, Emma had it sussed. (Video on YouTube coming soon).

Dave and Alfi were beggars as described in Dorothy’s Journal, out in the lane.

Beggar child with Gentleman

And Dan and Alex were a gentleman tourist and local Westmorland militia man, respectively.

One line of my family were the Westmorland Speddings, and a great great etc grandfather, a steward to Lord Lowther, for whom Wordsworth’s father had worked. So I have a tenuous Wordsworth connection. In the 18thC, my Speddings married into the Bellas family, who were Westmorland sheep farmers and fell pony breeders. Wordsworth was friends with another branch of the Speddings. I descend from Thomas Spedding of  Woodside, who  married Mary Birkbeck of Kirkland at Brougham in 1701. He died in 1739, leaving goods valued at 19 pounds, 9 shillings, inventoried as:  “one heifer in calf, another heifer, one gelding, bees and hens and geese.” I love the fact you could leave your bees in your will! I descend from his daughter, Barbara Spedding.

Westmorland Militiaman and Gentleman Tourist

The Wordsworth Trust’s Museum has a small collection of knitting sticks, some of which were illustrated by Marie Hartley in ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’. Between working on the Gossip Wheel – and gossip – Caro and I worked on stocking knitting. I was using Wensleydale wool, for my version, on 1.5mm steel needles, and working with a goose-wing knitting stick; a typical shape stick for the Dales.

Knitting stick at work.

We tried to get a photo, as so many people ask how knitting sticks work. The light wasn’t great, and this was the best image we could come up with. Most of the time, the needles were more bent, and to make the stitches pop off the end of the needle, you have to work with them very close to the end.

It was a Saturday of torrential rain – water was literally pouring in cataracts across the roads and was so bad, some Woolfesters got rained out of their tents, and the evening event was cancelled. There were breaks in the rain on Sunday, so the shots in Dove Cottage’s garden make it look deceptively sunny. We saw a red squirrel – I have never seen one in my life – and a slow worm, which the boys filmed.

For me this is what living history is all about – bringing to life the small details of everyday life; doing what our ancestors did, and valuing the ‘ordinary’ in our histories; rather than the grand deeds of kings, queens and battles; honouring the real. Which Wordsworth would have understood. Tonight, whilst the sheep sleep on the hills, I will spin their wool, just like my Westmorland ancestors once did, and dream a little of that rainy but perfect weekend with friends and family, at Grasmere.

Dove Cottage Garden

Mr Dick’s Kite

Morgaine le Fay’s Antique Textiles

“Is it a Memorial about his own history that he is writing, aunt?’

‘Yes, child,’ said my aunt, rubbing her nose again. ‘He is memorializing the Lord Chancellor, or the Lord Somebody or other—one of those people, at all events, who are paid to be memorialized—about his affairs. I suppose it will go in, one of these days. He hasn’t been able to draw it up yet, without introducing that mode of expressing himself; but it don’t signify; it keeps him employed.’

In fact, I found out afterwards that Mr. Dick had been for upwards of ten years endeavouring to keep King Charles the First out of the Memorial; but he had been constantly getting into it, and was there now.

‘I say again,’ said my aunt, ‘nobody knows what that man’s mind is except myself; and he’s the most amenable and friendly creature in existence. If he likes to fly a kite sometimes, what of that! Franklin used to fly a kite. He was a Quaker, or something of that sort, if I am not mistaken. And a Quaker flying a kite is a much more ridiculous object than anybody else.’

‘David Copperfield’, Charles Dickens.

Sometimes I feel like Dickens’ Mr Dick, writing a book that never seems to be quite finished, although I have only one appearance by Charles I in it…

People are asking me when The Book is out, and we have just had a bit of a delay as our wonderful tech editor has been very ill. In the way of Yorkshirewomen, she is fighting back and getting better now, and we’ll soon be on with the final stages. I have been test knitting the last two designs, whilst we have some wonderful sample knitters champing at the bit to get started, when the patterns have had the once-over.

The delay has has a good side-effect. It’s given me time to squeeze in one last flurry of research and adding in yet more info I have found.

I had an idea that the famous, humane, Quaker run 18thC lunatic asylum, The Retreat, here in York, might have used knitting or spinning as therapy for the patients. But the records were so extensive, I had no time to shoehorn this in to The Book originally. With our unexpected little bit of extra time, I managed to start trawling the thousands of documents deposited at the Borthwick Institute and yes – hit paydirt.

I will hold back the real seam of knitting history gold for The Book. But here, I will fly you a kite made from a patchwork of the records I will not be able to shoehorn in.

But, for your delectation, here are some of the items from the Patients’ Accounts (patients were charged for minor purchases, and a record was kept. As I suspected, yarn and knitting goodies, as well as clothing items, cropped up in these lists). For the knitters and spinners, hold on til later this year and all will be revealed.

The Retreat encouraged the men and “some of the women” to spin or knit. The stockings made would be sold on to other inmates, presumably those who were too ill to knit, or couldn’t knit.

I took detailed notes on the women’s fabric purchases/ haberdashery items from the late 18thC/early 19thC as I know a few living historians read this and so far as I am aware, this stuff is unpublished elsewhere.   For those not old enough to remember ‘old money’ – the day it happened, my 1 shilling bars of chocolate became a mighty 5p. So, below:

s = shilling

d = pence

It’s interesting to see the comparative cost of things in the 1790s. There are endless entries for shoe repair (which implies the patients were up, about, and wearing down shoe leather!), sometimes shoes are re-heeled, or the wales of the shoes repaired. I also found stay, stocking and other repairs  itemised.  Patient  Susan Reynolds paid 1s. 4d  on 20 Aug, 1799 for “A skirt dying over again”.  It was a make do and mend world. Patients seem to keep up with fashions, too, according to their resources. Most buy worsted stockings – but one or two ordered silk, or part silk. Around 1800, as the almost transparent, floaty fabrics came in, you have patients ordering dimity, “gauze” and cotton prints.

From the itemised lists, it’s possible to figure out the average amounts of yarn used for a pair of stockings. Ann Barrans on 2 May 1799, bought 4oz of “Stocking worsted” for a shilling and a penny. In 1796, Mary Pyle and Ann Noble Barrow both had paid 1 s 8d for a finished pair of stockings, each. Yet on 23rd March of the same year, Hannah Foster paid 3d for “stocking worsted”.  This smaller amount may have been for just enough worsted to darn stockings.  Other items refer to a few pence worth of worsted “for Darning”. Two pair of completed worsted stockings cost Elizabeth Thompson   4s. 6d, in 1797. Which means each pair came in at double the price paid by Mary and Ann. This implies different qualities of stocking.

In other words, in some circumstances, the yarn cost about 50% of the price of the finished item. In others, the yarn cost only pennies less than the finished stocking. There are variables at work, here.

On the 4 May of that year, Hannah Ponsonby was billed for “Worsted for stockings  paid H. Hull    3 s  8d”. H. Hull may well have been another inmate or it could be a supplier. But if just over a shilling bought you 4 oz of stocking worsted, then three-and-eight must have bought over 1lb of yarn. From other entries, Hannah Ponsonby seems to have been a keen needlewoman, so it’s likely she knitted four pairs of stockings for herself. Mary Pyle paid 2s 5d  in the summer of 1797,  for a pound of “wool for stockings”. (Bear in mind the UK fuzziness when it comes to using terms like ‘worsted’ and ‘wool’. Stocking yarn seems to have generally been worsted but, to the uninitiated, including men who write account books, it’s sometimes all just “wool”).  Notice too, yarn counts are never specified. (Nor were they in the detailed records of the Knitting and Spinning Schools – again, more in The Book!)

In 1797, Mary Pyle had something fancier than woollen stockings:  “1 Pr stockings  ¾ silk   3 s. 7d”

In March 1799, Hannah Foster  had bought “Knitting yarn” for  3s  – 7d. So the 3d for “worsted” possibly refers to a smaller quantity, used for darning and repair.  Interestingly, on the same day she had bought the knitting wool, Hannah also bought 1 1/2 d worth of “silk” and yet “Crewel” (which is woollen yarn) cost double that, at 3d.  We can’t know the quantities. In 1799, Mary Pyle  bought “10 oz of Knitting yarn of cotton thread  5 -/ 1d”. This is the first reference I know of, to date, of cotton knitting yarn. It seems Rowan Yarns weren’t the first in Yorkshire to have that idea.

Hannah Ponsonby in 1798,  was charged 10d for “shaving her head and postage”. A note said the postage was 7d of that. Inmates did not routinely have their hair shaved off as they did at the cruel and inhumane York Asylum, nearby. But it was a standard treatment if you had a fever, so maybe Hannah Ponsonby was ill. (And fired off a letter first!)

Some of the interesting flotsam and jetsam from the accounts, dates between 1796-1807:

spectacles ~3s

pumps ~ 4s.4d (the patients had regular dances)

thimble ~ 2d

silk handkerchief ~ 6s

sugarcandy – 6d

knitting needles – 3d  (most likely a set of four!)

“Patent” [shiny?]  knitting needles  3d

gloves ~ 1s. 8d

“shaving and gravedigging” ~ 1s.8d

2 cotton Caps ~ 2s

“shrowd” ~ 7s. 6d

coffin ~ 42s.

