Smocks at The Great Exhibition of 1851

Corresponding with the peak of smock making and smock wearing is an example held by Abingdon Museum in Oxfordshire (OXCMS:1980.96.266).  It was made for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and so never worn.  It is a round smock, thus reversible, and made of fine linen.  It is smocked in honeycomb stem diamond patterns with embroidery on each side of the smocked panels, with three roundels containing variously flowers, a sheaf of corn, bees, and a woman on a sofa, possibly a smock maker, being crowned by an angel, the surround covered in hearts and leaves.  The wide collar is also embroidered with roundels, containing agricultural implements including a plough, harrow, rake, fork and shovel, and the inscription ‘success to Agriculture – God Speed the Plough’.  The infill embroidery has various motifs including sheaves of corn, hearts, flowers and leaves and there are similar embroidered panels at the top of the sleeves and on the cuffs.  It is an amazing piece of embroidered embellishment.

The smock was made by the firm of Harris and Tomkins, based in Abingdon, then in Berkshire, and described as ‘Wholesale Round Frock Manufacturers’ and ‘wholesale clothes manufacturers’ in trade directories of the 1840s.[1]  Abingdon was a centre for smock manufacture, Harris and Tomkins in competition with Hyde and Sons.  They had a shop in the High Street and both John Tomkins and Henry Harris, were from respectable local elite families sewn into the fabric of the town.  Family members fulfilled roles such as magistrate and alderman, upholding the reputation of the area.

The Great Exhibition was to show the best in international manufactured products, showcasing British goods against international competition, and whilst the smock has perhaps come, over the fullness of time, to symbolise something else, the display of a garment by clothes manufacturers perhaps fitted the brief to a greater degree than now realised.  It was apparently designed by their foreman Thomas Watson and worked by Esther Stimpson of the nearby village of Radley. Her sister Hannah, worked another smock also exhibited.  This way of manufacturing smock frocks was common at the time.  Smock cutters were male and often worked from a central base, rooms in the retail shop or factory.  Smock pieces were then taken out to be worked on and made up by women, either in the streets of Abingdon or the surrounding villages. Class 20 of the Great Exhibition was ‘Articles of clothing for immediate personal or domestic use’, and no. 111, Harris and Tomkins, manufacturers, were sandwiched between a quilted coat and instrument for quilting, and a ‘life preserving elastic cork jacket’, alongside stocking and hat manufacturers.  According to the Oxford University and City Herald, 18 October 1851, although failing to win a prize medal, their contribution won an ‘honourable mention’.

The smock remains a magnificent example and will hopefully be on display again this year when an exhibition of smocks opens at the Oxfordshire Museum from April 20th in the Treasures Gallery, Fletcher’s House, Park Street, Woodstock, OX20 1SN.

[1] Robson’s Commercial Directory of Berkshire, 1840 and Pigot’s Directory of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, 1844., pp. 583-4., p. 1060.