Friday, 5 August 2011

Keeping History Alive

Looking down the garden to Museum entrance
I was going to write this yesterday, but my Broadband was down. Panic! How can I live without the Internet? How times have changed.

Standing by my balcony door, watching the rain come down (that fine rain, you know, that soaks you right through), I wondered what I would do that day.

A piece from last week's East Midlands Today programme came to mind. I would go to Ruddington (NCT no. 10 bus) and have a look at the Ruddington Framework Knitters' Museum.

Ruddington is a village on the outskirts of Nottingham, and seems to have been very determined to prevent it being subsumed into the greater West Bridgford area. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg had his constituency house there on The Green between 1999 - 2004. The museum is a gem surrounded by a pub and houses, and is well worth the £4 entrance fee.

Cottage parlour 1890's
The museum is a small independent working museum, brought about by the efforts of the local community, which saved it from the bulldozer, and placed it under the control of a charitable Trust.

There is a unique complex of listed frameshops, cottages and outbuildings arranged around a garden courtyard, together with a former chapel in which many of the knitters worshipped. The site has been restored to show the living and working conditions of the framework knitters who occupied it throughout the nineteenth century.

Ruddington was at the heart of framework knitting in the Nottingham area, and this work was the basis for the growth of the village. The museum clearly shows how important knitting was in this area.

The gentleman taking my money was extremely helpful, and a mine of information. I started my tour by watching a 10 minute introductory video, which was informative, and set the scene for what was to follow.  I guess that the overriding image I had was of extreme hardship, for very little reward. The museum has a cottage from the late 1800's which shows what life would have been like at that time. When you think that there could have been upwards of 10 children in the family, plus working space for the knitter, there was not a lot of room.

Rod Neep has written a fascinating piece about Nottinghamshire Colonists to South Africa 1820, and you can read it here. He begins by outlining the social climate in Nottingham during the second decade of the 19th Century. He says, "By far, the most common occupation in Nottingham during this period was that of a framework knitter. A framework knitter was one who worked, usually from home, using a stocking frame to produce hosiery. It was the major source of income to the town's people. During the years 1813 - 1820 there were 3,618 baptisms at St Mary's Church to parents where the father was listed as a 'framework knitter', out of a total of 8,145 baptisms. During this period there were just 56 'hosiers' in the town. A hosier was one who effectively purchased the produce from the framework knitters and sold it to the various markets over the country, including London. They acted as a sort of wholesaler. Very often, the hosiers actually owned the stocking frames, and leased them to the framework knitters, guaranteeing a fixed price for the produce they made".

Frameshop Interior 1890's
This was a difficult time because of the introduction of mechanisation, leading to an excess of stockings being manufactured. The framework knitters were no longer guaranteed their usual piece-work rate, which was not great to begin with. There was social unrest, riots and the breaking of new machines. By the winter of 1818/19 the demand for the framework knitters produce was almost non-existent, and the knitters could be found begging in the streets and house to house in the town.

The unemployed knitters wrote an appeal to the Lord Lieutenant, and the gentry and noblemen of Nottinghamshire, where they said, in words that pull at the heart strings today, "From the various and low prices given by our employers, we have not, after working from sixteen to eighteen hours per day, been able to earn more than from four to six shillings per week, to maintain our wives and families upon, to pay taxes, houses rent etc, which has driven us to the necessity of applying for parochial aid, which after all has not in many instances left us sufficient to supply the calls of nature, even with the most parsimonious economy; and though we have substituted meal and water, or potatoes and salt, for that most wholesome food an Englishman's table used to abound with, we have repeatedly retired, after a hard day's labour, and been under the necessity of putting our children supperless to bed, to stifle the cries of hunger: nor think that we would give the picture too high a colouring, when we can most solemnly declare, that for the last eighteen months we have scarcely known what it is to be free from the pangs of hunger". They petitioned Parliament for the control of prices, and though a Bill was introduced, it was thrown out by the House of Lords.

What was to be the answer for these poor and impoverished framework knitters of Nottingham? The Duke of Newcastle (whose seat was Nottingham) came up with two ideas. One was that unemployed framework knitters should emigrate to the Cape Colony in South Africa, and that funds should be set aside to transport them there. The other idea seems to be the forerunner of subsequent Government employment schemes, where from November 1819 until the following Spring, "many people were put to work locally on civil projects including clearing out the River Leen, clearing and levelling land on the Forest for the planting of potatoes, road building projects, and work levelling Mapperley Plains and enclosing them with a dry stone wall". A short term solution to a long term problem. Does this sound familiar?

Rev William Lee
In 1589 the Reverend William Lee of Calverton, Nottinghamshire invented the first Knitting Frame. You can read his story in a wonderful piece, as if he is telling it himself here. There is the William Lee Gallery in the former Chapel building at the museum, and is well worth seeing.

In the upper floor of one of the cottages, there are a dozen or so knitting frames laid out as they would have been in the 19th Century. It is hard to now imagine those working conditions. Machines and operators crowded together, and the noise must have been something else. You can get an idea of what the noise may have been like by playing a tape, but as the museum says, it would have sounded worse than that when all the machines were operating. Also imagine that through the long hours of particularly Winter, much of the work would have been done under candlelight.

The above picture is of the last Framework Knitters of Ruddington sitting outside the Chapel, taken in 1885. The museum is definitely helping to keep history alive, and we should never forget the lives and work of our forebears. We will be the richer for remembering it, and the poorer for forgetting it. I shall visit again the Ruddington Framework Knitters Museum.

Oh by the way, you can also get a nice cup of tea there. 

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