Fabrics mentioned

“7 yards raw linen”   ~ £16 9s 4d

“Thread, buttons, worsted” ~ 10d

“Cloth for waistcoat” ~ 4 -/ 2d

“Black worsted 6oz and white yarn 1 oz”   ~ 1s. 6 ½ d

“4 ½ yd check” ~   6-/ 4 ½ d

“10 yds worsted Crape” ~  11s. 8d

“Lining for gown” ~1s

“dimity for sleeve ” ~ 1s.1d

“2 check Aprons” ~ 6s.1d

“½ yd muslin” ~ 2s. 9d

“Callamanco” ~ 1s.4d

“Printed cotton  For yd 10d” ~     1s.4d

“Irish cloth  7 ½ d do. Gown-lining 1 -/ 10d ” ~  2 s.  5 ½ d

“E.Lister” is often mentioned as a dressmaker. It is likely she was an inmate (I can cross reference this with patient lists at a future date).

A typical entry from 1799:

“Gownmaking  E. Lister   1-/ 8d  [?]  3 ½ d  1s. 11 ½ d “

It seems Ms Lister made up the fabrics bought by the inmates. Many of the recovering inmates were allowed to visit town, and so could browse Regency York’s shops and indulge in a bit of retail therapy, although some will have made a selection, and sent out later. There also seems to have been a certain amount of cloth as well as yarn in stock, as this entry for the silk-clad Mary Pyle shows:

“31 Oct, 1797  Flannel 12 yd which belong’d Retreat   2-/ 6d”  [their underline].

We’re busy making 1800(ish) clothing for a ‘Terrible Knitters’ living history, this summer, so all references to this period’s costume are useful!  I hope you found this useful and or interesting, Gentle Reader.

And I will leave you with Mr Dick and David Copperfield. Flying kites made from words:

‘What do you think of that for a kite?’ he said.

I answered that it was a beautiful one. I should think it must have been as much as seven feet high.

‘I made it. We’ll go and fly it, you and I,’ said Mr. Dick. ‘Do you see this?’

He showed me that it was covered with manuscript, very closely and laboriously written; but so plainly, that as I looked along the lines, I thought I saw some allusion to King Charles the First’s head again, in one or two places.

‘There’s plenty of string,’ said Mr. Dick, ‘and when it flies high, it takes the facts a long way. That’s my manner of diffusing ’em. I don’t know where they may come down. It’s according to circumstances, and the wind, and so forth; but I take my chance of that.’

Items deposited at the Borthwick Institute, York University. Reference: Ret  3/10/1/1

Image: courtesy of Morgaine le Fay’s Antique Textiles. Quick! Go lust at the original 18thC and 19thC textiles! This site keeps me off the streets for hours…

Note on 2nd image: Richard Dadd, the artist, developed a psychosis and murdered his father, in 1843. He spent the rest of his life in first Bethlem, then Broadmoor Hospitals. He had been born at Chatham, Kent in 1817, incidentally where the 4 year old Dickens and his family had moved the year before. In ‘Crazy Jane’, Dadd painted Rochester Castle – deeply familiar to Dickens – in the background. He painted from memory. Dickens’ Mr Dick’s ‘full name’ was ‘Richard Babley’ which some commentators believe may echo ‘Richard Dadd’. Mr Dick also lives in Kent, and has been rescued from an Asylum – or the threat of being returned to it – by David Copperfield’s Aunt.

Morgaine le Fay’s Antique Textiles

Morgaine’s site is a great resource for re-enactors, as well as a place to look at amazing repro 18thC wooden dolls, etc. And yes – the actual textiles are actually for sale!

Morgaine le Fay’s Blog

Morgaine blogs here. Fascinating stuff.

William Booth, Draper

Based in Wisconsin, but ships to the UK, and competitive prices, too.

Project Gutenberg

Text of David Copperfield here.

Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, Simon Callow

We were at the launch of this, the day before Dickens’ bicentenary, at Pocklington Arts Centre, near York. Dickens was a great fan of York, as he visited his brother here, many times.  Marvellous book by one of the best actors of his generation. If you ever get a chance to see Mr.Callow reading Dickens – go go go!

War Horse! Guest Post by Amanda Carter

Jesse Boothman

When I went to see ‘War Horse’ recently, I thought of Uncle Jesse, famously a stunt rider in early films and trainer of horses for the Yorkshire Hussars.  Last year, a fellow Boothman descendant had sent me some amazing photos of Great Uncle Jesse in WW1, training horses for the Front. The lovely Amanda Carter kindly wrote this guest piece for us and supplied these photos. If you haven’t been to see ‘War Horse’ yet – or read Michael Morpurgo’s brilliant novel – please do!

Amanda descends from Jesse Boothman, and my great grandad was his brother, Tom. Both boys were sons of William Boothman, originally a farmer from Barnoldswick, who ended up farming at Roundhay, Leeds.

Jesse took on quite a glamour, still being talked about decades later, on our side of the family.

Although we lost contact, us descendants ended up by some fluke, living a village or two apart and Amanda and I even went to the same school, at one point although again, a year or two apart, so we never knew eachother.

Incidentally, I don’t know if Amanda knows this, but one of my other great grandads, John Henry Thompson, raised hounds for the Bramham Hunt, in Ryther. This is a long way from Leeds where Jesse and Tom grew up. So a big coincidence. My Auntie Annie who died in her late 80s, had the stuffed head of a fox on her wall. She used to tell me the story of walking across our fields, one Sunday morning, wearing her best white dress ready for church, and seeing the hunt kill a fox right in front of her. They then ‘blooded’ her, and later presented her with its head. She was horrified – and still remembered it 80 odd years on, as the single most frightening moment of her life! She kept the head, though.  Must admit, my mum’s side of the family did not agree with hunting but they needed the money, so raised the hounds for the extra income.

Hope you enjoy Amanda’s piece as much as I did, and thanks again to Amanda!

You can visit her here.


Guest Post by Amanda Carter

Jesse Boothman was born on a small farm in Roundhay, the youngest and smallest of 5 brothers. From the stories I have heard, none of the Boothman boys were short of charm, charisma and courage, Jess being no exception.

Jess worked on the family farm, he liked a drink, loved the military, hunting, point to pointing, showing horses and judging cattle at shows.  So it’s a bit of a mystery as to why, when his eldest brother John (Jack) died in 1913, Jess took over his pub,

The Nags Head, image courtesy Wikipedia Commons

The Nag’s Head in Chapel Allerton.  The pub had a more than interesting dark history involving highwaymen and body snatchers.  One evening, after the odd pint no doubt, Jess and his brothers decided to investigate the cellar below for evidence of a secret passage.  Carefully lifting the Yorkshire stone flags they discovered a small black door at one end with steps leading to yet another cellar below.  At the church end of the cellar was another door, behind which lay a vaulted passage with a stone slab part way along upon which lay human remains probably left by body snatchers!.  This tale was regaled over the bar of the Nag’s Head many a cold winter night!

Jess married Violet Atkinson in January 1914; unfortunately, the dark days of WW1 were already looming on the horizon.  Jess being very fond of the military (and the fact that you received free horse food) was already enlisted in the Yorkshire Hussar Territorials.  When war broke out that summer Jess was called up and sent to camp within a week.  His young wife Violet was left to manage the pub with their firstborn, Clifford, born in December 1914.

Jess had many talents but none greater than his riding ability. He was a tough, roughrider, a trick rider and there wasn’t a horse alive that he could not stay on!  He could split a lemon at full gallop with his sword, was champion tentpegger and was often used as stuntman for films.

Lord Harewood was the Commanding Officer of the Yorkshire Hussars, he and Jess had known each other through the Bramham Moor Hunt which hunted regularly across the Harewood Estate as well as through the territorials.  Lord Harewood was well aware of Jess’s amazing talent with horses and when Jess’s unit was sent to the Somme he wouldn’t allow Jess to go, instead sending him to Southampton to break in wild horses from the Argentinean prairies.  Some of the horses were so wild and unbreakable they had to be shot.  Jess and a small team of select men broke wild horses that had never been touched by human hand for the cavalry and to pull artillery.  It must have been a heartbreaking task, knowing what they were to face.  As men were killed on the front, Jess was again called to France twice more and twice more Lord Harewood pulled him back.   So Jess returned from the war to the Nag’s Head, however, always willing to take a chance Jess was caught by the local Police for after hours drinking. The Police station was next door to the pub though the Methodist Church always had the finger pointed at them for reporting him!

Still, life moved on well for Jess, he took a farm at Meanwood, where his second son Stanley was born and then moved to Spen Lane, eventually retiring to live his son Clifford at Holme Farm, Biggin where he rode to hounds at 80 yrs old on a thoroughbred stallion.  Even as an old man he was lithe and fit and could still jump on and off a galloping horse.


Leodis, a photographic archive of Leeds

Secret Leeds

One Guy From Barlick, a comprehensive resource for anyone with Barnoldswick ancestors

Sweet Charity..?

Family Tree Magazine, February 2012

Just a quick heads-up for the knitters and the genealogists.

This month’s ‘Family Tree Magazine’ is running one I made earlier; ‘Skills for Life’, an article about our charity school ancestors.  This is a fraction of the stuff I stumbled on, but has plenty of interest in it for both knitters and family historians; I looked at the records of knitting and spinning schools, as well as the famous farm-based Knitting Schools of the Dales. Whilst researching for the book – and this article – I stumbled on a few of my ancestors, in York Grey Coats School, and also realised that the records described not only the poverty stricken kids admitted to these schools, but those substantial folk who stood as ‘sureties’ to them, often giving professions and addresses.

‘Family Tree’ magazine did their usual brilliant job with the layout and images. Always look forward to seeing what they do with my words.

I will say no more. You don’t want my spoilers!

Night Poaching Exploits of George Debnam

Poacher's Graffiti, York Castle, 1830s

Apologies to descendents of George Debnam, who may stumble on this.   Not sure how I’d feel if this was my ancestor – yet it is one intriguing aspect to genealogy.You never really know what you’re going to find.

