Promoting Natural & Cultural History
Collectors and gatherers of rags, merchants, pickers and rag-and-bone men had long played an important part in the recycling of textiles in Whitby. It was never difficult for second-hand clothes to find a new home while large discarded pieces of fabric could be useful for making children’s clothes, patchwork quilts, or whatever else might be needed in the home. Smaller remnants could be unravelled by hand – especially in the case of wool – then carded and spun into yarn for weaving into cloth or knitting into sweaters. It could also be done by machine in the ‘shoddy industries’, but not locally, which recycled large quantities of rags into new fabric. Not least, scraps of fabric of all kinds were also an important ingredient in the manufacture of good-quality paper in pre-industrial times up until the last decades of the 19th century.
The census returns of 1841, and thereafter every ten years until 1911, do give information about rag merchants in the Whitby area. These are variously described as rag maker, rag collector, rag merchant, rag warehouse, rag gatherer. Though the term ‘rag gatherer’ could be ambiguous, either indicating a person who collected rags, or someone working in a textile factory whose job was to disentangle yarn caught in the machinery. However, the second definition is not relevant to Whitby since the town produced no industrial weaving between 1871 and 1901, the period when this description most often appears in the census.
The 1841 census lists one man living in Church Street as a ‘Rag Gatherer’, while ten years later two women are listed as traders in rags. These were 16 year-old Henrietta Boyd, described as a ‘Collector of Rags’, and the 74 year-old widow Margaret Foster, a ‘Rag Maker’. It is unknown whether these two women worked together, as they had different work descriptions and lived in different parts of the town. The description ‘Rag Maker’ is also unclear, since it could imply either that the woman in question unravelled rags to re-use the yarn, or that she made rag rugs for a living. In the 1861 census the number of persons trading with textiles and sewing had increased, and as a result a wider range of fabrics was now commercially in circulation. This would presumably also have led to an increase in the quantity of rags and discarded clothes available, and consequently in the number of people who found work dealing in rags. Moreover, the four persons now recorded as employed in this way may well have co-operated since they lived close together. The 52 year-old widower Stephen Connelly is listed as a ‘Rag merchant’ in Church Street, while in nearby Kiln Yard there was a ‘Rag ware-house’ described as ‘unoccupied’ – this would have been a place where rags could be collected for wider distribution. Collecting of this kind was done by two sisters, Ann and Judea Dixon, who lived in Henrietta Street and both gave their occupation as ‘Rag collector’. Also living in Church Street was the 50 year-old widower Michael Kilmarten who worked as a ‘Rag and bone dealer’. Kilmarten may perhaps have worked with the other three, but his business would also have taken him further a field.
The 1871 census in Whitby again listed four people working in the rag trade, but made no mention of any ‘Rag warehouse’, ‘Rag merchant’ or ‘Rag and bone dealer’. This time four new people were listed, three of them living in the lanes of Church Street. These included a 45 year-old widow and a 70 year-old man who were rag gatherers and a 57 year-old married man who described himself as a rag collector. The fourth person was a man of 60 who lodged at an address in Wade’s Yard of Baxtergate and is listed as a collector. ‘Collector’ and ‘Gatherer’ were probably merely different terms for the same occupation. The 1881 census lists two more people working with rags and old clothes compared with ten years before. Of these six, three are described as ‘Rag Dealer’ and three as ‘Rag Gatherer’ all lived in the densely populated area that included Church Street and its adjoining lanes. There were three ‘Rag dealers’ in Kelly’s Yard: John and Mary Grier, a married couple both 32 years old, who had five children aged between 6 months and 11 years to support, and they worked with John’s father, 70 year-old William Grier. Another married couple also living in the Kelly’s Yard gave their occupation as ‘Rag gatherers’. These were Charles Waring, 58, and his 48 year-old wife Bridget, who shared her choice of occupation with a 60 year-old widow called Catherine Lofthouse who lived in a neighbouring lane. If this increased trading in rags was the result of a period of exceptionally high poverty, or simply because more fabric now happened to be in circulation is uncertain. However, it is clear that trying to earn an income