PURLS & PUN­ISH­MENT

Pene­lope Hemingway ex­am­ines the knit­ting that was car­ried out by con­victs in 19th cen­tury pris­ons

The Knitter - - Contents -

Sto­ries of knit­ting in 19th cen­tury pris­ons

VALU­ABLE EV­I­DENCE about the ev­ery­day knit­ting of the past comes from news­pa­per re­ports of stolen items, court cases about stolen goods, and ac­counts of pris­on­ers and prison vis­its. In the 18th and 19th cen­turies, the theft of goods of the value of just a few shillings was a se­ri­ous crime. A few con­victs might get that com­muted to trans­porta­tion to Aus­tralia – but the theft of so lit­tle as a pair of stock­ings could be enough to hang some­one. Such crimes, then, were well re­ported, and from news­pa­per ac­counts, cloth­ing his­to­ri­ans can get an idea of pop­u­lar types of knit­ted items, and their colours, and how knit­ted goods were sold and dis­trib­uted. For ex­am­ple:

“Tues­day Sir Wil­liam Smith com­mit­ted to Bridewell, one Ann Perkins, for go­ing into a Shop, and pil­fer­ing there­out, a small Pair of Worsted Stock­ings, the Prop­erty of Mrs Nixon, at the Stock­ing Ware­house in Fleet Street.” ! ‘ REMEMBRANCER’, SEPTEM­BER 29th, 1750"

From many de­scrip­tions of types of stock­ings, we learn they were clas­si­fied as woollen (of­ten called “yarn”) and worsted (smoothly spun); red, grey, and black; knit­ted in rib­bing and stock­ing stitch.

De­scrip­tions of run­away ser­vants can be a rich source of in­for­ma­tion about knit­ted cloth­ing:

“Eloped from his Mas­ter and Par­ents, a Youth about 16 Years of Age, tall and thin, of gen­teel De­port­ment, fair Com­plex­ion… he had on a Fawn-coloured Coat, and Waist-coat, with metal but­tons Gilt, black Stock­ing Breeches, dark mixt Worsted ribbed Stock­ings, bad shoes on… Any­one find­ing him will be ‘gen­teelly re­warded’.” ! ST. JAMES’S CHRON­I­CLE OR THE BRI­TISH EVENING POST, MAY 25th 1773 # MAY 27th 1773 "

Ac­counts of crimes also give us in­for­ma­tion about con­tem­po­rary dress, such as this ex­am­ple from The Hull

Packet news­pa­per, on July 24th, 1840: “… three men broke into the house by the kitchen win­dow, and went to her room. They wore Guernsey frocks, knit­ted caps, the tas­sels of which hung over their shoul­ders, and had their faces dis­guised with sheep red…”

Some­times, the per­pe­tra­tors’ knit­ted cloth­ing is de­scribed; some­times, the vic­tim is a knit­ter, which gives us the so­cial con­text of knit­ting in the past:

“The Partly Mur­dered Knit­ter “Sarah Camp­bell. - Was robbed and partly mur­dered that night (a laugh); was knit­ting at the fire, six or seven men came in; iden­ti­fies Robert McClinchy as hav­ing been there; they picked wit­ness’s pocket, and then tied and blind­folded her; they broke two of her ribs; robbed her of £3 and one shilling, a drab man­tle, four hand­ker­chiefs, and tied her to a post… sev­eral wit­nesses were pro­duced to prove an al­ibi. - Guilty.”

! THE BELFAST NEWS # LET­TER, AU­GUST 5th, 1831 "

Pun­ish­ing the wicked

Knit­ting went on in jails; not so much as re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, but as pun­ish­ment. There are news­pa­per ar­ti­cles about in­mates’ mo­not­o­nous chores; like pick­ing oakum, road­break­ing - or knit­ting. A jour­nal­ist de­scribed vis­it­ing a “fe­male prison”. He wrote: “…stock­ing knit­ting…is car­ried on ex­ten­sively dur­ing the hours when the pris­on­ers are al­lowed to sit in the cor­ri­dors, each at her own cell door, in si­lence for one term, and freely chat­ting through the sec­ond. Pass­ing a file of stock­ing-knit­ters on my way out of the prison, I no­ticed a woman of about thirty stand­ing at the end of the row… She was no­tice­able amongst the crowd be­cause, whilst all the rest curt­sied as the Lady Su­per­in­ten­dent passed… she, af­ter casting one sharp, an­gry glance at the ap­proach­ing vis­i­tors, stood sul­lenly re­gard­ing the floor. ‘Who is that?’ I asked Mrs Gib­son when we were out of sight and hear­ing. ‘That,’ said the Lady Su­per­in­ten­dent, ‘is Con­stance Kent and a very hard sub­ject she is to deal with. She is one of the few women in the prison whom I can­not ‘get at’.” ! DAILY NEWS, DE­CEM­BER 30th, 1874 "

No won­der Con­stance wasn’t com­pli­ant: she is the sub­ject of Kate Sum­mer­scale’s novel The Sus­pi­cions of Mr Whicher: or The Mur­der At Road Hill

House (Blooms­bury, 2008) and is now widely thought to have been in­no­cent of the crime for which she was con­victed.

