“Ladies Made Happy!”

“Victorian parlour ladies” has become a derogatory phrase when it comes to describing the history of crafts.  I wrote this some time ago for Love:Crochet. Crochet is not ‘my’ craft but it was interesting to look at its history, as it was so beloved of the “Victorian parlour ladies” of the 1840s and sheds some light on why, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it became easy for some folk, taking their lead from historians, to be dismissive of the achievements and interests of nineteenth century women. 

Whenever I see that phrase “Victorian parlour ladies”, or – the contemporary equivalent “hobby” [knitters, spinners, weavers, insert craft here!], I see a sexist attempt to belittle craftspeople.  The whole idea of Victorian (female) dilettantes  had its roots in the Victorian era itself.  There is also a myth about the court of Queen Victoria dabbling in crafts when they were fashionable. In a future post, I hope to show how this is largely a fantasy.   In fact, the Victorian age and the early twentieth century  had many examples of middle class women (and men) reviving almost lost skills and using them to help working class people make a living. The most obvious example of this being William Morris’s revival of handspinning and weaving in Westmorland. Crafts were a part of the daily life of people of all social classes; for some, they might add a small but valuable income; for others, they didn’t just pass the time but also were a way of showing faith and virtue. Knitting and crochet were democratic. Why should the work of women of any social class be belittled or used to belittle contemporary craftspeople? 

Surviving textiles show the “parlour ladies” made beautiful things. Why wouldn’t they?  They had the time. I think it was more complex than just conspicuous look-at-me-I-can-afford-to-spend-hours-crocheting-doilies-that-must-mean-I’m-RICH! 

I will look at this in more depth soon but for now, here is a piece inspired by William Etty’s painting ‘The Crochet Worker’. Mary Ann Purdon was the daughter of a Hull clerk; not a grand lady but typical of so many women who would have spent their spare time profitably.


“LADIES MADE HAPPY! It is the observation of one of our best writers, ‘that elegant occupation is the source of happiness to the amiable sex….’ “   

From an advertisement for ‘Guide to Knitting, Netting and Crochet’, Manchester Times, 1844.

In the 1840s, the first written instructions for crochet appeared in print. In the same decade, William Etty painted this portrait of his great-niece, Mary Ann Purdon. The painting is often referred to as ‘Study’; a preliminary work for a painting that was never completed.

The 1840s saw a craze for crochet, which had formerly been called ‘Shepherd’s Knitting’. This uncharacteristic, quiet painting, a study for ‘The Crochet Worker’, is undated but was probably painted in the late 1840s, towards the end of his life.

Artist William Etty, R.A., (1787 – 1849) was infamous for painting nudes – not cosy domestic scenes. John Constable famously called Etty’s painting “Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm”, “the bum-boat”. Wikipedia calls it “particularly gruesome”. (Unfairly – it’s a brilliant painting).

Etty went from son of York gingerbread maker, to famous Royal Academician. His statue stands outside York Art Gallery, where in 2011-12, there was a popular exhibition of his work, ‘William Etty: Art and Controversy”.

He was born one of ten children, to Matthew and Esther Etty. Only five of the young family  made it to adulthood.

Etty’s father rented a mill on the Mount, in York and ran a gingerbread shop on Feasegate. William’s earliest drawings were done in chalk or in the flour on the mill’s walls. Sometimes the gingerbread was gilded with elaborate designs. It is said some were done by Etty.

hull packetAt 14, William was apprenticed to a printer, and worked for seven years, as a compositor for  ‘The Hull Packet’ newspaper, living with his master and his family in the backstreets of Hull. He hated every moment of it. During that time,  one of William’s older brothers, Thomas went to sea, and came home one time with a box of watercolours for him. Etty decided to ask his wealthy uncle to fund his studies to be an artist in London, and although his uncle ignored his first begging later, caved in with the second.

Etty arrived in London determined to become a painter, not a printer and in 1807 became a student at the Royal Academy.  In his day, he was to become the most famous artist in England.

In his later years, he retired home to York, where he continued to work, although he was useless with money and left anything practical to his brother, Walter. Etty was fond of his extended family, writing chatty letters to his brothers and nieces.  A Victorian biography quotes an affectionate letter written in later life to an unnamed niece, possibly the one in the painting:

“A pretty little Robin is in the Minster. And sometimes – often indeed – when the Choir is in full chorus, it joins its little voice and ‘o’ertops them all’”

This painting is often subtitled “Mary Ann Purdon, the artist’s niece”. Mary Ann was in fact, Etty’s great-niece, as she was the grand-daughter of his brother, John .

