Grey Cotton Shirts


Detail from ‘Instruction of the Pauper Children in the Metropolitan District School, Sutton’, Illustrated London News, 1872. For history of school see Peter Higginbotham’s

20 January 1840

The five boys in the House of Correction are approaching the end of their month-long sentence but, despite the prison visitor’s efforts, their behaviour is still volatile. Sarah Martin can only spend an hour or so with them each day and hope the books and sewing she brings them will keep her young scholars quiet the rest of the time. Yesterday she left them cheerfully stitching the shirts she had measured and cut out for each boy. They will leave the gaol smart in their clean new garments, their reminder of the rewards of honest industry.

No wonder the boys were excited by their grey cotton shirts. In the early nineteenth century working-class children rarely received new clothes of their own but inherited hand-me-downs from parents and elder siblings or made do with garments purchased from second-hand clothes dealers or on tick from the pawnshop.[1]  The Yarmouth gaol authorities had yet to institute a uniform so inmates wore their own clothes.[2] In a surviving Index and Receiving Book from 1839, the Gaol Keeper described what they wore on entry, presumably to ensure they left with the correct attire.[3]  We can begin to visualise the clothing the five boys are likely to have worn if we read his notes alongside contemporary paintings by the Norwich school of artists who, in their landscapes of Yarmouth and its environs, captured the figures of labouring people at work.[4]

Beach Scene by Joseph Stannard (attributed to) Oil on canvas, 26 x 43 cm Collection: Great Yarmouth Museums

The dress of Yarmouth inmates aged between 11 and 16, like the five boys, displayed their place within the occupational life of the port. Many sported the blue-striped slops worn by fishermen, beachmen and labourers on the dock. Like the fisherboy in Joseph Stannard’s ‘Beach Scene’, John Presant, aged 15, wore a sou’wester hat, blue-striped slop and canvas trousers.[5] These were not his only working clothes for, when admitted again, he had a worsted cap, a red & white mixed neckerchief, and blue duffle slop cord trousers.[6]

Drawing, 'Boy with basket and shrimping net' by John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), pencil on paper, 1836; 40.1 cm x 30.3 cm; inscription bottom left signed 'Cotman 1836'. Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service

Drawing, ‘Boy with basket and shrimping net’ by John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), pencil on paper, 1836; 40.1 cm x 30.3 cm; inscription bottom left signed ‘Cotman 1836’. Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service

Brought to the gaol on suspicion of stealing a coat, sixteen-years-old David Callow, an apprentice twinespinner like Robert Harrod, may have been wearing the same blue cloth cap, striped slop and blue trousers he had worn earlier in the year when he appeared in February decked out in a blue cloth cap, waistcoat, trousers, blue-striped shirt and brown-spotted neckerchief.[7]  Some inmates will have arrived in garments they had pilfered for 11% of admissions in the Index were for thieving clothes or shoes. George Womack, aged 16, was sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing trousers from a shop; on his arrest he was sporting a dark fur cap, red-checked waistcoat with sleeves, and striped beaverteen trousers.[8] Likewise John Presant received seven years transportation for stealing shoes from a shop.[9]

Several lads, admitted in winter, wore fur caps like George Womack, to protect them from the biting wind that blew in off the North Sea but hats and neckerchiefs were worn for sartorial elegance and not just to keep warm. These colourful items displayed the working man’s style and ability to pay his way and, hence his independence – and for some – his respectability. The absence of footwear and headwear, by contrast, epitomised poverty, even among the labouring classes, as the title of John Sell Cotman’s drawing so aptly conveys; ‘Boy sitting (barefoot and hatless)‘ (see below).

So tellingly, when 23 year-old Thomas Ellis returned to the salt-fishing trade after a stint in gaol, he splashed out his wages on a suit of new clothes.  On visiting Sarah Martin, to tell his former teacher how he was now earning and providing for his family,  he was, she noted in her Liberated Prisoners Book, ‘quite smart’ with ‘a new hat on, new blue slop, yellow silk handkerchief’. He brimmed with pride as he regaled how he had ‘“bought my mother a gown, and a pair of shoes; and my sister a new gown, and a hat, for they are so poor; and my sister’s child a new frock”’.[10]

Painting, 'Yarmouth Sands' by Joseph Stannard (1797-1830), oil on mahogany panel, 1829; 75.2 x 102.8 cm. Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service

Painting, ‘Yarmouth Sands’ by Joseph Stannard (1797-1830), oil on mahogany panel, 1829; 75.2 x 102.8 cm. Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service

A few 18-year-olds wore silk neckerchiefs – expensive items that, as we know from Oliver Twist (1836-8), were liable to be nicked – and silk waistcoats too. With several years of earning behind them, this more extravagant attire may have signaled their spending power, though Henry Spinks (hat, red and white neckerchief, canvas slop, silk waistcoat, fustian jacket and trousers) was arrested for pawning a stolen shirt.[11]  But while most of the younger boys wore caps and neckerchiefs, only 14 years-old William Chapman, an apprentice shoemaker charged with stealing shoes, wore a black and white silk cravat along with the typical blue cloth cap, blue-striped slop and fustian trousers of the labouring man.[12]

