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