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

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

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

“…remains without material change. July 28 .. She still knits away with a piece of string and pieces of wool and needles producing only a tangle – if she cannot get anything to employ herself in this manner with she rubs her hands together all day long till she rubs the skin off then she rubs away at the sore…”  

[From Case Notes of Margaret Thwaite, 1874. March 1, The Retreat].

When I started looking at the records of The Retreat, a progressive asylum near York,  I was hoping to find some knitting, spinning and costume records in the account books; maybe the odd mention of knitting as an early sort of occupational therapy, in the patients’ case notes. What I found, unexpectedly was… the sad story of one of the ‘terrible knitters of Dent’, who spent seven decades locked away. I went in search of this woman, Margaret Thwaite, hoping to piece together her story and share it with her modern day descendants – the not always entirely sane modern knitters of Dent and everywhere else…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aysgarth was prime knitting territory, in the Dales.

Yore Mills, Aysgarth. CREDIT: Nathaniel Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

“M.T. has lived at home for the greater part of her life in a country situation with her mother, who has been for many years in a state of mental excitement chiefly connected with religious subjects, and though not requiring confinement on account of her own or others’ safety, has been decidedly deranged…..”

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

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

Why sud Ah nut succeed as weel,

And get a man full out genteel

As awd John Darby’s daughter Nelly;

Ah think mysen as good as she

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Men Patients’ Work  1798

5 May

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

31 Dec

Spinning 1 lb  20  [illegible]  10 pence

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

Or, from an entry for Ruth Sheffield in 1809:

“27 Jan 1809

Worsted for stockings (Knit by Ann Smith)”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Margaret Thwaite no 518

16th May,  1836

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“March 1st, 1874.

…remains without material change. July 28th… She still knits away with a piece of string and pieces of wool and needles producing only a tangle – if she cannot get anything to employ herself in this manner with she rubs her hands together all day long till she rubs the skin off then she rubs away at the sore…”

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

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

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

“1877 Dec 3rd

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

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

18thc stickThen, the most fascinating entry of all:

“1882 is in fair bodily health. Much demented, and frequently more or less excited; when in the latter state she chatters incoherently and unintelligibly, and often swears and usually has a piece of tape or string and bit of wood in her hands, with which she goes through the manoeuvre of making a stitch in knitting, immediately dropping the stitch, this is incessantly repeated.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Date of Reception Order: 12th May 1836

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


85 years


Profession none

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

Apparent cause of death Senile Decay

Post mortem: No

Time of death 7:15 am

No injuries

Duration of disease… Some months

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

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

Signed Henry J Mackenzie, acting medical superintendent.”

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

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

The Quaker burial records said:

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

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

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

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

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


Comb’d wool spoil’d by the Patients

ret pat dis 2The records of The Retreat asylum, in York, present some fascinating data for textile and costume historians.

Possibly the most valuable of all the tens of thousands of pages of records, are the Patients’ Disbursement Books. These recorded patients’ spending money and also monies patients earned from work, themselves.

In the late eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries, there even seems to have been a full blown micro-economy of patients repairing clothes for eachother and some patients spinning and knitting for the benefit of others. We can’t know whether this was thought to have therapeutic benefits, or whether it was an accidental by-product of the enlightened way in which The Retreat was run by its founders, the Quaker tea-dealing family, the Tukes.

The Disbursement books have accounts for named patients; each patient having their own pages, and interspersed amongst them, are records of the patients’ work, or what is referred to as the “Work Book sundry patients making and mending and knitting etc”.  These records were kept from 1796 onwards, and randomly interspersed with the individual patients’ spending accounts, are pages titled “Men Patients Work” or sometimes “Men Patients Work With Some of the Women’s”.

Either way, we’re privileged to glimpse these lost and long forgotten lives. Come with me, a moment, and we will step into the elegant confines of The Retreat, and see what we can find out about our ancestors’ knitting and hand spinning.

In 1799, patient Judith Robertson spent 3d on “knitting needles”. In 1802, John Summerland had: “A shilling for Cotton for foot of stocking” – which suggests the expense of cotton stockings as opposed to worsted. Frequently, patients were paid only 2 shillings and sixpence to knit a pair of worsted stockings. In 1807, “stocking worsted” cost just 10d.  Re-footing stockings was an ongoing thing.

In 1810, a patient bought “worsted for footing”. This reminded me of the passage of ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’:

In Deep-dale (near Dent) the farmers principally employ themselves at home in sorting and carding wool for knitting. They call it welding; and the fine locks, selected for the leg of the stockings, they call leggin, whilst the coarser part goes by the name of footing. Two old people, Laurence and Peggy Hodson o’ Dockensyke, were both upwards of seventy, when Peggy died. As she lay on her death-bed, she said to her husband, ‘Laury, promise me ya thing, – at tou’ill not wed again when I’se gane.’  ‘Peggy, my lass,’ answered Laurence, ‘do not mak me promise nae sic thing; tou knaws I’se but young yet.’  The old fellow did wed again, and his brother, on returning from the wedding, made this report of the bride : – ‘Why-a, she’s a rough ane. I’se welded owre and owre, an’ I canna find a lock o’ leggin in her; shes a’ footing.’

