It’s been eight years in the making, but finally, its here.
‘Their Darkest Materials’ started when I was researching something else entirely. I kept stumbling on these gems of stories – absolutely fascinating, and textile related, yet not quite what I was writing about at the time.
So I started my own word-hoard; gradually amassing a fair bit of research; things found in archives, newspaper reports and various other sources all outlining the darker side of textile history. I wasn’t even sure where I was going with this, or what angle to take, when someone who had booked and re-booked us for talks several times, asked me to do another talk and wondered what I was writing about at the moment. The research notes were loosely connected with the working title “Dark Side” and so, as I talked about a potential future talk, as I heard myself speaking I sort of realised this was not unlike a sort of horrible histories for adults – and so ‘Their Darkest Materials’ was born. Not unfittingly, I had this conversation in the bowels of Armley Mills, now Leeds Industrial Museum. The chapter on child labour mentions that very mill’s owner, coincidentally, when he gave evidence to a parliamentary commission into child labour.
So it’s fit that down in the basement of Armley Mills, my nebulous ‘Dark Side’ notes suddenly coagulated into ‘Their Darkest Materials’. Somehow, it all fell into place. That talk, a year or so later, was packed to the gunnels with over 200 people and we knew we were onto something.
The book is available in our Etsy shop, as a physical copy for £16.99 or a downloadable pdf (non-interactive) for £12.
“… One political prisoner, this time in England, was Jeremiah Brandreth, 1785 – 1817. Jeremiah was a stocking maker and Luddite who fought for workers’ rights in Nottinghamshire. He was thought to have been involved in the Luddite actions of 1811, and in 1817, decided to levy a force of 20,000 men to march on London and storm the Tower. His group was infilitrated by government spies. Brandreth led the Pentrich Rising – an uprising of 1817 during which he shot through the window of a house and killed a servant. He was executed at Derby jail after being set up by a spy. He was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered along with two other men but the Prince Regent commuted the quartered part of the sentence – they were to be hung then beheaded. Although a stocking frame (machine) knitter, Jeremiah would have been able to knit by hand as well, to turn heels, or do complex operations the stocking frame couldn’t perform. Contemporary accounts of Jeremiah’s time in prison said:
“… During those hours in which Brandreth was not occupied in prayer, he occupied himself in knitting a work-bag for his wife, upon the surface of which he had contrived to form, with different coloured cottons, various ornaments: – This he mentioned in a letter written just before his execution, as his last relic…”
Caledonian Mercury, Saturday, November 15, 1817.
In his final letter to his wife, Jeremiah Brandreth mentions ‘… one work-bag, two balls of worsted, and one of cotton; and a handkerchief, an old pair of stockings and shirt…Adieu! Adieu to all for ever…’
The chaplain present remarked that Brandreth went to his death resolutely.
The work-bag alluded to was made by Brandreth himself, knitted from cotton, and was about eight inches square, drawn together at the top, and ornamented on each side with bunches of flowers worked in different coloured cottons. This, as well as the other things specified, were inclosed in a small canvas bag, which was extremely dirty.
After Brandreth and his two co-defendants were hung, their bodies were cut down and their heads severed with an axe. When the executor held up Jeremiah’s head by the hair and shouted the customary:
“Behold, the head of a traitor!” the crowd stood balefully, refusing to cheer. The government had dispatched mounted cavalry amongst the crowd with orders to start attacking them at the first sign of any insurrection. Within two years, the infamous Peterloo massacre happened when local Yeomanry attacked a crowd in Manchester, gathered at a political rally. Fortunately for Jeremiah’s crowd, the uneasy silence failed to break out into an actual riot so this time the citizens were spared the government’s wrath.
Jeremiah Brandreth chose to knit to pass the time in prison but sometimes in the UK, prisoners were made to knit as part of their punishment and also to save the authorities money; knitting stockings for themselves and fellow inmates, as well as sewing their uniforms:
“The system adopted by Mrs Fry … for reclaiming and improving the condition of the female prisoners in Newgate, has been eminently successful. Within a period of little more than three months the women and girls have made nearly 4000 shirts &c. They have knitted 220 pairs of socks and stockings, and have lately commenced the spinning of flax. The amelioration in their morals has kept place with their progress in habits of industry.