I wanted to find out more about the man my ancestor John Fisher was (allegedly) assaulted by, in January 1833. Was he really a poacher? And if he was… Was he just taking the odd one for the pot – or was he poaching large scale, to order?

It seems Debnam was a poacher and a bit more. He was even suspected of being in a notorious house-breaking gang, some of whom had been caught and transported for life. He and “Irish Bill” were only indicted on night poaching charges. Although found not guilty of assaulting my ancestor John Fisher (who seems to have sustained a broken arm in the assault), Debnam went on to assault another watcher with a hedge stake, and threatened more than one with a loaded gun. At these dates, if a poacher didn’t immediately put down his gun, that was a 14 year transportation sentence, right there. So Debnam’s short sentences and reduced sentences and not guilty verdict in our case,  are puzzling.

I went in search of Debnam, and found…this.

We have this week to record another of those lamentable occurrences arising out of the Game Laws…which happened on Tuesday last, near Shipton, about six miles from this city. On the afternoon of that day, George Lund, one of the watchers on Lord Downe’s estate, was out in a field…  He came up with two poachers, named Thomas Scruton and George Debnam; the latter presented a loaded gun, which was at full cock, over the gate at Lund, threatening to shoot him, but providentially, his resolution failed him in fulfilling this diabolical threat. Both the poachers, however, rushed upon him, and one of them knocked him down with a hedge stake, which cut him over the head in such a manner, as to render his removal to the County Hospital necessary. Mr Tindal, the head game-keeper, immediately came to this city and procured a warrant, which was placed in the hands of Mr Pardoe, superintendent of police for execution; but they have hitherto evaded detection … Our readers will remember that Lund had, last year, a narrow escape of his life, whilst following the same occupation. A gun was discharged from behind a bush, and shot off his thumb…William Hodgson was tried at the last assizes with intent to murder, but the evidence not being sufficient for conviction, he was acquitted of the charge.

The York Herald, Saturday, February 18, 1837

GEORGE DEBNAM (25) Indicted for misdemeanour, in having on the 14th of February at Skelton,  in the North Riding, feloniously assaulted and wounded George Lund… – Guilty.

The Hull Packet, Friday, March 17, 1837

The Leeds Mercury for the following day, has same report with “sentence deferred”.

GEORGE DEBNAM, convicted on an assault upon George Lund, gamekeeper to Lord Downe, was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment in the Castle.

The Sheffield Independent, Saturday, March 25, 1837

In our last week’s Herald, we noticed the fact of two noted poachers being committed to York Castle, for poaching in Castle Howard woods, on 24th March . The following facts…have since come to our knowledge. It appears that late on the night in question, the watchers of the Earl of Carlisle had heard several reports of a gun and had laid in wait for the poachers, in the ‘Ox Pasture Wood’. They had not lain long before they came, three of them, close up, when the watchers sprung upon them, and captured two of them, the other person making his escape by taking to his heels. They took the two prisoners to the Castle, one of whom gave his name as John Sherwood, but his real name is George Debnam, and the other, William Trainer, alias “Irish Bill”, two well known characters of York. One of them had a gun in his possession, and from both were taken six pheasants, about 140 snares, and two game nets. The next day Mr Wilson, police officer, Malton, was sent for, and took them into custody…and…committed them to York Castle. They are believed to form part of a gang, four of whom were transported for life , at our last assizes, for the burglary at Old Byland, near Helmsley.

The York Herald, Saturday, April 6th, 1839

2 & 3 – JOHN SHERWOOD, whose real name is GEORGE DEBNAM, of York, and WM. TRAINER, alias “Irish Bill”, charged with night poaching on the 24th March last, in Ox Pasture Wood, the property of the Earl of Carlisle, in the township of Bulmer.

The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, Saturday, July 06, 1839

NIGHT POACHING – John Sherwood (28) and Wm Tramer [sic] (27), pleaded guilty of night poaching near Castle Howard, on the 24th of March last; and were sentenced to be imprisoned one year each to hard labour.

The Bradford Observer, Thursday, July 18, 1839

John Sherwood who had been sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment for poaching, was called up, and his Lordship, in consequence of the strong recommendations of his neighbours in his favour, reduced his sentence to imprisonment at hard labour for six months.

The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, Saturday, July 27, 1839

Other Traces of George:

IGI: George Debnam married Elizabeth Bell, 18th September, 1832 at   Saint Margaret’s, York.

3 month conviction for assault recorded in the Criminal Registers. tried 4.3. 1837. Under “Degree of instruction” (ie: how well educated), he is only one on page that says “Well”.

1841 Census: Palmer Lane, St Saviour’s, York, occupation illegible – could be “porter2,, “painter” or “pauper”. Age 36. Wife, Eliza 34, and children Frederick 9, and Robert, 6.  Where born is “N” (ie: not in Yorkshire).

1851 Census: 15 Lowther St, St Crux, Elizabeth Debnam is a widow, 39 (only aged 5 years in a decade!) and gives her trade as ‘glover’. Sons Frederick and Robert are still with her, and two visitors, Dennis O’Mearra from Dublin, and George Epps from Maidstone, Kent.

There is a George Debnam of York in the death index for summer quarter, 1853. I am not sure if this is him. Possibly not, as Elizabeth claims to be a widow in 1851. However, he may have been transported, or disappeared, or been elsewhere under the name of Sherwood, or  another alias, so we can’t be entirely sure.

Oddly, there was a man called John Sherwood, born in 1806, in Bulmer, the very parish where Debnam poached on the Castle Howard estate. But this does appear to be an entirely separate person. Whether Debnam knew him and chose his name as a pseudonym, or it was just a huge coincidence, we can’t know.

Fisticuffs, 1833 Style.

My favourite ancestor, John Fisher, has just done it again, and given me another glimpse into his life, and personality. And what a personality.

I thought I had found everything there was to find, on John. After all, few 19thC farm labourers left much of a paper trail. I counted myself lucky to find his words at the December, 1833 inquest.

It turns out, searches of British Newspapers Online, are maybe less exact than I’d thought. Last night, I stumbled on another newspaper item from 1833, concerning John. I have done these same searches many times, but never found this til now.  I should say that in every census, and in parish records, John is simply down as ‘Labourer’ or ‘Agricultural Labourer’. Now I not only have more detail, I know at least one of his employers (and some of their records from this date exist), I found out his nickname, and best of all… Yet more of his own actual words.

Committed to the Castle (ie: prisoners on remand in York Castle) – Richard Goodricke and Thomas Pearson, of Fulford, charged with unlawfully entering Moreby-wood, in the parish of Stillingfleet, armed with guns for the purpose of destroying game; and charged also with violently assaulting John Fisher and George Wrightson, gamekeepers to Henry Preston, Esq., of Moreby Hall.”

The York Herald, Saturday, January 12, 1833

There were two major landowners round here; Henry Preston, and Paul Beilby-Thompson. The victims of the Stillingfleet tragedy in 1833 had their funeral paid for by the latter. Preston was mired in a rather vituperative dispute about paying tithes at this time, and at loggerheads with David Markham, the Stillingfleet vicar. Knowing John Fisher was a church singer, great grandson of a former parish clerk with close ties to the church, I guessed John was more likely to be employed on the Thompson estate, than the Prestons’.

Preston was famous locally for having a stove installed in his pew in the church. If the vicar got boring or his sermon went on too long – he’d poke the fire vigorously. In the1830s, Preston had enough of being robbed of a tenth of his considerable income by the church (landowners still paid tithes then), and started bombarding relevant authorities with a petition to have his tithes reduced. David Markham became the enemy.

Moreby Wood was close to the river, and coincidentally, it was from Henry Preston that the Turners had stolen roofing lead, a couple of years earlier. John Turner was to die that Boxing Day night on the river in 1833. His brothers had been found Not Guilty of stealing the lead, despite it being found in their boat and there being witnesses. Preston was a JP and one of the most powerful men in Yorkshire. Yet it seemed hard for anyone to be convicted of anything on his land – maybe because the law had to be seen to be impartial, so Preston, who often headed the county’s Grand Jury, had to step away from involvement in cases where he was victim.

In other words: being a gamekeeper for Preston would be a dangerous job in the 1830s.  The Preston estate, like the Thompsons’, had a Head gamekeeper, under keeper, and several reliable local labourers would be employed as watchers. These would be men who were loyal, handy with a gun, could lay (and spot) traps, track, were observant, etc. They’d come and go from the gun rooms and servants’ halls, so they had to be trustworthy.  It says a lot for John and Richard that they were employed as Preston’s watchers.

Gamekeepers were occasionally murdered in the course of their work.  In 1835, Thomas Robinson, the keeper at nearby Kexby, on land also owned by Beilby-Thompson, was found lying face-up on a rabbit warren, with his throat cut from ear to ear. Robinson had his double barrelled shotgun with him when he set out at 4.a.m.  The magistrate who handled the case initially was none other than Henry Preston Esq., himself. Robinson’s gun was found half a mile away, as it was customary for gamekeepers to lay down their guns if pursuing poachers. Brits generally, not just farmers, poachers and keepers, in the 1830s, were armed.  We forget that, sometimes. It had been a time of unrest.

Thomas Summers, the head keeper at Moreby, lived in the same stand of cottages in Stillingfleet as John; they were called “Who’d Have Thought It”. This suggests to me that maybe Preston, not Beilby-Thompson as I had assumed, built that now lost stand of cottages.

