Over the years I’ve gathered a small collection of knitting ephemera. This includes a few different styles of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sticks, wisps and sheaths (used throughout Britain for supported knitting) and different kinds of representations–largely photographs or prints–of knitting all over Britain. Such representations do not afford some sort of transparent window onto the past culture of our craft, but are interesting precisely because the knitting is usually there to say something else: something about femininity and cultural memory, about discourses of work or leisure, about regional or local identities.

A while ago, I came across this in a charity shop.

This tiny brass bell looked very familiar to me because my parents have a similar one at home, which, just like the one I found, probably came from Wales. Inside the bell was inscribed the name “Jenny Jones”, and, when I noticed the figure was working away with yarn and needles, I instantly snapped her up.

But who was Jenny Jones? With a little research I discovered that Jenny, “the maid of Llangollen” was subject of a popular early nineteenth-century air, which celebrated the virtuous milkmaid to whom hoary mariner, Ned Morgan, longed to return to after years at sea on a British man ‘o war (the song was composed during the Napoleonic wars). The song was made popular by comic actor, Charles Matthews, who one imagines making much of Ned’s regional difference, as the lyric broadly speaks to then-familiar English stereotypes of the Welsh, including the fondness for cheese:

I parted a lad from the vale of my fathers,
And left Jenny Jones then a cockit young lass :
But now I’m return’d a storm-beaten old mariner,
JENNY—from JONES, into MORGAN shall pass,
And we’ll live on our cheese and our ale in contentment,
And long through our dear native vallies will rove ;
For indeed in our hearts we both love that Llangollen,
And sweet Jenny Morgan, with truth will I love.

This “Welsh air” retained its ubiquity for several decades, and, as was the way with the subjects of popular song, commemorative prints and figures of Jenny Jones soon began to be produced, in most of which she was depicted with her milk pail and knitting.

By the mid nineteenth-century, English visitors to Llangollen had begun to associate it more with Jenny Jones than with those those other famous ladies of the vale, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. “You must know something of the Vale of Llangollen,” Thomas Jevons wrote to his son Stanley, “so famed for its beautiful maid, Jenny Jones.” The number of commemorative items and souvenirs upon which sweet and virtuous Jenny was depicted rapidly increased.

You could use Jenny to knock on the door

. . . scoop tea from a caddy.

. . store your pins

or sharpen a pen nib.

And, as the ultimate souvenir of your Welsh visit, you could nip down to the photographic studio, pop on the striped petticoats and stovepipe hat the photographer had conveniently stored in his dressing up box, stick some yarn and needles in your hands and, as the very image of Jenny Jones, sit there and pretend to knit away.

All over Wales, hand-knitted stockings had long been a familiar means of supplementing rural incomes. Travelling from Bala to Llanrwst in 1798, John Evans saw women and children knitting everywhere he went:

“On market day, no one is idle, no hands in pockets are seen, but both the buyer and the seller are employed in knitting, and hundreds may be seen earning their subsistence as they walk along. Going out or returning home, riding or walking, they are all occupied in this portable employment.”

Visitors were as fascinated by the attire of these knitters as by the activity of their needles. In English travel literature of this period, the dress of the women of rural Wales is continually remarked upon as being archaic, masculine, or both: “They universally wear a petticoat and jacket fitting close to the waist of striped woollen and a man’s hat” wrote Catherine Hutton from her visit to Aberystwyth in 1787. Such “men’s hats” were of the practical low-crowned felt type which, in previous decades, might have been sported all over Britain by rural people of both sexes.

In several of the watercolours in the famous 1830s album of Cambrian Costumes commissioned by Augusta Hall (Lady Llanover) Welsh women are depicted with felt hats and partially-knitted stockings.

These twin accoutrements of “man’s hat” and knitting played an essential role in the myth-making activities of the Llanover circle, out of which the now universally familiar idea of “Welsh costume” began to emerge.

It was in such a “costume” that the sentimental, the beautiful, the steadfast maid of Llangollen, Jenny Jones, was continually depicted.

With her stovepipe hat of ever-extending dimensions, and her perpetually half-knitted stocking, Jenny Jones should be read in the context of those conservative nationalisms which, from the 1830s onward, sought to preserve, perpetuate, and propagate a particular ideal of Wales. Knitting stockings was a crucial activity through which many Welsh women and some men supplemented their family incomes, well into the closing decades of the nineteenth century. But in the figure of Jenny Jones, knitting is absorbed into a discourse of sentiment and nostalgia rather than that of productive labour.

