Category Archives: 2018 Workshops

Workshop – Private Textiles and Dress

Private Textiles and Dress: Domestic and Intimate Textiles and Dress in Museums and Historic Houses

University of Wolverhampton

Thursday 13 June 2019


European silk socks, 1800-1850, Gift of Martin Kamer, 1985, Image courtesy of


9.30 – 10.00        COFFEE  AND WELCOME

Chair: Laura Ugolini, University of Wolverhampton, UK

10.00 – 10.30   Cassie Davies-Strodder, V&A and UAL

An uncomfortable fit?: The challenges and opportunities of personal collections of dress in design museums

10.30 – 11.00   Sarah-Mary Geissler and Caroleen Molenaar, both University of Brighton

Dressing the Decades: 85 Years of Visitor Clothing

11.00 – 11.30   Caroline Ness, independent scholar

Considerations of privacy and the intimate: a family’s decisions when choosing the appropriateness of items for public scrutiny

11.30 – 12.00   Rachel Neal, De Montfort University

Resonating the Narrative of Human Presence Through Everyday Dress

12.00 – 13.15   LUNCH

Chair: TBC

13.15 – 13.45  Elaine Mitchell, University of Birmingham

The efforts of her needle: Catherine Hutton’s counterpane

13.45  – 15.00 ‘Snap-shot’ presentations:

Catherine Howard, Wolverhampton Art School

Behind closed doors

Toni Buckby, Sheffield Hallam University and Victoria & Albert Museum

Blackwork Embroidery – an overview of a fragile archive

Jane Smith, National Trust

Cardinal Wolsey’s Purse … Perhaps!

M Faye Prior, York Castle Museum

The Hidden History of a Mystery Garment: A possible early twentieth century menstrual belt

15.00 – 15. 30   COFFEE  

15.30 – 16.00       Miriam Phelan, RCA / V&A and Frankie Kubicki, Charles Dickens Museum

Mr & Mrs Charles Dickens: Intimate Objects and Private Textiles

16.00 – 16.30      Rosalyn Sklar and Nic Fulcher, both The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Textiles, Care and Access at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

16.30 – 17.00       Emma Hardy, Geffrye Museum

At Home with Textiles: Furnishing Textiles and Upholstery in the Geffrye Museum’s Period Rooms



Crib of the Infant Jesus, 15th century, South Netherlandish, Gift of Ruth Blumka, in memory of Leopold Blumka, 1974, image courtesy of

The workshop will be held on Wolverhampton City Campus, University of Wolverhampton (room TBC).

For maps and directions, please see:

 The fee is £ 20

 To register, please complete the registration form available here (The link will take you to the University of Wolverhampton’s E-store)

For further information, please e-mail Laura Ugolini at:




Boxed Valentine’s Day Card, British, 1840–99, Gift of Mrs. Richard Riddell, 1981, Image courtesy of

Toni Buckby, Sheffield Hallam University and V&A

Blackwork Embroidery – an overview of a fragile archive

This paper is a collection spotlight on the Blackwork embroidery collection held at the V&A. My PhD research project, “Re-embroidering Blackwork: exploring digital reconstruction and interpretation through contemporary art practice”, utilises my knowledge as an embroidery practitioner and experimental digital artist to create digital reconstructions of the Blackwork objects. Situated in a studio practice that identifies, distils, communicates and transforms the experience of making and the made through textile processes and digital experimentation, the project frames the process of reconstruction as forward looking, generating a new life for Blackwork through contemporary art practice. Embroidery is a deeply embodied making process. The majority of techniques and processes used in embroidery can only be executed by hand, the variety of stitches, the range of precise physical motions, and tacit reaction to the materials would be impossible to replicate mechanically. Through [re]making and the application of the material knowledge, I believe I can find a resonance between myself and the embroiderers who created the original objects. By experimenting with the act of reconstruction, the project questions the role of the artist as a creative and critical agent within the heritage organisation, and examines how the artist-makers’ understanding of materials and processes can enhance the experience of artefacts.

‘Blackwork’ was a popular 16th-century English embroidery technique, using black silk threads worked onto white linen. The technique was applied mainly to items of intimate dress such as shirts, smocks, sleeves and caps, as well domestic household textiles such as cushion covers and bed hangings. The V&A has about 25 examples of Blackwork, most in fragile condition. The iron mordant used with the black dye destroys the threads and no conservation treatment can halt this process. Several objects in the collection are in an advanced state of disintegration with little of the original stitching remaining and most cannot be displayed, limiting public access to them.

This paper will present a selection of these objects chronologically, to outline the evolution of the technique, design and motifs, from the early formal geometric counted-thread style through to the later shaded style worked in ‘speckle’ or ‘seed’ stitch. There will be a brief overview of the social and cultural context of Blackwork embroidery and its production, as well as a discussion around examples in other collections, possible design sources and representations in secondary sources such as portraiture.

Cassie Davies-Strodder, V&A and UAL

An uncomfortable fit?: The challenges and opportunities of personal collections of dress in design museums

This paper will look at two ‘wardrobes’ (personal collections of clothing) in the V&A belonging to two American women living in England; around 250 garments from Lady Fairhaven (neé Cara Broughton) (1867-1937) and around 150 from Emilie Grigsby (1876-1964). Both collections were split between the V&A and Norfolk Museums Service (NMS) on acquisition: the V&A selected according to its design history philosophy, NMS used social history criteria. The conflicts between personal narrative and design history are particularly acute in the V&A’s practice as a design museum.

Both women were staggeringly wealthy and have fascinating biographies which shed light on their personal style choices as well as what clothing survived and why. However, these stories remain largely hidden in the design-focused narrative of the V&A. This paper seeks to see what can be achieved by a more holistic approach to looking at the clothing and personal narratives together and what might have been missed through museum practice and acquisition.

Lady Fairhaven’s surviving clothing dates from the 1880s – 1930s and reflects ‘the arc of her life’, including: two dresses belonging to her as an unmarried woman, her wedding dress, mourning accessories (after the death of her first husband), a dress altered for maternity wear and 1920s and 30s dresses from her later life. The earlier clothes are purchased in New York, the later in London, reflecting her move to the UK. The dress altered for maternity wear is of particular note as a rare survival. It was acquired by NMS, (the curator Pamela Clabburn was particularly interested in ‘human intervention’ and looking at people’s lives through dress), the V&A would not have been interested in an altered garment with no designer label. The dress has been let-out in the skirt, and an extra panel has been added in the bodice where there is milk staining. The alterations are crude and probably made by a lady’s maid rather than a dressmaker –perhaps this was too intimate a task for a dressmaker.

In contrast to Lady Fairhaven, Emilie Grigsby moved on the fringes of respectable society, her mother ran a brothel in Cincinatti which funded Emilie’s convent education and Emilie’s wealth had been accrued as the high-profile ‘ward’ of robber baron millionaire Charles T Yerkes. Emilie’s wardrobe dates mainly from the 1920s and provides a ‘snapshot’ of her life in her early 40s, when she is still very fashionable and moving in artistic circles in Paris and New York. The collection is bold and bright and includes daring designs such as a pair of Poiret harem pants. As a person frequently in the press for her seduction of powerful men, it is interesting to note how much of her beautifully crafted, hand made silk underwear survives, much of it stylishly embroidered with her name.

Sarah-Mary Geissler and Caroleen Molenaar, both University of Brighton

Dressing the Decades: 85 Years of Visitor Clothing

Do you think about what you wear to museums? What could it tell future generations about society today?

To mark the 85th anniversary of Preston Manor’s museum status, rather than focus upon the historic house itself we wanted to celebrate those who came through its doors. The Brighton property has functioned as a museum since its original residents left in 1933 and has remained as a relic of early-twentieth century design. During this time, the house has survived hauntings, school visits, and even a WWII air raid. While volunteering in Preston Manor’s Working Dress Collection, an assortment of role-play costume, contemporary dress and props, we heard these stories among others which revealed an eclectic history behind the unassuming manor. Additionally, delving into the Manor’s archives revealed an array of characters, anecdotes, and a rich dress history that was unknown to the public.