Over on the crim­i­nal side of the jails, knit­ting was some­times smug­gled out, to pro­vide an added in­come, on re­lease. Pris­on­ers were of­ten given yarn, tech­ni­cally the prop­erty of the Gover­nor, to knit items whilst be­hind bars.

In 1843, one en­ter­pris­ing in­mate from Mor­peth Jail, Ellen McGurch (“a char­ac­ter well known to the turnkeys”) was found at re­lease, to be wear­ing an un­der­shift with stock­ings sewn to it and the hem dou­bled up. In the dou­bled-up hem were se­creted many muf­fa­tees (knit­ted fin­ger­less mitts). Ap­par­ently, “....the fe­male pris­on­ers, in­stead of knit­ting the stock­ings with the yarn given to them, make muf­fa­tees and other ar­ti­cles… carry nd them out of the prison with them, and then dis­pose of them for money or drink…” ! THE NEWCASTLE JOUR­NAL, JAN­UARY 28th, 1843 ".

Many jails had two sides - one for ‘felons’ and one for debtors. Hal­i­fax landowner Anne Lis­ter’s di­aries gave me my first inkling that debtor in­mates knit­ted to make a lit­tle ex­tra money. Anne wrote of a visit to York, on Thurs­day 18th Oc­to­ber, 1821: “Went over the bridge at 11 . Went shop­ping with my aunt… Walked with my aunt around the cas­tle yard (she wanted some knit­ted night­caps of the debtors)…” (as pub­lished in The Se­cret Di­aries of Miss Anne

Lis­ter, (Vi­rago, 2010, edited by He­lena Whit­bread).

In the 19th cen­tury, the York Cas­tle jailer’s jour­nal recorded the lo­ca­tion of buri­als of the ex­e­cuted pris­on­ers; un­der the paving slabs of the prison yard. Anne and her aunt will have walked right over them to buy their night-caps.

One knit­ting pris­oner in Lin­coln, 61-year-old Jane Robin­son, “who be­fore her con­fine­ment in the Cas­tle, lived at At­terby, is rep­re­sented to have been a re­spectable and re­li­gious woman”, was buried in­side the prison walls when she died. Her friends ap­proached her cred­i­tor - the per­son who put her in prison - to ask him to re­lease the body so she could be buried re­spectably. He re­fused. In the win­ter of 1831, one news­pa­per de­scribed Jane’s sud­den death: “God Vis­its “On Thurs­day evening… Mrs Jane Robin­son… had just taken tea, and ap­peared very happy and com­fort­able, when she ob­served to a woman who was with her, ‘As I have just got my knit­ting done, I will now read the Bible to you.’ Be­fore she could ful­fil her pi­ous in­ten­tion, she fell back in her chair, leaned her head against the wall of her cell, and died in­stan­ta­neously. The coro­ner’s in­quest re­turned a ver­dict, ‘Died by the vis­i­ta­tion of God, oc­ca­sioned by the rup­ture of an in­ter­nal blood-ves­sel.’...” ! THE LIN­COLN, RUTLAND AND STAM­FORD MER­CURY, NOVEM­BER 11th, 1831 "

Tri­als were held quar­terly at the As­sizes. Dur­ing as­sizes, debtors sold their knit­ting to court at­ten­dees. In 1832, cholera swept the coun­try. Lan­caster Cas­tle’s high sher­iff gave an or­der not to ad­mit vis­i­tors to the debtors’ side dur­ing the As­sizes, to pre­vent the spread of dis­ease. The pris­on­ers were not al­lowed sell their knit­ting again, un­til the as­sizes were over. This gives us an­other brief, in­valu­able glimpse of the type of items knit­ted be­hind bars: “...This was con­sid­ered a great hard­ship by the debtors, as they had been ac­cus­tomed to reap a pretty good har­vest dur­ing the pre­vi­ous as­sizes, by the sale of ar­ti­cles of knit­ting, &c., such as purses, night-caps and other ar­ti­cles, which they man­u­fac­ture dur­ing their im­pris­on­ment….” ! MANCH­ESTER TIMES, MARCH 31st, 1832 " – Read more about knit­ting his­tory and re­search on Pene­lope Hemingway’s blog, The Knit­ting Ge­neal­o­gist: www.theknit­tingge­nie.com

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