John’s daughter, Catharine Etty married Robert Purdon at All Saints Pavement, York, in 1825. Mary Ann was born in Hull in 1832 – she had one older brother, Charles. Robert Purdon, was on the 1841 census as “clerk”.

Victorians believed “The devil makes work for idle hands” and so manuals on virtue were published alongside the first crochet books. One title advertised alongside various Crochet and Knitting manuals in the 1840s, was the  ‘Guide to Female Happiness Through the Paths of Virtue’.

“Domestic amusement” – like crochet – was the way to avoid being sinful. ‘Mrs Griffiths’ in a foreword to ‘The Winchester fancy needlework instructor’ of 1847, said that at least needlewomen  can “..feel the satisfaction of knowing that we are…innocently employed”.

In ‘The Ladies’ Handbook of Knitting, Netting and Crochet, (1843), the writer stresses that crochet was a fairly recent trend:

“Crochet work has long been known, but it has only become a favourite with the fair votaries of the needle during the last few years.”

The Handbook stated that crochet was suited to shawls, table covers, pillows, mats,  slippers, carriage mats, “and a great variety of other things of elegance and utility”. The Victorian female ideal combined usefulness with beauty.

Crochet was possibly seen as more refined than knitting. Down the road from Mary Ann Purdon, working class women were busy knitting stockings and Humber fishermen’s ganseys for their families and maybe for sale. Crochet on the other hand, was seen as delicate and refined, and suited to the middle class lady who could spend her time usefully on “D’Oyleys” carriage mats or slippers.

The writer, “Mrs Savage” suggested using “an ivory hook is most desirable. It is so light in use and becomes, in use, so glassy smooth, that it greatly facilitates the operation”. For the finest of work she preferred a steel hook.

Mary Ann is using white yarn, probably linen or silk and maybe an ivory or bone hook. These can still be got for bargain prices at vintage fairs. When it came to selecting just the right silk for a project, the 1843 author advised “No young lady should trust, at first, to her own judgement…but a little attention will soon render her a proficient in the art of choosing the most profitable materials….

Etty died in 1849, when Mary Ann would have been only 17.

In the Morning Post, May 13th, 1850, I found a poignant list of the items for sale from Etty’s studio, after he died.  Amongst the works was ‘The Crochet Worker’, on sale for £48 and 6 shillings. It was listed under ‘Unfinished Paintings’ which suggests it really was one of his last works. And one of the most domestic and endearing. Only three years later, it was for sale again in the sale of “A series of Capital English Pictures”.  This time, it went for ninety guineas, doubling its price.

Mary Ann, and both her parents and brother, vanish from the censuses and eluded look ups in the marriage and death records. They are lost to us, for now, at least. She never owned the painting of herself. Looking down at her work, Mary Ann remains enigmatic. But this Hull lass must be one of the earliest English crochet workers recorded for posterity, at the height of the crochet craze.

I wonder if she’d agree with “E.L”, writing the preface to ‘The Royal magazine of Knitting, Netting and Crochet’,  in 1848,  who said, grandly:

What an allegory of human life is Crochet!

First published in Love:Crochet


“Primarily Drinking British Gin”

The Retreat. By Gemälde von Carve [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
This week I’ve mostly been writing articles, including one about a Dent-dale knitter who was confined to The Retreat, a progressive asylum in York, opened in the 1790s. I stumbled on this terrible knitter of Dent accidentally, when researching the textiles and clothing, spinning and knitting going on at The Retreat in the late 18thC/early 19thC.

The ‘Terrible Knitter of Dent’ article will be in a forthcoming issue of ‘Knit Edge’.  So I will keep my powder dry and say no more about it here. It’s a gripping story and a rarity to be able to put a name, a description and an entire life story to that usually anonymous body of people; knitters. I hope folk will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.

Whilst researching, I was fascinated by the reasons people were certified and admitted to the asylum. I started collecting some of the reasons people found themselves there. On admission, patients had already been ‘certified’ and these certificates were placed in the Admission records. Question 4 on the certificate, was: “Supposed Cause of the insanity?”

