‘Woman Spinning’, from Costume of Yorkshire, George Walker, 1814‘Woman Spinning’, from Costume of Yorkshire, George Walker, 1814

The history of knitted ganseys – Penelope Lister Hemingway

Accounts of 19th century crimes and deaths provide intriguing clues about gansey knitting history, as Penelope Lister Hemingway discovered

17th April 2016

When I started researching for my book River Ganseys, on the history of gansey knitting along Yorkshire’s inland waterways, my first thought was simply to feed search terms such as “gansey”, “guernsey”, and “knitted frock” into a large database of 19th century newspapers. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Maybe I’d get advertisements - maybe I’d find nothing.

It became instantly clear that most of the search results were accounts of crime, and I quickly realised the importance of crime and inquest reports in studying the history of clothing.  

The gansey is a product of the 19th century; as mill-spun yarn become readily available, knitters were able to make items with relief patterning on them. The newspaper industry also boomed in the 19th century, and newspapers were full of graphic descriptions of crime, doom and disaster. 

I got more than 500 hits using the search term “crime & guernsey frock” alone. I knew if I waded through these, some would yield clues as to the nature of the 19th century gansey; who made them, who wore them, and their context.  

The picture that emerged was surprising. Ganseys were not worn just by fishermen; they were sold to miners, navvies, prospectors, Arctic explorers, pub landlords, and people emigrating to a new life in America or Australia. Poachers liked them because they afforded ease of movement; police cursed them because it meant the poachers made an escape.

‘Woman Spinning’, from Costume of Yorkshire, George Walker, 1814

‘Woman Spinning’, from Costume of Yorkshire, George Walker, 1814


Clues in the archives

In 1827, The Morning Chronicle described the trial of a ship’s master who had murdered a cook onboard ship. A witness reported watching the victim being attacked:

“… He saw him struck with a rope-yarn when he had only a Guernsey frock on, when his other dress had been torn off by Captain Bragg…”

Testimony in court and inquests was often reported verbatim in newspapers, as reporters usually used shorthand. Thomas Gurney’s system of shorthand was first published in 1750 and was still in use throughout the 19th century. Inquest and court reports were therefore generally reliable. Mariners are often mentioned as victims in the crime reports. This, from The Bristol Chronicle, January 25th, 1840:

“… Jane Thomas, a girl of the town, (who, from her prodigious dimensions, is better known amongst the sisterhood as ‘The Great Western’), was charged with stealing a jacket and a Guernsey-frock…”

Many of the references I found to guernseys in the newspaper archives involved them being stolen from drunken sailors by ladies of negotiable affection. The term ‘Guernsey frock’ may refer to both a canvas guernsey and a knitted one, so I approached those references with a bit of caution. 

The newspapers tell us non-mariners wore ganseys, too. From The Standard, March 17th, 1840, we find the first recorded appearance of the stereotypical burglar’s striped jumper, describing house-breakers near Thirsk in Yorkshire:

“DARING BURGULARY [sic]… It appears that the house was forcibly entered by three men, armed with pistols and long pointed knives; one of the men was very broad set, dressed in a Guernsey frock, with stripes across the body… the other two were similarly dressed…”

The York Herald went into greater detail:

“… They were dressed in short, striped frocks…

“Thomas Ellington Collinson, police officer, Boroughbridge, produced the guernsey frocks which were taken from the prisoners  in London when they were apprehended…”

Often, the crimes described involved people stealing guernseys from clothes lines or shops:

“William Morley, a labourer, was charged with…having stolen a new Guernsey frock from the shop-window of Mr Charles Helby of Queen St, Portsea…”  
[The Hampshire Advertiser, 1846]

The context here was that it was January – and this was an era before there was a welfare state, old age pensions and central heating. Despite his age (73), Mr Morley was given two months’ hard labour. This shows that the gansey must have been beyond the purses of many people; and a necessary item when coal and firewood were expensive. Stealing an item worth more than 30 shillings was a capital offence in the earlier part of the 19th century – being caught stealing even a gansey (worth between five shillings and 25) could have serious consequences. 