From this research we devised the exhibition, “Dressing the Decades: 85 Years of Visitor Clothing” at Preston Manor. This 20-minute talk will discuss how we used clothing in the exhibition as a medium to communicate personal stories. We staged our exhibition as a costume trail, taking visitors chronologically through the manor with each room inhabited by dressed mannequins and their corresponding stories. Our presentation will also consider how dress can be a democratic tool for community engagement. Dress is intrinsically linked to social history, and acts as shorthand for class, taste, and occasion.[1] Therefore, the familiarity of dress makes it accessible to the wider public, including those not necessarily interested in fashion.

Finally, our paper illuminates how we staged an ambitious exhibition in a small museum with an unconventional dress collection and negligible budget. We were met with several limitations, especially what clothes were available and suitable within our own collection, where we could procure other pieces for display, and how we could display them. The curation process created opportunities for collaboration with local museums, costumiers, collectors and a private school. We hope this case study acts as an inspiration for other small museums and historic houses to engage visitors through the medium of dress.

[1] We are defining ‘dress’ as clothing and accessories that exist in material form.

Emma Hardy, Geffrye Museum

At Home with Textiles: Furnishing Textiles and Upholstery in the Geffrye Museum’s Period Rooms

The Geffrye Museum of the Home is best known for its series of period rooms representing the living rooms of middle-class Londoners from the seventeenth-century to the present day. These displays have their origins in the early part of the twentieth-century when the museum’s collections of architectural woodwork, furniture and domestic metalwork were arranged into a series of rooms intended to show how everyday domestic life has changed over time. The most recent redisplay of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century period rooms introduced a more rigorous historical approach, using the evidence of surviving buildings, probate inventories, and first-hand accounts (in the form of diaries and letters) as sources for the spaces, furnishings, behaviour and practices.

Textiles and upholstered furniture play a significant role within the domestic interior, they have a huge impact upon the look and feel of the space, they can be a way of displaying wealth, status or taste but they are also intimately connected with changing conceptions of comfort. Experiencing textiles in historical domestic settings, with other furnishings and in changing lighting conditions can transform our understanding of the objects, the spaces and the people who once inhabited them.

However, displaying textiles within the period rooms at the Geffrye presents a number of challenges. Documentary and visual evidence for domestic textiles can be limited or difficult to interpret. Textiles are inherently fragile; non-elite, everyday textiles are generally used, worn out, recycled and destroyed. If they do survive, their appearance may be significantly altered by deterioration. Furthermore, balancing display and preservation requirements for rare, fragile early textiles can be difficult.

In this paper, I will discuss how the Geffrye has approached researching, collecting, conserving and displaying textiles and upholstery. I will focus particularly on a project to create replica upholstery for two early seventeenth-century chairs displayed in the period room representing a hall in a London merchant’s house in 1630, using this case study to draw out some questions around research, conservation and display in more detail. Finally, I will give a preview of current work in progress on a new Victorian room and displays of textiles and upholstery for the new ‘Home Gallery’, which are being created as part of the Unlocking the Geffrye development project.

Catherine Howard, Wolverhampton Art School

Behind closed doors

The Herbert Museum and Art Gallery, in Coventry, is home to a significant collection of ribbon pieces stored in over a hundred books and ledgers dating back to the early 19th century.

In its own right the collection is a beautiful thing.  Opening each archive box reveals tissue and wadding wrapping large, leather bound books, which have been used to house what may best be described as snippets of ribbon. Interleaved and in some cases entombed in plastic pockets, the pages offer thousands of patterns and hundreds of colours.

Some sense of the process is there as there are also designs drawn and coloured in on squared paper providing a pattern for the weavers and some roughly stitched prototypes. There seems to be little order in the presentation, shapes and sizes of the snippets are random. Companies like Cash’s and Franklins are evidenced but the basic questions remain unanswered.  Who went to the trouble of compiling these books?  A weaver to show his skills? A salesman to show the available patterns and colour ways?  An undertaker managing his stock and out-workers? There are clues only in a few instances. Scribbles in the margins written in 1808 tell us that Pontin blue is a new colour or that a pattern sold well everywhere except Liverpool from whence everything was sent back. 

The politics of the time show themselves, trade is hampered by Napoleon Bonaparte, the death of a royal princess puts the country in to mourning and the industry slumps.

Who bought these ribbons? What did they do with them?  That remains a mystery. We may imagine the rich ordering their latest ball gowns trimmed with yards of ribbon, or perhaps working women re-trimming last year’s bonnet to make it look different or last a little longer. Can we assume the power of fashion and style was strong two centuries ago?  A phrase that leaps out from the hand written notes quite often is ‘all the rage’ suggesting that perhaps little has changed.

The people, the weavers, the families, the bosses, the wider workforce are all hidden.  There are so very few names and no sense of their lives. More untold stories.

And today the whole thing is a secret. Few know the archive exists. The books rarely if ever leave their home in rack 28.  There is a poignant sadness in the secrecy;  this beautiful, highly skilled work is losing its impact, relevance and significance.  I am not sure who cares about that.

Elaine Mitchell, University of Birmingham

The efforts of her needle: Catherine Hutton’s counterpane

In 1844 the Birmingham novelist and letter-writer Catherine Hutton (1756-1846) recalled for a friend the many ways in which she had employed her needle since the age of seven. She had sewn shirts and dresses, caps and aprons; made curtains for beds and windows, created patchwork ‘beyond all calculation’ and quilted counterpanes ‘in various patterns of my own invention’.  

One of the counterpanes that resulted from Catherine’s industry was recently brought from private hands into the collections of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery where it remains in store. Signed and dated 1804 by Hutton, the pattern of her invention projects a landscape of botanical abundance, its floriferous border design translating the cultivation, culture and consumption of plants from the exterior landscape of the garden into the interior landscape of the house.

Catherine Hutton’s counterpane is not only a canvas on which she created a decorative botanical design and displayed her skill with the needle for private consumption, it is also a material object that represents the public world of colonial projects, global trade and new technology. Made from processed plant material, the counterpane is an object which captures the contribution of plants to visual culture and, in its very matter, to the materiality of material culture.

Through Catherine Hutton’s quilt, this paper will look at ways in which the botanical landscape and its products were re-purposed for the interior landscape of the house. By examining the counterpane it draws attention to the significance of plants as commodities that connected Birmingham to the Atlantic, Asian and African worlds. This opens up new perspectives on the town within wider narratives of trade, slavery and the incorporation of new aesthetics from the East.

Rachel Neal, De Montfort University

Resonating the Narrative of Human Presence Through Everyday Dress

The intimacy of dress to the body suggests the capacity of clothing to establish a material link to the intimate, immaterial story of a life lived. This paper explores the display of clothing as the tangible evidence of a more personable narrative of the social history museum.

Drawing upon the examples of historic sites such as Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes and the National Trust Property Mr Straw’s House, Nottinghamshire, this paper considers the naturalistic placement of dress, such as a knitted cardigan hanging on a wooden chair in Hut 6 at Bletchley Park or the woollen coat hanging in the hallway at Mr Straw’s house, as a means to evoke a sense of human presence. Discussing how they demonstrate an essence of movement and implying human touch and use by positioning material objects around the space and engaging a sense of haptic connection to history through their tantalising tangibility.

The topic of this paper draws from developing discourses in the study and curation of historical dress, considering the signs of human wear as significant material evidence embodying the narrative of social life. These debates have elevated the subject of everyday dress and its capacity to communicate the intimate story of private human lives. This paper considers how this interest in the everyday can be reflected in the museum, engaging the visitor in the life stories of social history.

This paper explores how objects of dress can animate the static space, recreating a sense of human presence into the domestic or social interior, evoking an atmosphere of human interaction. Whilst objects of worn dress can often display the signs of human wear, this paper considers the naturalistic placement of these objects of clothing and the suggestion of the body as significant in developing engagement with the human narrative.