Sometimes, doctors left this blank or said words to the effect “Search me!” A common reason for admission was “Religious melancholy” or simply “Religion”. At the start, most patients were Quakers but as time went on, they admitted on much wider criteria.

Here are just a handful of the most interesting answers, from the 1820s:

“A violent attachment to a female not approved by his friends.”

“Perhaps attending overmuch to business.”

“1st, an accident, which caused a severe contusion of the Brain.
2nd. By fright, caused by a man (unknown) getting into his Lodging room, secreting himself under some Linen in a corner of the room, and after about five weeks after this he was attacked with the first fit…”

“Uncertain; he thinks he has not been as humble as he ought to have been”.

“Hipochondriac [sic]”.

“A tedious confinement with an affected family”.

“Intemperate drinking”.

“Religious melancholy”.

“Suppose a fear of not being able to pay his just debts owing to the depression of the times”. (1826)

“Disappointments from a long attachment to a man” . (28 yr old woman)

“Intemperate use of Opium”.  (A woman of 43 or 4)

“Perhaps anxiety”! (A 29 yr old woman had three kids the youngest 17 Days).

“Suppressed or irregular menstruation”.  (A 33 year old woman).

And finally, my favourite:

“Primarily drinking British Gin”.

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/

The Nine Days’ Wonder of Kelfield

In the summer of 1833, the Yorkshire and national newspapers were gripped by the story of  ‘the Kelfield Prophetess’, a young girl called Hannah Beedham. Hannah described having a vision where she was told her death date. Two thousand people flocked to Kelfield to see her ‘die’.  Nine days before her appointment with death, she took to her bed in local gentleman farmer James Sturdy’s farmhouse. She told the world she would die on August 1st, 1833. The world waited.

Only she didn’t…

By mid August 1833, the press were calling Hannah ‘The Nine Days’ Wonder’. Here’s her story.

Credit: David Hunt

One for the historians and genealogists, today!    If you’ve heard of Johanna Southcott, you might be interested in Hannah’s story.

Whilst my machine has gone all explody, I’m on my sons’ machine and have found some old files from our website. I’d love to share this story with you.  This is an updated one, as since writing the original, I met the lovely Chris Cade, who co-wrote the definitive book on Hannah, and Chris put me right on a few things.

Hannah was called ‘the Prophetess of Kelfield’ – and one of my ancestors features in the story in a way that is kind of embarrassing, as you’ll see.

LIVING all but the final two years of her life before civil registration, there is only a limited amount of bare facts we can reconstruct, regarding Hannah Beedham.

There is only one monograph on the life of Hannah Beedham, “Strange Infatuation, The Curious Tale of Hannah Beedham: Forgotten Prophetess of York and Kelfield”, by J.E. Muldowney and C. A. Cade, (self published), 1989, written when a group of Kelfielders  including actor Chris Cade,  put on a play (in original locations) re. Hannah’s life.

In the book, they speculated that members of their audience could even feasibly be descendants of the characters in the story, but at the time of writing, they had no knowledge of any White, Beedham or Sturdys nearby.

It is quite amazing when you think, that the tiny village of Kelfield hit the national newspaper headlines twice in under 6 months – Hannah’s story in the summer of 1833, and the tragedy when 11 church singers drowned,  in the December of the same year. Both stories featured the Sturdy family.

It’s amazing that no-one made the link between names in the two stories – the victim, school-teacher’s daughter Clara Sturdy and James Sturdy, the Kelfield gardener/farmer who allowed Beedham to ‘die’ (or rather not die) in his house. Our own research told us that James Sturdy was in fact Clara’s uncle. In 1833, the Sturdys had one hell of a year of it!

Research is slightly easier these days, with so many genealogy resources online. With that, plus visits to the Borthwick Insitute, we were able to fill in a few of the missing pieces of Hannah’s  jigsaw.

The Beedhams first crop up in York in the records of St John’s Ousebridge, Micklegate in the centre of York. This church was deconsecrated in the 20thC.  Ouse Bridge was at one time covered in buildings – in medieval times there were 36 shops on it, and 5 tenements.