How do I know the assault victim is ‘my’ John Fisher? In 1833, there were three John Fishers in Stillingfleet. My grt X 4 grandfather, John Fisher Sr, born 1764 so a bit elderly to be gamekeeper, at nearly 70 years of age (also, he lived in Kelfield); John Fisher born 1793, who was brother to my Great X 3 grandma, Mary Fisher; and John’s son, another John, who was only 15. This is how I am certain these are the words of my ‘favourite’ ancestor, the middle John Fisher. The case took 3 months to come to trial. Sessions were quarterly, so this is about the maximum wait on remand the poachers could have had. Fulford is now a suburb of York, on the outskirts.

Moreby Hall was one of the houses the Church Singers visited that night, 11 months after this incident, and the last place they sung before getting into that ill-fated little boat and rowing back upriver. On the same boat,  Turner, whose brothers and nephew had tried to steal Preston’s roofing lead; and Fisher and Toes, who watched Prestons’ woods occasionally. It must have made for an interesting atmosphere. Richard Toes was to be one of the three survivors of the disaster, along with John and George Eccles.  Toes was the man who survived because he was tangled up in the rope, with John. Seems the night on the Ouse wasn’t their first brush with death, out Moreby way.



RICHARD GOODRICKE, (aged 30), of Fulford; Thomas Pearson (46) of the same place; and George Debnam of Walmgate, York,  were charged with entering an enclosed ground, (the property of Henry Preston., Esq., of Moreby), in the night-time, armed with guns, with intent to destroy game.

MR. DUNDAS and MR.BLANSHARD were counsel for the prosecution: MR COTTINGHAM appeared for Goodricke and Debnam, and MR.MILNER for Pearson.

[One counsel raises an objection about the wording of the indictment. Judge over-rules him, and the case begins].

John Fisher (examined by Mr. BLANSHARD).

I am an occasional watcher of game to Henry Preston., Esq., of Moreby Hall. I was out on the 3rd of January last, about half past one in the morning, along with  Richard Toes.  We went to the fields until we got into a field called the Willow Nooks. We then heard a strange dog making a weft, and the noise of two or three men walking on the road. A dog came into the field, went back again,  and returned into the field after a hare. He was a dark-coloured dog, with a white rim around his neck.  I heard a man say: “D__n you; I did not want you to bring that dog; I knew we would have some trouble with him.” The dog did not catch the hare.  When he returned to the road, they either struck or bunched* him, and he yelled.  I saw the men, who were three in number, pass along the road. Toes went to call Wrightson, the keeper, up, and I took myself to Mr. Gill’s stack-yard, about 200 yards from the Long Rush. I did not see the men go into the wood, but he and the dog gave two wefts. I then heard men walking in the wood, amongst the leaves.  It was very frosty. I then heard some wood pigeons or stockdoves rise.  I went to meet Toes and Wrightson, and heard 4 or 5 shots in the Long Rush. I ran to Wrightson and Toes, and Toes was sent back for more assistance. Long Rush has game in it. Wrightson and I went easily on the road, until we met three men. I asked ‘Where have you been, and what have you got?’ One of them said boldly, a hare.’ Debnam was the man who held the hare by her legs. This was 4 or 500 yards from the Long Rush. They had two dogs with them; one of whom was the dog I had seen in the field. I clicked Debnam by the collar, and one of them said, D__n thee, let that dog loose, both dogs seized me by the heels and I kicked them off.  I hit one of them over the ear with a short stick.  I kept hold of Debnam and threw him on his back on the hedge. He got hold of my comfortable [scarf?] and tried to twitch it. I heard Wrightson call out: ‘Fish, fish, Oh! fish!’ I knew by that that he was done. I looked; and saw him on the ground; the men had left him, and he was trying to get up like a drunken man, but could not. I immediately received a blow over my shoulder from Goodricke, with the barrel of a gun. I cried out:  ‘We’ll let you go!’ , and Wrightson said in a feeble way, ‘Aye, we’ll let them go!’  I did not see that they had guns when they came up; I did not know the third man, he had a light-coloured coat on;  it was a moonlight morning; Escrick clock struck two just before the men entered Long Rush.

Cross-examined by Mr. COTTINGHAM – The wood is about three hundred yards long, and 60 or 70 wide.

George Wrightson (by Mr. DUNDAS) I am under-keeper to Mr.Preston. Toes called me up on the third of January last, and I took a stick and a double-barrelled gun with me. We met Fisher, and I sent Toes back; Fisher and I went on the road, until we came to near Willow Nook Close, where we met three men: one of them had a hare, and there were two dogs with them; I said: ‘Halloo! what are you about?’  One of them said: ‘Nothing. We have no guns. ‘ I said: ‘You must have something.’  Fisher said: ‘You have got a hare.’ and made a grab at the man who had it; I did not know the man; I knew the other two by sight, Goodricke and Pearson; Goodricke had a broad-brimmed hat on, a drab top-coat, woollen corded breeches and leggings.  Pearson had a light-coloured coat, fustian trousers, and half-boots on. One of the men said: ‘D–n thee, let that dog loose!’  The dogs were at that time in bands, they were loosed, and one of them was set on Fisher. I laid down my gun, and seized a man, I was knocked down, but got up again. Goodricke struck me over the forehead with a stick. I then got the gun and told them to stand back, or take what followed; as I was laying the gun down again, Goodricke threw a hare into my face, which caused me to stagger. Pearson then had my gun up, ready to strike.  Goodricke struck me again with a stick and said ‘D__n thee for a fool, use that gun’. Pearson had hold of the muzzle; he struck me over the head, and broke the gun. I cried out ‘Spare my life’ and he kept repeating his blows, till I was covered with blood. Fisher led me home, where I arrived about a quarter  to three. It was a fine moonlight morning.

CROSS-EXAMINED by Mr. MILNER – The first time I saw Pearson, was when he was letting the dogs loose on Fisher….”

[The next witness is Naburn farmer, and watcher for gentleman, Mr. Palmes, Newark Hargrave, who says he was in his garden at 2 a.m.,  when he saw four men with 2 dogs and 2 guns.  He identifies Goodricke and Debnam and describes the black and white dog. He saw them heading for Stillingfleet and suspcious, he followed them. Losing sight of them, he went to Moreby, to wake up Summers, the head gamekeeper. …]

“…He and I went to the gun-room, where we met with Fisher with his arm let down, and Wrightson, who was bleeding. Summers got two horses out of the stable, and he and I set off for Fulford…”

[In Fulford, they hide opposite Goodricke’s house and watch til 6am, when Goodricke showed, with another man, from the direction of Moreby. Goodricke went into his house an a minute or two later, Debnam appeared, who they captured, after a fight. They took him to a public house, where he was held whilst Hargrave watched Goodricke’s house, seeig only Goodricke leaving at 9am.

Goodricke and Debnam’s brief, Cottingham, then tried to suggest Hargrave did not know the names of the three men, and couldn’t swear to them. Hargrave says he could swear to the name of all three. But a Mr Baron Gurney interjects and tells the judge that Hargrave only actually ID’d Goodricke and “another man”.

Next witness is Thomas Summers, head gamekeeper to Mr. Preston. Summers describes the watch he and Hargrave kept on Goodricke’s house. They hid in a blacksmith’s shed, opposite. He positively identifies Goodricke but says he only thinks Pearson was the other.  Summers was about to go to the magistrates for a warrant when he saw the others arrest Debnam as he was armed. Summers examined the gun and said it had been fired that morning. He says although he didn’t name Pearson at the time and Pearson wasn’t arrested til the 7th January (4 days later) when he was taken into Wrightson’s chamber so Wrightson could ID him (this suggest how injured Wrightson was, that he was still in bed 4 days on).

The next witness is Joseph Smith, footman to Mr Palmes, who was driving Mr Palmes’ barouche back home, at by Naburn Lock on the night in question, saw 4 men with 2 dogs (again, the mysterious 4th man who was never brought to court). Smith said: ‘ I knew one of them; it was Richard Goodricke, whom I had known some considerable time.’

The three accused do not take the stand as “No-one was seen in the woods”, their counsels say. They also say there is no evidence against any of the men.

Next witness to take the stand is policeman, Richard Thompson, who says he saw Pearson (who was Goodricke’s neighbour and there was a communicating door inside their houses)  stagger home drunk on the evening of the 2nd January. Pearson claimed to the police his gun was owned by ‘Captain Wemyss’ and he was getting it repaired for him.

Next witness, is William Hallett. Here the story takes a turn for the crazy. He says at 6am on the morning of 3rd January, he and Goodricke’s brother Simeon, went to Goodricke’s house. Simeon had a dog and looked remarkably like Richard.  As Simeon and Hallett sat in the house, there was a ‘rush’ at the door, and Richard Goodricke shotued for someone to wake up Pearson next door, so they could leg it.  They took a shovel (weapon?) and were last seen running down the street being pursued along with Debnam. Simeon was, at the time of trial, himself in Beverley House of Correction…

Following witness is a farm servant, Richard Scaife, who swears Hargrave told him he couldn’t swear to any of the men who’d been at Preston’s. A mysterious ‘John Brown of Fulford’ says Hargrave told him he couldn’t be sure if Goodricke was there or not. Debnam’s witness is his sister in law, Susan Machen, who claims she was in his house on the night of 2nd January as his wife was about to give birth, and Debnam came in at 9 pm on the 2nd, and didn’t leave the house again to 5am on that morning.  ‘He went out at half past five with a gun’. Yet, oddly, the next witness, Susan’s husband Henry Machen, says Debnam went to bed ‘at ten’. And left the house the following morning at eleven…

Mr. DUNDAS sums up saying the evidence against Pearson is too weak. And Goodricke looked too much like his brother for anyone to be sure whether it was him or not (conveniently forgetting to mention that witnesses mentioned 4 men on the road from Fulford to Moreby, so there was scope for Simeon and Richard to be there).  He says Debnam’s alibi is backed up by Mrs Machen’s account (conveniently missing out that Mr Machen’s account contradicted both!)