The fact that people risked it, even so, tells us how desirable and necessary such ganseys may have been.

Ganseys were made and worn by workers on inland waterways

Ganseys were made and worn by workers on inland waterways.
Image courtesy of Yorkshire Waterways Museum, Goole

Crime reports give a sense of the sheer variety of people wearing guernseys. Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post (March 8th, 1849) described a member of a gang of thieves, left dead by his colleagues in a house they were robbing:

“…He was dressed in a blue Guernsey frock, striped…”

At the inquest it was said: 

“… The man who was shot is now for certain identified as Abraham Green, a well-known gypsy desperado…”

Convicts were issued with ‘guernsey frocks’ in winter. Discussing the treatment of convicts in January, 1844, Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper gives the guidelines for convicts’ clothing:

“… 1 suit of clothes, 2 shirts, 2 handkerchiefs, 1 hat, Guernsey frock (in winter), 2 pairs of stockings, 1 pair of shoes (without even laces)…”

From crime reports, we also discover the price of a guernsey:  

“Alfred Bartlett, of Mount-place… was charged with stealing a Guernsey-frock, value 5 shillings, property of Mr Troke, landlord of the Bricklayer’s Arms…”
[The Hampshire Advertiser, April 27th, 1878]

Reports of poachers also make frequent reference to ganseys. In a salmon poaching case in Cheshire, we are told: 

“… Defendant was disguised in a blue gansey, white trousers, and an overall…”
[The Cheshire Observer, September 23rd, 1871]

This is far inland from the coast, where we would usually expect to find such fisherman-style clothing - the gansey being worn by a poacher on a river. I found a reference to a poacher in my own village, who was able to make an escape because, as the pursuing policeman said, he was wearing a gansey whereas the police officer was wearing his cumbersome uniform. Ganseys worn for stealth and aerodynamics!

Motifs and patterns – and even the famous initials knitted into ganseys – are barely mentioned in newspaper reports. 
I found this intriguing reference to something that may be a cabled jumper in an inquest report from Ireland:

“… He had a twisted knitted gansey on him over his shirt…”
[Freeman’s Journal, Dublin, July 23rd, 1888]

Life and death

Brief notices of ‘Found Drowneds’ appeared throughout the 19th century, and many of these yield clues about clothing. Parish records from villages along the River Ouse in Yorkshire yielded a number of ‘Found Drowneds’ - but clothes were rarely itemised, when bodies had been in the river for some time and burials were hasty. Newspapers did sometimes describe clothes of the dead, though, to aid identification:

“… He was dressed in a blue Guernsey frock, with white spots, blue and white striped shirt, flannel vest and drawers…grey knitted stockings, white web braces, black cloth trousers, blue cloth vest (braided), Wellington boots, and a south-wester hat…”
[The Preston Guardian, October 18th, 1851]

Inquest and news reports can provide startling insight into just how dangerous the rivers were. In 1906, the sloop Masterman was anchored off Whitton Ness on the River Humber. The master of the vessel went ashore to poach. Worried his children might fall overboard, in his absence, he locked his wife and two children below deck. 

The boat broke free from its mooring and was dragged into the sands of the Ness, where it foundered, sinking into the mud as the master and his mate watched from the bank. They were unable to break into the cabin. 

“…The Masterman sank so deep into the quicksand it was impossible either to salvage her or retrieve the bodies…”  
[The Reuben Chappell Collection, Goole Museum, Paul Lewis]

This description of a hanged man tells us that ganseys weren’t just associated with sailors:

“He was dressed in an old black coat and vest; moleskin trowsers, a blue Glengarry bonnet, and had a Guernsey frock over his clothes. The deceased…had the appearance of a mechanic.”
[Caledonian Mercury, February 3rd, 1842]

