George Richards’ Smock

Sometimes, personal and broader histories intersect in striking ways, and where the point of intersection finds the form of an object it can become a strangely weighty site of memory. This is one such moment, and one such object, rooted in the now legendary village of Tyneham in Dorset. Tyneham is a place that has literally gone down in history – an unassuming coastal settlement taken over by the War Office in 1943, as the preparations for the invasion of Normandy ramped up. Tyneham’s inhabitants were exiled from their homes, with the promise that they could return once the national emergency was over. But that promise was broken, and the village became something of a cause célèbre in the postwar decades as some among the dwindling numbers of its former inhabitants protested over their ongoing exclusion, and others took up their cause. In the process, the place itself became a melancholy ‘lost village’: a hauntingly deserted tribute to wartime exigencies and a ready site for modern emotional investments in the histories of rural dispossession.

The starting point for this story is one of Tyneham’s temporary inhabitants – a girl named Annie Manktelow, who was sent by her parents, aged about 10, to live with her grandmother in the village. Annie was from Lewisham, then relatively recently absorbed into the suburbs of a London growing outwards along its railway lines. Annie Manktelow was my partner’s grandmother.

Annie Manktelow in her late teens. The photograph may well have been taken when
she sought employment in domestic service after the first world war.

Annie spent her early teenage years in Tyneham helping her widowed grandmother Sarah Manktelow look after Sarah’s ageing brother, Annie’s great uncle George. A few years after George’s death in 1914 she joined the Women’s Land Army, before entering domestic service and eventually marrying a sailor – a decade or more her senior – then settling in Cambridge to bring up her four daughters.

‘The Only Poor Ones in the Village’

George Richards was one of the village’s local characters. He was born in 1827, so he was already full of years when Annie came to help her grandmother with his upkeep. Sarah Manktelow was by now around 70 herself, which might explain the need for additional help as much as the old man’s no doubt increasing infirmity. George was an agricultural labourer who lived in one of Tyneham’s lesser dwellings, one half of ‘Double Cottages’. In her memoir of life in Tyneham Lilian Bond – daughter of the landowning family who had owned the village for centuries – described the cottages as ‘both small and inconvenient, the only poor ones in the village and only suitable for housing one or at most two persons’. Nevertheless, between Annie’s arrival and George’s death three people were crammed into this tiny dwelling.

The remains of the only two fireplaces in the Tyneham house inhabited by George Richards, Sarah Manktelow, and Annie Manktelow.

Annie attended Tyneham’s small school, alongside her friend and later chronicler of village life, Helen ‘Beattie’ Taylor. She left her descendants a photograph of the class of 1912, a picture which can also be seen in the restored schoolhouse visited by thousands every year.

The pupils of Tyneham School in 1912. Annie Manktelow is in the back row, fourth from left. Helen Taylor is in the same row, on the far left.

In her own reminiscences, Helen Taylor recalls the ‘dilapidated cottage’ in which George Richards lived; she also remembers how her father, seeing George up in the fields at work on a Sunday, would send her to remind him that it was his appointed day of rest. ‘However, all the other days of the week George, who had risen at the crack of dawn, was to be seen out in the fields hoeing the turnips and swedes.’

‘I s’pose by rights I should have packed it all in years ago’, George would say, ‘but the truth is I’ve got into such a way of it that I don’t think I could even if I wanted to. And if I did I should only have half a crown parish pay to live on, and what’s the good of that with a small loaf being tuppence and butter a shilling a pound. And they say a pair of weekday boots has now gone up to four and eleven pence.’

Andrew Norman and Mary Hurst, Tyneham: the Lost Village of Dorset (2003), 56.

Clearly, for some of its inhabitants, life in Tyneham was not exactly a bucolic rural idyll.