Curating objects of everyday dress to set a scene can sometimes fall into the category of ‘set dressing’, subsequently framing these objects as props or objects of lesser importance in the collection. However, this paper reasons that these objects of dress that appear to be casually left by their wearer, like the knitted cardigan or the woollen coat, are instrumental in engaging the visitor in the idea of human touch, resonating a relatable human story of life experience. They afford value in bringing to life the immaterial, intimate human story of a social life that can extend beyond the walls of the museum.

Caroline Ness, independent scholar

Considerations of privacy and the intimate: a family’s decisions when choosing the appropriateness of items for public scrutiny

It is likely that there are a large number of private historic houses dotted about the UK that hold fascinating collections of dress and textiles that have never been accessed by the public. This seam of hidden treasures is tantalising to the historian who might dream of unravelling the stories contained therein. One such collection is the subject of this paper. Hitherto unseen by anyone outside a private family circle, an historic collection of lace and brocades from the seventeenth to early twentieth century, household linens and items of intimate and celebratory dress from the early to mid-twentieth century came to light as the result of researching a large donation from one family given to the Fashion Museum, Bath.

The donation was given to the museum following the death of Lady Ward in 1964 by her daughter-in-law. It contains items of dress including a Busvine riding habit from ca.1905, court trains, and British and French couture from the early-mid twentieth century, some worn at coronations. This paper will investigate why the donation did not include the many other items of dress and textiles remaining in the family’s private archive. How might Mrs Ward have selected from her family’s possessions those that would be offered to the museum? How selective might the curator of the museum have been in the process? Did the intimate nature of some of the garments have a bearing on selection? The riding-habit given to the museum includes accessories such as silk linings for breeches and a linen bodice undergarment. Were these items of intimate apparel considered different, appropriate for inclusion? Was the age of the garments a factor in the selection process?

Intimate apparel remains a problematic area when it comes to donations to public institutions. When considering what might be appropriate for public display, it is understandable that many families might have qualms especially if the original wearers of the garments remain in living memory. Looking to the future of the remaining private collection, this paper will close by considering how likely the current family will be to give the remaining items to the Fashion Museum or any other institution.

Miriam Phelan, RCA / V&A and Frankie Kubicki, Charles Dickens Museum

Mr & Mrs Charles Dickens: Intimate Objects and Private Textiles

This paper will give an overview of new research project which has been carried out at the Charles Dickens Museum entitled Mr & Mrs Charles Dickens: Intimate Objects and Private Textiles. The project has focussed on the Museum’s textile and dress collection including items such as stockings, handkerchiefs, furnishing fabric samples and examples of Catherine Dickens’s needlework. Funded by the Textile Society this project has uncovered the value of dress and textile items in uncovering the story of the Dickenses private lives and has invited a new interpretation of the collections of a literary house museum like the Dickens Museum. A key aim of the project was to reconsider the context of dress and textiles on display, and in storage and how these objects could be used to illustrate aspects of the Dickenses private and intimate lives. Tracing provenance of the objects was key to establishing a link with the Dickens family, while also uncovering how and why these particular objects came to be in the Dickens Museum collection.  This paper will also discuss how these dress and textile items have been collected, catalogued and displayed alongside other items, such as manuscripts, more commonly associated with a literary house museum. By focussing on dress and textiles in context of the Dickens Museum this paper will address issues faced by museums in highlighting issues around the distribution of labour in the middle class Victorian home and on changing attitudes towards gender.

M Faye Prior, York Castle Museum

The Hidden History of a Mystery Garment: A possible early twentieth century menstrual belt

York Castle Museum has a Designated collection of over 30,000 items of costume and textiles dating from the late fifteenth to the twenty-first century, with an especial strength in the area of nineteenth and twentieth-century everyday wear. This collections snapshot will explore a garment which has been in the collection for over 30 years, but misleadingly catalogued.  

Initially catalogued as drawers it is unlike any pair of drawers that we had ever seen. It was discovered in 2018 while curators were searching the collection for a different garment, and it immediately seized attention. Clearly intended for wear on the lower body, it exhibited features familiar and curiously novel, from the covered linen buttons to the dungaree-like straps. The documentation was not useful; although we have clear and certain provenance, the object had been documented simply under the term ‘Horrocks Longcloth’, and dated to 1890-1910. All other items from the same donation have full and clear descriptions, making this object an anomaly.

This short paper will explore the various possible interpretations of this mystery object, trace its provenance, and describe how we came to believe that it is a home made menstrual belt (sanitary girdle) dating to around 1910-1930. The paper will highlight the difficulties resulting from the idiosyncratic initial documentation of the object; it will propose a maker (a home sewer whose work features strongly in the same donation), as well as potential influences for the garment in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century documentation. If this is the case, the brief nature of the description in the late 1970s museum ledger suggests an unwillingness to discuss the bodily realities of menstruation, or to reference them in the museum ledgers and catalogue. Despite this, the garment was considered important enough to keep as part of a far larger donation comprising of several generations of the same family’s clothing.

Rosalyn Sklar and Nic Fulcher, both The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Textiles, Care and Access at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Items of historic dress in museum collections are notoriously difficult to store and display. Limitations on space and resources can mean that historic dress has to be stored folded and flat. Many of the finer textiles used to make clothes and clothing accessories are highly attractive to clothes moth and extremely vulnerable to light damage. Because of this, they can be difficult and expensive to display.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) cares for an important collection of early modern textiles as part of its accredited museum collection. SBT’s collections are also designated of national and international importance by Arts Council England. This paper will introduce our textiles collection through a discussion of dress during the reign of Elizabeth I and the ways in which the Trust has explored creative access to textiles through exhibition, replication and preventative and remedial conservation.

Through an examination of recent exhibitions, displays and events we will look at the processes involved in facilitating meaningful access to textile collections. This will include textile packing and conservation as well as environmental threats to textile collections. We will also look at the different ways in which textiles can be presented to visitors, beyond traditional museum displays. Through a thorough process of photography, specialist approaches to packing, bespoke mount-making, working with specialists and volunteers we have been able to overcome some of the difficulties in caring for and providing access to our textile collection

Jane Smith, National Trust

Cardinal Wolsey’s Purse … Perhaps!

This sumptuous purse is on display at Seaton Delaval, a National Trust property in Northumberland. It is reputed to have belonged to Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530) and there is a metal clasp which has Wolsey’s name engraved onto it; but did he ever own it?

It is a richly embellished and beautiful object made from leather embroidered on the outside with metal wire. The purse opens to reveal silk embroidery and inner pockets in silk and leather. There are three leather loops on the back indicating it was worn on a belt.

The purse came into the Studio to enable research into its provenance and for conservation treatment. This paper will briefly look at the conservation needed. This was minimal as the purse was in good condition and largely intact but involved cleaning, securing of threads and humidification of the green silk inner purse.

The paper will also discuss the thoughts around whether this did belong to Cardinal Wolsey. A definitive link was unfortunately not established; however the purse appears true to the 16th century. The design of the embroidery, metal clasps and shape of the purse appear to be typical of that date and the design of the purse is very similar to one recovered from the Mary Rose which sank in 1545. 

In 1857 it was exhibited at The Manchester Art Treasures exhibition as a label stuck to the back, though now partly lost, reveals.

The purse remains a fascinating enigma with further questions for future research.


Pillow from crib of the Infant Jesus, 15th century, South Netherlandish, Gift of Ruth Blumka, in memory of Leopold Blumka, 1974, image courtesy of


Leave a comment

Filed under 2018 Events, 2018 Workshops

CfP: Private Textiles and Dress

Workshop and Call for Papers

Private Textiles and Dress: Domestic and Intimate Textiles and Dress in Museums and Historic Houses

Thursday 13 June 2019


European silk socks, 1800-1850, Gift of Martin Kamer, 1985, Image courtesy of

CHORD invites submissions for a workshop that explores private, domestic, intimate and / or secret textiles and dress in museum, historic house, archive and other collections.