Broader searches for ‘knitting’ also gave me some fascinating information. Occasionally, knitters or knitting even helped solve a mystery. One such case was the murder of Ellen Taylor, by her husband, farmer Jonathan (60), in Escrick, Yorkshire. Ellen was found half lying in her fireplace; partially burned and strangled. Her daughter, Elizabeth Taylor, deposed:

“…My mother was in the habit of knitting a good deal. She was knitting when I last saw her. She kept the knitting in the house: we looked for it but could not find it that day: I know Jane Brabbs: she brought my mother’s knitting to me on the Wednesday morning; it was raffled [sic]. It looked dirty and the ‘loops’ down. I had never before then seen my mother’s knitting in that state…”
[The York Herald, county and General Advertiser, March 12th, 1842]

The jury realised that Ellen had probably been surprised in the act of knitting; after the murder, her knitting work had been hastily stuffed on top of a cupboard, and was partially unravelled - uncharacteristic for Ellen, who always put it away neatly. This helped to convict Taylor as if, as he claimed, Ellen had fainted and fallen into the fire, her knitting would not be ‘raffled’ and would be by her side. Taylor was hanged at York Castle. I found Jonathan and Ellen on the 1841 Census, almost exactly a year before Ellen was murdered, living at Hag House, a 200-acre farm in Escrick. Their neighbour was Jane Brabb, a 50-year-old sawyer’s wife.

I also found references to ganseys being other colours, not just blue or cream. A man washed ashore from a ship sunk in a typhoon is described: 

“Sir G. Brema landed on the Praya Grande in a red Guernsey frock and drawers…”
[The Morning Post, November 5th, 1841]

I also found mention of ‘speckled’ and ‘spotted’ ganseys as well as ‘popped’ ones (striped). The striped jumpers we find our ‘daring burglars’ wearing were also - according to Dales knitters interviewed by Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby for their 1951 book, The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales - hand-knitted on a commercial scale in Yorkshire, and called ‘Popped Uns’. I included the pattern for a Popped Un in my River Ganseys book.

Suspects and victim of a murder onboard  a Hull ship – a rare photo of river ganseys

Suspects and victim of a murder onboard a Hull ship – a rare photo of river ganseys.
Image courtesy of Hull Maritime Museum

Everyday wear

Crime reports give us context for ganseys and bring them to life. We discover they weren’t just the ‘occupational costume’ of coastal fishermen and mariners, but also worn by pub landlords, convicts, mechanics, river watermen, poachers, “gypsy desperadoes”, “daring burglars”, navvies, miners and other labourers. They were stolen by ladies of the night to pawn; they were stolen by elderly, cold, gentlemen. Drapers sold them for five shillings - making them more expensive than a pair of stockings; cheaper than a new top-coat. 

Of course, there is a risk of skewing our perception of the 19th century gansey if we view it only through the eyes of the perpetrator/victim, but crime reports give us data and context we wouldn’t otherwise have. 

The clothes of ordinary people are rare survivors; they were not valued, were made in their thousands, and worn until they fell apart - often sold in ‘slop shops’ on the second-hand market and worn some more even after they were ‘worn out’. We have a number of fine extant embroidered silk dresses in museum collections, but ‘working’ clothes rarely survive to tell their tale - which makes any contemporary report of them extra precious.

I set myself a ridiculous task with River Ganseys - to write about a hardly photographed, rarely discussed, ‘poorer cousin’ of the more famous and well documented coastal ganseys. In the end, the fact river ganseys were ‘rarer than hen’s teeth’ made me dig deeper to get some context and history for these fascinating, long-disappeared pieces of knitting, and helped me to unearth new information about 19th century knitting generally. 

River Ganseys book

River Ganseys by Penelope Lister Hemingway is published by Cooperative Press, priced £18 – it's also available as a PDF through Ravelry. It has a detailed history of gansey knitting along Yorkshire’s inland waterways, plus patterns for seven gansey projects. Click here for links to both the book and the PDF.

If you enjoyed this, click here for our interview with Brooklyn Tweed's Jared Flood, or click here to read about Sam Barsky and his amazing postcard sweaters.

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