According to records, Hannah’s father was the third son of a farmer, William Beedham,  and grandson of a Dunnington labourer, also William Beedham…. and his mother Elizabeth Whitteron was daughter of a Knottingley  mariner. The record reads:

9.1.1788  John Beedom, 3 son of 3 born of Beedham. Wm Beedom, Farmer, son of Wm Beedom of Dunnington, labourer, by Ann his wife.  Mother’s Name & Descent: Elizabeth, dr of John Whitteron of Knotingley, mariner, Mary [Leadston?] his wife. Born 9.1.1788 bap 11.1.1788″

The Whitterons appear to have come to York maybe pursuing their business of being watermen , as when John Beedham was six years old, his uncle, John Whitteron, also a mariner, married at Ousebridge.

There seem to be a number of unrecorded little Beedhams, because the next recorded birth to William and Elizabeth was in 1802, that of their eighth child. By 1802, William was no longer described as ‘farmer’ but as ‘joiner’.

William Beedham appears to have been substantial enough, as he was granted the Freedom of the City six years later, no small feat for any York tradesman;  in 1807 and the subsequent generation of Beedhams lived at Beedham Court,  (or Yard), not far from the river. Muldowney and Cade say:

“The name Beedham’s Court is misleading. It turned out to be an enclave of squalid lodging houses off Skeldergate, in an area known graphically as Hagworm’s Nest, notorious for prostitution and disease. Quite how Beedham’s Court came to be named is unclear, but Hannah’s grandfather, William Beedham, was living there in the very early years of the nineteenth century. William was granted the Freedom of the City in 1807 and we therefore assume that the buildings were named in his honour, but there is no evidence that he owned them….”

The Beedhams seem to have gone into carpentry – William and later his sons, William and John, both turn up in Trade Directories described as ‘cabinet makers’ .

Whoever built a small yard of tenements in a gap site first would have named it after themselves.  If he was a Freeman of the City, had once farmed and now was a cabinet maker, there’s no reason why Beedham wouldn’t have owned the place in Skeldergate.

Although there is extant the 19thC ‘slum clearance’ type photo of Beedham’s Court reproduced in Chris’s book, it’s fair to say we cannot judge the Yard of 1800 by what it became say  80 years later. In fact, the Beedhams may well have been prosperous enough in Hannah’s early years as Baines’  Trade Directory of 1823 lists:

“Beedham John, Fetter lane
Beedham William, Skeldergate”

As cabinet makers, carpenters and house-builders.

And in the alphabetical listing of the same year contains something more intriguing:

“Beedham Elizabeth, gentlewoman, Beedham’s yard, Skeldergate”

Elizabeth could not be down as ‘gentlewoman’ with an ‘un-genteel’ address, which suggests Beedham’s Yard was indeed, not a nest of disease and prostitutes in 1823.  A look at Beedham’s Court’s inhabitants twelve years on, in the Census of 1841, suggests otherwise. (And again, these kind of sources are freely available in the age of the internet but back in 1989 when the book about Hannah was being researched, Trade Directories and Censuses were not so readily available). We can now revise our view of Hannah a bit, in the light of this newer information.

Finding this, also begged the question of who Elizabeth Beedham ‘gentlewoman’  was?  The most likely candidate is Elizabeth Beedham nee Whitteron, Hannah’s grandmother.

If on the other hand, she was some other Beedham entirely, maybe an elderly spinster, could I find any candidates?   One possibility was the Elizabeth Beedom of Easingwold, baptised  6.9.1786, daughter of a John Beedom of Easingwold. I later rejected this theory but it did show that there were Beedoms in Easingwold in the 18thC-19thC, which was to prove useful information. Remembering some Easingwold reference in the contemporary accounts, I kept that one at the back of mind as I researched further…

To get a better sense of Beedham’s Court, we turned to the 1841 Census, where we found 31 households there. Butchers, joiners, cabinet makers, watermen, labourers, mariners, tailors, printers – mainly family groups, not households of single people, and mainly working folk with trades. No doubt the elderly Elizabeth Beedham ‘gentlewoman’ was dead, by the 1841 Census.

Both the Beedham lads, William and John, became cabinet makers and joiners themselves and the parish records take up the story, again.

In 1808, aged 22, John now a joiner himself, married Ann Simison, also of St John’s parish. John was literate enough to sign the register, but Ann signed with a mark – not uncommon at this date as working class men often received some sort of a rudimentary education – moreso than women.
Only two months after the married, two days before christmas, 1808, their first child Elizabeth was born and baptised the same day. Often a birth and baptism on the same day suggests the baby was weak, and not expected to live which indeed was the case as on the 2nd January 1809, only one week old, little Elizabeth was buried. In July 1810, John and Ann had a son, James.

