Catherine Howard, University of Wolverhampton
Mr Cramp’s donation – a case study
My research has been into the silk ribbon collection at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum which comprises many books of samples and patterns. There is one such pair of books which are the most thoroughly and revealingly annotated, giving a very human, contemporaneous perspective on the industry at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
On shelf seven of bay two of store room one in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum I discovered Box 1 bearing the label as seen below. (See figure 1)
Cross-referencing to the accession register yields some information: the contents were loaned by one James Cramp in 1917 and were the 142nd items to be registered to the old museum in St Mary’s Guildhall. Clearly, Cramp did not return to reclaim his property. There was an eponymously named manufactory in Much Park Street but the records offer no other details, a casualty perhaps of them being typed up rather selectively in the 1960s. A foray into local genealogical records certainly suggests that a Cramp family were heavily involved in the silk weaving industry.
Opening the box reveals two books within, once costly but now well-thumbed, with pages and binding that are damaged and worn. Despite the label they date back to late 1805, which places them almost exactly in the centre of the 200 year life of the Coventry silk industry. Each page is protected in plastic, having been separated from the spine, and there are handwritten annotations throughout, which are not flagged up on the label. Everything about that handwriting, the style, positioning on the page, the content, the colour tells us it was contemporaneous; the consistency, uniformity and dating suggest that the notes are written by the same man – and we can be pretty confident that it was a man – over a period of 6 years until 1811. (See figure 2 below)
There are no signs of cataloguing or numbering which would conform to the norms for modern sample books indicating that these are books of samples or pattern books. The annotations are varied, new colours are identified, among them Bishop’s puce, Denmark smoke and Spanish brown, the latter two highlighting the European connections. Comments on what sold well and in which months are prevalent through 1806 to 1809 with a downturn evident in the later years. So here we have it, an idea of what life was really like, competitive, unreliable, risky. (See figures 3 & 4 below)
The anonymous author continues to give insights into the trade by commenting on the impact of Napoleon Bonaparte’s intervention in the silk war. Embargoes on the import of European silk to the United Kingdom are noted and the hardship they caused is emphasised with remarks like ‘weavers have nothing to do’. Thus we see that international trade was fraught with difficulty as it is today; recognising that somehow makes the plight of the 19th century weaver more real, we can empathise, we understand.
The impact of the decisions of the powerful on the lives of ordinary people is clearly demonstrated in the notes written in early November 1810. Princess Amelia, a favourite daughter of George III, died unexpectedly and the grieving King plunged the country promptly into a six week period of mourning which he then extended to last until February 1811. Mourning forbade the wearing of bright colours with black, grey and white being the order of the day; there was suddenly no work for those making bright brocades or fancy coloured ribbons. The impact was felt immediately with the notes recording the bankruptcy of 52 weavers in the first week after her death and a further 50 in the second week. (See figure 5 below) Life was extremely precarious, there were simply no contingency plans or safety nets for the workers at this time.
Other jottings in the books are about prices and rates of pay for the weaving of difficult patterns; taken altogether the notes suggest that the books may have been the property of a fairly senior figure in a silk manufacturing company or, possibly, an undertaker. This literal term referred to someone who ‘undertook’ to ensure the process of manufacture went smoothly, the original middle man perhaps, working for a silk master. We also know that stock was sent all over the country on a sale or return basis as is indicated in at least one note, which implies that the owner of the book had an overview of the entire system. However, fairly late in book 2 we find the note ‘1811 Left Mr Nutt 19th Feb, came to London the 20th and began Jeffery & Cox’s 23rd February.’ (See figure 6 below)
So, just at the time mourning was lifted the owner of our books was forced to make the decision to move from Coventry to London to work with a different silk master, taking, it seems, his books with him. Mention is also made of Cope’s patterns and of Ames and Atkinson’s patterns, the latter being a manufacturing company based in Paternoster Row in the City of London; indicating perhaps that this man was directly involved in selling.
Admittedly there are still no clear answers about the owner of these books but we have a much better picture of the context and the real struggles he had to face. In many ways his problems resonate with life today which gives greater significance and makes our relationship with this special collection much stronger. These are the only books with such annotations and so they are to be treasured.
After 44 years of teaching Catherine Howard has spent two years on the Masters in Design and Applied Arts at the University of Wolverhampton. She focused on socio-historical research into the silk ribbon industry in Coventry using the archive at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.