The Morning Post, Monday, August 11, 1817
In November 1831, Jane Robinson, a debtor imprisoned in Lincoln Castle, said to a fellow inmate:
“As I have just got my knitting done, I will now read the Bible to you.” and the very next second, dropped down dead. The coroner’s inquest returned a verdict, ‘Died by the visitation of God, occasioned by the rupture of an internal blood-vessel.’ Jane had been a ‘respectable’ woman who was known to be religious. She was 61. A heartbreaking codicil to the story appeared in the newspaper, the day after the first article about Jane’s sudden death:
“..Her friends made application to her creditor for her body, that it might be taken home for interment, to which he assented; but this being opposed by his attorney, on the ground of its illegality, the deceased was buried in the usual place in the Castle-yard, on Saturday afternoon…”
The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser, Saturday, November 12, 1831
The creditor was the person to whom Jane had owed money, who will have obtained the court order to have her imprisoned and it was their decision whether this hardworking, pious woman’s body could be returned to her loved ones or suffer the eternal indignity of being buried with criminals.
In 1843, one Northumberland prisoner was revealed to be a muffattee (fingerless mitts) smuggler:
“Ellen McGurch, a character well known to the turnkeys in Morpeth Gaol, was brought before the Mayor of Morpeth… charged with having stolen a quantity of articles, the property of the Governor of Morpeth Gaol, previous to her discharge from prison a few days previously. … it appears that Mr. Cousis gives each prisoner about half a pound of yarn at a time to knit stockings with – that the stockings are not weighed after being made… the prisoner went to Campbell’s lodging house, where a bundle, containing a quantity of stockings, was seen in her possession – that she was also seen undressed – with a large quantity of stockings sewed round her shift – that her shift was doubled up at the bottom and a quantity of muffatees filled into the double … that she sold two pair of stockings to Mrs. Young of the Wheat Sheaf Inn… the female prisoners, instead of knitting the stockings with the yarn given to them, make muffatees and other articles… carry them out of the prison with them, and then dispose of them for money or drink…”
The Newcastle Journal, Saturday, January 28, 1843
Who’d have thought that knitted items and yarn were a woolly currency in the criminal underworld..?”
We’re keeping http://www.theknittinggenie.com going, of course, but wanted to open this site specifically for ‘Their Darkest Materials’ and other forthcoming books, patterns and information from Pretty Baa Lambs Press, which is our imprint.
Look out for my latest series of articles about knitting and related artefacts in museums across the UK, in ‘The Knitter’ magazine.
For a number of years, we’ve had a very exciting historical artefact hidden in our wardrobe.
And despite over ten years of history blogging, somehow I never got round to writing about him. Or even hinting at his existence, I think.
Today I thought I’d take an expedition into my wardrobe.
Hidden away in an archival box, wrapped in acid-free paper, is a toy penguin, called Ponko. He was probably made around 1912. My husband is only his third custodian in all that time. Well, fourth if you count Herbert Ponting.
Ponko was given to my husband’s great uncle, a little boy called Charlie Hunt, somewhere round about 1912. He was given by Herbert Ponting and family tradition has it that he was either a prototype or Ponting’s very own, toy penguin.
Herbert Ponting was the photographer and cinematographer for the famous, ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole (1910-1913), led by Robert Falcon Scott. And I’m assuming his amusing nickname was “Ponko”.
Ponting had been part of the shore party at the start of 1911, helping establish the Terra Nova Expedition’s camp at Ross Island, where he had a dark room and set about documenting the expedition and the South Pole wildlife.
Photo of Ponko with Ponting here, if you scroll down. As you can see it is indeed the same toy penguin or else, our’s is a prototype for the same production line. I won’t reproduce here as I don’t have permissions. I have also seen another picture of Ponting and fellow antarctic explorer, Frank Hurley, holding Ponko – probably the same photo shoot. He is identical to our’s.
Ponting lived to tell the tale of the disasterfest of 1912 because he returned to England – the final push to the Pole being deemed too much for a man of his age and his photos a precious documenting of the Expedition that Scott would need in the future, too precious to risk. Herbert boarded the Terra Nova in February 1912, with over 1700 photographic plates, documenting his 14 months in Antarctica.
Captain Scott had anticipated success and Ponting’s images were to become central to monetising the expedition, on the Expedition’s triumphal return. Ponting’s photos would form the basis of a travelling magic lantern show. Instead, the photos became a sort of memorial to the men who lost their lives and of course, have added poignancy for us, as they document an Antarctica that climate change has eroded.