The Jury retired and took all of 25 minutes to return with a verdict of NOT GUILTY.

I will let you come to your own conclusions, gentle reader, but would it be bad if I pointed out that in April 1834, Richard Goodricke, and his witness, William Hallett, were found Guilty of night-poaching on the lands of neighbouring toff, Bielby-Thompson… (also the local MP) and the apparently well known “gang of poachers”, including Hallett, were given six months hard labour at Beverley House of Correction.  Goodricke, as ringleader…. got a year. In 1841, both Simeon and Richard Goodricke were caught night poaching on the grounds of Lord Wenlock (Escrick) and this time pleaded Guilty.

*’bunched’ = bunch of fives?

For the knitters. I’m guessing John’s ‘comfortable’ was what later got called ‘comforter’, ie: scarf. The Shorter OED has “comforter” as “A long woollen scarf worn around the throat. 1833” John uses the word ‘comfortable’ in 1833. OED does not have ‘comfortable’ as an alternative, but that has to be what it is!

Image: ‘The Dog-Breaker’, from George Walker’s ‘Costumes of Yorkshire’. Available on disk from: http://www.yorkshireancestors.com/

Leitmotifs, motifs… and sharks!

By kind permission of The Polperro Heritage Press

Here’s Lewis Harding’s 1870 (ish) image of two little Polperro girls, Mary Jane Langmaid and Elizabeth Joliff, knitting. This is the iconic photo for people interested in the history of traditional knitting.  A couple of people used it in their presentations at Ganseyfest, and folk wondered if the photo was staged. One or two even remarked it looked like they weren’t really knitting or knitters. In response…
I can answer that one. Genealogy comes to our aid!

Some time back, (August 2010), I wrote the piece that follows for ‘Yarn Forward’ magazine. I know they won’t mind me reproducing it here, for those who missed it first time round.

But before I do, would just like to say others have written about, and got great photos of, Ganseyfest. So I refer you, dear Reader, to the blogs of the inestimable Liz Lovick, Northernlace, or  Gordon Reid’s intriguing Ganseys.com.

Ganseyfest? For me, it is impossible to pick out any one speaker, or gansey, or thing. It was all good. Highlights included attending a workshop given by Beth Brown-Reinsel, and the talks given by Anne Coombs on the Herring girls, and Liz Lovick on the forgotten Orkney ganseys. Maybe the greatest honour was meeting Margaret Bennett, folklorist and singer, brought up on the Isle of Skye, who outlined the way knitting and folk traditions interweave.  Margaret mentioned the fisher families’ shibboleths, including the belief that a caul was lucky, and that sometimes they were preserved and sold, as it was thought they gave protection against drowning.

Grandad (red jumper)shark fishing in Ireland

Now my eyes lit up as my grandad – born in landlocked Leeds – was born with a caul, and his whole life had a fascination with boats and the sea. He bought a boat in the 1960s, and kept it on the Ouse but he’d disappear off to the West coast of Ireland for months at a time, fishing. He’d really wanted a seagoing boat, but settled for one on the river. He almost bought the now famous Bridlington coble, Three Brothers, but backed out at the last minute (I seem to recall my dad said he wasn’t confident he could restore it?) Notice he’s wearing what looks like a handknit jumper there – my grandmother had been dead ten years or so by the time he was in Ireland, so I have no clue who could have knitted that. I have quite a few photos taken onboard Irish fishing vessels and not an Aran or gansey is ever in sight! He’s 70 in that photo. NB: see how he has turned up the welt, in that photo, like a ‘proper’ fisherman? Gansey wearers often mention wanting to turn up the welt when they went to sea, to be like their fathers. Billie (grandad’s) father owned a printing business in central Leeds. He was a foundling, and wheeler-dealer who was such an accomplished conman, he was once approached and asked to run as a Conservative candidate… He lived in a large, imposing house which he rented from my other great grandad, Tom Boothman.  Apparently, he took rent paying as ‘optional’.Billie, by way of contrast, was a very hardworking, honourable man who paid off his father’s debts when he died, and worked then ran the Boothmans’ dairy business. Not a fishing gene in sight.  My oldest son, William (named after Billie) was also born with a caul, coincidentally. I didn’t keep it. Too grossed out.

Margaret’s talk was of particular interest to me, as I have a whole chapter in my forthcoming book, on superstitions or should I say, belief systems and culture and their influence on motifs and patterns. Here on the river, they were a superstitious and sometimes religious lot and that bleeds through into the patterns, sometimes. Just as folklore has leitmotifs, ganseys have motifs that shift and change, refracted through the lenses of different communities.

Every talk was great at Ganseyfest, but one that especially caught my interest was the talk given by Dr Malcolm Smith of Durham University, “Gansey Patterns and Cultural Evolution”. Dr Smith is applying academic rigour to the study of motifs, and their migration along the coastline with the herring.

During my own research, I had found an account of a Hull lass who became a herring girl, based in Scarborough but often staying up in Scotland in what she called ‘a hut’. Now, for 50 years or more, knitting historians have vaguely mentioned the possible migration of patterns and motifs, but using genealogy we can pin that right down with hard, concrete examples.  It turned out, one of the little girls in the famous Harding photo gave me some hard evidence of this process Dr. Smith is studying.

Here is the story of the two Polperro fisher girls…

This is a shot taken in Harding’s studio. The two girls wear bead necklaces – probably studio props, as many of the children in Harding’s studio portraits wear identical ones.  Mary Jane has ear-rings and her pinafore is torn. Another of Harding’s subjects said in old age that he’d ruffle sitters’ hair to make them look more ‘natural’.

Knitting sheaths were routinely used by 19thC contract knitters, to get up to speeds like 200 stitches per minute.  When I magnified the image, I could just make out Ann’s knitting sheath under her right arm – but she is not actively using it – probably because Harding posed the girls with knitting artfully angled towards the camera so we are not looking at an ‘authentic’ image of what 19thC knitting looked like, just two girls holding their knitting. This picture is unique as it is the earliest ‘close up’ probably of a real contract knitter, with a sheath even if it’s barely visible! Posing children would have been difficult, as subjects had to sit absolutely still for 20-30 seconds.

The girls use blunt-tipped steel needles that look very crooked and well used. Mary Jane is working the body of a gansey so is working on five needles.  Ann is working on a sleeve so down to three needles. Mary Jane’s gansey seems to have a very deep 2X2 rib welt with an allover pattern above. With Ann’s, you can just see the ridge and furrow shoulder, (rows of purl stitches) at the top of the arm which appears to have a narrow pattern near the top (before decreases), between lines of purl.  The camera flash shows the glossiness of the 5 ply worsted wound into balls on Ann’s lap.  Ganseys were made from lustrous longwool, millspun in Yorkshire, although some people fondly imagine it was handspun* the reality was, ganseys only came about after the Industrial Revolution when millspun was widely available.  Wool would be delivered to knitters in 2lb hanks, and they’d wind it into balls before knitting.

In fishing communities, girls and women could make a living knitting, even earning a higher wage than a domestic servant – if they could knit fast enough.  The chances are, the girls are knitting ‘fancy’ ganseys for sale.  Several of Ann’s Jolliff fishermen relatives are on the famous Harding panel and in other photos Harding took around the village. To give it some perspective:

“…At the beginning of the century, women were paid 3s.6d (17 1/2 pence) for a ‘fancy’ knit-frock; 2s 6d (12 1/2 pence)..for a plain one…only 2s. was paid if a mistake was found in the knitting…An experienced contract worker could complete a guernsey in about a week….”
[‘Cornish Guernseys & Knit-frocks’, Mary Wright, Polperro Press, 1988].

At this date a servant earned 9d a week (4p), so if you could knit at speed you could earn more and stay at home.

I was able to find both girls on the 1871 Census. Mary Jane was on Lansallos St, aged 8 and living with her parents Joseph (fisherman) and Ellen. Ellen was born in Grimsby,Yorkshire fishing port – which would have influenced Mary Jane’s knitting and given her different patterns to the Cornish ones, no doubt. Mary Jane  had three younger siblings.  Meanwhile, Ann was also on Lansallos St, with her fisherman father Charles Jolliff, mother, Mary and nine siblings.  Both girls are described as ‘Scholar’ (standard term for children in Censuses), yet were competent knitters already by age 10 or so.

Looking at the photo, that means we can date the image to the early 1870s: Ann was born around 1863 and Mary Jane, around 1861.

By 1881,  Mary Jane, age now given 17, has her profession is ‘Frock Knitting’  (‘Frock’ is the old word for jumper).

In 1891, Mary Jane’s mother Ellen is described as ‘Knitter’.

I used Free BMD, http://www.freebmd.org.uk/  to find Ann’s marriage – in 1875, to fisherman Charles Puckey. In 1891, they live on Lansallos St and Ann’s profession is ‘Knitting Fancy’.

Harding didn’t pose the girls with knitting as a prop – both were already contract knitters.


Lewis Harding Cornwall’s Pioneer Photographer, Philip M. Correll, Polperro Heritage Press,  ISBN 0 953001245
Cornish Guernseys & Knit Frocks, Mary Wright, Polperro Heritage Press, ISBN 978-0955364884

About Lewis Harding

Harding was born in Somers Town, London, in 1807 to a wealthy but down-at-heel family.  Before he retired to Polperro, he had a colourful life, minsitering to convicts on Norfolk Island for some time, before returning to England and settling in the fishing village of Polperro, Cornwall, living the life of a ‘gentleman’.  He took up photography in the 1850s, now middle-aged, using a cutting edge technique. Harding took some of the earliest and finest surviving photos – his subjects being Polperro scenes and people. He is best known for a panel of 80 portraits of Polperro fishermen, from the 1860s.  But several of his photos show knitters at work. This is the finest.

