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Friday, 14 October 2016

What was in your ancestor's pockets?

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                                        Ancestor's Pockets

Pair of women’s tie-in pockets, c . 1800. The design is an example of cotton quilting in jacquard Marseilles work. Our ancestor’s real pockets may have survived, either as stand-alone pockets (such as these) or as pouches sewn into garments. The material and capaciousness of a pocket might tell us something about the wealth of its owner, and his or her occupation. Embroidered pockets could be a sign of the wearer’s sense of their own attractiveness, or even their sexual self-awareness (in the same way as lingerie today!). Pockets that were worn by the wealthy may have been marked with names or initials or personalised with different embroidery designs.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. These pockets are currently held in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

When the corpse of my 77- year-old great-great-great-grandfather Lawrence Cooke was dragged out of the Leeds-Liverpool canal and taken to a local pub for identification and inspection, it was discovered that his pockets contained just two simple objects  - ‘a knife and an apple.’ These scant and mundane details appear in the record of the inquest into Lawrence’s death in the Wigan Observer and District Advertiser (1881). I know little of the life of this cotton spinner and journeyman, but I now have just a tiny, but fascinating, insight into what he contemplated might be his next meal. But was the knife simply the means to slice the apple, or a weapon of self-defence?

The contents of the pockets of many of our ancestors who met their ends in accidents or as a result of murder or suicide can be gleaned online by searching the records of inquests reported in British newspapers between 1710 and 1959 (The British Newspapers index:, also accessible via And what a motley collection of oddments those pockets held! Loose change, keys, watches and combs were typically accompanied in men’s pockets by snuffboxes, pipes and seals for fastening letters. Women’s pocketed items tended to be of a greater variety - from rings and other jewellery, to caps, handkerchiefs, thimbles, pincushions, needle-cases, scent bottles, mirrors, scissors and even nutmeg graters! In a Britain where there were few on-the-road eating places, few people dared leave home without snacks (oranges, apples, nuts and sweets) which were also invariably carried in the pockets.

Men and women in the Victorian and Edwardian periods often shared bedrooms and household furniture, and in such circumstances, pockets were perhaps the only private space in which they could place their most intimate and treasured possessions. For women – who, unlike their menfolk, may not have had locked chests-of-drawers or writing desks in which to hide away their private belongings - pockets were particularly important aspects of personal space. Barbara Burman, a pocket expert, has commented that, ‘pockets are a tiny, slight thing in terms of world importance but they are a very sensitive barometer about how we feel about the world and our possessions.’ And indeed, it may be possible to glimpse something of an ancestor’s life and character from the content of his or her pockets on the final day or his/her life. Look out particularly for evidence of his or her class status (work tools, jewellery), financial circumstances (money, pawn tickets) or even emotional life (locks of hair, lockets, painted miniatures, and letters from loved ones).

Reports of pickpocketing – with exact details of what was taken -  occur frequently in nineteenth-century newspapers. Thieves might remove wallets from men’s pockets or cut the strings of women’s tie-on pockets. Particularly valuable in Victorian London were silk handkerchiefs, stolen from people at fairs, marketplaces and public executions. In Field Lane in London (the setting of Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist) it is believed that up to 5,000 stolen handkerchiefs were handled each week in the mid-Victorian period.  
Credit: Photograph of an engraving in the Writings of Charles Dickens Volume 4 Oliver Twist, (Houghton, Mifflin and Co, 1894). Drawing entitled, ‘Oliver amazed at the Dodger’s Mode of Going to Work,’ by George Cruikshank. From Wikimedia commons
Confirming Identity

Before systematic dental records or DNA analysis, listing the contents of a deceased person’s pockets was a key method by which he or she might be identified. Posters or fliers hastily pasted up or distributed in the local area in the aftermath of an accident together with newspaper reports advertised such information in the hope that someone would come forward who could put a name to a body. Passersby and newspaper readers - perhaps inspired by the new Victorian literary genre of detective fiction -  might well have fancied themselves amateur  forensic scientists as they pored over the details of someone else’s pockets. By way of example, here are three cases in which the contents of pockets played an illuminating part.

