A sub-section of the criminal fraternity, the highwayman, found the smock frock very useful to wear.  This may have been partly as a disguse.  As it was worn by so many men the garment tended to equalise appearance and make them indistinguishable from other smock frock wearers.  As in the case of the high vis jacket today, all witnesses remembered was the smock frock, and no other details.[1]  As early as 1784, two highwaymen were at work outside Salisbury brandishing pistols to rob a horse chaise and a post chaise [a fast carriage].  One was wearing a blue round frock, the other a dirty white round frock.[2]  An attempted robbery of a gig on the road by a man disguised in a smock frock with a handkerchief over his face and large slouched hat, was fought off by the traveller in the carriage, Mr Fayerman, a surgeon from Norwich, using a whip in 1816.[3]

During the 1820s and 1830s, the smock was commonly used by many men including criminals. In 1822, George Church was robbed of a silver watch on the road near Aldbourn, by two footpads, that is robbers without horses, the men ‘dressed like farmers’ labourers, in smock frocks’.  A fifteen guinea reward was offered for information leading to arrest.[4]  Mr Johnson of Ashbourne in Derbyshire was robbed of nineteen sovereigns near Manton in Rutland in 1828, by three men looking like a ‘lower class of hawkers’, two dressed in smock frocks.[5]  In 1834, just outside Salisbury, ‘a tall athletic man, disguised in a mask and white smock frock’, stopped Mr Beckingsale, a shopman travelling on a horse, held a pistol to his head and asked for his money and his watch.  The robber escaped, although only with eighteen shillings and the watch.[6]  In 1832, David Abraham, a hawker of jewellery from Birmingham, was returning home with goods and money worth £107, when he was robbed by two men on the road, one with a pistol who was wearing a white smock frock over a blue coat.[7]   Four men dressed in white smock frocks also attacked the elderly Roderick M’Grigor and his son returning home to Iver from Uxbridge, stealing a silver watch and other silver money.[8]

In 1857, it was still being used as a disguise, a man shooting Mr Ovenden, a draper, with a pistol on the road between Nutfield and Warwicktown, Redhill, in Surrey and stealing his money. The draper had given the man, who appeared to be a labourer, a lift in his cart before he turned on him on a lonely part of the road demanding his money or his life.  The draper first thought it a joke but was then shot.  A large reward of £100-200 was promptly offered for information, the suspect carefully described by Mr Ovenden, as wearing a short navigator’s slop or smock frock, ‘very much worked about the breast and neck’.[9]  Many smocks would have been relatively plain and ready-made with little to distinguish one from another, so where there was something different to note, this was remembered.  However, it appeared to be a successful disguise with few reports of the capture of any of these ‘highwaymen’.

[1] See also the gilet jaune protests in France, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/03/who-are-the-gilets-jaunes-and-what-do-they-want.

[2] Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 19 July 1784.

[3] Norfolk Chronicle, 5 October 1816.

[4] Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 23 May 1822.

[5] Northampton Mercury, 20 September 1828.

[6] Sherborne Mercury, 24 February 1834.

[7] Coventry Herald, 28 September 1832.

[8] West Kent Guardian, 2 December 1837.

[9] Cheltenham Chronicle, 24 February 1857.

‘Dead Stonebreaker’

How the smock frock was depicted by artists has, to some extent, been dependent on the contemporary political situation. During the Napoleonic Wars, and especially during the blockade, at its strongest between 1807 and 1809, agriculture, and the production of food to feed the nation, were inherently patriotic with model labourers depicted in smock frocks.  During the difficult period of the 1840s, with the rise of Chartism and labour movements and the ever-present threat of rural starvation, few agricultural paintings were exhibited, seemingly out of place. Instead, genre scenes with the domestic affectations of the labourer, the myth of the virtuous peasant, contented, pious and devoted to farm life, were welcomed into middle-class homes as a balm against threats of revolution and Chartism.  From the late 1840s and 1850s, an awareness of rural poverty and distress began to permeate artists’ depictions, the Pre-Raphaelites, founded in 1848, striving for naturalism, rejecting the earlier approach of the virtuous peasant’s happiness.