“Mary Jane Langmaid and Ann Eizabeth Joliff, Knitting”.  (Undated) Polperro, Cornwall, by Lewis Harding. Image courtesy of Polperro Press, http://www.polperropress.co.uk/

* I’m talking English ganseys here. Some Scottish ones were handspun.

“We were the singers…”

““I am a labourer, and reside at Stillingfleet; I am one of the singers at the parish church, and went along with the deceased persons … to sing the Christmas hymn … We were the singers at Stillingfleet church…”

Here’s a post from 2011, about something that happened to an ancestor, on Boxing Day, 1833. 

As genealogists, we sometimes have favourite ancestors. Here’s one of mine.  This happened 186 years ago, almost to the hour – down the road from where I’m writing this…

“I am a labourer, and reside at Stillingfleet; I am one of the singers at the parish church, and went along with the deceased persons … to sing the Christmas hymn … We were the singers at Stillingfleet church…”

John Fisher, giving evidence at the inquest, 27 December 1833.

Lizzie Lee, 1856
“Lizzie Lee”, a river vessel, 1856. Reuben Chappell. Courtesy: Goole Museum.  Some river vessels were large and sea-going as well.  The vessel in the 1833 accident was a coal barge.

Of all the stories I have ever told – and ever will tell – of my ancestors, this one is the one that means the most to me. Like most genealogists, I have my favourite ancestor. He was John Fisher, 1793 – 1878. He was a labourer. He lived in a one-room cottage a few fields from where I sit writing this. I descend from his younger sister, Mary. Here’s his story. People like John rarely got a voice, or got to tell their story. But something amazing – and terrible – happened to him one night in 1833. Which meant that nearly 200 years on, I can read his actual words.

Disclaimer: I should say that in the years I was researching the Stillingfleet Tragedy, I had no idea I was connected to any of the protagonists. It was several years in, that I found out I am closely related to one of the survivors, more distantly to one of the victims (Clara Sturdy) and also to Stephen Green, the hauling man. (Stephen’s mother in law was Isaac Moses‘ sister, for those who enjoy the internecine).

Passing Stillingfleet church in 2001 we spotted a huge gravestone. I made a mental note to stop one day, and go have a closer look. And at some point, we did.

This mass grave is unique; commemorating 11 church singers, who died when their small boat was overturned in the River Ouse, at Stillingfleet, Yorkshire, on Boxing Day, 1833.

My family had lived in Stillingfleet and the surrounding Vale of York villages as far back as the records go. So when we started, I thought the odds were that I might have some connection with the Tragedy. Yet none of the victims or survivors had any of ‘my’ surnames, as far as I knew, at that point. For some unknown reason, as time went on, the story gripped us.

I wanted to disentangle what really happened, that Boxing Day at dusk, on the river. And the closer you looked, the more the story seemed to find its fulcrum on this man, John Fisher, who had the presence of mind to try and grab the tow rope, just before the boat capsized. He fascinated me. The story had always been told (little monograph, odd press cuttings on anniversaries, etc) with no real sense of forensics – yet accounts contradicted eachother and, when you disentangled it – John Turner seemed to have done something verging on the crazy, that caused the whole thing. But no-one wanted to come out and say that.

The victims were: William Bristow, (parish clerk) 55; Thomas Webster, 44; Clarissa Sturdy, 15; John Turner, 55; Jane Turner, 16; Christopher Spencer, 36; Henry Spencer, 44; Elizabeth Spencer, 14; Elizabeth Buckle, 15; and finally, both Sarah Spencer and Sarah Eccles, ‘Accidentally drowned and not yet found, 16’.

From the newspaper accounts, we saw there were three survivors; John Fisher, George Eccles and Richard Toes.

The girls included Clara Sturdy, the village schoolmaster’s daughter. Clara was the first to be pulled out of the water, actually on the night of the accident – maybe because as the more middle class, she was wearing lighter, silk clothes as opposed to the heavy woollen ‘stuffs’ worn by labourers’ daughters then.

Poignantly, the inquest was held at the White Swan. The landlord’s daughter, Elizabeth Buckle, was one of the victims.

We cannot know what instruments the men played, except for survivor, Richard Toes. Local folklore – a story told to the 1930s choir-  had it that one of the three survivors lived only because he was carrying a ‘cello’ strapped to his back, that trapped the air! In fact, according to his own account, given to the Gazette, Toes had a ‘small violin’.

What were the girls and men doing on the river, that night? Stillingfleet was a parish consisting of several villages, split by the river. It seems, rather than try and get a ferry to come out on Boxing Day, they made the fatal decision to use fisherman John Turner’s small boat. In 1829, Turner’s brother and nephew had been arrested and remanded at Beverley Gaol – for stealing roof lead and concealing it in the self-same boat. They were let off with the judge hinting he thought they’d had a lucky escape from hard labour!  John Turner came from a long line of Ouse fishermen – but in Regency times, suddenly took to reporting himself in parish records as ‘yeoman’, not fisherman. At this date, several banks went spectacularly bust and I have wondered whether Turner didn’t have financial problems, that night in 1833, and decided to commit suicide?  His act of sailing into danger when they were already well clear, seems suicidal.

At the 1833 inquest, the jurors – all Stillingfleet men – were gathered together then solemnly trooped from house to house, viewing the bodies, which were laid out in their own homes. Most of the jurors were related by blood or marriage to one or more victim, we discovered. In 1833, this was seen as a positive advantage at an inquest.

John Fisher was the first to give evidence and the only witness who was re-called to the stand more than once. He described the boat as being in the centre of the river and almost within sight of Stillingfleet landing, their destination, when the accident happened:

“‘…George Eccles and I were rowing the boat; we met a vessel soon after we got into the boat, coming up the river. It was drawn by a horse and a line. Eccles and I wanted to keep on the off-side of the vessel, that is towards the Stillingfleet side, the horse being on the Acaster side. John Turner said, we were to row to the other side. I told Eccles to ease his oar, and I would pull…’”

2019 edit – To clarify: the rowing boat was already safely on the Stillingfleet (left bank coming away from York) side of the river, where it was about to land anyway.  Turner compelled the men to row to the other side entirely (right bank coming out of York),  deliberately into the path of danger. A point on the river where they didn’t even need to be.

George Eccles’ account backed John’s:

“‘…Turner was accustomed to the river, being a fisherman, and it being his boat, we complied with his directions; because we thought that he understood it better than we did… We went on the inside…’”

Perseverance was a heavy coal barge, fully laden with coal, and with its sails up, but the tide, a ‘sharp ebb tide’ according to Fisher, was in the small rowing boat’s favour. The whole thing happened in seconds with the wind behind the vessel and the current behind the Singers’ boat. There was confusion about who said what, whether to tighten or lower the horse’s tow line. Some of the inquest accounts contradict others, but none of the discrepancies were explored during the inquest.

Fisher was called back to the stand, to clarify whether the hauling man, Stephen Green, was at fault. Fisher stated no blame could be attributed to Green. Green testified:

“‘…I cannot say whether the boat would have gone over the line or not, if the men had not lifted it up…’”

Fisher was, like Green a Cawood man by birth. In fact, their baptisms are on the same page  of the Cawood Parish Register. John lived in Cawood until he was around 13. He would undoubtedly have known Green. Green’s wife was related to my Cawood Moses family. The two Cawood men can’t not have known eachother.

The York Gazette is the only paper that seems to have got to the third survivor, and Toes said very little but in the little he did say, he exonerated Fisher:

“Toes, who appears to have but an imperfect recollection of what took place after he was in the water, gives a very similar account to that of the watermen. He gave it as his opinion, if Fisher had not seized the rope, the accident would still have happened…”

John  survived because as the boat capsized, he still held on to the rope. A sailor shouted ‘Hold thy hold, lad!’ from the bank, and Fisher and the unconscious Toes were dragged out still tangled with the rope. In the confusion, Perseverance’s small boat broke free of its moorings so the sailors couldn’t rescue the girls and men in the water. Meanwhile, some of the Singers had clambered on to Turner’s upturned boat and were being swept down river. George said:

“‘…I also got onto the boat, which was upsidedown, and I then got hold of her with my other hand… William Bristow had likewise hold of her, and the boat turned over several times, and he and I at length got into her, she then being full of water. In that state, we went down the river about two hundred yards. She then turned over again, and we both lost our hold of the boat, but I still continued to hold by the oar. I never saw any more of Bristow after the boat turned over… [George was rescued by another boat, then]: … I saw something floating before us, and I desired the captain to assist me in reaching it. We first overtook two hats, the next was the body of Clarissa Sturdy, who was floating on the surface of the water, and we took her into the boat. She was quite dead. I afterwards got into the cabin of his vessel, and sat by the fire, until we got to Acaster ferry, and I then went on shore, and two neighbours led me home. My own daughter was drowned, and her body has not yet been found…’”

Yorkshire Dales Gloves
River Ouse, in winter. CREDIT: Self.

In years to come, one of George’s daughters was a servant to John Fisher’s sister, Jane, in Kelfield. Although John – like his father before him – was a labourer, Jane made a good marriage to local farmer, Robert Guy and lived at Kelfield Hall. My own direct ancestor, Jane and John’s sister, Mary, also made a good marriage to a Cawood yeoman farmer, John Cleveland.  In fact – this is the puzzle about John Fisher. His younger brother, William, became a substantial farmer in his own right. All three of his sisters married wealthy farmers, despite their elderly parents living to extreme old age in Kelfield, being described as ‘Paupers’ on their last census. How the paupers, Elizabeth and John Fisher, managed to bring up almost all their children to marry well, and do well – is a mystery, given the social set-up of the time. John and youngest brother, Henry, alone seem to have remained labourers. I have often wondered how much that night in 1833 must have haunted him. Some newspapers mention the cries of the young girls drowning, with the mariners and survivors helpless to save them.