‘The Last Person in Tyneham to Wear a Smock’

One of George Richards’ idiosyncrasies was his fondness for his smock. Presumably more an embedded habit than an affectation, this features prominently in Helen Taylor’s recollections as recorded by Andrew Norman and Mary Hurst. ‘He was the last person in Tyneham to wear a smock’, she says:

Smocks were made of home-grown flax, a tough material which would stand any amount of wear and tear and keep the wearer dry in all weathers. The top part around the chest was gathered up and then embroidered with a pattern. You could tell a person’s trade by his smock. A shepherd’s smock might depict crooks and hurdles, whereas a carter might have whips and wheels. George’s smock, if I remember rightly, had flowers and leaves – why I do not know, unless of course it came to him secondhand. If you were well off you had one smock for work and another for Sunday best.

Norman and Hurst, Tyneham, 56.

Strangely enough, the story of George’s fondness for his smock was one of the few details of her Tyneham days that Annie Manktelow passed down to her children, entirely independently from Helen Taylor’s recollections. It was even said that his smock had outlived him and been brought away from Tyneham by either Annie or her grandmother, who lived till 1931. After Annie died in 1995, some of her belongings passed to her eldest daughter, my partner’s mother. Among them, it was said, was the smock, and we both recall something like it being fished out of a drawer at a family get together a couple of decades back. But it went back into that drawer and wasn’t there the next time anyone thought to look for it. The smock had slipped out of our world to become a low key, prosaic myth.

George Richards and Sarah Manktelow, seated outside their home circa 1910.

Return of the Smock?

So it was a bit of a surprise, this last summer, to find a strange garment folded up at the back of a wardrobe in the same house where the smock had last been spotted. It didn’t really look like the thing we remembered; in some ways, it didn’t look like a smock at all. For a start, it didn’t have the smocking where we’d expect to find it, but only on the cuffs. It was shorter than we thought it ought to be. But it was undoubtedly made of the right kind of fabric, showed signs of damage and repair, and was extensively embroidered – not with the flowers and leaves recalled by Helen Taylor, but with elaborate swirls and tracing around the neck, collar and shoulders, and the feathers and motto of the Prince of Wales prominently stitched onto its front.

The smock recovered?

Could this possibly be George’s smock? Without any other evidence it’d be hard to say for sure – the fact that it didn’t fit the description given by Helen Taylor, might suggest it wasn’t – but then what else could it be?

Luckily for us, some other evidence emerged from a box of photos. It’s an image from Tyneham that I’ve not seen in any other context, and it shows a group of young people dressed up for country dancing. Among them are Annie Manktelow and Helen Taylor, both picked out with an ‘x’. And Annie is wearing an item of clothing that looks suspiciously like the embroidered over-shirt found in the wardrobe.

Annie Manktelow among the dancers at Tyneham – Annie is on the right, marked with an x.
The other young woman similarly identified would seem to be Helen Taylor.

Turning the photo over confirmed those impressions. In Annie’s distinctive handwriting was the legend, ‘Me country dancing in Uncle George’s smock. 1916. Church Fate [sic]’. So that clinches it.

And this kind of smock wasn’t quite so unusual as we initially thought. Two short smocks of a similar design survive today, both from the later nineteenth century. One was worn by a West Dorset shepherd, Job Green, who was born in 1814 in the fabulously named village of Toller Porcorum – it’s now in the collections of the Dorset Museum in Dorchester. The other, perhaps surprisingly, comes from Essex, and is displayed at the Valence House Museum in Dagenham.

The survival of these brother smocks raise a question for us. We know the plausible route out of Tyneham taken by George’s garment – preserved after its owner’s death by his sister and granddaughter, coming eventually into Annie’s possession, then left to her daughter – but what should happen to it now? Yes, it’s a piece of my partner’s family history, but its association not just with Tyneham but how ‘the lost village’ is remembered and encountered today seems to imbue it with a greater significance. Does it belong back in Tyneham, where its first wearer is buried, and where visitors encounter its, and his, story? How should it best be preserved, now it’s emerged from a century’s obscurity?

This post was updated on 12/12/21 to incorporate information on similar smocks kindly provided by Dr Alison Toplis, to whom I am very grateful.

Inheritance Taxes

When the University of Edinburgh commissioned Nathan Coley to create a new artwork for display in its main library, the artist was invited to give a presentation to the committee overseeing the university’s collections. Coley’s brief was to design a piece to occupy a display wall in the library’s main concourse, which had long been host to a peculiar series of paintings of protestant church fathers.