In 1857, Henry Wallis, who was connected to the Pre-Raphaelites, painted ‘Dead Stonebreaker’.  For Wallis, this reflected the consequences of the unfavourable external conditions of society, contrasting with his most famous painting, the ‘Death of Chatterton’, which focussed on the personal internal struggles of one man and his supposed suicide.  The ‘Dead Stonebreaker’ depicts, as a review put it, ‘A man in a smock frock…dead upon a stone heap’.  The contemporary reviewer was sceptical about the subject, suggesting that if the painting wasn’t so titled, the viewer would just think the man asleep: ‘There are no indications of unusual poverty or disease about him, to warrant such an end; for his smockfrock is in very good condition for a stone breaker’s; and judging from his face, we should pronounce him to be both healthy and well fed.’ However, a review in the London Daily News was more compassionate: ‘Poor wretch, all his path in life has been beset with thorns! But he is at rest at last; no one waits for or will seek him; no one will miss him. His … face and low brow, tell of stolid ignorance and abject misery. He has never been a poacher or housebreaker; or come to London to be refined into a swindler and pickpocket….He is very dead.’  Although this subject struck a chord, the dark hues of the painting did not find favour with this critic.

The painting showed man’s oneness with nature, the stone breaker expiring with the day, a stoat on his foot.  The rural setting focussed the attention of the viewer on what were perceived to be rural problems:  the inhumanity of stone breaking, often work given to the able-bodied poor in a workhouse, and so the implicit criticism of rural poor relief, although also reflecting an universal concern for the poor.  The geographically remote setting provided a detached scene for universal issues to be played out with the indirect criticism of industrialisation.  His dress, including the short smock, is workwear, suggesting hard manual labour rather than a rural idyll which, despite the backdrop, it is not.

Such socially conscious art continued to develop, showing the down trodden reality of many labourers’ lives and became increasingly popular, collected by middle-class merchants, industrialists and professionals. Influenced by French artists such as Jules Breton, this movement reached its peak in the 1880s with the paintings of George Clausen, who using photography, drew labourers from life, although by this point, the smock frock was infrequently worn by them.


dead stonebreaker

Mending and Maintenance

The ‘biographies’ of garments is an expanding research area, as the personal and physical relationship that we have with our clothes is investigated by academics.  How people care for their clothing, both today and in the past, can perhaps give us a small insight into how they regard their own garments.  In this era of fast fashion, where clothing is a cheap commodity that can be readily changed and thrown away, it is easy to forget how expensive and valuable clothing was, even the most common garments costing at least a week’s wages.  Smocks, like other working garments, were easily stolen, often by other working men, and sold and exchanged for cash because of this inherent value.  For this reason alone, their monetary value, their maintenance was a routine task.

However, the pride shown in clothing by working people during the nineteenth century is also visible in the smock by the very fact that it is often embellished, for example with embroidery, suggesting that their appearance and decorativeness was important to their wearer.  They could be cherished enough to passed on generation to generation.  Of course, there is some differentiation between those worn for best and for rituals such as weddings and funerals, and workaday ones, which were likely to be plainer and worn until they fell apart into rags, which could then be sold and recycled.

Looking at surviving smocks though, you can see the care taken to repair damage, to maintain the garment and keep it wearable.  The wear patterns of clothing, as a memory of the wearer, is both old fashioned object analysis and a fashionable topic itself, with the current FIT exhibition in New York, ‘Fashion Unraveled’, with its focus on altered, unfinished and deconstructed garments.  The imperfections and flaws of a garment are highlighted to emphasize the emotional as well as the economic impact of clothing for its wearer. Visible mending, as a way to enhance a garment and stop it from becoming obsolete and thrown away, has also had a new surge of interest.  Led by artists such as Celia Pym, the old skills of darning and mending, which all girls once learnt, are being re-learnt by people today.