Papers focusing on any historical period or geographical area are welcome. We define ‘private’ broadly, and also welcome papers that challenge simple categorisation, including domestic objects or collections that might be intended for public view, or ‘intimate’ items that might also have a political meaning. Both textiles and clothing are of interest, as are all aspects of their acquisition, care, display, interpretation or conservation.

Museum professionals, conservators, archivists, students, academic scholars or anybody with an interest in the topic are warmly invited to submit a proposal. We welcome both experienced and new speakers, including speakers without an institutional affiliation.


Boxed Valentine’s Day Card, British, 1840–99, Gift of Mrs. Richard Riddell, 1981, Image courtesy of

Individual papers are usually 20 minutes in length, followed by 10 minutes for questions and discussion. We also welcome shorter, 10 minute ‘work in progress’ or ‘collection spotlight’ (which aims to draw attention more briefly than in a full paper to a particular item or collection) presentations, also followed by 10 minutes for questions and discussion.

Some of the themes that are of interest include (but are not limited to):

  • Textiles and furnishings for the home
  • Underwear and sleepwear
  • Collecting, conserving and displaying private and domestic items
  • Textiles, dress, intimacy and emotions
  • Unused, stored or hidden garments and textiles
  • Recreating domestic interiors
  • From private to public: house sales, auctions, re-use
  • Secret, ritual or religious textiles

Crib of the Infant Jesus, 15th century, South Netherlandish, Gift of Ruth Blumka, in memory of Leopold Blumka, 1974, image courtesy of

Small bursaries will be available for speakers to subsidise the cost of travel (within the UK) and the workshop fee.

To submit a proposal, please send title and abstract of c.300 to 400 words, specifying whether you are proposing a 10 or a 20 minute presentation to Laura Ugolini, at by 15 March 2019.

If you are unsure whether to submit a proposal or would like to discuss your ideas before submission, you are encouraged to e-mail Laura Ugolini at

The workshop will be held at Wolverhampton University City Campus, a short walk from Wolverhampton’s bus and train stations. Maps and directions are available HERE

For further information, please e-mail Laura Ugolini at:


Pillow from crib of the Infant Jesus, 15th century, South Netherlandish, Gift of Ruth Blumka, in memory of Leopold Blumka, 1974, image courtesy of

Leave a comment

Filed under 2018 Events, 2018 Workshops

2018 Conference blogs – The Life and Times of 54-56 Fossgate, York

Phil Lyon, Umeå University, Sweden and Dave Kinney,

The Life and Times of 54-56 Fossgate, York


Numbers 54, 55 and 56 Fossgate were for many years the trading premises of the York Army and Navy Stores. The buildings housing the store were much older (c. 1796) with 55 and 56 Grade II listed and 54 listed Grade II* (Historic England, n.d.). The business had started out further down the Fossgate in 1919 and closed in July 2012 with the retirement of the youngest of the original shopkeeper’s grandsons – David Storey (DS). In the final few days of trading we were able to photograph the shop and storage areas, and to talk with the current owner to reflect on the loss of a local landmark.1


In the aftermath of the First World War there had been a flourishing trade selling the tons of army surplus – one of the less-heralded peace dividends.2 The shop had originally serviced the needs of working people – boots, coats, headwear and overalls – in the factories, kitchens and building sites of the town, and the fields of surrounding areas. Items designed and made for military purposes were practical and often of superior quality. New or used, and usually cheap, this was workwear at its best. The business did well, expanded into 54-56 Fossgate. Over the years, it continued to thrive with the army surplus that was abundant once more after the Second World War. As the years went by, the family established branches in Redcar and Scarborough. However, these coastal shops eventually closed as market conditions changed.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the austerity that kept demand alive for affordable workwear slowly gave way to a relative affluence where leisure requirements were also important. Supplies of hiking and camping equipment were a logical development. However, a more innovative venture was the use of surplus RAF oxygen tanks for the leisure diving market. The offshoot store in Scarborough sold flippers, masks, wetsuits and tanks to meet a demand that few other retailers addressed: ‘Me and my brother did a lot of scuba diving and spear fishing … and we were in on that in the very early days … because that was just coming in. The early scuba tanks were out of World War Two bombers, you know the big air cylinders that used to … oxygen … and the thing then was there was nobody who sold it … we ended up mixing stuff, selling flippers and masks, snorkels and their cylinders and such and everything that goes with it … and that went on for quite a few years … 5 or 6 years’. (DS interview) With the growth of leisure activities there had been a successful exploitation of new opportunities but, in later decades, it had been harder to compete.

By 2012, retail prospects had changed rather more than the premises at 54-56 Fossgate. Two of the shop fronts dated to the 1950s and the third was older. In fact, the relatively unchanged nature of the premises was both an asset and a liability. Shop window display, counter service, and the associated storage of most goods in drawers and on shelves was a lingering reminder of what had been commonplace when the business started, and not uncommon even in the 1970s. The popular ITV television series Heartbeat (IMDB, 2018), set in the 1960s, used the shop for filming in 2002 because it offered a period setting for one episode (The Press, 2002). Similarly, some customers enjoyed the authentically old-fashioned retail experience. ‘We could have modernized, but we kept the museum effect because the tourists like it and customers like it. A lot of people have told us not to change it, he said’ (The Press, 2012).


Although nostalgia can be effective both as a marketing strategy and a distinguishing feature for some retailers, it is not a panacea. Circumstances were changing for the practical everyday retailing that had made the shop successful. ‘The trading in the town has dropped dramatically over the years. I mean I’ve seen it. We’ve got quite a lot of tourists in, but they don’t really spend anything. These out-of-town places, they’re giving me a real bashing’ (DS Interview).




Behind the Scenes

Supporting the counter-based retail areas had been the largely-unchanged upstairs rooms. Where there had once been three separate premises, there was now a continuous link between the upper stories of 54, 55 and 56 Fossgate. Storage, there and in the cellars, was important because retail display space was limited and some items were seasonal so needed to be brought out or put away as circumstances demanded.





The emphasis in these ‘backstage’ areas was utility and shelving was often made from whatever was available – a trend that went back to the original owner who at one time had described himself as a joiner. ‘I mean he never served any time; his joinery work is still … in evidence … and I don’t think he’d have made a living as a joiner’ (DS interview).






After so many years of trading, several display items had been put by for potential advertising use at some future date – even if that was never realized.







Short term and long term perspectives

The York Army & Navy Stores had been a successful supplier of workwear over the years but that market changed with the decline of manufacturing jobs, health and safety legislation, and direct competition from manufacturers for end-user sales. Reduced footfall along the Fossgate and the attractions of out-of-town and online shopping were additional problems. With the imminent retirement of the youngest grandson as catalyst, the business was closing in 2012. In spite of the difficult trading conditions, there were hopes of finding a clothing retailer to take over the premises but these efforts were to fail. Almost inevitably, in the eyes of local residents, a new bar and restaurant (Sutler’s) was to open there (The Press, 2014, 2015a). It is easy to understand and sympathize with adverse local reactions (The Press, 2015b). Something familiar, even if little used, was to be lost. The question of what 54-56 Fossgate was to become took longer to answer and, reflecting changed times, it was to become Sutler’s bar/restaurant. Some questioned the need for more bars and restaurants on a street where such ventures were already well represented.

However, even with a 93 year old business, such adverse reactions represent the perspective from a single point in history. Over time, the premises at 54-56 Fossgate had actually been the home to many different enterprises – including being part of a substantial local property portfolio and indications that rooms above one of the shops were let out.

Table 1 – Timeline for 54, 55 and 56 Fossgate

Tables 2 and 3 – Newspaper advertisements placed by occupants of 54 Fossgate and Newspaper reports of Fossgate property sales

In the public announcement of closure, there were voices of concern about the number of bars, cafés and restaurants already in the area but adapting to consumer markets that emerge has been part of a continuous cycle for these premises for more than 200 years. Undoubtedly there would have been some adverse reactions to any of those changes of use in earlier decades. However, there is a twist in this change of use from shop to bar/restaurant.