Coley’s artwork in place in the Edinburgh University Main Library. The huddle of portraits can be seen to the left of the picture

These paintings had previously hung in the Playfair Library in Old College, and had been apparently been gathered together in the early nineteenth century. Their value – as art, and as anything else – was questionable, but they were now so much a part of the institution’s patrimony that a myth had even grown up suggesting that bad luck would befall any man (sic) presuming to remove them from display.

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Shakespeare as Currency

John Dover Wilson’s Correspondence

John Dover Wilson was one of the best known, and most influential, Shakespearean scholars of the 20th century. His greatest achievement was the complete edition of the works that he edited and oversaw for Cambridge University Press between 1921 and 1966; yet he is perhaps best known to generations of readers as the author of What Happens in Hamlet, first published in 1935, with which – in the words of Harold Jenkins – ‘he captured the imagination of the general public to a degree probably unequalled by any other Shakespearian scholar’. In doing so – and this is a point to which I’ll return – he demonstrated the particular currency of a specifically literary critical engagement with the Shakespearian text and its dramatic and readerly possibilities that differs from more recent biographical or historical handlings of the playwright and his plays.Continue reading “Shakespeare as Currency”

What is to be Done?

The answer, when it came, was insultingly brief – perhaps deliberately so. Contrary to some speculation at the weekend, Johnson’s letter to the First Minister showed no signs of careful thought or legal briefing or even a sense that these were weighty matters. A quick reference to the ‘once in a generation’ canard, some false claims about Scottish public services, and that was it. No Section 30. No second independence referendum. Concentrate on with the day job, Nicola.

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Uncanny Britannia

What on earth is up with British unionism? Although not especially reflective at the best of times, this ideology has recently been thrust into explicitness in disturbing ways. It’s often said that Brexit is in part driven by an upsurge of English nationalism, but I don’t buy that – if only because there’s no such extant thing (yet) as English nationalism. It is, rather, the laying bare of the nationalism that England has instead of its own, which is the nationalism of the UK – aka unionism. And while it isn’t necessarily worked out in any compellingly abstracted form, it is still not properly understood.

This nationalism is profoundly Anglocentric, to be sure, but its commitment to the United Kingdom is just as profound – when Theresa May insists that she won’t countenance dividing the kingdom in order to ensure an open border in Ireland she’s not just parroting the DUP’s lines. But the UK it has in its heart is one in which English dominance is taken as read, and which is hostile to any serious checks on the sovereign power located at Westminster and Whitehall. Devolution is fine as long as it can be overruled when necessary, and as long as it’s the centre that gets to decide when it is necessary. But everything touching on the constitution that has happened with the approach to Brexit makes clear that the Westminster government’s freedom to propose and dispose must be untrammelled and unchecked.

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Ruth Davidson, Mental Health and Tory Policy

Co-authored with ‘Irene Sutcliffe’

On 16 September, the Sunday Times published an interview with the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson. The piece was both about Davidson’s private and public lives (the two can’t really be separated, not in her line of work): her pregnancy and the importance to her and her partner of starting a family, her political career to date, and her desire not to be Prime Minister (despite strong rumours to the contrary). The interview was trying to be a refreshing take on a Conservative politician – as the interviewer points out, on the surface, Davidson is hardly your archetypal Tory, ‘…a working-class, winningly informal, cheerfully profane 39-year-old lesbian former kick boxer…’. The piece even begins with Ruth dancing for the photographer, apparently unembarrassed. She is portrayed as frank, amusing and charming. She has an autobiography coming out, called ‘Yes She Can’, and a lengthy extract from this book, which deals with her breakdown aged 17, is printed at the end of the interview.