[The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales, p.80]

In 1808, Patient John Baker paid four shillings (20p) for “2 Pr Stockings & 2 Night Caps knitting”. John Gendry paid the same. By the middle of the year: “Patients work overall, Debit 15 £ 11s  and 3d. Credit 15 £, 11s and 3d”.  I.e: the books were balanced and all patients had paid for the work done for them. That is quite a volume of making and mending for a handful of months.

In May, 1808, two patients were paid for spinning worsted. H. Hall got six shillings and H Woodville, 4 shillings and 11d. When you consider at around these dates, the last remaining hand-spinners in Yorkshire might earn about a halfpenny per day spinning several ounces of wool, then 4 – 6 shillings represented a lot of spinning.

By the end of September, The Retreat’s Knitters were two shillings and 6d in credit, but by the last day of the year, they were ten shillings in credit. This might suggest knitting was something of an autumn/winter activity.

The same names or initials crop up frequently in the accounts for spinning and knitting. “M.W”  (probably patient Mary Wilson) and James Hashold are names that recur; Hashold’s in the context of knitting and Wilson’s in the context of spinning and knitting – in line with what we’d expect genderwise, for the respective crafts at these dates.  In 1815, the accounts mentioned:

“M Wilson wrested cotton 4-/… Worsted 2-/3d”  [“Wrested” is an old word for “tightly twisted”]. In December, 1815 M Wilson was credited with five shillings and 6d for knitting 4 pairs of stockings. Over the years, again and again M. Wilson is recorded as buying or spinning worsted.

The Retreat used worsted to make, repair or re-foot stockings. Throughout 1817 and 1818, “M.W” was repeatedly paid for worsted. Although in March 1817, patient Christopher Choat paid 7 shillings for “2 Pr Lambs’ Wool stockings”; so stockings could be woollen spun as well as worsted. (Dales knitters and Yorkshire farming families routinely knitted worsted stockings for commercial mills and woollen stockings for their own home use).  In 1807, Valentine Johnson paid “M.W” four shillings and 5d for a pair of stockings. In 1808, Sarah Impey paid two and six for “Lambswool Yarn for Stockings” and 8d for needles.

In June 1818, Elizabeth Hanbury bought “silk stripe stockings” although their price was rolled in with other items: “muslin, Dimity Crape, Parasol, Sarsnet.” for which, altogether, she paid four pounds, one shilling and 5d. Several times, patients bough “knitting cotton”. We can only speculate what was made from this.In 1817, Sarah Brady was paid a hefty three pounds for “Thread”. Sometimes, eighteenth century (and earlier) accounts mention “thread stockings” – as distinct from Lamb’s Wool, cotton, silk, woollen or worsted. I am not sure, but it is possible ‘thread’ meant two colour? They seem to have been expensive: in 1809, Sarah Harris bought a pair of stockings for one and six, but also a “Pr of Thread Stockings” for 4 and 6.

In ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, it is recorded that during the early part of the nineteenth century, Yorkshiremen still knitted but, as the pack-horse roads into the more remote areas were improved, they got shyer about doing it in public as outsiders found it “quaint”. Behind the walls of The Retreat, male patients who could already knit, maybe continued to knit. The small income some patients made from their spinning and knitting would have paid for little luxuries for themselves. The Disbursement books record patients buying oranges and lemons,  coffee, canary seed, strawberries,  snuff, sweets, alcohol, tobacco and the latest books – including anti-slavery books, poetry and novels, as well as everyday expenses like hair cuts, shaving, mending of stays and shoes.

At the end of March 1812, the Disbursements record a shilling spent on “Tape and needles”. If these were knitting needles, then ‘tape’ might well refer to simple tape bands, often used to attach knitting sticks to the knitter. At least two of the extant knitting sticks at the Bronte Parsonage Museum still have remnants of tape attached to them. Whilst workaday knitters used leather belts, it seems some of the more genteel knitters preferred tape (and The Retreat had many refined patients). Much later in the century, a doctor was to record one patient, a Daleswoman, pretending to knit, using “a bit of wood” – possibly a knitting stick, although the doctor, unfamiliar with this, wasn’t sure what he was seeing.

Dales gloves. (Originally pink and cream). I've reverse engineered these - pattern will be up soon!
Dales gloves. (Originally pink and cream). I’ve reverse engineered these – pattern will be up soon!

