I am thrilled to be part of the British Textile Biennial (@britishtextilebiennial), which is currently on, in person until the end of October, and online. I recorded a podcast with the brilliant Amber Butchart (@amberbutchart) on all things smock. Find it below or on the British Textile Biennial website, if you would like a listen!
A newspaper report in 1895 asked, ‘Where is the Smock-Frock?’, noting that it was a marker of the ‘old, hardy and honest peasantry’. Forty or fifty years ago they were a common sight, but now ‘Old England’s rural garb is rarely seen!’, the railway and education, in particular, having changed rural society, not in a good way for this article. With urban migration and the take-up of machine made suits, now labourers were ‘similitudes of semi-gentlemen … our villages are depopulated, and we have lost our happy and contented peasantry’.
As the smock declined in everyday usage during the late nineteenth century and, simultaneously, was sought out as something which summed up the disappearance of a rural way of life, the figure of the smock frock veteran emerged. These were elderly men who had worn smocks all their lives and continued to do so until their deaths in the early twentieth century, having survived the hardships of nineteenth-century labouring work. Now representing something of an oddity, the newspapers reported about the deaths of these men, revealing fascinating insights into ordinary labouring lives.
When Joseph Guise reached a hundred years of age in 1895 in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, details about his life were related in a newspaper article coinciding with a celebration in the town. He was presented with a photograph of himself and was to be paid gifted money in monthly instalments. Asked if he could read to display his faculties, he replied that he never could but he was still able to see very well. He had had a varied career in a mill and then a button factory, also nail making and being a waggoner, along with haulage and farming, where he lost an arm in a threshing machine accident when aged 64. He had never smoked but was not teetotal but temperate and generally conservative in his habits including his dress. ‘It is only upon the rarest occasions that he has discarded his smock frock, and it is over 70 years since he wore a pair of trousers’, preferring breeches and gaiters as reported by the newspaper.
In Downland Glimpses of the Past, syndicated in various newspapers, elderly men told of their struggles during the hungry forties when all they had to eat was bread, or nothing at all. There was no tea, only water poured over a crust and they burnt anything they could find for fuel. A picture of extreme poverty and destitution, they just ‘existed’, although there was work for everyone, before machinery, however poorly paid. The smock frock was their ‘chief garment’, although by the twentieth century, its charms were emphasized with the ‘simplicity’ of dress that it engendered: ‘The beautiful old smock-frock much be-pleated and embroidered, has almost vanished, and certainly no man would dream of coming to church in one, in these days of cheap shoddy. One sees them, now and again, on ancient gaffers – but very rarely’. By the late nineteenth century, the ‘beauty’ of the smock frock overlaid one of the main reasons that men chose to wear them in the mid nineteenth century – that they were cheap, indirectly highlighting the poverty of labourers.
Down a leafy lane, ‘far from the blinding dust of tearing motors’, a reporter found himself at Brittenden Farm, Waldron, Sussex, where Shepherd Stace and his wife were celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary. Now in his eighties, Stace had always worn smock frocks, ‘and would now if he could get the material’, being married in one at the time of the Crimean War. Mrs Stace made them for him and for many others locally, her last one, made fifteen years previously, winning first prize in a competition at Cross in Hand. The report relays details about Stace’s career as a shepherd and the prizes that he won for sheep shearing.
In 1911, James Stevens, an agricultural labourer, born in 1808, died in Tring, Hertfordshire. He had regularly walked to church wearing a green smock frock and gaiters up until his last few years and had visited London when ninety years old, still attired in a smock frock and beaver hat thus attracting attention. Likewise, the ‘last of the race of Derbyshire yeoman farmers who wore and worked in the smock frock’, John Redfern, was noted as dying in 1915 in Wirksworth, known for attending fairs and markets in his ‘quaint’ costume on a white pony. Similarly, the death of William James known as ‘Briar Bill’, as he collected briars from hedgerows for J. Perkins and Sons Nursery at Kingsthorpe, was reported in Crowfield in 1914, the newspaper noting ‘… with him vanishes from this district the ancient garb typical of the country rustic’.
