Book Review: The Textile History of Whitby 1700-1914

Book Review by James H. Thomas: Viveka Hansen, The Textile History of Whitby 1700-1914 (The IK Foundation & Company: London and Whitby, 2015), 454 pp. £80

Limited to a run of 350 copies, and weighing 1.8 kilograms (4 lbs), this detailed volume will cost the reader £80. Given that it is a work at the interface of local, maritime and textile studies this will be money well spent. Lavishly and lovingly produced by a Swedish scholar based in the United Kingdom whose previous work includes Swedish Textile Art (London, 1996), it is an attempt to take her academic skills in a slightly different direction. In doing so she sheds additional shafts of light on the key port community of Whitby which usually receives attention for other reasons, not the least being its links with colliers and whalers. Nine chapters take the discerning local, maritime and textile historian from Anglo-Saxon beginnings to key contemporary issues related to textile recycling and economy. Condensed into just over 40 pages of highly readable text is a chronological review spanning Anglo-Saxon developments to the Great War. The local newspaper, The Whitby Gazette, forms the core of Chapter III, rich advertisements being mined on a five-yearly basis, the results set out in chronological fashion. For maritime historians Chapter IV is the main attraction, examining as it does Whitby’s sailcloth manufacturing and sail-making industries, still a relative Cinderella in the context of maritime and port studies. Clothing for fishermen receives some attention, albeit rather slenderly, with a strong chapter (V) on the wider world of clothes, the demands of fashion, shopping and collections, the last drawing on the fine holdings of Whitby Museum. A short section on Whitby’s doyen of photographers, Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941), provides a clear instance of how early photographic evidence can be put to excellent and effective use. Chapter VI, entitled ‘Knitting and the Local Ganseys’, provides further information on fishermen’s garb including fine detail on colour. Thus these items were made in dark blue, but never green, thought to bring the wearer bad luck. They could also be used, via design variations, for identification purposes should the wearer lose his life at sea, a similar practice to that used for Channel Island seafaring folk. To reinforce the Chapter’s impact, recourse is made to oil paintings, water colours and prints. For the reader of a really esoteric bent, Chapter VII examines some of the more obscure dimensions of textile and social history – dyeing, with its seaborne links, washing and mangling. Here is to be found a veritable ‘Aladdin’s Cave’.

All of the research, which occupied six years, is shorn up and enhanced by 127 colour plates between pages 340 and 384. Linked to the nine chapters, they include an opening array of portraits, the interior of a tailor’s shop in 1780 and an aquatint of an alum works at Kettleness on the Yorkshire coast. Part of 13 year-old Sarah Down’s sampler, worked in 1827, sits not far from the detail of an 1880s’ wedding dress. Of particular value are three Appendices, the first of which details textile occupations extracted from parish registers for the period 1676-1837, with occupations listed alphabetically and workers chronologically. Appendix II provides details from the Census Returns for 1841-1911 inclusive for Whitby and neighbouring Ruswarp, while the final Appendix handles pertinent advertisement material from The Whitby Gazette between 1855 and 1914. The whole is rounded out by a section on sources, a bibliography, a list of over 300 illustrations and a comprehensive index broken down by subject, person and place.

While the volume was the result of work of Herculean proportions and was clearly a labour of love, it is only fair to enter a few caveats of warning. The are some stylistic infelicities, including sentences devoid of a verb, the inappropriate use of semi-colons and a tendency to use ‘on the other hand’ both rather frequently and, in many cases, completely incorrectly. There are stylistic issues too. Why is Chapter III, ‘Advertising of Clothes and Textile Materials in the Whitby Gazette’, the only one that merits a sub-section entitled ‘Introduction’? Some potential themes are hinted at but never developed, most notably the allusion on page 110 to Japanese influences and on page 111 to ‘Cycling Costumes’. Both, in this reviewer’s opinion, merited further examination and development. The question might also be posed as to the wisdom of opening a sentence with a date, which happens on numerous occasions in the volume.

As an exercise in multi-record linkage applied to three intersecting academic worlds, the volume and its author are to be commended. It should be noted, however, that a little more attention in terms of Whitby’s historiography would have given the study greater gravitas. There were some sources which could have been examined and were not, most notably printed Calendars and contemporary topographical verse. There were also some areas which could have been examined. Thus it would have been nice to see an examination of any correlation between textile production in Whitby, war and subsequent business failure, a pattern seen in other port towns. By the same token, examination and analysis of port books could have produced detail on trends and patterns over time with regard to the seaborne trade in locally produced textiles. That stated, nevertheless, this is a work which will satisfy a raft of enquiring readers from local and maritime historians of Whitby, to historians of the dictates of fashion and enthusiasts of museums and their holdings, whether their interest be sail-makers’ needles or fancy-worked nightdresses. When Sir George Head undertook his tour through the manufacturing districts of England in 1835, he encountered jet diggers near Whitby, noting: ‘They said they were miners by trade; … that the tradesmen in Whitby gave them a fair price for all the jet they could furnish, and manufactured it into ladies’ ornaments; that the price varied considerably – from 3s. 6d. to 10s. per stone’. Here was yet another important facet to Whitby’s economic, maritime, social and textile development, one that perhaps merited a little more attention in this book.

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