Reports in nineteenth century newspapers often blamed the smock frock for a catalogue of ills, from becoming caught in machinery and wheels, so causing accidents, to hiding identities and often criminal activity. However, there are some examples of smock frocks saving the day. Their capacious nature, although dangerous near machinery, could save life in other circumstances.
In 1841, an early train journey was being made between Duffield and Belper in Derbyshire, a year after the North Midland Railway Company opened the line and the same year that the first station was built at Duffield. Train carriages were not totally enclosed during this period, especially for those not in first class, and the hat of a man dressed in a smock frock making the journey blew off. Despite the pleas of fellow passengers, he also jumped from the train to recover his hat, which certainly had some monetary value as well as being an object of personal significance. The train was travelling at the heady speed of around thirty miles per hour and therefore ‘it is a mercy that he was not dashed to atoms’. Perhaps the wind caught in his smock frock skirts may have helped break his fall.
Apocryphal tales of skirts acting as parachutes during a fall, including smock frocks, were not unheard of in the nineteenth century press. In 1904, a story was told of two boys who climbed to the top of a church tower in Derby to get to a bird’s nest. They fought over the nest and fell off the tower in the struggle. Both wearing smock frocks, they fell like a ‘parachutist’ does from his balloon and both survived. Although the journalist in 1904 found this an unlikely tale and would not attempt to climb the tower and pinnacles himself in a smock frock unless also with ladders and a rope, the locals had the ‘utmost confidence in this legend’!
A smock frock also saved the day in an encounter with a wolf which was thought to have escaped from a travelling menagerie in 1846. It had entered the cottage of woman in Redmarley in Gloucestershire, after the woman had left her young children there. Attacked by the family cat which was killed by it, the wolf went back outside to eat the cat, thus saving the children who locked themselves inside. Two men were travelling to Ledbury Fair, and obviously had some undisclosed connection to the family, as they wanted to leave their smock frocks at the cottage before going onto the fair. The fair was an opportunity to show off to peer groups and have a good time. The working smock frock did not seem to cut it on the sartorial front. Approaching the cottage, the wolf was found guarding the front door and they were able to kill it with a hastily obtained pitchfork and pike. Without the need to take off their smock frocks causing the men to stop there, the wolf may have killed more than the cat, as it seemed to have been hungry and in poor condition.
Strange oddities from the nineteenth century press, each giving small insights into how ordinary people lived and felt about their clothing.