As Jenny Jones, the Welsh knitter becomes a mere picturesque curiosity rather than a potentially troublesome symbol of women’s work and the ordinary realities of nineteenth-century rural life.

————–
Resources

The brass Jenny Jones’ are from my personal collection. The pin dish and penknife are items currently available for sale on Etsy. The nineteenth-century prints and images of Jenny Jones and Welsh “national costume” are all reproduced from the publicly available digitised collections of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales. Many of the prints are available to view together here. You can browse the pages of Augusta Hall’s Cambrian costumes dedicated to the nobility and gentry of Wales (1830) at the People’s collection of Wales here. A detailed account of Augusta Hall’s myth making activities can be found in Celyn Gurden-Williams Phd thesis Lady Llanover and the Creation of a Welsh Cultural Utopia (U of Cardiff, 2008). For information about Welsh dress and “costume” generally, see the work of Christine Stevens (e.g., ‘Welsh Costume: The Survival of Tradition or National Icon?’, Folk Life (2004) pp. 56-70). Michael Freeman’s website is also a fantastic resource.

38 thoughts on “Jenny Jones

  1. What a interesting read my Nan was from Wales and taught me to knit many years ago. She was taught to knit by the nuns in Abergavenny. So would of loved to of see what they knitted and worn. My Grate Nan is buried in the church yard their,
    A great read thank you. Mandy Sills (DUGGEN)

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  2. Kate: I always love that you are both a great knit designer and also still very much the academician. I truly enjoy all the knowledge that you share with your readers. It’s always very interesting and very informative. Thanks much! Can’t wait to buy your new book! one for me, and one for my friend who also suffered a brain injury and is doing well. She is fascinated with books about the brain!

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  3. Fascinating to hear about the origin of the ‘Welsh costume’. Growing up in a small village on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, I wore my own costume for the annual St. David’s Day celebrations. The history of Welsh creativity is still supported by the Urdd (youth) organisation – the yearly encouragement to enter the Eisteddfod from the age of 5 started my creative journey in hand crafts (being the possessor of a truly atrocious singing voice, the craft classes were the only part of the competition I could enter!). I’ve seen the same brass ornaments in most of my friends’ houses but never knew their significance. Thanks for showing me another aspect of my welsh heritage which I didn’t know about

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  4. Fascinating to hear the history of the ‘Welsh costume’. Growing up in a small village on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, I wore the stove pipe hat as part of my own welsh costume every year during the St. David’s Day celebrations. It was during this time that I discovered my creativity by competing in the Urdd Eisteddfods – nowadays I’d have my knitting needles as part of my costume too!

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  5. Hi Kate, my enquiry is not to do with your above article, which I must say was really fascinating.
    I am writing to ask if you will be making your Scatness tam available for sale on line separately to the book?

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  6. Kate, thank you so much for this insightful piece – impeccably written, as always. Your central point is so important. Please continue your historical work and be sure to share the results with us as often as you can!

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  7. I live in Scotland but visit Wales every year. You mentioned Llanrwst – it’s a small place with a beautiful bridge over the river and a very neat little wool shop which you could easily miss when passing through. The staff are so helpful and stopping there is like taking a step back in time.

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  8. This is very wonderful Kate! I’ve not been to anywhere in the UK (in fact just to Europe only once (last month)) and I’m ~35% of UK genetic origin according to 23andme. I have such a strong desire to go! Before she passed two years ago, my mother reviewed her roots with me and was emphatic that her father was 100% Welsh, which makes me 25% Welsh. So little information out there about there is focused on Wales as compared to England and Scotland, so this post particularly fascinates me. Scotland, Wales and (close behind them) Ireland are high on my bucket list of places to travel to next. Many thanks for sharing this wee bit of recent historic cultural information about Wales and on topics about which I’m passionate (knitting, food and fashion)!

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  9. How fascinating, especially the piece of music. I am wracking my brains to think of the song I know that I have taught to umpteen children which uses the same melody!

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  10. As I was reading the lyrics to the song, I came up with my own little melody, which the cadence of the lines simply lent themselves to. And now I have it in my head! Though thank you for the tiny bit of music there at the end–I can go home and pick it out on the piano and discover how close my musical mind and the original writer’s are.

    And I echo the thanks for your constantly curious and research-oriented mind, to go from a small bell to an entire treatise on Jenny Jones!

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  11. I grew up with a copper-colored Jenny Jones plate on the wall above our piano near Chicago, in the 1950s. Our Jenny is seated at a spinning wheel. I guess someone needed to provide the yarn for the other Jennys!