In this closure, it is not simply the replacement of one enterprise with another. Quite starkly, we see different representations of the past – from the simply old-fashioned, a survival of the past into the present, to the re-imagined past – ‘involving as it does a contemporary orientation towards the past rather than just the survival of old things’ (Wright, 1985, 229). The new bar/restaurant, Sutler’s, contrived to look old and well-established in the 54-56 Fossgate premises – much older than the shop fronts it replaced. The new bar/restaurant façade could be Victorian but the interior was anachronously described as being themed on the 1920s and 1930s. The original counter and some decorative drawer fronts added a sense of indeterminate age and an imagined location. Oddly, considering the austerity of Second World War food rationing, it was reported that ‘Sutlers’ menu evokes wartime. It is designed like a ration book and has a section called Officers Mess featuring dishes such as sirloin steak, rump of lamb and Yorkshire beef, with prices from £13 to £23 for main courses’ (The Press, 2015a).

Commercial ventures had come and gone in 54, 55 and 56 Fossgate but the Army and Navy premises had been there so long it became a well-known reference point in this part of York. As David Storey said, ‘Even if we sell the shop, people will [still] say “On the Army and Navy Store’s corner” ’ (DS interview).  Perhaps that will be true while memories last but, in this transition from the genuinely old fashioned to the fashionably aged, ‘sometimes the authentic trace of history is precisely what just has to go’ (Wright, 1985, 231).


1 In addition to the recorded interviews, photography and traditional library searches, the British Newspaper Archive ( ) was used to search for references to Fossgate.

2 Although stock is generically described as army surplus it is better described as military surplus. In later years most of the stock was manufactured for the retail trade.


Historic England (n.d.). (accessed 2 September 2018).

IMDB (2018). Heartbeat. URL (accessed 28 July 2018).

Kelly’s York Directory (1901). Available at (accessed 23 April 2018).

Pigot’s Directory York (1829). Available at (accessed 23 April 2018).

Stevens’ Directory of York and Neighbourhood (1885). London: George Stevens.

The Press (2002). Heartbeat star draws crowds. 9 July. Available at: (accessed 2 September 2018).

The Press (2012). Army & Navy Stores up for sale after 93 years. 5 May. Available at: (accessed 2 September 2018).

The Press (2014). Famous York shop to become brasserie, bar and coffee house. 14 April. Available at: (accessed 2 September 2018).

The Press (2015a). York’s former Army and Navy Stores transformed into new bar and restaurant. 28 March. Available at: (accessed 2 September 2018).

The Press (2015b). LETTERS: York city centre doesn’t need any more bars or restaurants. 5 December.  Available at: (accessed 2 September 2018).

White’s Directory of York and Neighbourhood (7th edition) (1895) Sheffield: William White Ltd.

Wright, P. (1985). On Living in an Old Country. London: Verso.

Phil Lyon is Affiliate Professor in the Department of Food and Nutrition at Umeå University in Sweden. His long-standing research interest is in food and social change and publications include the advent of food broadcasting and the early days of food journalism; the transition from small food shops to supermarkets; the historical impact of the canned food industry; current and historical discourses on cooking skills, and picnics in the 1930s.

David Kinney has been working as a professional photographer and educator for more than 20 years. In education he has taught on highly successful photography degree programmes in the UK and in Russia. Professionally, he has worked with major companies as well as small and medium size businesses with commissions ranging from jewellery and food to the commercial, industrial and architectural. Focusing on conservation of the built environment, many projects explore our architectural heritage from ancient Rome to post war modernist iconic structures. At present he works between Andalucia in Spain and the UK.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2018 Events, 2018 Workshops, Conference blogs

2018 Conference blogs – Glass Blocks and the Fashion Retail Space of the 1930s and 40s

Myriam Couturier, (Ryerson and York Universities, Toronto, Canada)

Glass Blocks and the Fashion Retail Space of the 1930s and 40s

This project examines American fashion retail architecture in the 1930s and 1940s using as a starting point a specific architectural element: the glass block. Through an analysis of articles published in the influential American trade publication Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) between 1936 and 1949, I explored how glass blocks were part of a wave of building modernization – which included precise light and colour elements, as well as modern amenities such as air conditioning and escalators – that transformed the fashion retail experience during the Depression, World War II, and the immediate post-war years.

Popularized in the 1930s, glass blocks were seen as a functional and versatile way to light commercial buildings both during the day and at night. As detailed by architectural historian Gabrielle Esperdy in her book Modernizing Main Street, in 1934 the US Federal Housing Administration passed the National Housing Act, which included a “Modernize Main Street” initiative. This project insured private lenders for building improvement projects (both residential and non-residential) that would help stimulate the economy during the Depression. In the next ten years $5 billion dollars were spent, and lent, in order to revitalize existing retail spaces. Esperdy examines how shop facades in small town Main Streets across the country were renovated through this program, using glass, stainless steel and other ‘streamlined’ architectural materials, with the idea of appealing primarily to female shoppers (1). In line with Esperdy’s analysis, the WWD articles I surveyed consistently mentioned the use of glass bricks as a new, modern material for storefronts, but also as a key decorative selling point inside the stores.

Beginning in the 1910s, corporations became increasingly interested in the effects of light and colour on human perception, psychology and consumption. Ahead of the New York World’s Fair, in 1938, a WWD commentator predicted that the “subtle use of light and color may advantageously be extended throughout practically all departments of a store, as an aid in the creation of a desire for things, not because we actually need them, but because we want them for what they are.” (2) In that spirit, in the 1930s and 40s, glass blocks were often combined with stainless steel or chrome finishes, fluorescent lighting, and carefully selected colours in pink, natural, and pastel tones, to create an optimal shopping environment for women. Glass blocks were used to engineer a new kind of lighting that presented products in a flattering way, with minimal distortion of colour and design. A piece goods buyer for the Indianapolis department store Wasson’s claimed, in 1938, that glass brick lighting had increased sales of silks and rayons at the store, stating: “the department has benefited greatly from the new lighting arrangement […] Wide strips of semi-transparent glass brick, running from top to bottom of the floor, and continuous from the roof to the first floor of the building, admit much more daylight than was formerly available, send the light farther into the interior, and aid in the matching of fabrics, and the consequent increase of sales.” (3) (Fig. 1)


Fig. 1 – Former Wasson’s department store, Indianapolis, IN (March 2018). Author’s own photograph

It was often argued that glass bricks provided a better, softer version of daylight, one that actually enhanced the beauty of various products, from swimwear to furs. WWD constantly praised the way daylight now bathed, even flooded, these renovated shopping spaces. It is crucial to note however that this light – described variously as “a maximum daylight effect”, “direct daylight” and “natural outdoor light” – was never entirely natural, as these spaces were often precisely light conditioned. Glass bricks were commonly used in dressing rooms as well, providing flattering lighting for both garments and the body itself.

Glass blocks were useful for admitting daylight but they also served an important window display function after hours. In 1938, commenting on new colour trends in storefronts, WWD pointed out that already “[f]requent use has been made of glass blocks in decorative panels, which become effective display media when illuminated at night.” (4) Another article described how glass brick panels, combined with fluorescent lighting strips, could even reproduce the “directional effect of sunlight” at nighttime. (5) The combination of cathode and fluorescent lighting with glass brick panels was often used as a way to add dynamic, visual interest to store displays in a streamlined, cost-effective way.

One glass brick wall could act as different backdrops depending on which coloured lights were projected above or behind it. WWD often discussed glass blocks with a sense of stylish motion, describing attractive ‘ribbons of light’ dancing and floodlights ‘playing’ behind them. The journal also recalled a high-end women’s shop in Harrisburg, PA, being “illuminated by flood lights, so that behind the glass brick walls countless thousands of diamonds seemed to twinkle.” (6) In both high-end and more affordable shops, softly lit glass blocks were installed to pleasantly reconfigure the shopping space. They were used to create warm, inviting nooks and corners within stores; they also elegantly concealed things like radio-phonographs, sales booths, fitting rooms, alteration rooms and executive offices from shoppers.

