Fàilte! (Welcome!)

Fàilte! (Welcome!)
This blog is the result of my ongoing research into the people, places and events that have shaped the Western Isles of Scotland and, in particular, the 'Siamese-twins' of Harris and Lewis.
My interest stems from the fact that my Grandfather was a Stornowegian and, until about four years ago, that was the sum total of my knowledge, both of him and of the land of his birth.
I cannot guarantee the accuracy of everything that I have written (not least because parts are, perhaps, pioneering) but I have done my best to check for any errors.
My family mainly lived along the shore of the Sound of Harris, from An-t-Ob and Srannda to Roghadal, but one family 'moved' to Direcleit in the Baighs...

©Copyright 2011 Peter Kerr All rights reserved

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Women’s Work in Harris (Hebrides)

The British Friend: A Monthly Journal, Volume 46, Issue 9, page 228-29. (Glasgow). 1888.

As far as I can tell, this article has not been addressed in previous considerations of the history of Harris Tweed. I have included my observation within the original text:

In the year 1857 the Hydrographic Survey reached the Long Island (Lewis), the largest of the Hebrides or Western Islands.The survey was being conducted by the late Captain F.W.L. Thomas, of the Royal Navy, and other officers, whom we need not name, for it is not of the scientific work, important as that was, that we mean to say a few words, but of a philanthropic undertaking begun in a very humble way indeed, but grown to very large proportions, and having its origins in the wide human sympathies of the commander of the Woodlark. 
The Navy List shows that on the 9th May 1845 Lieut. Commdr. FWL Thomas took command of the Woodlark, a Tender to Mastiff, the 1813 vessel whose Mate he had first become on 6th May 1840. His father, George Thomas, was Master of the Mastiff and they had been surveying around the Orkeney Isles together in 1838 and the 1850 Chart bears both their names. In 1845 George Thomas died and the following year the Mastiff was retired from service. The author points to 'the wide human sympathies' of the Captain as key to this story about his wife's work with the women of Harris.

He was accompanied by his wife, and, to make living in Harris, which is the southern and most barren part of The Long Island, possible, they had a wooden home erected on shore.
This is of great interest. It tells us that the pair maintained a presence on the isle that was of some duration and independent of the Dunmore family and their Factors.

They had recently met with a very severe domestic bereavement; but far from wrapping themselves up in their own sorrows, they were on the watch to relieve those who were suffering in other ways.
On the 31st of July 1844 George Bousfield Thomas was Baptised at St Paul, Deptford. I can find no further record of him. It is to be presumed, therefore, that he died in Scotland prior to the census of 1851 as Statutory Registration had not yet begun there (It was introduced in England in 1837). I have now located the death of George Bosfield Thomas on the 1st of July 1850 in the Parish of St Cuthbert's, Edinburgh. The lack of any further children in the censuses suggests that Frances may have been unable to bear any following the birth of George. That, at a time when infant deaths were far from uncommon, would explain why it was 'a very severe domestic bereavement' and, I venture to suggest, a turning point not only in the lives of the couple but of those whose lives they were to touch.

Captain Thomas called the attention of his wife to the extreme poverty of the Islanders, and suggested that she might do something to help them. Thereupon, this delicate young English lady made a tour of investigation, and, as she understood no Gaelic, there was no danger of being imposed upon by tales of hardship. But her own quick powers of observation furnished abundant material to stir to it’s depths her warm heart, and to set her active brain to work.
At this point, we need to remind ourselves that this account was composed some thirty years after the events that it purports to describe and for an audience raised on Romanticism.

For the men of this district there was no employment except scratching the poor soil which barely covers the rock of which the south-eastern and most wretched part of Harris is composed. Sometimes, they can go away to the fishing, but fish caught about their coast, though affording a precarious supply of food, cannot find a market owing to the cost of transit to the mainland.
The men would have happily worked the rich, fertile soils of the West coast (which the author significantly overlooks) as Crofters rather than being employees, regardless of the occupation on offer!

The woman’s work however, suggested possibilities to their philanthropic visitor who had a pair of stockings knitted by a poor widow. They looked as if meant for a pony, they were so queerly shaped, or rather misshapen; and the worsted, which claimed to be white, had taken into it’s embrace every stray fibre of heather, wool, or hair, while variety of shade as well as texture united to produce a most repulsive looking garment for the human foot. Nothing daunted, the brave little Englishwoman resolved to teach the women of Harris to knit well and to shape well.
I don't think one needs to have a PhD in Anthropology to know that in 'traditional' human societies people take great pride in their work so, whilst it is likely that 'the brave little Englishwoman' played her part in selecting styles and sizes for the stockings, I do not believe that there was a hosiery hiatus on Harris prior to her arrival. Oh, and having 'bits' woven into ones textiles as described was years before its time, anyway!

When she returned to Edinburgh for the winter, she told every person she met of their work and their privations; and all this she has continued to do unremittingly for about thirty years, with such good effect that the Harris stockings got the FIRST PRIZE at the Edinburgh Exhibition of 1886; and from Ceylon to Labrador, and in all the wide stretch between, Harris stockings and sox have added comfort and health to many a household; while to solitary bachelors they have been a special blessing by reducing darning to a minimum!
Ignoring the FIRST PRIZE (the capitals are there in the original) what we do have here is evidence that the Stocking Industry was still thriving in 1888 and that these products were widely available.