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  12. I always love your pieces of research, your curiosity becomes such a gift to me. Incidentally, it would seem Lady Llanover was busy on many fronts because she also wrote a book called Good Cookery, published in 1867 which, while fiction, gave her the opportunity to expand her views on diet and also include many recipes (one of which for salt duck seems to have become quite celebrated). I was brought up in Monmouth on the Welsh side of Offa’s Dyke and the local museum used to exhibit a plain knitted cap which was apparently known as The Monmouth Cap.

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  13. As a keen Welsh knitter, I found this fascinating (and embarrassing that I didn’t know of Jenny Jones!). I’m currently musing on the fact that very little current Welsh crafting activities are knitting-related; rather woven Welsh wools are making a come-back. I can’t help but feel we’ve lost something important along the way, although Cambrian Wool are doing a great job in marketing ‘real’ Welsh wool!

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  14. Being of Welsh heritage, I especially enjoyed this article about Jenny Jones, though I was not familiar with the tale. I guess my love of cheese and sock knitting comes naturally, just like my Welsh grandmother ! Thanks for such a fun article !

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  15. I loved this post. In my family, it was my father who knitted – our school jumpers, and scarves and vests and bed-jackets for my mother, and socks (though mostly bed-socks). He was brought up a Quaker and on Sundays after Meeting, when they were not allowed to play games, they knitted (for the heathen). He was a marvellous person, and I have inherited his knitting skills. I have knitted several cardigans from your YOKES book, and learned a tremendous number of new skills from your YouTube tutorials. So thank you all round.

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  16. I love learning this history and the quote from John Evans in 1798, especially. I lived in Hereford in the mid-1980s (seven miles from the Welsh border) and have never forgotten the women who worked the stalls in the weekly market, standing and knitting while talking with customers or leaning over their stall walls to talk with one another. They never stopped knitting, except to take money or give change, and it seemed they rarely looked down at their work. I was in awe.

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  17. Thank you, I really enjoyed this post. I remember reading about the Green Man for the first time and how exciting it was to discover his representations in many old places I visited once I knew about him. To start feeling sort of “acquainted” with him, meeting him again and again and again in different contexts. We probably don´t have many Jenny Joneses to find here in the Czech Republic but if I ever see one now I will recognize her as well!

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  18. This was ever so interesting, Kate. I enjoyed the bits of historical referencing to include knitting..and the story of the use of the name fascinates me. Pulling the past into now is a wonderful bit of weaving that delights me.
    Kristin

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  19. I am interested in what those fluffy white bits are that extend from under the hats down the sides of the faces. They resemble judges’ wigs. I thought at first they were scarves, but in some pictures they are enveloped in a tartan like scarf. And the faces are too young for the white bits to be their own hair, which, in fact, occasionally peeps out.

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  20. Hello Kate

    This is a lovely post about Jenny Jones. My mother and grandmother both had bells, but I knew nothing of the history of Jenny Jones. I now live in Powys near the English border (born a Shropshire lass with Welsh grandparents).

    I’ve read a book by Idris Evans, Hard Road to London, and seen him give a talk, where he mentions the men of Bala knitting socks which were sent to London for sale via the drovers. He was a very entertaining speaker and said the men knitted with one hand whilst supping ale in the local ale houses with the free hand. I don’t know if this is correct, but it painted a hilarious picture in my head!

    Jane

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  21. Hi Kate,
    That is very interesting – the similar brass bell we have is of a lady with a crinoline. It’s amazing the social history which objects have, which we ignore, so thank you for doing the research!
    What I would like to recommend to you, or anyone else who is interested, is a book which I purchased on a recent visit to America. It’s called – People Knitting A Century of Photographs – by Barbara Levine and is published by Princeton Architectural Press. It consists of photographs of people knitting, women and some men too and although quite small (A5) there some wonderful photographs of knitters over the century from 1860-1960. My favourite is one from Shetland of a very young girl 2-4 maybe sitting with her knitting outside her door and patting her cat!

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  22. You took me right back to my grandmother’s front sitting room, or parlour, where she housed her collection of brass miniatures including a Jenny Jones bell! Thanks for a very sweet memory.

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  23. Your historical writings are so much appreciated by me. I never would have known about Jenny Jones except for you. Thank you so much for all your research about so many subjects, including knitting topics. I would guess that your life as an Academic is still very much ongoing and I’m on the sidelines cheering for more!!

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  24. My mother still owns a tiny bell much alike the one you show. It was used in old times to call the maid in uunusual, for today ‘s standards, big and large houses during meals. If Jenny was a famous maid, I wouldn ‘t be surprised if your bell served the same purpose.

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