The smock was made to be durable and guard against wear, one of the purposes of smocking in the first place, but in surviving smock frocks, wear patterns are often similar: fraying around the cuffs, holes in the skirt and the smocking rubbed and starting to become undone. A smock I recently examined in the Somerset Heritage Centre (see above) had the most beautiful visible mending with a series of holes all edged with blanket stitch.  Other areas were also patched and darned, suggesting the desire to maintain and preserve the use of the garment as best as possible (see below).  Even ordinary working clothing was required to last extensive periods of time, with its relatively expensive cost, so mending clothing was part of the everyday schedule.  It is a skill which has been forgotten but as debates around the effects of fast fashion grow, one that many are rediscovering.



photographs @ https://swheritage.org.uk/




A Gang of ‘Thimble Men’

As the smock frock was so widely worn by working men, it could be a useful disguise for swindlers and criminals.  The game of thimblerig was one such scheme used by gangs who roamed the country to try and gain money, especially in the early 1830s.  1834 seems to have been a particularly bad year for this.  The game was, and is, well-known, the thimblerigger using sleight of hand to move balls or pellets or peas about under three cups or thimbles and asking the spectator to bet on where the final location was.

Around Wolverhampton, a gang of nine men were using nut shells instead of thimbles, the ‘sharpers’ [or swindlers] always winning.  Each played a part and dressed in appropriate clothing to draw people in to participate.  The ‘actors’ wearing smocks tried their luck and, having won, drew in the real customers, who, of course, lost.  A similar gang  were ensnaring people on the remote fell road between Durham and Gateshead, the gang variously dressed as a pedlar, a fashionable man, a sailor and a carter in a smock frock.  Engaging people they thought might be trapped in conversation, and telling tales about how they had just lost, or just won, at thimblerig, they would lead the unwary to the game where they were inveigled to join in.  There were tales of people losing all they had in just a few minutes.  One tea hawker, a man who travelled around remote areas selling tea door to door, often to people who did not have other access to such provisions, lost twelve sovereigns [a gold coin with a value of one pound] in six minutes, the proceeds of his sales which he was taking back to his employer in Newcastle.

Race courses were another forum for this trickery, a report about a very similar gang working the crowd at Chelmsford Races in July 1833 with a stock of characters from ‘a Bond Street exquisite’ to a labourer in a smock frock, acting as procurers and decoys, resulting in hundreds of people being ‘plundered’ of their cash.  It was obviously a situation which continued, William Frith depicting the fraud in his monumental painting of Derby Day, 1856-8, in the Tate Gallery.


The newspaper reports connected the gangs with other criminal behaviour from pick pocketing to living with prostitutes, but it was a ruse that clearly continued to be worthwhile, the smock frock playing its part in the deception, helping to define people by their dress, in this case wrongly!

All the fun of the fair

The annual Michaelmas Fair has just finished in our nearest town and although it is now all dodgems, haunted houses, terrifying rides to take you up into the air and drop you, flashing lights and loud music, such fairs follow a long tradition and were an important part of, and release from, the working calendar for labourers.

A report about a fair in May 1857 in Boston, Lincolnshire, was printed in the Stamford Mercury.  Held over several days, there were prizes for farm animals, cattle, sheep and pigs, which were also bought and sold.  Alongside the serious business was the pleasure fair, Wombwells, well-known for their travelling menagerie, presenting an exhibition of exotic animals and Chipperfields offering a circus.  A pig weighing 105 stone was displayed, which was nine feet long and insured for 150 pounds.  Other attractions were listed: ‘performing monkeys and dogs, knowing ponies, ‘industrious fleas’, twin calves, giants in smock frocks to make them look bigger, microscopic and stereoscopic exhibitors…a host of photographers’, which, of course, was still relatively novel.  Music and theatre were also an important part as was the slight edge – pick pocketing was rife and ‘suspicious characters’ ever present.


Many of the patrons of the fair would have worn smock frocks, as seen also at York Fair above, Lincolnshire a county which contained several smock frock manufacturers and known as a place where they were frequently worn.  At the fair, they were used as a disguise to help the ‘giants’, their capaciousness no doubt helping to disguise some trickery.  They were probably used by the criminal fraternity too, both to help mingle inconspicuously in the crowd in order to pick pockets, as well as being useful for hiding any stolen property in their large pockets or just underneath.  Poachers, for example, in the same period used them to hide hares, birds and other animals from detection. Deception and disguise fully in action.





An Encounter with William Gladstone

In June 1891, William Gladstone, the former prime minister and in opposition until the following year, paid a visit to Holmbury St Mary, near Dorking in Surrey.  He attended church on Sunday, whilst staying as a guest of fellow politician, E. F. Leveson-Gower, whose family had first built a country house in the village in 1860 and had done much to promote the area as a country retreat for the wealthy but within easy travelling distance of London by railway.

