10 December 2020

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Continuing the theme of books on ‘costumes and customs’ is Graham Walker’s The Costume of Yorkshire (1814), which the title page declares to be ‘Descriptive of the Peculiar Dress, Occupation and Manners of Various Inhabitants of that Extensive and Populous County’.  This celebrated book appeared in various contemporary versions, in different sizes and qualities of paper. Graham Watson, a patriotic Yorkshireman,  collected four different ‘states’ or versions of the book for his collection, now in Emmanuel Library. Our illustrations are taken from the rarest of these: the ten unbound booklets in which the book was first issued. The plates reflect some of the uneasy changes of the time, with illustrations of working practices in the wool and cloth-making trades, which were being overtaken by mechanization, and newer occupations such as mining alongside depictions of an age-old rural and upland way of life. Especially interesting are the illustrations recording some traditional customs and observances. The accompanying text is printed in both English and French.


                                                                                               Plate 1:  Collier

Here is the new industry of the West Riding. Behind the rather jaunty figure of the collier are the mines and one of the new steam engines which, ‘constantly employed’, can convey waggons of coals from the pits to Leeds, far beyond what horse-power could carry.


                                                                               Plate 2:  Stone-Breakers

With few sources of gravel in Yorkshire, local roads were made up of broken stones. Large pieces brought from quarries were then broken up at the roadside, and the text laments that there is as yet no mechanization of this backbreaking labour.


                                                                                Plate 3:  Cranberry Girl

Women foraging for cranberries on the moors.  The text extols the Yorkshire cranberries as greatly superior to those found in America or Russia.


                                                                                     Plate 4:  Croppers

After the wetted wool has been combed with teazels it is clipped or cropped, as in the process shown in the plate.  This traditional way of working was in the process of being replaced by mechanization in mills, and the contemporary croppers were an anxious and discontented workforce.


                                                                            Plate 5:  Wensley Dale Knitters

During any activity where the hands were not necessary the frugal inhabitants of Wensleydale engaged in knitting – ‘young and old, male and female, are all adept at this art’ – and the plate indeed shows everyone busily knitting. The text cites the example of a woman who each week walks three miles to market and three miles back, with her family’s weekly knitting to sell in a bag on her head, all the while knitting as she walks, and so producing en route ‘a complete pair of men’s stockings’.


                                                                                    Plate 6: Woman Spinning

Spinning by a wheel at this date had already been largely overtaken by mechanization, but it was still needed for ‘the warp of woollen stuffs, in which a strong hard twisted thread is required. The demand is even yet sufficient to employ a considerable number of poor people, to whom the low wages of about one halfpenny per pound weight may be an object’.


                                                                                    Plate 7:  Factory Children

The text observes that the West Riding abounds in cotton mills and ‘cloth manufactories’ and that these ‘furnish employment, food and raiment to thousands of poor industrious individuals. It is much however to be lamented that this is too frequently at the expense of health and morals’. As to the illustration: ‘The little blue dirty group in the Plate are painted in their true colours’ and the text laments the lack of youthful colour in their polluted complexions and lack of ‘the pure air necessary for health’.


                                                                                    Plate 8:  The Fool Plough

Plough Monday, the first Monday after the twelve days of Christmas, was the ploughmen’s holiday. The plate represents ‘a ludicrous procession on that day, not unlike that of the Mummers and Morris-Dancers’. The plough-driver is depicted ‘with a blown bladder on the end of a stick by way of a whip,’ along with a fiddler, ‘a huge clown in female attire,’ and ‘Captain Calf Tail … dressed with a cockade and calf’s tail, fantastically crossed with various coloured ribbands’. This last character is both ‘orator and dancer’, while the plough driver hits the others with the bladder ‘with great and sounding effect’.


                                                                                    Plate 9:  Riding the Stang 

This is an ‘ancient custom still observed in some parts of Yorkshire’, intended to ridicule domestic abuse where any husband ‘has suffered himself to be beaten by his virago of a partner’. The stang is the pole on which a young man is mounted, riding on the shoulders of others, while beating on an old kettle or pan with a stick and reciting a speech which was known as a nominy, including the lines:

                           She bang’d him, she bang’d him …

                           She struck him so hard, and she cut so deep,

                           Till the blood run down like a new stuck sheep …

The revellers head towards a tavern. The inn sign reads The Good Woman and shows a headless woman (good because speechless?). Inside a man and woman are fighting.


                                                                                    Plate 10:  Rape Threshing

Rape was much grown in Yorkshire, but the seed is so prone to scatter and be lost that it was quickly harvested and threshed in the fields where it grew, with sheets spread on the grown to collect the seed. Hundreds of people gathered to do this, ‘bountifully supplied at short intervals with meat and drink’, and so ‘of all the rural occupations, there is none more cheerful and joyous’. There could be a party atmosphere and to the right two women are avoiding a bundle of rape which is about to be hurled at them, for as the text notes ‘This is one of the long-established jokes upon these riotously merry occasions’.


                                                                                    Plate 11:  Bishop Blaize

St Blaise is the patron saint of wool-combers and – suitably rebadged Bishop Blaize to avoid regrettable Popish associations – the wool-combers held a celebratory procession on his festival, 3 February. This procession on a woolly theme shows the masters and their sons on horseback, followed by apprentices, a marching band, impersonations of the King, the Queen and the Royal Family, their guards and attendants, Jason and the Golden Fleece (on a long pole), bishop and chaplain with attendants, shepherd and shepherdess with crooks on horseback, followed by shepherds with crooks, then wool-sorters and wool-combers, some with wool caps and woolly wigs. It looks like a lot of fun.


                                                                                    Plate 12:  Midsummer Eve

The plate illustrates a ‘custom still observed in some parts of Craven and other districts of Yorkshire’.  The custom is that ‘New settlers in a town or village, on the Midsummer Eve immediately succeeding their arrival, set out a plentiful repast before their doors of cold beef, bread, cheese and ale. Those of their neighbours who feel inclined to cultivate their acquaintance sit down and partake of their hospitable fare, and thus eat and drink themselves into intimacy’.

‘Every custom which tends to promote social intercourse and hospitality should be zealously encouraged’ declares the text, and this sentiment of our forebears speaks loud and clear to us across two centuries at the end of this necessarily most unsocial of years.

With thanks to all our loyal readers for their ‘clicks’ during 2020 – we bloggers live for clicks – and with hopes for a better New Year.


Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)

Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

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