Figure 2 - Glass blocks

Fig. 2 – A.N. Finn, Chief of the glass section of the US Bureau of Standards, inspects panels of glass blocks before testing, June 20, 1938. Photograph by Harris & Ewing. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (7)

Glass bricks provided light and a sense of openness but importantly, they also defined and closed off space. In 1937 one executive observed that glass blocks allowed shops to be well-lit, even when they were located on streets with undesirable views. Following the growing popularity of swimwear and sportswear during this period, shop décor often evoked physical activity, the outdoors, and natural landscapes – with painted murals, plants, and specific colour schemes, it helped replicate the outside world, but located it firmly within the sealed off, air conditioned comfort of the retail space. Glass blocks, used with the proper lighting, could also help recreate a variety of weather conditions. After a visit to the 1936 Chrysler Motor Car exhibition building in Austin, TX, WWD suggested that “blocks of ‘moire’ pattern, immediately have the cooling influence suggested by their icy simulation.” Paired with large deep blue mirror sheets, they gave an impression of “marine coolness.” Such techniques, the article argued, could be especially useful to fur retailers: “This adherence to the cool dark blue and the natural white glass is definitely recommended to the notice of fur manufacturers for their showrooms since they make their most important efforts in showing merchandise during the warmest months of the year.” (8)

As much as retailers tried to frame these new design touches as thoroughly modern and original, even unique to each store, they became a standardized template used all across the country, from big cities to small Midwestern towns. By 1949, one WWD author declared: “I’ve seen so much glass brick, chromium, free form tables and carpeting sections, so many intricate floral arrangements that I’ve begun to believe there isn’t a store left in Texas or Oklahoma which hasn’t been bitten by the expansion and modernization bug.” (9) Just as contemporary fashion advertised the ideas of simplifying and streamlining – in the 1930s and 40s magazines like Vogue promoted ‘restrained design,’ rational consumption, and uncomplicated (yet stylish) clothes produced at lower price points using the latest technological developments in cut and fabric (10) – WWD actively extended this discourse into the architecture of the shopping space itself. Glass blocks were a cost-effective, mass-produced tool for retailers to sell products and organize their spaces; yet, just like the fashions they displayed, they were presented as being fully modern, versatile, and functionally elegant.


  1. Gabrielle Esperdy, Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture in the New Deal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 3, 7, 162-63.
  2. Donald L. Pratt, “New York World’s Fair Under Microscopes Of Trend Detectors,” Women’s Wear Daily, 8 September 1938, SII12, SII13, SII24.
  3. “Well-Trained Salesforce Is Keystone Of Wasson’s Success In Selling Fabrics By The Yard,” Women’s Wear Daily, 21 February 1938, 8.
  4. “Use Of Color In Store Fronts Noteworthy Trend: Swing Toward Color,” Women’s Wear Daily, 28 December 1938, SII68.
  5. Julietta B. Kahn, “Retail Executive: Demonstrate Effect of Lights on Merchandise: Lighting to Give Seasonal Effects,” Women’s Wear Daily, 8 August 1945, 27.
  6. “The Customers’ Room,” Women’s Wear Daily, 14 March 1938, 6.
  7. Harris & Ewing, photographer. Bureau of Standards making extensive tests of glass building blocks. Washington, D.C., June 20. Hollow glass building blocks are being used more and more extensively for structural purposes when both greater light distribution and air conditioning are required. Extensive tests to determine the strength of glass block walls and their resistance to wind pressure and moisture penetration. A.N. Finn, Chief of the glass section, is inspecting some 8 x 4 feet panels before they are tested, 6/20/38. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.
  8. “Texas Marches On: Color On Parade,” Women’s Wear Daily, 10 June 1936, 2, 28.
  9. “Cutting Corners,” Women’s Wear Daily, 25 October 1949, 1.
  10. See Rebecca Arnold, The American Look: Fashion, Sportswear and the Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s New York (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2009).

Myriam Couturier is a PhD student in the joint Communication and Culture program at Ryerson and York Universities (Toronto, Canada). Her work focuses on the relationship between fashion, gender, material, and visual culture. Her doctoral dissertation examines historical collections of twentieth-century clothing and printed fashion ephemera in Toronto, focusing on the spaces where fashion has been produced, consumed and performed in the city.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2018 Events, 2018 Workshops, Conference blogs

2018 Conference blogs – BCLM: Forging Ahead: recreating a post-war Black Country high street at the Black Country Living Museum

Simon Briercliffe, Black Country Living Museum

BCLM: Forging Ahead: recreating a post-war Black Country high street at the Black Country Living Museum

Black Country Living Museum’s current Forging Ahead project is an ambitious plan to build a new 1940s-1960s town centre and industrial area at our site in Dudley, based on real lives and real stories. The research to date has thrown up numerous stories which show how architecture and material culture were formed by, and in turn informed, the everyday lives of residents in the Black Country. This post highlights the story of a record and music shop in Dudley town centre to discuss the evolution of class, gender and taste in post-war Britain.

James Stanton founded a piano-tuning business in 1870, moving swiftly into piano and harmonium sales to capitalise on burgeoning middle-class aspirations in an otherwise working-class region. Stanton opened a shop on Dudley’s Castle Street in 1895 and was well established by the time Stanton’s daughter-in-law Florence Stanton took over as director in 1932. Under the management of Jimmy Nash, they expanded into gramophones, radios and records, though they still specialised in pianos – a 1937 payment book in our collection shows the careful instalments with which a furnaceman, Harry Hobbs, saved for a piano for his son Dennis. Stanton’s was thus well-placed to serve the new prosperity of the Black Country post-World War Two, and diversified further. A team of engineers travelled the area providing after-care, and visually-impaired piano tuners were employed by the shop to tune pianos they had sold. Records for Dudley’s rock’n’roll-conscious youth and hymnbooks for its churchgoers lined the shelves, alongside pianos, other musical instruments, tape recorders, radiograms, televisions – and record players.

Stantons [Dudley pst427]

Stanton’s music shop, Castle Street, Dudley, in the early 1950s.  (c) Dudley Archives and Local History Service, Castle Street, Dudley, October 1957 pst/427.

The Black Country was one of the highest-paid manufacturing districts in the country. Its factories were turning out millions of components and consumer items, which the area’s working class were now in a position to buy. The boom industry was car components – the famous Beans foundry nearby in Tipton could produce 500 tons of castings a week – but everything from buses to washing machines were built there too. One of the firms that took advantage of this was Birmingham Sound Reproducers (BSR). Despite the name – a Black Country resident never admits to being from Birmingham – the firm was founded in a workshop on Perry Park Road, Old Hill, just four miles from Dudley, formerly used to manufacture bellows for the nailmaking industry. Its founder, Dr Daniel McDonald was an electronics expert and this came to fruition in the early 1950s when he offered his new automatic turntable changer to J. & A. Margolin Ltd. and suggested a name for their record player: the “Dansette.”


1958 Dansette Major Deluxe, donated to the Black Country Living Museum in March 2018. The record player features a BSR UA8 auto-changing turntable, loaded with records purchased from Stanton’s in 1958.

Morris Margolin emigrated from Russia to London and was working as a cabinet maker when he built a record player attached to a wireless set – the first radiogram. The Dansette was in a different league though: it was affordable, portable, and immensely popular with the newly-affluent working-class teenager, and its BSR autochanger was key to its success. As Tom Perchard has noted recently they were a symbol of personal taste, from musical to aesthetic, and served to differentiate teenagers’ musical worlds from the more genteel tastes of their parents’ generation.[1] BSR soon expanded into a huge factory at Old Hill and another at Wollaston, near Stourbridge. They were a well-known employer of women on the assembly line, emphasising those blurred ties between work, home and leisure noted by Stephen Brooke.[2] Even today, it’s rare to find someone born in these towns whose mum, nan or auntie didn’t work at “the BSR” at some point. Their employability was directly related to regional and national economies, the industry of the Black Country tied up intimately with national and global cultural changes.