An agricultural labourer, John Turney, was photographed in a smock when an elderly man in 1910, the newspaper reporting about his death a few years later describing him as a ‘life-long radical’ and the principal worker for the Swanbourne Baptist Chapel in Buckinghamshire. The smock he wears is relatively new and worn over his best suit, the photograph sent to Lloyd George and Herbert Leon, a local liberal politician, presumably as a statement of support from rural working men.
The longevity of these men, and their participation in their local communities over the years, gave them a rarefied status, amplified by their continual wearing of the then old-fashioned smock. Photographed both as an oddity and as something unique, these images have also influenced how we think about the smock today, as a special garment worn by elderly men in the countryside, rather than as a piece of durable workwear commonly worn by many men in urban and rural areas, as smocks were more usually used at the height of the smock trade during the mid-nineteenth century. The smock was additionally an indicator of the material hardship of many of these men’s lives.
Worcester Journal, 30 March 1895; see also Worcestershire Chronicle, 15 July 1893, for a celebration two years previously in Bromsgrove.
Dundee Evening Telegraph, 21 January 1913, p. 6, and ‘The Hungry Forties’, North Devon Journal, 13 January 1910, p. 7.
Sussex Agricultural Express, 16 October 1914, p. 10.
Northampton Mercury, 10 February 1911, p. 11. See Bucks Herald, 21 January 1911, p. 6 for his 103rd birthday and Yorkshire Evening Post, 16 January 1911, p. 4, which included a picture. His picture is reproduced as the frontispiece to O. Cave, Traditional Smocks and Smocking (Mills and Boon Ltd, London, 1979) and he is also mentioned in M. Jones, ‘The Vanished Smock-Frock’, Country Life, 11 April 1857, pp. 719-20.
Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 December 1915, p. 4; Newcastle Journal, 29 December 1915, p. 2.
 See also James Reed of Thorley, Hertfordshire, who wore a ‘beautifully embroidered’ smock frock, Chelmsford Chronicle, 27 September 1907, p. 3; and George Holden of Pinchbeck West near Spalding, ‘the last to wear the old-fashioned smock frock in the Fen country … his attachment to the smock frock was the subject of much comment in the locality’, Leeds Mercury, 23 October 1907, p. 3; also William Stinton in Hanley William, Worcestershire, ‘one of the now fast-expiring race of farmers who cling to the smock frock’, Worcestershire Chronicle, 7 November 1903, p. 8; George Hayward, died aged ninety-one, of Needham Market, Suffolk, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 15 September 1908, p. 3; Thomas Coster, of Newport, Isle of Wight, died aged eighty-five, the ‘last island farmer to wear a smock frock’, see Dundee Evening Telegraph, 3 March 1921, p. 3; death of William Sturmey, the last to wear the white smock-frock in the parish of Milton Abbey, see Western Gazette, 27 April 1906, p. 4; see also the death of eighty-three year old John Holmes, the last representative of the smock frock in Matlock, Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, 23 June 1894.
I am very excited to announce that my book on smocks will be published on 20th May 2021 by Bloomsbury Academic.
A social history of a single garment, my cast list includes Ellen Terry, Georgia O’Keeffe, the WI, body snatchers, navvies, Molly Goddard, John Dryden and many more.
For me it is a way to delve into working-class clothing histories, so often hidden and forgotten, the preference being instead for ‘fashion’ history. Likewise, menswear is often brushed over in writing about historic clothing, especially once the suit was dominant as masculine dress.
I feel passionate about uncovering the clothing practices of working people – around seventy per cent of the population by the 1860s. Although not always seen as very exciting, garments thought of as practical and unchanging, I hope that my research on smocks will help to change this way of thinking. In addition, smocks survive in numbers, unlike most working-class dress, allowing a material examination of garments to be undertaken.
I also look at smocks as emotional objects, evoking nostalgia for the rural, and a specific vision of England in the past, which is continually re-invoked through various media. As smocks became part of children’s wear in the late nineteenth century, and remain so today, they are similarly associated with childhood sentiment and often the making of children’s clothing at home.
I am very pleased that my book is also being offered in paperback so hopefully this will make if more affordable.