Hannah was John and Ann’s eldest surviving daughter, baptised on 18th April, 1814. John and Ann’s address is given as Skeldergate which could well mean Hannah was born in Beedham’s Court.

On the very same day, there is recorded in the same register the burial of one Ann Beedham, aged only 2 years old:

“18.4.1814 bur.  Ann Beedham, Skeldergate, 2 years”

We have no baptismal record for this child for either of the Beedham brothers – again not uncommon for this date, especially for girls – and we are still pre civil registration. The baby buried the day Hannah was baptised must have been Hannah’s sister or cousin, as John Beedham’s brother, William and his wife were also having children at this time and their address is also given as Skeldergate.

Either way, it may give us some insight into why Hannah grew up to be such a remarkable character – baptised the same day her sister/cousin was buried – and presumably the much loved replacement of an older daughter who had died in infancy. Hannah was possibly the focus of much attention in the Beedham household, and grew up feeling ‘special’ in some way.

Her remarkable start in life might have been a familiar family story, something that she grew up with and that marked her out.

A year after Hannah was born, she had a sister, Elizabeth, and two years after that, in 1817, she had a brother, Thomas.  In 1819, there is recorded the burial of an Ann Beedham, aged 42 years – but we cannot know whether this is John Beedham’s wife, Ann or William Beedham’s wife – also Ann. John’s brother William was buried at St John’s in 1823, aged 37 years and at this point, no more Beedhams are recorded in St John’s parish records.

Muldowney and Cade make the point that York in the 1820s and 30s, would have been home to various of the Millenarian sects, like the Soutcottians and Wroeites of ‘Wroes’ Virgins’ fame. These people had their roots in the 17thC Fifth Monarchy movement, which preached that there was to be a second coming of Christ. They often preached a brand of hell-fire and brimstone; some had charismatic leaders. If Hannah came across the story of Johanna Southcott, she must have figured that she could gain notoriety by dying on cue – the same way Southcott became famous for claiming to be about to give birth to Shiloh (the Second Coming) – when she was in her 60s!

Certainly, there does seem some possible manipulation of the press, as Hannah appears to have told of scenes around her much like those described by early spiritualists of twenty years later – various happenings we’d now equate with ‘psychic phenomena’ – things flying around the room, strange nosies, etc, which many 20thC psychologists believed had more to do with female girls and puberty, than the supernatural. The press seem to have got hold of a story that Hannah lay in a hospital bed at the county hospital (first misreported as the Easingwold Hospital), when she had her first visitation from god in 1831.

Chris Cade feels one reason the press did latch on to Hannah was the fact she might have correctly prophesied some kind of epidemic and in 1832, right in the heart of the Bedern where Hannah is known to have lived, a waterman named Thomas Hughes was the first York person to succumb to cholera.  He had brought a boatload of disreputables across the river to the York Races, and the newspapers pointedly remarked they were from Selby and Hull, where cholera had taken hold. Hannah gained believers and followers because some time pre the summer of 1832, she ‘foretold’ an epidemic.

The York Courant of the week after the-death-that-never-was, in 1833, refers to “ravings”, also “trances, predictions and street preachings”.   Her precise predictions (apart from the one that she was going to die on 1st August, 1833) are not known. And we have no idea of which sect she belonged to – although the papers make reference to her having her ‘ticket withdrawn’ by the Methodist chapel.

We can get an idea of how Hannah operated, though. There is an account of her preaching, on Queen’s Staith – a very short walking distance from her parental home in Skeldergate. The story went national – ‘The Times’ of July 18th, 1833 reprinted a York Courant report:

“A FEMALE PROPHET. – A young woman, named Hannah Beedham, addressed a large congregation of people from a cart on the staith, on Wednesday evening. She lately lived at Easingwold, where some weeks back, it is reported, she was in a trance for three days. During that time many wonderful  things were revealed to her….she was instructed that her own death will take place on Thursday, the 1st of August; and on Monday next she is to leave York for the house of some gentleman, where she will remain until her death…..”

‘Some gentleman’ was in fact, my relative, James Sturdy.

We know there were Beedhams in Easingwold – and she may have visited there in the past and used it as the first place that came to mind to explain an absence from home…  Certainly when cholera broke out in June, she may well have escaped to Easingwold relatives, as the scenes unfolding in York were truly apocalyptic.

Times, places and dates are always elusive, in this story. The August 1833 newspapers mention that she was in York County Hospital three YEARS earlier when she claimed to have had her first vision (which would make her 17 when the delusion/attention seeking scam/whatever it was started). But that they’d reported Easingwold County Hospital in error. Certainly there is some garbled story around Easingwold, that we can’t really untangle at this distance in time.

We must now visit William White, Hannah’s future husband, to get a fuller sense of the story.

We have yet to track down the precise William White that Hannah married! A William White was baptised at Stillingfleet 20.2.1814, son of prosperous George White, ‘gardener’ and his wife, Mary. George’s property in Kelfield is shown on the 1830’s tithe map. George White seems to have been comparable in status to James Sturdy, his fellow Kelfield gardener/farmer, being substantial enough to pay tithes.  Many a yeoman farmer’s son is down in parish records as ‘labourer’ as technically, labouring on their family farms that was what they were. William White’s status as farm labourer and later slide down into poverty may not reflect his true status, at the point he met Hannah.

We should recall that at the height of her fame, being written about not only in the York papers but also the nationals, and having enough impact to fill Kelfield in the summer of 1833 with over two thousand people – Hannah White was still just a nineteen year old.  It’s a salutary thought that both William White and Hannah Beedham were virtually the same age as the parish’s teenage church singers when they drowned six months later. The singers may well have been to school (or Sunday school?) with White. Clara Sturdy of course had even more reason to know White and maybe Hannah also as she spent three weeks/months in Clara’s cousins’ home in Kelfield.

William White is quite a mysterious figure but we do know he was literate enough to sign his name on his wedding to Hannah, and so it is likely to have been educated at the Kelfield village school, which was close to his home.

When the cholera scourged York in 1832, it would have made it all the less remarkable that Hannah stayed away for some of that year,’with relatives in the country’.

Back from Easingwold,  Hannah seems to have been in York again by early 1833, and then, three months – or three weeks – before the ‘death’, at the Sturdy’s house in Kelfield.

With much less to go on,  as they were working pre-interwebs, Muldowney and Cade and others since, have assumed Hannah maybe met White at this stage, in those ‘final’ weeks leading upto the ‘death that never was’ in Kelfield.   Muldowney and Cade comment on the paucity of evidence – either in the Methodist records, or contemporary Anglican accounts of the time – bearing in mind Sir Clements Markham’s unpublished history of the parish covered this period and yet no mention, once, of Hannah. The most newsworthy story the parish ever saw – until that night four months later, when the tragedy overshadowed all. It is possible that the establishmen, both methodist and anglican – Markham’s father was the parish vicar –  simply didn’t think it worth a mention – a young woman, little more than a teenager, with radical views.  It certainly looks like a ‘silly season’ press story, now – with the press being cynical and gleeful and suggesting most of the two thousand rubberneckers at the death-that-never-was, were there for a bit of fun.

Hannah may have been delusional, and in that sense, sincere. She was gaining notoriety for preaching.  John Wesley had had no problem with females preaching but with his death, the methodist movement became more conservative and by this date, Hannah would have been an embarrassment for those who wanted to move on – leaving women back in the congregation, not leading it.  All this affects the way contemporaries viewed her. An upstart female preacher turned prophet – technically blasphemous. Yet the seem to have viewed the whole thing as a joke.  This is the fag-end of Regency England, remember – not Victorian. Sensibilities were more robust. We tend to think of all 19thC people as ‘Victorian’ – but in 1833, the world view was a little bit more cynical, rude and rollicking than that!

We cannot know whether William White was present or not, during the death that never was.

It’s possible White was a labourer for James Sturdy, who took Hannah in and allowed the multitudes to file past and give their respects to Hannah, as she lay in state, waiting for the hand of god…

The Sturdys are an old Cawood family, who crossed the river to Kelfield and Stillingfleet parish around the same time as my family,  the Fishers. In the early 18thC, in Cawood, the Sturdys – then ‘Stordys’, married into a family called the Mulkeys – also my ancestors – so we’re indirectly related to James Sturdy. James Sturdy must have gone over to the Methodists by 1833. Whether his association with Hannah lost him his ticket, we don’t know. Although the Times refers to him as ‘gentleman’, that may be a little tongue in cheek. He was usually described as a ‘gardener’ and his land comprised of a garth, orchard, probably a house and barn.