Although the building became tired and was replaced by a new flagship store in 1961, Stanton’s had proved highly adaptable during its tenure in Dudley. From pianos and organs, they had met a changing market and become the place to go to hear the latest 45s, and to buy the Dansette to play them on. But where pianos had been evidence of the aspiration of the working class to take on middle-class Victorian values, these record players represented the changing social status and purchasing power of the British working class. Stanton’s, BSR and the Dansette were thus emblematic of the post-Second World War Black Country, demonstrating both the changes and continuities of local cultures of work, taste and gender in the era. The record player will take pride of place in a recreated Stanton’s to explain this kind of history.

Black Country Living Museum is still searching for memories of Stanton’s in the 1950s. Please contact the Collections team on, or 0121 557 9643.

[1] Tom Perchard, ‘Technology, Listening and Historical Method: Placing Audio in the Post-War British Home’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 142, no. 2 (3 July 2017): 367–399.

[2] Stephen Brooke, ‘Gender and Working Class Identity in Britain during the 1950s’, Journal of Social History 34, no. 4 (2001): 773–95.

Simon Briercliffe is a historical researcher at Black Country Living Museum, working on the HLF-funded Forging Ahead project which aims to tell the history of the Black Country in the post-war period. He is also a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, researching space and Irish immigration in Victorian Wolverhampton.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2018 Events, 2018 Workshops, Conference blogs

2018 Conference blogs – The Invention of a Boer Home Industries

Laura Breen (University of Huddersfield), Helen Dampier (Leeds Beckett University) and Rebecca Gill (University of Huddersfield)

The Invention of a Boer Home Industries

Our interest in the philanthropist and pacifist Emily Hobhouse (1860-1926) initially came through her extensive and fascinating collection of letters, newly deposited at the Bodleian Library (now online).  For the first year of our project, our noses were buried in the archive, rummaging through Hobhouse’s scrapbooks, her reports and her correspondence.  One of the first stories we uncovered was Hobhouse’s attempts to set up a Boer Home Industries school in South Africa after the South African War (1899-1902).  This was Hobhouse’s scheme to replenish artefacts such as blankets and rugs lost in the farm burnings, to create employment for Boer women, and “to draw together the broken threads as only one known by both sides can do, and place them in official hands to weave the web of peace” [Hobhouse to Smuts, 29 October 1917].  Spinning and weaving had no indigenous history in South Africa.  Hobhouse thus attempted to invent a heritage for the Boer people, using imported antique Swiss spinning wheels from her supporters in Geneva and Basle to do so.  Her project was quickly taken up by Boer leaders who were attempting to overcome the divisions in Boer society and were embracing cultural nationalism as part of becoming the ‘Afrikaners’.  Later the original Spinning and Weaving Schools were expanded to include lace production (the lace school was founded on the de Wet farm at Koppies, where items still exist in the retirement home there).  This was run by Lucia Starace, recruited in Italy by Hobhouse to establish the lace school (and whose family’s textile business, De Viti De Marco, is now the subject of a project by Elena Laurenzi at the University of Salento).


‘Boer tweed’, HH/MCG/130. Courtesy of the  Alfred Gillett Trust

In tracking down the story of these textiles in the UK, our first calling point was Street in Somerset, where the archive of the Clark family is stored in old Clark shoe boxes and where there is preserved a natural-dye jacket belonging to Margaret Clark Gillett, Hobhouse’s assistant at the Boer Home Industries School in Philippolis.  Textile curator Judeth Saunders (also in attendance at CHORD this time) opened out the jacket to show the higgledy piggledy hand-stitched seams and the ridges on the jacket’s sleeve head which meant that Margaret Clark Gillett would always have worn this jacket slightly misaligned and ill-fitting.  This prompted the immediate question of why she would have worn such a jacket and wished to keep it.  Out of this has evolved an interest in the value of the homespun aesthetic and the politics of crafting – and it is this interest which brought us to the CHORD workshop in June this year.


Margaret Clark Gillett Boer Home Industries jacket, HH/MCG/128. Courtesy of the Alfred Gillett Trust


Margaret Clark Gillett Boer Home Industries jacket, detail, HH/MCG/128. Courtesy of the Alfred Gillett Trust

At the workshop we learnt from Hannah Rumball at the University of Brighton, who is working on Quaker bonnets of Elizabeth Pettipher Cash, that the Quakers had an ethics of plain dress and a tradition of refusing to wear dyed clothing, helping to make sense of the unadorned, humble textiles made by the Boer Home Industries and worn by Margaret Clark Gillett and her fellow Quakers in solidarity with Hobhouse’s ethics of production and her vision of Boer self-sufficiency and independence following the war.  The theme of the workshop – ‘Ordinary and Everyday Textiles and Dress’ –  was also illustrated by Helen Wyld in her paper on Samplers from Scotland in which she read these textiles as texts of women’s lives and the hidden history of people whose stories have not traditionally been written down.  Time and again at the workshop our attention was drawn to the ways in which textiles can be read as artefacts of social, and particularly women’s history, in ways that resonate with our own concerns to uncover the meaning of the design and production of Hobhouse’s textiles and their links to her informal politicking and her place in the cultural history of South African nationalisms.  No better symbol of this was Jan Smuts (Colonial Secretary for the independent Transvaal) overcoming the itchiness of Hobhouse’s homespun tweed to parade in public in a Home Industries suit.

We have just returned from a visit to South Africa where we were fortunate to meet textile curators AnneMarie Carelson and Sudre Havenga, and weaver and teacher Carla Wasserthal, who told us about the collections of Hobhouse textiles in the National Museum in Bloemfontein – textiles which the letters in the Clark archive in Street show had been collected by Trudi Kestell for her textile gallery at the National Museum in the 1950s.  This prompted further questions about the curatorial history of Hobhouse’s textiles, how they were exhibited and by whom, and the uses to which they were put as part of the Afrikaner nationalist project.  AnneMarie, Sudre and Carla are looking for contextual information of the type of wool used, where it was sourced, the kind of dye and the specificities of production – clues which we hope to provide from reading the letters between Margaret Clark Gillett and Hobhouse – and would welcome advice on.

These interests have come together in the next iteration of the project which will be a conference in the Spring/ Summer of 2019, on Humanitarian Arts and Crafts, held in Huddersfield in conjunction with the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (University of Manchester) and aimed at exploring how humanitarians and humanitarian organisations have favoured, and encouraged, the production of artisanal products and ‘folk’ artwork over the past 100 years and more.  We can think of no better illustration than the ethnic pieces on sale in most Oxfam shops today.


Oxfam Shop, Ilkley, West Yorkshire, May 2018

We welcome expressions of interest to join us to explore these artefacts from anyone working in the fields of textile history, heritage or the history of humanitarianism, or currently involved in craft projects for humanitarian organisations.  We are also keen to hear about any collections of Boer Home Industries textiles still in existence in museums or private collections.

Please contact

See also:

Bodleian online catalogue of Emily Hobhouse collection

Alfred Gillett Trust

National Museum of South Africa, Bloemfontein

Elena Laurenzi project

Laura Breen is the Impact Support Officer for the School of Music, Humanities and Media at the University of Huddersfield. She works with researchers across the School to develop partnerships, projects and activities that will help to shape life beyond academia. Prior to this, Laura worked in the museums sector for many years, managing collections of social and military history and decorative and fine arts. Her doctoral thesis, which explored the link between contemporary ceramic practice, museum practice and public policy, will be published by Bloomsbury later this year. She is currently undertaking further research into craft, identity and community building.

Helen Dampier is based at Leeds Beckett University, UK. Her background is in South African history and her previous research projects have focused on women’s accounts of the 1899-1902 South African War, and on the letters of Olive Schreiner. As part of the Emily Hobhouse Letters Project team she is particularly interested in Hobhouse’s role as collector, editor and publisher of women’s wartime testimonies, and in the commemoration of Hobhouse in South Africa.

Rebecca Gill works on the history of humanitarianism. She is particularly interested in relief work in twentieth-century war, and in women’s activism. As part of the Emily Hobhouse project team, she is researching Hobhouse’s work in Germany following the First World War. She is based at the University of Huddersfield, UK.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2018 Events, 2018 Workshops, Conference blogs

2018 Conference blogs – Early 20th Century Co-op Store Architecture: Design by Committee?

Lynn Pearson, Independent scholar

Early 20th Century Co-op Store Architecture: Design by Committee?

Modern Co-op food stores are a familiar part of our townscape, with their blue (formerly green) logo, but their predecessors – especially those built in the early twentieth century – have an intriguing design history. The local co-operative societies which owned those stores had full responsibility for deciding on their design, so how can we find out what was actually happening during this design process over a century ago? And indeed, should a co-operatively owned shop look just like any other shop (figure 1)?

Pearson blog Fig 1

Fig 1 A typical co-op branch store around 1910. It was built for the Yiewsley and West Drayton Co-operative Society in west London, and looks rather smart with its large plate glass windows and glazed brickwork. Note the window display, crammed with Christmas crackers and own-brand Co-operative Wholesale Society goods. Postcard in author’s own collection.


First, a little bit of background: the retail or consumer co-operative movement really got going after 1844, when the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers opened their original shop. It wasn’t the first co-operative store, and theirs certainly wasn’t the first co-operative society, but Rochdale were first to set up a membership system which functioned well and was copied by thousands of societies elsewhere. It ensured that all profits went to the membership, in the form of a dividend – the famous ‘divi’ – paid twice or more a year as a percentage of purchases made at the store. This template was so successful that by the end of the 1880s there were around 2,000 co-op stores in England, the number rising to about 4,500 in 1914.

Some societies remained small, with just the one shop, others grew to have over a hundred branches as well as large central premises, sited close to where the majority of the society’s members lived. One significant difference between these shops and those of commercial traders was the frequent inclusion of a community space in the design, usually a hall above the store. Education formed part of the remit of co-operative societies, and the halls could be used for all sorts of educational purposes as well as entertainment venues. Externally the hall was often recognisable by its double-height windows. The early stores had no universal brand identity, but often exhibited a degree of co-operative symbolism, usually reliefs of a wheatsheaf, beehive or clasped hands, all indications of strength through unity and working together (figure 2).

Pearson blog Fig 2

Fig 2 A high relief terracotta beehive – in fact a coiled straw skep – seen high on the facade of Droylsden Industrial Co-operative Society’s 1911 central premises in east Manchester. Author’s photograph.


The shops were owned by the generally working class members who, through their society’s democratically elected committee structure, had responsibility for financing, commissioning, design and construction. Societies usually had a range of committees for specific purposes, and the Building Committee is the one which interests us most in terms of shop design. In my research on the architecture of the co-op movement, I haven’t yet come across any female Building Committee members prior to the First World War. We know that by 1910, when 1,561 societies were operating, there were 49 women on main management committees, although over 300 women then served on education committees.1 Many skilled tradesmen were co-op members, and it is highly likely that several from the building trades found themselves on Building Committees, where at that time, before large stores became much more complex in regard to service systems, they could keep a well-trained eye on the details of construction work.

As to design, the committee could choose to use the services of their own building departments or find a professional architect. Occasionally societies ran architectural competitions, but more often they simply chose a local architect; several societies maintained a long-term relationship with a particular architectural practice. Another option was to use the Architects’ Department established by the federal body, the Co-operative Wholesale Society, in 1897.

The difficulty for any researcher concerned with the minutiae of the shop design process is finding reliable evidence. Opening day reports in the local or co-operative press, while verbose, tend to be uniformly positive and reveal little. The same may be said for the published histories of societies. This leaves the minutes (where surviving) of co-operative societies as the main source; they vary from simple lists of actions to be taken to an occasional – and very welcome – blow-by-blow account of proceedings.

I think we can be reasonably confident that members of Building Committees generally took their duties seriously; a few examples of the evidence follow. Back in 1888, a Scunthorpe committee member is recorded as discussing excavation of foundations for the new central stores with the building contractor.2 When considering shop modifications in 1904, Droylsden’s Building Committee ‘went thoroughly into the question of altering and enlarging No 2 Branch Grocery Department’ and gave highly detailed recommendations as to changes in plan and flooring.3 In 1910, during construction of a branch of the Annfield Plain society in nearby Chopwell ‘The committee endeavoured to keep themselves well informed on the progress made in the erection of the premises, and insisted on the architect visiting the place every other day and render a monthly report of the progress of the work’.4 In fact these committees were acting as what we would now call project managers.

But when it comes to the actual design of premises, evidence is even harder to come by, and at present I can only offer a single example: the design of Birmingham Co-operative Society’s new city centre store, which was overseen by their New Central Premises Committee from 1912.5 The minutes record that in February 1912 they considered holding an architectural competition, contacted the Leeds and Bradford societies who had run similar contests, and also asked a London architect for advice. He said ‘Competitive work frequently looks well on paper but is generally not equal to non-competitive work, which may not look quite so well.’ So they abandoned the idea of a competition, and instead asked the Birmingham Society of Architects (the local professional body) to nominate some of their members who might be interested in the commission.

Ten were recommended, which the committee reduced to five before adding two of their own suggestions including local co-operator and arts-and-crafts architect Francis Andrews, who had already designed a branch for another Birmingham society. The committee then looked at plans of recent central premises elsewhere, and made visits to some of these as well as inspecting buildings designed by some of the recommended architects. In addition, they paid a visit to the office of Francis Andrews. The exhaustive process continued until Andrews was appointed in July 1912. Somehow this does not come as a surprise, but perhaps the committee wished to be seen as thorough.

In January 1913 Andrews submitted plans for the new store, which the committee considered and altered, the first of many alterations they made. By October they were considering building materials; Andrews suggested they should inspect local buildings featuring elevations in three materials. These were stone (the Boots store), terracotta (the Society of Artists gallery) and carrara (the Picture House cinema); carrara was a relatively new marble-like ceramic facing. The discussion of elevations is the nearest the committee came to talking about the style of the new building. The three structures they inspected were very different: solid, respectable, establishment stone; the local arts-and-crafts favourite terracotta and the more excitingly modern carrara.

When Andrews submitted designs for the elevation in January 1914, it transpired that the committee had chosen a blend of respectability and modernity, the Portland stone and granite elevation having a dynamic appearance akin to the Picture House facade. The plans were approved by the local authority in April 1914 and after many delays the store opened in September 1916.6 The committee had spent well over two years finding an architect, then discussing and modifying the plans. We must, I think, view the final design as a joint effort, and in this case – where the architect was a co-op member – a co-operative collaboration.

More evidence for the evolution of co-op store design must lie in the as yet unseen minutes of other societies. However, it is clear that unusually for a working class group, the co-op members were able to exert some influence over the appearance of the built environment in which they lived.


1 Co-operative News, 16 July 1910, p. 919.

2 Arthur Ginns, Jubilee History of the Scunthorpe Mutual Co-operative and Industrial Society Limited (Manchester, 1924), p. 33.

3 Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre, DD264/68, Droylsden Industrial Co-operative Society.

4 Thomas Ross and Andrew Stoddart, Jubilee History of the Annfield Plain Industrial Co-operative Society Ltd, 1870 to 1920 (Manchester, 1921), p. 71.

5 National Co-operative Archive, MID/1/1/2/1/24/1-2, Birmingham Co-operative Society, New Central Premises Committee Minutes.

6 It was demolished during post-Second Word War redevelopment of Birmingham’s city centre.

Dr Lynn Pearson, an independent architectural historian, is currently completing a book on the architecture of the English co-operative movement (for publication by Historic England in 2020). Her book on breweries, published by English Heritage, won the Association for Industrial Archaeology’s 2015 award for outstanding scholarship. Amongst her other books are works on modern public art, and Tyneside’s sporting architecture.


Leave a comment

Filed under 2018 Events, 2018 Workshops, Conference blogs