In June 1828, John Barker was asleep on his barge in Mirfield in West Yorkshire. Mirfield is a small town between Dewsbury and Brighouse, situated on the River Calder, and is also part of the canal system too with the Calder and Hebble Navigation. Water transport was important for the town, taking away locally produced woollen textiles for sale. Building the wooden barges used was therefore very necessary, three boat builders mentioned in Pigot’s Directory of 1828-9 for the town.
Barker was a ‘keel master’, which is perhaps significant. His barge was entered and money and a smock frock stolen, waking him up. Barker unsuccessfully pursued the thief in a state of nudity. The constable found the suspect the next Sunday morning, at a pub in Mill Street, close to the river, drinking with two prostitutes, so failing the morality test on three accounts.
At his trial at the Quarter Sessions in Hull a month later, five keelmen from Mirfield gave John Harris, the suspected thief, good character references, saying that the action had been a result of a drunken spree. Was this a ‘prank’ or grievance against an employer perhaps? His main fault, according to his friends, was that ‘he was too fond of the company of bad girls’, and in passing his sentence of a month of hard labour, the women were blamed for ‘seducing’ him into extravagance and therefore into committing crime.
A snapshot of a moment, this case draws us into the ordinary lives of people nearly two hundred years ago, how they lived and to a certain extent, how they thought. Nudity and prostitution are not commonly associated with the smock frock, but here it is shown as an essential garment for a boat builder in West Yorkshire. Produced in Barnsley and sold in towns such as Sheffield and Leeds, the smock frock was a useful overall for many men and a useful cover-up when getting out of bed.