Cawood Church, where the Sturdys were baptised

Detouring to my Kelfield ancestors, It is also possible,  my great grandmother X 3 Mary Fisher’s sister, Jane Guy had some involvement in the Kelfield Propetess story.

It looks likely Jane and Robert Guy were also Methodists – the new Methodist chapel in 1852, was built on what used to be the Guys’ land.  Jane and Robert lived at Auburn Hall, Kelfield (now Manor Farm). The Guys were an old yeoman farming family from Bubwith, who moved to Kelfield in the 1790s.  They lived at Auburn Hall, Barnard Clarkson at Kelfield Manor. Wierdly, Robert Guy is an ancestor of my dad and Jane Guy – of my mum!

Robert Guy’s cousin, Barnard Clarkson, seems to have financed the building of many Methodist chapels in the East Riding, and was a notable lay preacher. Wesley himself preached at Clarkson’s father’s farmhouse in 1794. My family – like the Sturdys – were firmly split down the middle; half church, half chapel. Mary Fisher, my grt X 3 grandmother, stayed with the Church of England. It looks likely that her sister Jane, went over to the Methodists.

The Sturdys and the Fishers were typical of local families – half going over to the Methodists and half staying with the old church.  Locals always say it is interesting that in the 19thC Stillingfleet is described as having ‘people’ or a ‘population’. Kelfield, on the other hand, is a village of ‘souls’. By 1852, the tiny village was served by two Methodist chapels, only a minute’s walk apart.

In the summer of 1833, The York Gazette journalist wrote of Sturdy with not a little schadenfreude:

“…The awful hour at length arrived, and Mr.Sturdy’s family, with many other friends, were in close attendance, watching her departure, and contributing, as they supposed, their kind offices to smooth her passage to the grave, such as moistening her lips with some liquid, as it customary when people are really dying…”

It was thought there were upwards of two thousand visitors camped out in Kelfield, at the height of things, and coaches returning to York from the village were mobbed by people anxious for the news from Kelfield.  People came from as far away as South Yorkshire, and the newspapers mentioned juries ending cases hurridly so they could rush to Kelfield.  The farmers’ fields were ruined by all the trampling across them, and the visitors camping in the fields around. Waiting for Hannah to die. I’d imagine the Kelfield farmers must have hated James Sturdy right then!  Apparently the ferryman at Cawood did a roaring trade, ferrying rubberneckers across the river to Kelfield.

The Leicester Chronicle of 24th August carried this syndicated article:


“…Many hundreds of believers followed but mostly dressed in mourning… The dyers were busily employed in giving the funeral colour to garments..for the great occasion.  It is an ill wind that blows nobody good, so says the proverb, and the ferryman experienced its truth as he netted £15 by conveying those over who wanted to be present at sister Hannah’s  departure. The prophetess lay in wait for her change, sometimes holding conversation with the celestial beings she was about to join… The Methodist chapel was opened and numbers assembled there to pray;  processions singing funeral hymns passed along the village street, and altogether the scene was one of the most extraordinary of modern times… The three hotels in Kelfield were emptied to the larder..and even the adjacent orchards and turnip fields gave proof to having ahd a visitation.”

Kelfield Chapel: On August 1st, 1833 - they did the catering!

The story of what happened on August 1st, 1833 is told by The Yorkshire Gazette, two days later,  here.

In The York Courant of 13.8.1833, Hannah’s shameful return to Bedern is described with The Courant’s usual cynicism:

“… The prophetess – the ‘nine days’ wonder’ -, she whom the people went far to see, arrived yesterday in Beddern, in this city, from the scene of her imposture, at Kelfield. Her coming excited some little interest in the neighbourhood, and several persons congregated in front of her dwelling; but after having stood some time, and held a talk… and there being neither sign nor wonder wrought on the occasion, they dispersed, and the street resumed its wonted quietude.”

Which tells us Hannah spent around twelve days after the ‘death’ still at Sturdy’s house, presumably. I can imagine James’ embarrassment must have been acute.  For days the faithful (and not so faithful) had filed through his farm-house, to visit Hannah’s great lying in state.  When god and the angels failed to swoop – he must have been left wondering how quickly he could decently get Hannah back to York and out of his home.

The story is taken into its final chapter, in the records, with the next York parish I could find the Beedhams in the records – Goodramgate. This is the small church almost opposite the Bedern, where we know Hannah seems to have spent her married life.