Drawing, 'Boy sitting (barefoot and hatless)' by John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), pencil on board, undated; 32.1 cm x 25 cm; inscription bottom left signed 'Cotman 2615'. Norfolk   Museums & Archaeology Service

Drawing, ‘Boy sitting (barefoot and hatless)’ by John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), pencil on board, undated; 32.1 cm x 25 cm; inscription bottom left signed ‘Cotman 2615’. Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service

Grey cotton shirts were, then, appropriately sober attire for the pious dressmaker to set her five prison boys to sew; shirts – not slops – that no doubt she hoped they would wear on the Sabbath to attend Sunday School. Often she provided boys with shirts or blue slops on their departure precisely so they could become Sunday scholars. But for the five boys, the shirts were a gift, a rare new possession they could call their own. As Robert Harrod said wistfully, when first promised a shirt if their teacher’s Rules were followed, ‘“I should like a grey cotton shirt. It would be so warm”’.

But now, the prison visitor learns from the Gaoler, once again the Rules have been broken. After her departure yesterday Walter Tunmore and William Hickling were dispatched to the solitary cells for ‘fighting & quarreling’. The teacher steels herself for another upbraiding. They must forfeit their shirts she tells them. In the face of her arched disappointment, the boys soon reveal that Walter, as usual, has been the source of conflict, taunting his cellmate for his lazy eye by calling him ‘Blindy’.  Yet, as she has done so often, the teacher appears to relent. If Hickling can forgive his companion, she will allow the ‘wantonly ill-natured’ Tunmore ‘a little longer trial’.[13] Does she give back the shirts they have just a week to finish?

‘I do not think Patterson a very bad boy’, the teacher observes later about Christmas Patterson. ‘This day’, she writes, ‘he was unkind in pointing me, as soon as I entered to Tunmore’s sheet with spelling lessons torn in the middle, or rather worn in the place where it had been folded. The other exclaimed. “There you did not want to tell the Lady, she would have found it out without you”.’  She mulls over the day’s exchanges but still allows herself to hope. ‘These little storms are productive of great advantage’, she assures herself, for ‘they afford occasions for Instruction of the most essential values.’[14] Little storms, little boys, her little boys.

Sarah Martin's Everyday Book, 20 January 1840, Tolhouse Museum, Great Yarmouth

Sarah Martin’s Everyday Book, 20 January 1840, Tolhouse Museum, Great Yarmouth

[1] Diana Crane, Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000);S.A.King and C.Payne (eds), The Dress of the Poor, 1700-1900, Textile History (Special issue, 2002); Clare Rose, Making, Selling and Wearing Boys’ Clothes in Late-Victorian England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011); Vivienne Richmond, Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[2] Juliet Ash, Dress Behind Bars: Prison Clothing as Criminality (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010).

[3] Index and Receiving Book from December 25 1838 (Norfolk Record Office, Y L2/7).

[4] Miklos Rajnai and Mary Stevens, The Norwich Society of Artists, 1805-1833: A Dictionary of Contributors and their Work (Norfolk Museums Service for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 1976). Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service holds many of the School’s works, collected by the famous mustard manufacturer, and they can be searched here. Some are on show in the Colman Art Galleries in Norwich Castle. Major works on Yarmouth are displayed the Time and Tide Museum, Great Yarmouth. For eighteenth and nineteenth-century art works on Yarmouth and its residents, see my pinterest pages.

[5] 9 February 1839.

[6] 27 April 1839.

[7] 21 February 1839; 11 July 1839.

[8] 9 January 1839.

[9] 27 April 1839.

[10]Anon. Sarah Martin, the Prison Visitor of Great Yarmouth, with extracts from her Writings and Prison Journals, a New Edition with Additions (London: Religious Tract Society, n.d. [1847]), pp. 127-8. For Thomas Ellis and other ‘Liberated Prisoners’, see Helen Rogers, ‘Kindness and Reciprocity: Liberated Prisoners and Christian Charity in Early Nineteenth-Century England, Journal of Social History, Spring 2014, 47.3: 721-45.

[11] 22 February 1839.

[12] 29 April 1839.

[13] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 20 January 1840.

[14] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 20 January 1840.

4 thoughts on “Grey Cotton Shirts

  1. Helen, as part of a bid to get my life back and do more of the things I enjoy, I have just read your blog from start to current post. It is so fabulous! I love your focus on characters and stories, the tracing of individuals and families, your use of literary devices, the affection between Sarah Martin and her boys (and your enjoyment of that)… I would like to use it as a case study for a lecture on philanthropy and public history in the summer, if you are happy with that?

  2. Pingback: Blogging Our Criminal Past, part 3: Public and Creative History | Conviction

  3. Pingback: History A'la Carte 7-17-14 - Random Bits of Fascination

  4. Pingback: Plain work and stolen finery | Conviction

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