Ponting’s London pied a terre was the Authors’ Club; a professional club rather than a gentleman’s. He had lived in London from 1901-1910 and returned there in 1912. By November, news came that Scott’s expedition had perished and Ponting’s cache of photographs took on a poignancy that he could never have anticipated.
I’m told Ponting used Ponko as a prop in his magic lantern shows around 1913. Charlie was born in 1908 so would have been around eight years old in 1916 if Ponting gave him the penguin then. Charlie looks like an adorable child. My husband’s grandad was the only child from a first marriage and so there was quite an age gap – he would have been away in the Royal Naval Air Service in 1916 and his little brother, Charlie, was the second and last child of the family.
Amongst our papers we have a letter of recommendation Ponting wrote for William, my husband’s great grandfather. The Authors’ Club was based in Oxford Mansion, Oxford Circus – the letter we have signed by Ponting dates to 1919 and he signed for “the tenants of Oxford Mansion” implying he may have lived there some of the time … Its manager was William Hunt, my husband’s great grandfather. He managed Oxford Mansion from the 1880s to some point in the 1910s and little Charlie may well have been a familiar figure, likely the only child to be seen in the lobby or kitchens of Oxford Mansion. The Hunts didn’t live in and their family home was elsewhere in London but no doubt Charlie will have visited the Authors’ Club, as he was known to Ponting.
Charlie’s father, William Hunt was the grand master of at least one Masonic lodge – it’s not known whether Ponting was a member of any. William’s sisters had also worked as servant for Sir Clements Markham, who commissioned and set in train the whole Terra Nova Expedition and although William was a London club manager, many if not most of the male Hunts were sailors, like Markham and Scott and it’s possible served onboard with Markham, years before. It could be that my husband’s family had closer ties to the Expedition; not just through Ponting but also Markham.
Incidentally, Clements Markham was born in this very parish where I sit writing. His father, David Markham, was the Stillingfleet, Yorkshire, parish vicar who set off his Church Singers to the 1833 disaster here on the river when 11 Singers were drowned on Boxing Day. It seems David Markham’s history was to be repeated by Clements. For more info about it, see here:
My husband descends from William’s older son. His younger half-brother, Charlie was still only a child in 1912 and at some point, probably several years after his return from Antarctica, Ponting presented the little boy with Ponko. Charlie’s daughter was kind enough to give him to my husband, quite a long time ago, now. And we have taken care of him ever since.
Our Ponko has provenance like none other. I feel in my heart of hearts he is without doubt, the one Ponting toted round as part of the magic lantern show, around 1913 and if he is not the one Ponting is photographed with, his is identical. No others are known to have survived. (There is one at the National Maritime Museum but it bears no resemblance to the one Ponting is photographed with).
Might be some exciting Ponko news, soon. Ponko’s leaving the wardrobe. He may be some time.
COMING SOON: ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, Marie Hartley & Joan Ingilby, with new intro and pattern for the G.W. 1846 gloves.
NEWS! We’re working on the second edition of ‘River Ganseys’. Hopefully, due out in December, 2020. The book will contain new illustrations by David Hunt (illustrator of ‘Their Darkest Materials’)and some new material not previously published.
It’s not surprising that a number of (female) 19th century murder victims were killed with a half-knit stocking on hand. Because knitting stockings was a never-ending task for many and it would be akin to being killed today with a mobile phone on you.
Last night we made a hasty video to promo the book for an upcoming wool show (details to follow next week). I will be showcasing nineteenth century stocking knitting, with a knitting stick and full paraphernalia, in a live stream. But filming Dave pretending to be a murderer seemed more fun than a close up of my hands knitting.
We’re about to record a podcast about this particular murderer and you can find his victim’s story in ‘Their Darkest Materials’.
It’s a classic Victorian melodrama of shenanigans in Hull with a “naughty lady” (as the press then called her), and betrayal, spite and revenge on a terrifying scale. And the key piece of evidence that sends the apparently mild-mannered murderer to the gallows – a half-knitted stocking.
Will link to our new podcast here when it’s up. We have found some new material since the book was published and will have the time and space in a podcast to delve into the dark side of material culture, in more depth. The world is full of true crime podcasts but there aren’t so many that concentrate on historical crimes, or that use first hand research in primary sources, as we aim to.
If you’d like to read more about the dark intersection between textiles and history… Stop him and buy one. If you dare.