In June, 1809 Benjamin Boynes paid one shilling and 3d for: “A Pr of woollen Gloves”. Again, it’s likely these were knitted and possibly spun, in-house. This mention of gloves is a rarer thing – stockings seem to have been the commonest item made in-house. Poignantly, only months later, Benjamin’s accounts say:

“30 Sept 1809  9d Shroud JA  5 s 10d Making 1s 6 d Coffin 63s  Gravemaking 2/6” …   (“JA” would be the person who made the shroud).

His funeral cost three pounds, five shillings and sixpence. A modest send-off by standards of some Retreat patients.

Most patients were buried in the Quaker burial ground behind The Retreat, which served for York’s entire Quaker community, not just the asylum – another measure of the humanity and humility of Quakers. But the Patients’ Disbursement books show the cost of funerals – and some patients’ funerals were far more lavish affairs than others.

Gloves were knitted in their thousands in the Dales but rarely crop up in accounts so it was especially interesting to find these, here. (The mill account books Misses Hartley & Ingilby mention in ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’ are no longer extant, sadly. Or at least, their whereabouts is currently unknown). In 1808, Mary Jackson bought “Mitts” whilst a year later, Mary Boone, intriguingly bought “Fleecy Gloves” for a mighty 4 shillings. (It can’t be known for sure, but “fleecy” might refer to thrummed gloves, a bit like the famous Maine mittens?) In 1812, Thomas Atkinson paid two shillings and 9d for “yarn for Mufatees”.

Rarely a named knitter makes something for a named fellow patient. In 1809, Sarah Impey paid four shillings and sixpence to “Mary Prideaux for a Pr Stockings of her knitting”.

A page from Patients' Disbusements, 1804/5
A page from Patients’ Disbursements, 1804/5

By the 1820s, mentions of the patients doing their own spinning, diminish although patients continued to knit.  This reflects the death of the spinning wheel, out there in the world beyond The Retreat’s walls. From Case Notes it is apparent that many patients would never have been capable of spinning, at all.  By the second decade or so of the nineteenth century, amongst patients’ occupations, ‘spinner’ becomes a male preserve and there are a number of textile related occupations amongst the inmates. This would not be surprising for an asylum in Yorkshire, but The Retreat was unusual in that it drew patients from all over the UK and Ireland and in fact only a minority of the patients were Yorkshire folk.

It seems the patients weren’t always great at spinning. 18th February, 1805, the records mention:

“P[ai]d [illegible] for [illegible] of Comb’d wool spoil’d by the Patients in Spinning.  5 shillings”

That “Comb’d” wool tells us the patients were, at least in February 1805, spinning worsted. In 1805, raw wool cost around £70 a pack.  (According to the Journal of wool scribbler Joseph Rogerson, The Thoresby Society,  ‘Leeds Woollen Industry 1780-1820′,
Vol 30, 1929).

A pack was around 20 stones (280 lbs).  This would mean that the 5 shillings’ worth of wool the patients “spoil’d” would be about 1lb in weight – not a great deal of wool at all. The fact they were spoiling wool suggests there may have been patients teaching other patients to spin. As many hand-spinners learned to spin around age 5 or 6 – it’s not likely an experienced spinner, even a not very proficient/out of practice one, would be spoiling much wool at all. So this one entry tells us a great deal.

You can read more about Crafts and The Retreat in the current (June) issue of ‘Family Tree Magazine’.

York Quaker Cemetery
York Quaker Cemetery


Images 1 and 3 Courtesy the Borthwick Institute. Credit: Nathaniel Hunt

Image 2: Courtesy The Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes. Credit: Belinda May

Image 4: Credit: Nathaniel Hunt



Hanging On By A Thread



 This month’s ‘Family Tree Magazine’ (UK)  has a piece I did about crafts in eighteenth and nineteenth century asylums. Whilst researching, I stumbled on these amazing  Native American autographs, in The Retreat’s ‘Visiter’s Book’, made by visiting Seneca nation dignitaries, in 1818. Couldn’t shoehorn them into the piece,  so here’s one for all of yous out there who love this stuff.

I hope to be getting back to the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds, very soon, to do some more research on the amazing Lorina Bulwer’s craft work, and hopefully will be evolving some workshops for those of us who want to learn to rant via the medium of embroidery.

Gentle Reader, join me in the pages of Family Tree Magazine and find out more about our ‘insane’ ancestors and the way they used crafts for therapy, venting, and sometimes simply to pass the time.

Asylum records (where they exist) are an incredible resource for both historian and genealogist. In areas like Yorkshire and Lancashire with a rich textile industry heritage, you can find amongst those committed; spinners and weavers, mantua-makers, milliners and tailors, knitters, mill-owners, husbandmen and farmers.

To find out more, read this month’s ‘Family Tree Magazine’ (June 2014). Available at all good newsagents, etc.





Images By Kind Permission of The Borthwick Institute, University of York

Image Credit: Nathaniel Hunt (York College’s Art & Design Student of the Year)