Clara Sturdy’s body was the only one brought out of the water on the night of the accident.

By first light, Green was back, helping where he could:

“…Early in the morning, Green, the hauling man, came to Stillingfleet, and immediately rendered every assistance in his power…

All morning and into the afternoon, the bodies came up at different places. Turner’s and Webster’s bodies were pulled up in one drag, “clasped in each other’s arms….”

The upshot of the inquest was that no-one was blamed for the accident, but the boat was fined a deodand (a fine on account of the accident causing death) of 1 shilling. In the time it took a stagecoach to get from York to London, the story went national, but the victims were already buried by the time first reports appeared in the London Times.

No-one seemed to publicly question Turner’s bizarre decision – when he was already safely in the centre of the river, to make George and John row to the dangerous, Acaster side, and try and go between a barge with a tow-line and the bank when they were already well clear of it and not even heading towards that bank, anyway. Yet it seems willfully crazy. Neither has this ever been commented on in the occasional media stories re-living the event.  Maybe it was kept quiet at the time because of the fear of speaking ill of the dead. And the fact Turner had sons and daughters left behind.  It is notable that the Turners eventually all left Stillingfleet – either emigrating to the US, or disappearing into the anonymity of London. John Fisher seems to have received no blame at the time for being the one to seize the rope. I see it as he was the only one aboard quick thinking enough to try and act to avert the disaster. I am proud of him. Toes went out of his way to exonerate him, denied a voice at the Inquest. And George and he remained firm friends, it seems, long after that night, living as neighbours and Jane Fisher employing George’s daughter.

Although the vicar bought their mourning clothes and Lord Beilby-Thompson paid for the lavish funeral, several large families were left with no provider. The Spencers were devastated by the loss. Christopher and Henry were brothers and between them, had many kids. Checking the patchy York Poor Law records, we found by the 1840s at least one of Spencer’s children applying for poor relief.

John, George and Richard lived on – Toes into his late 70s and John and George well into their 80s. According to censuses, John and George were neighbours in a little stand of one-room cottages called ‘Who’d Have Thought It?’ for many years after the accident, alongside victim Thomas Webster’s family.

Only Richard has a gravestone in Stillingfleet churchyard. Censuses show he moved away in old age to live with a son, in a distant village. When he died, he was brought home.  George, too, is home. Somewhere in an unmarked grave in the churchyard.

Ethel, (no date)
“Ethel”, no date, Reuben Chappell. COURTESY Goole Museum

We tracked John’s grave down to York Cemetary. He died in York Workhouse, in the winter of 1878. He had been living with his younger son, William, on Union Terrace, York,  in the shadow of the workhouse. John was buried in a public grave with 13 other people. York Cemetery’s public graves would be open for a month, then filled in. Quite appropriate John should set sail for his final jouney in the company of 13 others. The grave is in a disused part of the cemetery; covered with brambles. Apparently, the grave sites right next to public graves were very popular as the lack of memorial on the public grave meant more room for a rich man’s imposing marble stone! The genealogists at York Cemetery told me the public burial cost a few shilling – and not everyone could even afford that.  Many elderly working class people would be taken reluctantly by their loved ones,  to die in the workhouse hospital – before there was an NHS, for wokring people who needed to continue working, there was little choice.  When John’s wife, Mary, lay dying the Census recorded there was a ‘Nurse’ in the house – presumably paid for by John’s employer (probably Beilby-Thompson).  But years later, in York, far from his old village and community, John had to die at the workhouse. At least there was some rudimentary nursing. And John’s son and daughter in law would have had to continue working, to pay their rent. A death certificate signed from the workhouse does not necessarily mean your ancestor was a regular workhouse inmate: just someone who died there.

For all his years as a Church Singer, this great-grandson of a Stillingfleet Parish Clerk, received no thanks and when he died, he was the only one who had been on that boat that night in 1833, never to make it home. I wonder if he made his way from Union St to the Minster, of a Sunday, and listened to the choir; which, with an organ, replaced the York singers way back in 1829.

Six years after first unearthing the story of the Stillingfleet disaster, I sent for my great-grandfather, John Henry Thompson’s birth certificate. His mother was Eliza Cleveland. I dug a bit further and discovered her mother was Mary Cleveland, née Fisher born in Cawood, in 1802. Sister of survivor John Fisher.  This man I’d felt compelled to research for years – was my 4x great-uncle.

Serpent, from the Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes

The York Gazette is held at York Library, where you can search the indexes by person and subject, between the years 1819-1898.

York Central Library, Museum Street , York YO1 7DS

T 01904 552815

Also on microfilm at the Borthwick Institute, York University.

A version of this article was published in ‘Family Tree Magazine’.

“A Real Rogue… A Bad Little Fellow”

Lizzie Varley, George's wife

How often do you find a direct line ancestor mentioned in a book? Judging by what I found yesterday – it’s not always a desirable thing.

I was killing time at York Library yesterday after a fun morning at the dentist’s, waiting for my lift home, when I spied this on the Local History shelf, ‘My Dear Son: Letters to America, 1852 – 1901″ by Marjorie J. Harrison.  And from the blurb, realised it concerned a family in Appleton Roebuck. Their son emigrated to America in 1852, and the book collects letters from home written to him, detailing village life and his old friends back home.

Some of my ancestors came from Appleton. So… I speed-read it, and found this, about my great-great grandfather, George Varley. Which made me fall off my chair.  The genealogist in me loves this kind of thing. Another part of me feels edgy about it. What? Me? Descend from villains?

Saturday, June 11th, 1864

George Varley has turned out a real rogue. I should think that a hundred and fifty pounds would not clear him of debt. He owes money to almost everyone you talk to in Appleton. He owes some to father that he will never get; he is a bad little fellow

There was only one George Varley in Appleton. My great great grandad! The elderly man to whom he owed money, was unable to work due to illness, and had a paltry income from some cottages he rented out. They became valueless and impossible even to rent out and eventually stood empty, generating no income. So conning this aged, sick man does not reflect well on George at all.

Intriguing, even to get that physical hint with ‘little’ – as this is a man we have no photos of, and who was ‘just’ a labourer, probably not even literate, so would have left no trace of his 78 years on earth – except this one, intriguing, unflattering paragraph.  The woman who wrote it and her brother, the emigre, were both contemporaries of George’s and will have grown up with him.

The letter to America was written in 1864, when George and Lizzie had been married several years and at least two more children had been born since Annie (whose birthday was exactly one hundred years and one day before my own!)

River Ouse at Acaster Selby

George was born in Acaster Selby, probably in 1824. He was never baptised, although most of his siblings were.

He came from an old farming family who had farmed successfully in Acaster Selby for a few  generations. After the farmland was enclosed, like many small farmers, the Varleys  fell on hard times. George’s father was a labourer, with no farm or tenancy of one to inherit.

George married twice, and therein lies a tale, too. His first wife, Hannah Preston, came from Wistow. They moved to Wistow where George was an ‘Ag Lab’ and had five children, and then Hannah probably died in childbirth.  Whilst his wife was pregnant with the last baby, George seems to have taken up with local ne’er-do-well Lizzie Roberts back in his home village of Acaster. Lizzie already had given birth an illegitimate child, Mary Elizabeth Roberts, in Barwick-in-Elmet workhouse in 1860.

I have other examples in the tree of the birth father eventually marrying the mother of an illegitimate child, but the child retaining mum’s maiden name, rather than taking dad’s surname. So that seemed common practice (surprising when you think of the stigma attached to illegitimacy then). Which means, although Mary Elizabeth’s surname wasn’t changed to Varley after George and Lizzie married – that does not infer she wasn’t George’s child. If you follow me.

As George’s wife lay dying, Lizzie Roberts was pregnant again. So when Hannah died, George remarried with fairly obscene haste, to Lizzie, and just before baby Annie was born so she wasn’t illegitimate. The shame seems to have been too much though.  They moved back to Acaster and then along to the next village – Appleton Roebuck, George always listed as ‘labourer’.

The nearly-illegitimate baby was Annie – my great grandma.  Inexplicably, George and Lizzie kept the older illegitimate child  but sent baby Annie to Leeds to be brought up by relatives.

I found Annie on the 1871 Census, as ‘visitor’ to her oldest half-brother, John. He was a Railway Clerk.  The other branch of my family -descendants of the legitimate branch – tell me that family legend had it that John treated little Annie like a slave. Her life was made a misery. Her parents wouldn’t let her come home, so she lived 30 or so miles away in Leeds whilst George and Lizzie went on to have countless more children – all of which they kept.

When she was of age, Annie returned to Acaster, and met and married my great grandfather, John Henry Thompson. They had a large farm and a comfortable life. Annie is singled out in Bernard Kettlewell’s ‘Memories of Cawood’, when Bernard recalled walking to get a jug full of milk for his mother:

I wonder what kids would say today, if they’d go to like Frankie Green and Ted Ward and such as them, and I’ve gone on a night too, right across to what’s Experimental Farm now; it were John Henry Thompson’s then. Mrs Bussey there in High Street, it was her mother. I’ve fetched it from there many a time… Ted Ward and Frankie Green and them used to have to go right across t’fields. You used to go yon end of the Ramper at that stone bridge, and then you used to take in across a field there. then across two other of Thompson’s fields, and that’s what you had to do… She were a good old sort were Mrs Thompson. When it were cold and you were off across, she always had you in and let you get to t’fire while she got you it [the milk], and then she’d give you a bit of biscuit or summat…


Auntie Annie

Mrs Bussey was my Auntie Annie, pictured here in the 1950s. From all I’ve been told by the legitimate Varley descendants,  Auntie Annie will have never seen her grandparents, George or Lizzie Varley in her life.