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On Being Weak

Solomon J Solomon, ‘Samson’, detail. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

[Content note: mental illness, suicidal thoughts, self-harm]

Can I make a confession? It’s not exactly an original one, and the experiences it concerns are anything other than unique. Perhaps it isn’t much of a confession, given how many people – although I’m thinking primarily of men here – have said something similar before me. I was corporeally contemptible when I was a boy – short, skinny, a late developer, and the youngest of three brothers. I was resoundingly shit at sport of all kinds, which was a bit rubbish considering how good at it my nearest brother was – the one I looked up to, the one who couldn’t resist the entirely understandable urge to stress his place one rung up on the ladder of life whenever the opportunity arose. For some reason my brain couldn’t tell the difference between a ball thrown at me and one thrown to me, and the same helpless spasm of indecision would foul me up each time I was called upon to stop or catch one. There wasn’t a tackle I’d fail to pull out of, or a pass that wouldn’t fall short. I could have cringed for England. Participatory sports were little more than a weekly episode of shivering, chafing and humiliation, longing for the time to pass and the bus to come and to just get home, while others shouted and ran and sweated and thrived. The echoes of these episodes rang round the playground and the classroom. The echoes, being echoes, all sounded the same: weak, weak, weak.

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Exploring Edinburgh’s Literary Cityscape

At last – definitive proof that there is such a thing as a free lunch!


To mark the release of the new LitLong app for both Android and iOS we’re holding a couple of events about which I’m quite frankly unable to contain my excitement. LitLong is a unique digital resource that allows users to explore literary Edinburgh through more than 600 works which make the city their setting – it’s been put together and developed by a team based in English Literature here, and we’ve been remaking our interface and apps over the last year.

litlong-paths-flyer - 1One of the key features of the new LitLong is the ability to make and share ‘paths’ – customised strings of excerpts on any topic or theme that the resource makes possible. So this Saturday, 18 November, we’re holding a free event exploring and making paths through literary Edinburgh. There’ll be all sorts of different activities, a free lunch, and then a chance to explore the settings of Kaite Welsh’s fantastic new contribution to Edinburgh crime fiction, The Wages of Sin, on a tour guided by Kaite herself! You can find further info, and book a place, here. We’d love to see you there!

One of the other things that LitLong does is to bring a lot of long-neglected writing to the surface, much of it by women writers who are less well known than they should be. Since LitLong draws on Wikipedia to inform users about the writers whose work they encounter there, we’re making a concerted effort to create or improve Wikipedia articles on some of the women writers whose books we’re featuring. So on Friday 24 November we’re hosting an ‘editathon’ for anyone who’d like to help us bring these writers out of the shadows. Full training in writing and editing Wikipedia articles will be provided, as will a free lunch, plus LitLong goodies! Please book your place here. We have a Wikipedia page for the event, with practical info and suggestions for articles that might be created or improved, if you want to do some preparation beforehand!

We hope you can join us!

These events are part of the Being Human Festival, supported by the AHRC.

The Politics of ‘Us and Them’

In its death agonies, the vestigial remnant of Scottish Labour is convulsing in some entirely predictable ways. One of them, particularly evident recently, has been an even more ferocious assault on the independence movement in Scotland, which they corral – not, a lot of the time, unfairly, but not always entirely accurately – under the label of ‘Scottish nationalism’. Once again, those of us happy to support or work for the goal of an independent Scotland are being balefully admonished for fomenting a ‘politics of division’. This line is common to both Labour and the Tories, of course (and the Lib Dems, but who notices them?). But it’s Labour who make a particular habit of suggesting that this ‘divisive’ politics necessarily has something of the night about it.

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The Rhetoric of Scottish Independence

fullsizeoutput_b24As the ill wind of Brexit swirls all around, we find ourselves skirmishing again over the issue of Scottish independence. The Unionist ultras, at least, seem to be in a state of high anxiety, while those who were still holding out for the messianic advent of British federalism are looking more forlorn and friendless than ever. Back at HQ, Nicola Sturgeon surveys the terrain with what I can’t help but imagine is a coolly calculating eye. The way ahead, though, is anything but clear.

Surrounding her is a cacophony of voices offering advice, most of it unsolicited. There are probably as many different views on how a second campaign for Scottish independence should be run as there are surviving partisans of the last one. Everyone has learned the lessons of 2014 – the only problem is that there’s no general agreement on what those lessons should be.Continue reading “The Rhetoric of Scottish Independence”