On December 12th 1867, the Western Daily Press recorded that a man’s body had been recovered from a train line and (graphically) that ‘not a particle of the face remained…; the different members of the body were so cut up as almost to preclude the possibility of telling what they were.’ After an examination of the contents of the pockets of this sorry fellow, identification was enabled by the finding of a handkerchief with the embroidered name ‘ Charles Bridges’ in its corner. It turned out that the dead man was a local Birmingham solicitor who had committed suicide.

Beyond identity, the contents of pockets could point obliquely to a deceased person’s final movements and even to the reason for his or her death. The Derbyshire Times of Saturday February 3rd 1877, for example, described the case of a woman who had stepped (either accidentally or purposefully) onto a railway line at Dronfield, Derbyshire and been killed by a train. At the Midland Hotel where her remains were examined, the ‘loose pocket which had been tied around her’ was found to contain: a purse containing ‘6 shillings, 1 and a half pence, a small penknife, a key, and six pawn tickets. The whole of the tickets bore the name of Ann Moran. One of them had been issued by Mr Wilcockson, Chesterfield; two by Miss Ellen Laughton, Sheffield; one by Messrs Wright Brothers, one by Messrs. Tyrer brothers and another by Messrs. Samuel Hull and John Vickers, of the same place.’ Quite apart from establishing Ann Moran’s name, the pawn tickets – their sheer number and the fact that they had been issued by so many different pawn shops -  give an indication of the likely state of Ann Moran’s finances and emotional state at the time she died. Was this a suicide brought about by acute poverty?

Even more reminiscent of a fictional crime story were the contents of the pockets of seventeen-year-old weaver Mary Alice Goldsborough who was  found drowned in a canal at Bingley, Yorkshire, (in 1895) having been dismissed three days earlier from her job as a weaver in a local factory for poor work. According to the Leeds Times of 15th December that year, her pockets contained ‘a black purse without any money, a pair of scissors, a burling iron (a tool she would have needed her employment), a red cotton pocket handkerchief, and a ‘Duchess’ novelette. The girl was described any those who had known her as a sulky child who spoke little. The last conversation she had with a colleague, as reported in the paper, included the exclamation that she was going to “‘Jack it!’” From these details it is possible to guess at what probably happened to Mary, a girl fed up of the humdrum factory life (evidenced by the burling iron - a necessary tool for her employment in the factory), who spent her time imagining a much more luxurious and romantic life (evidenced by the novel and the red handkerchief), who lost her job and had no money (evidenced by the empty purse) and who thus decided to take her own life.

Men’s Pockets

Pockets seem to have emerged properly sometime in the seventeenth century when they replaced girdles worn outside the clothing and hung with tools and accessories. A man’s pocket was not separate from his garments but sewn onto them and, depending on his class status, a male ancestor may have had many pockets - in his breeches or trousers, waistcoat, and frockcoat or overcoat, for example. Early male pockets were positioned in the outside of clothing which made them highly susceptible to thieves. Later pockets, however, were sewn into male garments and accessed through a slit in the seams.

Women’s Pockets

Women’s pockets were originally not sewn into their garments but rather tied around their waists on long strings, often in pairs. Alternatively, some had loops or buttons so that they could be attached to other garments. From the eighteenth century onwards, there was a greater need for women to have pockets – there were simply more affordable small objects around and women increasingly had more reasons to be outside the house visiting others, shopping and accessing entertainment. Slits in the side of dresses (and petticoats) allowed women to reach these so-called ‘tie-on’ pockets.  

From about the 1840s, dress patterns for the first time show women’s pockets being sewn inside their clothes, invisible but accessible, although large and robust tie-on pockets (rather than the earlier delicate and embroidered versions) continued to be popular. In the early twentieth-century, women’s pockets finally took second place to the more robust handbag.

Useful websites and books

Barbara Burman, ‘Pocketing the Difference: Gender and Pockets in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, in (eds) Barbara Burman and Carole Turbin Material Strategies: Dress and Gender in Historical Perspective, Oxford, Blackwell 2003 A History of Pockets – The Victoria and Albert Museum  Information from the Victoria and Albert Museum on pockets and their history including a gallery of paintings in which you are encouraged to ‘spot the pocket’. Juvenile crimes of the nineteenth century including pickpocketing

This article first appeared in Family Tree Magazine in early 2016.

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