In a report which appeared in several newspapers, on leaving church Gladstone was ‘accosted by a local carrier, attired in a smock frock’.  The carrier shaking hands with him,  ‘ventured a few remarks upon the poor-law out-relief system’, it would appear in much the same way that members of the public are now occasionally able to ambush electioneering politicians about various causes.  Gladstone had become more liberal over the course of his career, the investigative journalist, W T Stead summing this up in 1892:

At home his chief exploits have been the reform of the tariff, the establishment of Free Trade, and the repeal of the paper duty. He was the real author of the extension of the franchise to the workmen of the towns, and the actual author of the enfranchisement of the rural house holder. He established secret voting, and agreed to give effect to the Tory demand for single-member constituencies. It was in his administration that the first Education Act was passed, and that purchase in the Army was abolished. He has done his share in the liberation of labour from the Combination Laws, in the emancipation of the Jews, and in the repeal of University Tests.

W. T. Stead (The Review of Reviews, vol. V, May, 1892) p. 453.

The G.O.M., as the newspaper referred to him, that is the ‘Grand Old Man’, was seen as a friend of the working man in the days before the Labour Party, both in the town and country.  The carrier, emboldened by his first contact, and acting against type as a stupid, boorish smock-frock wearer, then wrote a letter to Gladstone outlining his ideas on the out-door relief system and the incumbent government proposals on it.  Delivering it to the house where Gladstone was staying, he also gave some home-made butter to Mrs Gladstone.

Both the letter and the butter were acknowledged by Mrs Gladstone, but nothing was heard from the G.O.M. himself, the newspaper reports suggesting that maybe he had run out of his postcards.  Gladstone was a well-known user of postcards and many survive from his hand. Growing in popularity since the Newspaper Postage Bill of 1870, postcards were at first seen as ridiculous, having no privacy, insulting in their briefness to the receiver, and debasing the art of letter writing with their necessary brevity.  For Gladstone, the economy of both the space and the cost seemingly appealed to him and he used them widely.  The Times reported on the history of the postcard on 1 November 1899, noting that Gladstone had ‘made countless numbers happy by the receipt of a card bearing his well-known writing’.  Thus by the end of the nineteenth century, they were seen as ‘most useful’ and ‘indispensable’, the text messages of their day perhaps?  The newspaper report in 1891 remarked somewhat sardonically about this encounter in Surrey however, that Gladstone ‘ought to have sent his customary postcard giving his views on butter-making’ to the carrier.  Although a swipe at Gladstone, it also perhaps, backhandedly, re-enforced the view for newspaper readers about those wearing smock frocks – they would understand comments about butter making, not Gladstone’s answer to a query about poor law proposals, despite evidence to the contrary.




The Embroidery of Smock Frocks

Smocks, by the very nature of their construction, are decorated garments.  If unpicked, the smock would consist of rectangles of fabric both for the sleeves and the body.  Manipulating the fabric, gathering it up to form some kind of shaping, at the cuffs and across the chest, was brought about by smocking.  This gave it ornamentation with a sort of honeycomb pattern and texture, along with a degree of elasticity.  The garment was then decorated further with embroidery.


There are, of course, differences in the quality and design of embroidery work on smock frocks: some were workaday and relatively simple and probably ready-made; others were for Sunday best or for a particular occasion and would be finely worked either by female relations or professional needlewomen.   All had some kind of embroidery though, even if somewhat plain.  It may seem strange to us today, that working men’s dress should be so ornate.  Embroidery was a skill taught to girls, particularly over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and was a way for women either to embellish pieces for male family members as a sign of love and affection, or to earn a living.  If done domestically, it could also be a method of personalising garments.  Although the smock has often been put into the category of folk embroidery and compared to embroidered folk dress in continental Europe, men’s dress was often embellished with embroidery from the Medieval period onwards, certainly in the mainly elite examples which now survive in museum collections.  For instance, the embroidered waistcoat had a long tradition in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, so in this context, the wearing of embroidery by men was not unfamiliar.