On the 1901 Census, George was now 77 and ‘feeble-minded’ is scrawled in the final column of the Census, against his name. No doubt, he had dementia. He died the following year. Lizzie died in 1921.


Silk memorial bookmark for Annie Sr.

My great grandma Annie cut off all contact with all the Varleys. Family legend (again from the legitimate side! I’d never heard any of this when I started..) has it that when George died, a brother turned up at Stockbridge Farm to tell Annie her dad was dead. She sent the brother away with a flea in his ear – saying her dad had abandoned her as a baby, so why should she care if he lived or died? Go grandma!

Interesting that the two ancestors who turn up being mentioned in books were a father and daughter – and what a contrast in their characters!


“You’re Doing It All Wrong!”

By kind permission of Yorkshire Ancestors at http://www.yorkshireancestors.com

It looks like I’ve been neglecting the knitters for the genealogists here, so I wanted to post today just for the patient knitsters.

Here are the famous Hawes knitters from ‘The Costume of Yorkshire Illustrated By A Series of Forty Engravings Being Fac-Similies of Original Drawings’ By George Walker, 1814. I do so love a catchy title.

Much of the reason I’ve been quiet is the book on the history of Yorkshire knitting, I’ve been working on for the past few months. It’s not that I’m not knitting – more that I’m cogitating as my dad used to say.  Here is the fruit of this week’s cogitations, where I finally finished getting my head round Portuguese knitting, played with a Dales-style knitting sheath, and wrote some words…

We all knit in different ways. ‘English’ and ‘Continental’ vie with eachother for the ‘most common’ amongst UK and US knitters.  But there are so many more styles of knitting – pit, Portuguese, Russian, Peruvian, Norwegian, Eastern or some heretical combination, various hybrids, lefty or ‘mirror image’ for the lefthanded- and many others. Knitters can throw, lever, or pick the yarn to form the new stitch. There’s so many variables to each aspect; where you keep the yarn, how you tension it, how you manipulate it and even the direction in which you’re going – or which is your active needle.

I was taught to knit continental (to the shock of my step-mother, who is an excellent English-style knitter!)  When I returned to knitting in the 1980s, the prevalent view was that continental knitting was “faster” than English style. And very little mention of any other alternatives.

But back when my stepmother commented on my knitting continental, I wasn’t even aware there were other ways to knit!

I grew up thinking everyone knitted like me, because – until I was a teenager and my dad remarried a Southerner – I’d never seen anyone knit any differently.  Over the years, I realised I was also knitting inside-out when in the round. And 99.999 recurring % of my knitting is in the round.

Most knitters, working in the round, work right-side facing, and the knitting progresses clockwise, as you look at it from above. I knit wrong side facing, and anti-clockwise as viewed from above. It hurts my head to think about it too closely, but I suspect that means I’m doing summat different!  But, as we know from knitting’s various ‘heretics‘ and ‘anarchists’, “different” does not equal “wrong”!  Not that I ever, for a second, considered I was “doing it wrong”! Yorkshire folk tend not to think like that. (Talking of anarchy, that brings to mind my grandad, who would pay my cousins and older brother a few shillings if they got into trouble at school… my other grandad wasn’t one for conforming much, either….)

Now I suspect my eccentric knitting (which was the norm in our family) was probably the product of my mum being the daughter of generations of farmers – and the odd fisherman – in a remoter place.  Kids were taught to knit pre-school age, so remained uninfluenced by ‘school style’ knitting.  ‘Polite’ knitting = English style: yarn on the right.  We  knitted yarn on the left.  Also, our family stayed on the land into the 20thC, so no disruption of ‘old ways’ by the Industrial Revolution that ‘got’ 90% of Brits’ ancestors!

Of course my weird way of knitting is nightmarish when I have to write patterns for other people – as basically I’m going in the opposite direction and with the wrong side facing, as I work. I then have to flip everything in my head before I can write it down for others to copy!  It throws up a few unforeseen problems but in a way that’s good too, as it forces me to think.

A quick genealogical aside but if you follow your maternal line relentlessly – mother’s mother’s mother etc – see where you get. Mine end up with late 18thC inland fishermen’s wives, via  a lot of farmers’ wives. If your ancestors stayed put throughout the seismic shifts of the mid 18thC-early 19thC… and your family ‘ignored’ rules imposed by schools and the 1870 Education Act (in the case of UK) … it’s entirely possible, if your mum taught you to knit – you are knitting in the same way your ancestors did!

In ‘Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, (1951) , Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby refer to a famous passage in William Howitt’s 1838 The Rural Life of England, describing how Dalespeople knitted:

All this time, their knitting goes on with unremitting speed. They sit rocking to and fro, like so many weird wizards. They burn no candle, but knit by the light of the peat fire. And this rocking motion is connected with a mode of knitting peculiar to the place, called swaving; which is difficult to describe.  Ordinary knitting is performed by a variety of little motions, but this is a single uniform tossing motion of both hands at once, and the body often accompanying it, with a sympathetic action…

I was careful to say ‘people’ not in the spirit large chain bakeries now call gingerbreadmen ‘gingerbreadpersons’ – but in the spirit of accuracy. Men, women and children of both genders, knitted in the Dales.

This type of movement was called ‘swaving’ in some parts of the Dales, ‘weaving’ in Swaledale, and all over the place more commonly called “strikin’ t’loop”. Basically, if you strike t’loop of your knitting in a well-judged way – you knit fast.

Knitting historians have been frustrated by the vague,  kind-of nature of extant descriptions of swaving. The most oft quoted descriptions are of course, Howitt and Hartley.   A few weeks back, I stumbled on some first-hand accounts, which gave much more detail of what swaving really was… and the rather specific times when it was needed. I feel a bit like a stripper – am conscious of avoiding “showing too much too soon” but, gentle Reader, I promise  will share everything I’m finding with you in my forthcoming book rather than pre-empt myself, here. Going off half-cocked, so to speak… You wouldn’t want that.

But suffice to say, swaving was fast knitting. Very fast. They could knock out entire sets of gloves or socks in an evening.  But then, as my researches in York showed me, even a 7 year old in 18thC England, was expected to knit an entire stocking per week, before admission to a charity school.  Figures around the 200 stitch per minute mark, are mentioned.

Credit: Belinda May, Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes

Speed knitting is not my forte, but it was standard issue amongst 18thC and 19thC commercial hand-knitters. They used steel needles (but not always), bent needles (but not always) and knitting sticks (but in different ways)!

This week I have been mostly messing around with knitting sheaths, following all the research I managed to trawl up in the past few weeks. Some Dalesfolk tucked the sheath under their arm, so were practising ‘pit knitting’ (urgh – can someone think of a nicer name for that please?) Some, in the belt or using a ‘cowband’. Different kinds of needles were used for different jobs.

We can learn a lot by looking at today’s speed knitters and their techniques.

Miriam Tegels has the Guiness Book of Records record for fastest knitter.  But she was out-knit by Scotland’s Hazel Tindall, who has the World Record.  The Yarn Harlot, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, is another fast knitter.

All three of these  knit in different ways; Miriam using the pit method and – if I’m correct – yarn to left continental-style (documented in 19thC Dales but by no means the only method used); whilst Hazel knits English style with yarn to right and using a knitting belt, or “wisk” and Stephanie the ‘Irish Cottage Style’ (levering with yarn tensioned in the right hand).

None of them are ‘doing it all wrong’!  They are all so different and yet – so right!

My knitting stick!

Beyond messing about with my knitting sheath, a repro Yorkshire goosewing one bought at Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Shop, I have also learned to knit Portuguese style.

I switched to purling this way well over a year ago because it is just so much faster than my usual knitting. And as I knit inside out, there are simply more purls than knits in my work.

But it’s taken til now to get round to sitting down with good old YouTube, and finally mastering the knit stitch, Portuguese style. It’s counter-intuitive because you have the yarn at the front of the work. Having learned it, and played with it – I’m thoroughly enjoying it. And more to the point – using it!

As knitters it’s fun to sometimes challenge yourself and pick up a new style of knitting. It pushes the boundaries but it also informs you about the style you are most comfortable with. It can be frustrating, feel un-ergonomic, and there are moments when you think you might as well revert to old ways. But don’t! Add to the repertoire!

When I was a student teacher, one lecturer said to us: “When you’re teacher, go off and learn a new skill yourself. Something you have never tried before. When you’re back to square one, experiencing all the pitfalls and how you feel when something goes wrong/right… that’s when you become a great teacher!”

To teach well – you have to remember how it feels to be a learner, in other words.

And I think he was right.

There are a few videos on YouTube re. Portuguese knitting, and using them all together, I have got to the point I was probably at with my own weird Yorkshire knitting, more years ago than I care to admit.

Moominmama knitting English-style!

And although I spend most of my life in dusty archives, and museums, researching Yorkshire knitting – I’m always fascinated by everything about our craft, from all over the world.  We have so much to learn from eachother, at the risk of coming over all Paul McCartney and ‘Ebony and Ivory’ on yous. I think a lot of knitters have that insatiable curiosity.  Fusion of styles is a great thing!

You can visit Andrea Wong, the doyenne of Portuguese Knitting, here. This is useful, too!


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