By this industry Mrs Thomas is able to keep four hundred women in constant work.
This is an astonishing claim that, if true, meant that somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of the female population who were above school age were knitters!

But she has also been the principal means of developing another department of women’s work -- the making of homespun. It struck her on first visiting the people as an excellent wear for our fitful climate, and about the same time, the late Dowager Countess of Dunmore, to whose young son the island belonged, conceived the same idea. To these two ladies is due the introduction of tweed as a dress material for gentlemen, and even for ladies. There are endless imitations of the real Harris homespun, but they can easily be recognized by any one acquainted with the genuine product. It is made from fleeces sent down by Mrs. Thomas, and the women card, dye, and spin the wool; and then weave the thread into cloth on old-fashioned hand looms, one of which may be seen going at the Glasgow Exhibition. The wool is dyed from products of the islands such as peat soot and lichen from the rocks. The tints are the true art colours, now so fashionable, and always favoured by Friends. They are hygienic, too, which many chemical dyes are not. At the Edinburgh Exhibition, the Tweed gained the medal for excellence of make.
The key phrase here is 'the principal means of developing' for, whilst the author gives equal credit to the two ladies for creating the industry, it is the business organisation skills of Mrs Thomas that are seen as key to its expansion. There is no mention of the earlier development; no uniforms for the Estate workers, no training of weavers - that doesn't mean that they didn't occur but it does cast further doubt on the significance of those events occurring at a time when Clearances were commonplace and starvation stalked the land.

For stockings, Paton’s best worsted of every variety is sent down; and last year the tweed and stockings sold amounted to more than 2,000 pounds. The kind foster-mother of the poor Harris people devotes life and living to their interests, and goes through an amount of head work and bodily toil that would do credit to twenty persons of more than average capacity.
John Paton of Alloa had begun his business in the 1770s and some say that it was there that the Paisley Sisters were trained. Clearly Mrs Thomas was accessing Paton's best worsted (the yarn, not the cloth!) to fuel her four-hundred knitters but whether that points to earlier collaboration between Alloa and Harris is a moot, and sadly mute, point.

Perhaps the greatest benefit she has conferred on the people has been helping between 700 and 800 of them to emigrate to Canada, where they have got on remarkably well.
We are not told in what way she delivered this 'help' and at this point the author is toeing the Establishment line, a toe that peeks out from all those stockings as we recall that Assisted Emigration to Canada was established in the same year that this account was published.

She has also brought to Edinburgh many girls who have credibly acquitted themselves in digestive service; she has also brought up boys to be taught trades. Mrs Thomas has also provided some food for the children at various schools, and the Inspectors remarked with good results! During the past winter no riots or law-breaking occurred in Harris though the people are much worse off than those in Lewis.
There were a mere four women from Harris in Domestic Service in Edinburgh in 1881, and only two a decade later, but it is entirely possible that Mrs Thomas encouraged her friends to give some of the girls employment. The phrase 'brought up boys' is intriguing but too ambiguous to be expanded upon and I have yet to find the School Inspectors' reports! The 'riots or law-breaking' is a direct reference to the Pairc Deer Raid of 1887, an event that certainly took place in Lochs, Lewis but equally certainly in which several Hearachs participated! The author is clearly displaying the prevailing wisdom of the age, a wisdom that totally misunderstood the demands of the raiders in Lewis as surely as it 'observed' the apparent acquiescence in Harris.

Mrs. Thomas has now opened a depot in London, and a smaller depot is established at 41 Gray Street, Newington, Edinburgh. And travellers will find it greatly to their advantage to secure garments of those imperishable manufactures for Highland or Norwegian excursions, and thus benefiting themselves and the industrious women of Harris.
Having invited the reader to buy-into the concept, the author proceeds to inform them of where they can buy the produce, whether in London or Edinburgh. This address in Edinburgh is worthy of further investigation.

J. N. Sinclair
I have not been able to identify J N Sinclair, although the lack of a title suggests to me a man, and one well-known to his readership. Overall, and if we ignore the more purple of his passages, J N Sinclair paints a picture of a couple who despite (perhaps as a result of) some private trauma devoted their active adult years to the islands. They lived, for a while, on Harris and amongst his many photographs there is one of the Captain's yacht (I haven't seen it) which suggests that he used his leisure time to further his (rather better documented) explorations. But the Captain's contributions are altogether a subject in their own right and it is Mrs Thomas in whom my current interest lies. This English Solicitor's daughter evidently took an active and enduring role in developing Harris Tweed and Stocking-Knitting as viable industries. It is a shame that, having spent so much time and energy in doing so, she didn't find the time to record her work for posterity. Unless, of course, languishing somewhere and waiting to be explored are the archives of her businesses in Edinburgh and London, plus whatever personal papers that may have been passed-on  to her second husband's family following his death?

A tantalising thought, and one that only came to me as I was composing this conclusion...


1 comment:

  1. really interesting - an amazing there was work for 400 knitters. I can imagine that there are 400+ knitters on the islands at the moment but they would never be able to eek any kind of living from it!