Writers about smocks have often tried to explain the symbolism of the patterns that appear on the garments, for example, suggesting that certain symbols were linked to particular trades and so could identify the profession of the wearer.  Although this may be true in some cases, generally the same patterns appear in smocks regardless of a particular individual’s circumstances, some probably passed around a family or community.  Lack of evidence about where smocks have come from and who wore them in many surviving examples, also makes this a difficult theory to pursue.  Where smocks were produced in large numbers, the pattern was drawn on and then worked, so smocks from one area may have similar patterns.  In Newark, a town associated with smock making, metal pattern blocks printed the design onto the fabric which was then given to out-workers to embroider.


Interlaced and repetitive geometric patterns seem to have been most popular using roundels, spirals, zig-zags and diamonds, in usually no more than three different stitches, often including feather stitch or chain stitch.  Naturalistic motifs, such as flowers and leaves, found their way into more ornate examples, along with designs such as hearts and crooks.  These were all worked in the ‘box’, the panels either side of the smocked area.  Thus the embroidery added to the surface texture and the smock’s character.  It was normally done in the same coloured thread as the base fabric, although there are a few examples with contrasting thread colours.  The embroidery played a practical role too, adding more padding to areas where protection was needed from wear.


The embellishment of the smock frock with embroidery gives the garment, what we now consider, its essential character.  The care and time needed for this stitching on what was principally work wear or a working overall, indicates how important the smock was for both its makers and wearers.

Life on the Margins

Smock frocks frequently ended up in court, sometimes on the back of those standing trial and sometimes as stolen items.  The stories that the newspapers tell of these trials show how hard life could be for labourers in the nineteenth century.  The fact that a few court reports read in a humorous vein belies the essential truth that it was thought, by some, to be better ‘transported’ away from England, friends and family, than toiling further at home.  Such a case was reported by the Worcester Journal in 1844.  Henry Ladbury, a 35 year old labourer, was charged with stealing, including two smock frocks from other labourers and a scythe.  Two out of three charges of theft were ‘clearly’ proved and he was sentenced to two lots of transportation for seven years each, the standard punishment for a felony if a repeat offender.  Ladbury, presumably trying to remain upbeat, addressed the witness box when given his sentence saying, ‘Never mind, my lads, I shall want no scythes there, – no mowing in that there country’ – Poldark he was not!

The Reading Mercury reported in 1865 the case of Henry Aldridge, a bird catcher, who stole a smock frock from another bird catcher.  In magistrate’s court, he asked if he could emigrate to New Zealand with a new suit of clothes from the parish, instead of serving a sentence in prison. Seemingly, life on the other side of the world, even with nothing, might be better than his current existence.

Clearly, for those living life on the edge of survival, perilously close to the margins, being caught committing a crime could also offer some respite, much to the chagrin of the authorities for whom crime prevention, much as it still does today, remained a perennial topic and vote decider for politicians. In 1867, Mary Ryan stole a smock frock and then tried to sell it to a second-hand clothes dealer for 6d, presumably to raise much needed cash.  The smock frock was traced, although Ryan said she obtained it legitimately from a cowman.  When sentenced to gaol for twenty-one days, she apparently remarked, ‘A very nice rest’.  If she had been scrapping around to raise six pence, maybe a stay in gaol where shelter and some basic food was a given, was a ‘nice rest’.  The authorities were clearly not keen that gaol should be seen as better than normal life, an argument that still rages today, but it does show the desperation of what life on the margins might be like.

This is backed up by another Worcestershire case from February 1838.  Thomas Tudnall was an itinerant worker, tramping the country looking for work, wearing a smock frock.  He also seemed to be a regular attendant in court, his conversation with the magistrate reported in the Worcestershire Chronicle:

Magistrate: Well John, how many gaols have you been in since you paid us a visit last year?

John: Not many, your worship, only Warwick, and Nottingham, and a few others, where they put me whilst I was looking for work.

Magistrate: And are you looking for work, or looking for a lodging in the gaol!

John: Any place will do until the weather gets warmer.

Tudnall was given a shilling to send him on his way, out of the city and to look for work.  Being convicted of being a rogue and a vagabond, essentially for being homeless and not finding work and so having to beg, would seem to be his only convicted crime.  A parish would be anxious to remove such a person from the locality to the nearest gaol, before the parish became liable for looking after them for the long-term.