from trading in rags was restricted to the poorest members of society, since the persons named in the census inhabited streets and lanes with an exceptionally dense concentration of population, and since the same names never appear again ten years later. This was not work anyone would undertake if they could avoid it. Many of those who dealt in rags were also elderly, as if they saw the rag trade as an opportunity of continuing to earn money in old age. It must also be borne in mind that the work was not just dirty, but generally accepted as extremely unhealthy, spreading diseases, fleas and lice. An article published in The British Medical Journal on 13 August 1887 graphically illustrates the dangers rag workers were exposed to in many places:
The census returns of 1891 and 1901 show a distinct change, since in each of these years only one person is listed as active in the rag trade. In 1891 this was the 49 year-old rag gatherer Edward Turner who lived in Boghole, and in 1901 the 40 year-old rag and bone merchant Edward Roe in Chapels Yard, Church Street. In 1911 no-one was listed as rag gatherers or dealers, but a few men were engaged in the rag and bone trade. Of these, Alexander Waring, 50, ‘Rag and Bone Dealer’ and John Jackson, 45, ‘Rag and Bone Collector’ most likely worked together, since they both lived in Bolton’s yard off Church street. Perhaps Frederick Cook, 31, who lived nearby in Elbow Yard, Church Street, was also part of their team – although he may have been a competitor. The decline of this trade in the last three censuses researched was caused mainly by the fact that in the last 10-15 years of the 19th century and afterwards rags were no longer much used in the manufacture of newspapers.
An earlier second-hand clothes trader advertising in Whitby Gazette was W. Grimshaw, Outfitter &c., &c. of Church Street, in December 1857 he announced: ‘Every description of new and second-hand Wearing Apparel constantly on sale’. This shop was obviously involved among other things with selling old clothes, and continued to do so until 1870 when Grimshaw stopped advertising. On the other hand his contemporary, Mrs Whitehead, concerned herself entirely with ‘Cast Off Clothing’ as shown below in this advertisement from spring 1860. She often advertised between 1860 and 1867, usually because she ‘Wanted to Purchase to any amount, Ladies’, Gentlemen’s and Children’s Cast off Wardrobes...’ .
There can be no doubt that the second-hand market must have continued in this style, either through dealers who did not advertise or by selling used clothes through others of the town’s many clothes shops. But in fact this kind of advertising stopped completely from 1870 to 1908 with the exception of Mrs Peacock, who in spring 1880 announced: ‘Wanted to purchase Cast-Off Clothing of any description in town or country. Parcels forwarded promptly acknowledged. Cash paid at once, by Mrs. J.E. Peacock, Church Street, near Cholmley School, Whitby’. Whilst Mrs P.W. Appleton first advertised in 1909-1910 from her premises in the same street, as ‘Successor, to the late Mrs. Feeley, give the best prices for Cast-off Clothing, Boots, Shoes, etc.’. A business in Loftus also advertised during 1909-1913, describing itself in August 1910 as ‘Mr. & Mrs. Reynolds, 55, High Street, Loftus (late of Whitby) Buy Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Cast-Off Clothing. Parcels by rail or post receive immediate attention, Note. We visit Whitby first Tuesday in every month.’ Which indicates that both these enterprises had been active in the field before 1909, either as successors to earlier traders, or simply after moving to a new address.
Earlier information about second-hand clothes can be traced in George Young’s publications of 1817, 1824 and 1840. Young’s 1817 book on Whitby for example gives interesting details on the tradesmen and manufacturers of the day, including ‘6 slop-shops’ – that is to say shops that sold inexpensive or good-value second-hand clothes. Additionally the three directories published between 1823 and 1864 include people active in Whitby as dealers in second-hand clothes. Baines’s Directory (1823) lists three women under ‘Clothes Brokers and Dealers’: Ann Lincoln, Elizabeth Weir and Ann Wherritt. While Pigot’s Directory (1834) mentions under ‘Clothes Dealers’: Ann & Jane Coupland, George Lockey and Thomas Wilson. And Slater’s Directory (1864) includes under ‘Clothes Dealers’: Elizabeth Chapman, Sarah Weatherill and William Whitehead. No information about the professional lives of these people is known in any other contemporary documents, nor are they listed in the censuses of either 1861 or 1871, but it can be assumed that such work would often have been done by women since only three of the nine listed above in the directories were men.