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 @



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:

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…


The White of the Milkman

Obtaining fresh milk was somewhat problematic for Londoners in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.   The association with rusticity and the countryside was always there however, with milkmaids depicted in the illustrated Cries of London, for which there was a vogue around the turn of the nineteenth century.  They were the most beautiful and healthy criers, full of the joys of country air, with a bloom in their cheeks, especially when compared to the insipid pallor of those living in the city.  This famous image of one such milk maid was published as an engraving in 1793, drawn by Francis Wheatley.



It is probably something about the purity of the white of milk and the bleached whiteness of the smock frock that the garment came to be associated with milk men during the nineteenth century.  And purity wasn’t something that milk consumers could always rely on.  As detailed by a newspaper in 1856 under the witty title, ‘A New Milky Way’, consumers were informed that a new company had been set up to supply London with ‘pure’ milk, citing that they had begun to look upon the promise of pure milk as ‘pure humbug’.  With various food adulterating scandals current at this time, the newspaper welcomed milk that hadn’t been mixed with chalk and that didn’t leave a chalky sediment in a jug.  Their complaint was that they had previously been taken in by milkmen in smock frocks purporting to come directly from the country and evoking rural simplicity whilst selling an adulterated product.

Adulteration of milk was a common problem with up to a quarter of the supply found to be watered down or added to with chalk, to help whiten it, during the 1870s.  This interesting pamphlet, written in 1850, details the scale of the problems.

Many cows had tuberculosis (also known as consumption), which was highly contagious and was passed into their milk, then consumed by humans to whom, the author supposes, the fatal disease was passed on.  So although drinking milk was associated with being healthy and the purity of the countryside, consumers found it difficult to trust what they were buying.  At Tettenhall in the West Midlands in 1862, a fight broke out between a milkman and a woodcutter.  As the milkman was driving his cart through the street, the woodcutter called out “There goes milk-and-water” and other similar opprobrious epithets.  The milkman, suitably enraged, got down from his cart to exchange words and then blows, but not having the woodcutter’s axe, came off the worst, his smock frock saturated with blood. Both survived to face each other in court, perhaps the tale of one unhappy consumer.

Large dairies around the outskirts of London were also set up, such as the Kilburn Dairy dating from the 1830s, to bring milk production closer to the capital although these too were dogged by  allegations about their purity.


However, in Truro, Cornwall, in 1881, a letter writer to a newspaper expressed joy that the city was to have a ‘good and pure’ milk supply from the Tolgarrick Dairy, the milk cans brought in on a stylish cart by a man in ‘the whitest of smock frocks’ and a shiny hat.  Outside London, it was common for dairy men and cow men to wear smock frocks so it was a natural extension to continue to wear them when delivering milk.  A milkman in a white smock was noted in Reading in 1854, going off to milk his cows, when he was caught up in a chase to catch a robber.  For city dwelllers, concerned about purity of the product, the smock frock seemed to have added reassurance value for consumers, although this could also be used for advantage by unscrupulous dealers.

The smock frocked milkman seemed to have entered the common vocabulary though and in 1870, this was assured when the song ‘Polly Perkins of Paddington Green or the Broken Hearted Milkman’ was published, the front cover showing the love lorne swain in a smock frock.  The song remained popular for the next century, the smock frock not lasting quite so long.



Image Courtesy of the Alfred Concanen Collection, Ward Irish Music Archives, Milwaukee Irish Fest.

The White Farm

Smock frocks came in various colours: blue, green, brown, buff and black, as well as the ubiquitous white we tend to think of smocks as being today.  Their whiteness was a quality appreciated by contemporaries who remarked poetically, for example, about their cleanness, implying a shining whiteness, using adjectives such as ‘snowy whiteness’. Those kept for Sunday best, and thus cared for and so subsequently preserved down the generations for us, tended to be white.  White was the hardest colour to keep true.  The appearance of being clean needed time and therefore money to be achievable.  Smocks were given to women to wash either in the home or to the local laundress for a small fee.  Cleanliness was next to godliness, the clean smock respectable clothing to wear to church, at least at the beginning and end of its path through history.

The idea of this whiteness being taken to extremes caught my attention.  Dating from the 1890s, when smock frocks were starting to be seen as signifiers of a halcyon rural past and craft items themselves, only worn by elderly men in rural southern England, Lord and Lady Alington put on an entertainment for their visitors.  Lord Alington (1825-1904) was a well-known society figure of the day, the 1st Baron Alington of Crichel House, Dorset.  He was a race-horse owner and member of the Jockey Club for over fifty years, as well as MP for Dorchester and was supposedly called by Disraeli, ‘the Champagne of the House’ due to his wit and geniality.

On 10 February 1892, he married for a second time, Miss Evelyn Henrietta Leigh, at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, a fashionable society wedding reported in the pages of the press at the time.

On the 29 August 1893, the Bury and Norwich Post reported that they were entertaining at their country estate for the first time since their marriage.  Their ‘particularly charming Home Farm’ on the estate had been renamed ‘The White Farm’, and everything was white including the buildings and decorations.  The men and women running the farm wore white smocks or frocks and every ‘beast and bird’ was also white:

From the huge prize bull to the rabbits, cats, and guinea-pigs, of four-footed creatures, and even the poultry all are white.  The prettiest thing I saw when there was a baby white donkey and three Persian kittens like snowballs.

The elaborate amusement was complete down to the last detail, including the snowy white smock frocks.  It was not noted in the report who was entertained then but the Prince of Wales and his daughter, Princess Victoria, certainly visited the estate at a later date, as seen in photographs at:

The excesses and extravagance of the White Farm are almost paradoxical to the very notion of white as a symbol of simplicity and purity. The entertainment seems to be a show of aristocratic fin de siècle exuberance in countryside where the smock frock had once been commonly worn. Located on the edge of Cranborne Chase in Dorset, its landscape was also part of the setting for Thomas Hardy’s novels, where the smock frock put in an occasional appearance.

As a footnote, the Crichel Estate gave its name to a set of planning procedures known as the ‘Crichel Down Rules’, established post-World War II.  These set out guidelines for landowners when government compulsory purchase of land is undertaken, the after-effects of land usage during the Second World War.  See: