Author Archives: Marleen Vincenten

About Marleen Vincenten

Curatorial Assistant at Beamish Museum

A Useful Expression of Love

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For the Festival of the North East, which will take place in June, museums all around the North East got together to select a hundred objects that together portray the history of the region. Beamish will contribute with six objects. These objects were already on display on site, but will get some extra attention during the festival.

While researching these objects, there was one that particularly appealed to me: the knitting sheath. This once ordinary object has now largely been forgotten about, but is a great example of an object telling both a very sweet and personal story and representing the history of an entire region.

In the early nineteenth century, it was customary for old and young people in the northern counties, both men and women, to supplement their wages by knitting. Children learnt to knit in school, in some places it was as important a skill as reading and writing. In the evenings, people often got together in someone’s house to knit, the so-called ‘knitting dos’.

The knitting sheath was a useful tool because it allowed people to keep on knitting while doing other jobs. The sheath was tucked into the knitter’s waistband or belt, or even stitched on an apron. Each sheath had a short tubular opening on the end to hold the needle, and a way of attaching it to the clothing. Sheaths were worn at the right-hand side and were used by knitters who worked in what was called the ‘German manner’. In this way, the right hand was kept rigid and that is where the knitting sheath came in. Its use was to steady the right hand and knitting needle. They were mainly used in the North of England.

Knitting sheaths were not made to sell, but were designed as gifts. Most of them were presents from young men to their sweethearts. Sheaths were thus often carved with emblems such as hearts and arrows, together with the initials of the giver and those of the girl. On most sheaths, the carving is very carefully done, with some inlayed with ivory, mother-of-pearl or different coloured woods.

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Since they were all made by hand by amateurs, each knitting sheath is unique and there are a variety of types, mainly depending on the area they were from. Sheaths were made from different materials, people used whatever was available. Materials include wood, bone, leather with wood splinters, balls of horsehair, bundle of feathers tied together and goose-quills fastened upon a piece of flannel.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the knitting method with the sheath gradually fell out of use, since education authorities considered it to be harmful to the posture, producing a weak chest and rounded shoulders. Instead, children were taught to knit without the sheath, in the modern manner used today.

Music, Miners and a Ghost

On Saturday 11 May, Beamish will see the festive opening of its newest building: the Hetton Band Hall. This small brick building represents the substantial role that music has played in the history of the North East, and provides the opportunity to show that this heritage has not ceased yet!

Hetton Band Hall at its original site

The Hetton Band Hall at its original site

Hetton Band Hall at Beamish

The Hetton Band Hall at Beamish

The Hetton Band Hall was originally built in 1912 and was then the only purposely built band hall in the region. The Hetton Silver Band used the building for rehearsals for nearly a hundred years. When they merged with the Broughtons Brass Band in 2009 they no longer needed the building, but they couldn’t bear seeing it demolished. Together with the wider Hetton-le-Hole community, the band members worked hard to have the band hall moved to Beamish to give it a lasting legacy.

This community spirit is not the only reason why the band hall fits in so well with what Beamish aims to do. Brass bands, and more specifically colliery bands like Hetton Silver band, have always been most successful in the North East of England and they had a major influence on life in this region.

Hetton Silver Band

Hetton Silver Band

The brass band movement came up in the second half of the nineteenth century. Forward thinking colliery owners provided education for the miners, including music lessons. Music was thought to have a humanising effect and would keep men from spending too much time in the pub. Many colliery bands were formed as part of a Miners’ Institute. Even though it took time for the established music scene to see the quality of brass bands, band members were very proud of what they did for their community and they worked hard to improve the quality of their performance.

Hetton Silver Band, founded in 1887, is one of the many colliery bands founded in this region. Together with their band hall, we collected objects and memories to do with the band. Vital to this were the interviews we held with members, some of which have been part of the band for decades. These stories provide us with a wealth of information and make the objects all the more interesting.

The 'haunted' metronome

The ‘haunted’ metronome

A good example is the story band members told us about the metronome they donated. Most nights after practice, band members stayed to have a drink together. The metronome, which had been broken for years, stood next to a clock on the mantelpiece. One night, while the group were drinking and talking, the clock stopped. The moment its loud ‘tick-tock’ died, the metronome started working. Scared to death, the group left and were only brave enough to return two days later to turn off the lights. One of the members thinks it must have been the ghost of his wife’s grandfather, who disapproved of them having a pint in the band hall.

 

The Golliwog Dilemma

Robertson's Golly

Since we started emptying our off-site storage, we’ve come across a wide range of objects: everything from doors to toy trains, and from postcards to shop interiors. Another remarkable object we found is this plaster Golly from the 1970s. For almost one hundred years, from 1910 to 2002, this figure was the face of Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade. Starring not only on the jars, but in all adverts and souvenirs, Golly became a celebrity and an integral part of British culture.

The golliwog on which Robertson’s based their Golly was created in a children’s book written by Florence Kate Upton in 1895: The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog. The golliwog, a ragdoll that looked like a blackface minstrel, became extremely popular and a common sight in England and other European countries.

Two golliwog dolls from our collection

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the popularity of the golliwog started to get questioned. As our society changed and became more diverse, racial issues became increasingly important and minority groups started to get a stronger voice. The blackface minstrels were no longer seen as entertaining, but as racist caricatures and crude stereotypes. The same was true for the golliwog: he may have had a more gentle character, but he was still an expression of the negative way Black people were formerly seen.

Although the golliwog obviously offended many people, not everyone agreed with the view that he was racist. The golliwog had become such a part of our culture that many people felt personally connected to him, having grown up with the Robertson’s Golly. Many saw him as a positive figure that wouldn’t hurt or offend anyone, at least not deliberately. Most of all, some felt that he was never created with any racist intentions in mind and should not be perceived in that way.

When thinking about displaying objects like this golliwog, museums are faced with difficult questions. In some of the time periods we cover at Beamish the golliwog would have been a very common sight. So if we want to be historically accurate we should display him. But how important is historical detail if it may offend large groups of people? On the other hand, leaving it out might suggest that racism didn’t exist in the past, so maybe telling the story within the right context would be better? The story of Golly can tell us a lot about how our society has grown and changed.

Golly’s days as the face of Robertson’s marmalade might be gone, but he remains an instantly recognisable and controversial 20th century figure. There aren’t many children’s book characters who can inspire warm nostalgia and offence in equal measure! It leaves museums like Beamish with an interesting but sensitive problem. What do you think about the golliwog dilemma?