On 29th December, 1835,  two years after the ill fated ‘death’,  William and Hannah married. At their wedding at Goodramgate, he signed the register and Hannah marked. Remarkable that a woman who couldn’t even sign her own name must have been an orator, enough to take some thousands want to travel the length of Yorkshire to see her. Hannah’s father was witness at her wedding which suggests her York family didn’t give up on her, either.

William and Hannah’s marriage was only to last four years and the baptismal records for Hannah’s children, Elizabeth and Ann, show the girls to have been baptised at the Bedern Chapel, just across the way from Holy Trinity. The Bedern Chapel was part of the church. Hannah may have had her ticket to Methodist chapels withdrawn, but she seems to have continued with the anglican church.

There is a record of Hannah’s burial on Christmas Eve, 1839, aged only 27 years, at Holy Trinity, Goodramgate.  On that christmas eve, only six years on from the death that never was and almost exactly the anniversary of the Stillingfleet Tragedy, a lot of Kelfield and Stillingfleet  families must have been considering their lost loved ones, especially those girls born in the Regency years – like Hannah.  It is easy to forget how young she was.  A couple of local papers carried a brief, laconic notice of her death – six years on, the Prophetess of Kelfield was still remembered.

After Hannah’s death,  William seems to have drifted to York and ended up a ‘labourer’.

The Whites were neighbours of James Sturdy in Kelfield. Possibly, returning to Kelfield and his own family was untenable for William White after the events of the summer of 1833. In the 1841 Census, William could be found still in the Bedern – York’s most notorious slum – in a multi-occupier building, listed as ‘labourer’. His child/children with Hannah nowhere to be found. By the 1851 Census, William disappeared into obscurity. It’s possible he disappeared into the anonymity of Leeds or London, and more than possible he ended his days in the workhouse.

It’s impossible to decide whether she was deluded, or someone who set about manipulating others, for attention or some obscurer motive. The York press made their scepticism pretty plain, referring to her with terms like  “imposture” spouting “rhapsodies”  and  call her a “fanatic”; also making reference to her “limited intellect”. They imply that the whole Nine Days’ Wonder, where thousands of people descended on Kelfield was probably for most, just a bit of a jolly – no-one seems to have taken her all that seriously. Maybe the press have always had their summer ‘silly season’ and Hannah just fitted perfectly into that mould, as silly season fodder.

I do think we can revise our view of her as impoverished – the Beedhams clearly had more substance than we’d previously thought.

Certainly the whole incident, would have confirmed for some of our fourteen on the boat on the Ouse, that they had made the right choice, not going over to the ‘mad’  Methodists. At this time, the hottest debate of the day was whether to give non conformists the vote – and many of the same newspapers reporting the Beedham incident were also at pains to argue the corner of Methodist farmers like Sturdy who were still compelled to pay the anglican church tithe – without wanting to set foot in the anglican church – a growing cause of friction in places like Kelfield.

Taking her place with the Stillingfleet Church Singers, Sturdy’s niece Clara must have felt a little bit more secure from ridicule, as that little boat pulled oat across the Ouse, that night in December, 1833.

As a postscript, I recently turned up something new. On trawling the 19thC British Library newspapers, I found an article about a trial in March, 1834.  William Brown, 29, was found guilty of assault on police officer Christopher Robinson, after a drunken brawl at ‘the Waxworks exhibition’, Pavement, York.  Robinson – who was himself drunk by the time he’d staggered out of a pub on Coppergate and gone to see the waxworks at Pavement,  said:

“…Mrs Metcalfe proposed that we should go and see the wax figures, which we did; there were two rooms in which the wax figures were exhibited; there was one figure which represented The Queen, and another, Hannah Beedham… Brown was knocking the figures down; I …saw Brown knocking down the Queen…” [fight breaks out, then] “… Brown then said, ‘D— thee, I’ll do something else by thee now.’ I then felt a very sharp cut across my wrist…”

Jane Metcalfe testified:

“.’.. He [Robinson] went to see the figure of Hannah Beedham, when the prisoner said she had not died, but he would bleed her. There was something set on fire. … Robinson was very drunk….'”

Brown got 6 months’ hard labour at York Castle!  This was months on from the death-that-never-was and Hannah was back in York and now living in poverty. It must have been surreal to know her waxwork was on display in the city, next to the Queen’s! Either way, a curious postscript to an even more curious tale.