The smock frock was an integral part of working life, worn, stolen, used to raise money, often without a second thought, and offers a small window into these working-class and poverty stricken nineteenth century lives.

prisoner bucks

Prisoner wearing a ragged smock frock from a collection of photographs of prisoners from Buckinghamshire – see:  http://www.buckscc.gov.uk/leisure-and-culture/centre-for-buckinghamshire-studies/online-resources/victorian-prisoners/

Washing Machines and Smock Frocks

As we start to clear up after Christmas, perhaps we should think about how easy most domestic chores are today in comparison to the nineteenth century.

Laundry was one of the big domestic tasks for the Victorian household, vital for health and cleanliness, but back-breaking work for women. Wash day was traditionally Monday although completion of the laundry, the drying and ironing, was finished afterwards. It was an essential job for women, the urgency dictated by the number of garments a person had, and taking in the laundry of others to do too was often a way to make casual money on the side to augment household incomes. There were also professional laundresses alongside household ones, female run businesses, still an under-researched area of social history. During the nineteenth century, there were various attempts at making a washing machine, although they did not become commonplace for the majority until well into the twentieth century.

One such attempt was reported in the Exeter Flying Post in 1858. ‘Startling’ the laundresses of the city was Hancock’s Washing Machine, made in London.  The contraption was described as being of a simple construction and was exhibited for all to see. A boy of ten or twelve years old was able to work it with ease. In the demonstration, four bed sheets were washed ‘thoroughly’ clean in five minutes, appropriately on a Monday, and a number of smock frocks cleaned in about the same time. Both articles chosen for the demonstration were known for their whiteness and so able to prove the efficiency of the washing. The newspaper commented, that if the machine became popular, ‘the washer woman’s occupation will be clean gone’ – a nice pun! A ‘materfamilias’ watching remarked “What, for gracious sake, will ‘em think of next?” A machine may have got rid of back-breaking work but it also meant the loss of livelihoods.


As a standard working man’s overall, the smock frock would have formed a large part of the laundry. Heavy and bulky when dry, they would have been even weightier when wet. As they were predominantly white, they were also a good test of a laundress’s skill and a reflection of a household’s cleanliness. The advent of a machine that would wash several smocks at once was probably welcomed by the washer woman in terms of a reduction in physical labour, although such household appliances did not become commonplace for another century, long after the smock frock had disappeared from general usage.



Harry Potter and Herbology

Both my daughters being ardent Harry Potter fans, the films had been on continuous cycle all weekend.  As I was passing Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which was on for the umpteenth time, I was stopped in my tracks.  Hermione Granger was in her Herbology lesson, learning to pull mandrake roots, as you do with Professor Sprout, but she was wearing a smock frock.  Wow!  I am not sure why I hadn’t noticed before, but there you go.  You start looking and they start turning up in very odd places.


In fact the whole class were smock frocked, although most of the boys were wearing more of an overall than a smock with no smocked gathering, and Professor Sprout herself, the wonderful Miriam Margolyes, was in something more akin to an academic robe with a hint of smock, the decoration of stems, leaves and vines echoing the embroidery found on some nineteenth century smocks.  The earthy tones of her clothing reflect her profession and compliment those of her class well and they are worn long, like the cloaks and robes that the pupils normally wear.


So the girls got to wear the male smock.  I can’t find any reference to what the costume designer, Lindy Hemming had in mind – there is quite a lot about the animatronic mandrakes and how they were made but no reference to the humble smock.  In drawings of the set, the characters appear to be in their normal robes so maybe the smocks were a later addition to give it a feel of the land whilst grappling in the earth, or dragon dung, with a mandrake. There is no reference in Rowling’s writing to overalls worn – only that ear protectors were needed against the mandrake screams.  Rowling describes Professor Sprout as having earth on her clothes and that the students became covered in earth by the end of the lesson.  The smocks are a nice shorthand to convey that certain earthiness and physical labour in the soil needed, of course, to repot mandrakes.

The smocks look very similar to the workaday ones worn by labourers during the nineteenth century, here sported by a youth in custody at Aylesbury Gaol in 1872.


I would love to know the costume designer’s inspiration and thinking, and if they had the smocks made themselves.  If anyone knows, please get in contact…