1979-Oct-pg06-11_Fashions of a Wedmore Family, 1816-1916

1979-Oct-pg06-11_Fashions of a Wedmore Family, 1816-1916

This article came from the Chronicle published October 1979. Pages 6-11


Fashions of a Wedmore Family, 1816-1916

Author: T. Joan Rendell

Catalogue of the garments described:
1  1816 Crepe mourning bonnet 9 c1863 Muslin dress
2  1825 Wedding dress 10 c1875 Child’s velvet dress
3 c1825 Waite muslin shawl 11 c1888 Bustle dress
4 c1845 Poke bonnet 12 c1888 Velvet jacket
5 c1858 Black satin dress 13 c1890 Shoulder cape
6 c1863 Spoon Bonnet 14 c1910 Mulberry jacket
7 c1865 Large silk shawl 15 c1910 Brown ninon dress
8 c1865 Parasol

NB, The first two items are exactly documented,
the remainder are approximate dates.

The village of Wedmore is situated on a ridge of high ground between the valleys of the Brue and the Axe overlooking the Somerset Levels. In the past it was somewhat isolated and this was due partly to the fact that until the middle of the 16th century swamps and lakes made it difficult of access, and partly that in any case it is not on the direct between any two important areas, the nearest community being Wells, itself only twice the size of Wedmore and the smallest cathedral city in the country. Despite this isolation the rich agricultural resources of the area caused the village to grow and to, become, by the beginning of the 19th century, a thriving but self-contained community with a population in the region of 2,000 people, increasing to its peak of nearly 4,000 by 1841.

In dealing with the fashions of a Wedmore family from 1816 to 1916, I have not been able to trace and dressmakers or tailors in the first half of the century. But in the census of 1831 there were ‘wholesale merchants, capitalists, etc., and other educated men to the number of 13’ who may come under this category.

About the middle of the century there was a ‘large emporium at the bottom of Church Street which was in the position of the local Harrods’ and the Assembly Rooms were built adjacent to this obviously good shop. In 1858 a leaflet (17″ x 10½”) was issued by John Tonkin who then occupied the site and whose descendants are still in the village. This leaflet, printed in London, now in the possession of Mrs Angela Tucker, is illustrated with drawings of dresses, capes, and hats, and appears to have been issued annually for several years, as we have 1858, 1859, 1860, and later ones. In 1876 he sent out a much larger sheet of fashion drawings showing twelve or fourteen ladies’ and children’s dresses, hand-coloured and engraved. These were issued monthly by D.Nicholson & Co. of 50 St Paul’s Churchyard, Silk Merchants to the Queen. I have most of the issues of the year. 1877. There are also six from the year 1883; these are again slightly larger, illustrating about twenty figures. I believe that the Strangers Hall Museum in Norwich possesses the complete issue of these brochures covering nearly half a century.

Some time before 1898 William Owen, whom I well remember, took over the business from Mr.Tonkin and published a small black and white illustrated leaflet in his own name:

‘William Owen respectfully solicits the favour of a visit to his Showrooms now replete with all the latest novelties in dress materials, tailor-made costumes, mantles, cycling dresses, French millinery, etc. William Owen by judicious purchase is able to offer to his Patrons many designs at the most advantageous prices. The Millinery Showroom contains the very latest Parisian confections including floral Toques and children’s sun hats. The favour of your patronage will be much esteemed. Wedmore April 1698.’

In 1908 another sheet of fashion illustrations was published by W.Owen under his own name and duly entered at Stationers Hall. Most probably something would have been published every year while the shop was in business.

In 1913, when I was a small child, the shop was a fascinating place and I loved visiting it. It was still a department store and made and supplied good clothes for the neighbouring gentry, among whom was Mrs Smith, the mother of Mrs Pitcairn, the donor of this collection, then living in the Manor House near the church at the top of the street. A generation or more later, Mrs Pitcairn, then herself living in the Manor House, and knowing of my interest in costume, gave me this collection of family clothing when she left there to move to a smaller house in Pilcorn Street.

In 1972 I visited her several times and had some talks with her about the things which she had passed on to me. She was a delightful woman and I gathered many interesting details about these dresses and hats and their wearers as far as she could remember them. I regret to say that she died several months later, so no further information is obtainable. The probability that some at least, of the garments described below were purchased in this long-established shop is strong, as there evidently was then a considerable knowledge of fashionable requirements and the ability to supply them.

Among the notable residents of Wedmore in the early 19th century was the Rev William White, the first incumbent of Theale Church, and a collateral ancestor of Mrs Pitcairn. His uncle, a surveyor at Bristol docks, moving from Arlingham in Gloucestershire, bought an estate at nearby Sand where he built a mansion house known as Sand House and lived there with his sister Abigail. In 1788 he married Ann Savidge of Blackford, but they had no family. Abigail White married John Tucker, and she died a few days after the birth of her second son, William, in 1793; consequently the infant was taken to Sand House and brought up by his uncle and aunt, William and Ann White. In 1822 the young man took orders and on 22 February 1825 married Jane Tyley of Wedmore in the church there.

This brings us to the first two items of clothing on the list above, namely a bonnet belonging to Ann White, net Savidge, and Jane Tyley’s wedding dress, which we will describe first. This beautiful dress is made of levantine or sarcenet and has a high waist and a wide oval neckline edged with lace. The bodice is trimmed with narrow bands of satin piping and small satin buttons. There is a separate belt finished with a bow which was fastened at the back. The detachable long sleeves which were tacked inside the short frilled ones were known as winter sleeves. These were probably worn at the wedding, as this took place in February. The separate skirt is plain in the front and gathered at the back with a beautiful padded trimming all round the bottom, According to family tradition, this trimming represented wedding bells. The bells are made in satin, stiffened with muslin and piped at the edges and connected by curved bands similarly constructed.

Unfortunately, it appears the Rev William White, good as he undoubtedly was, was exceedingly parsimonious where pin money was concerned and, in any case, did not approve of fine fashions, as he remarked in his memoirs which are, in the main, accounts of his various tours on foot through the country, that his ‘Aunt was too fond of finery’. So it was likely that, his wife, Jane, had very little money to spend on her clothes. We have evidence here that this was the case. The dress was very much worn and carefully mended, moreover it was considerably altered, the waist baiting been reduced by increasing the fullness at the back of the skirt and a wide tuck having been made all round the skirt about a third of the way up – only stitch holes remained when I had it.

All this does give the impression that Jane altered the dress about 1830-35 when waists were normal and skirt a shorter. Added to which there are parts of another dress of a slightly earlier period in a similar colour: the very short bodice and one winter sleeve are complete, but only a small triangle from the skirt remains, showing a very charming piped and gathered trimming carefully made and quite elaborate. It seems possible that a deeper bodice could have been made from the full skirt, but we do not know for certain.

To go back a few years, in 1816 Mr William White of Sand died and under his will Mr William Tucker, as he was then, inherited the estate on condition that he assumed the surname of White, which he did. The widow, Ann White, then ‘mourned her husband in a black crepe bonnet’. This is the first item in the above list. It is a rare example of a mourning garment being saved, as it was then considered unlucky to keep anything made of crepe. The bonnet is an attractive shape with a wide upstanding brim, fairly high crown, and a curtain at the back. The foundation is made of thick soft silk-covered wire, which is usual for the period. It is covered with an excellent quality black crepe, gathered and corded on crown and brim. The inside of the brim is plain crepe with a row of piping on the outer edge and a second double row below.

The Museum of London has an almost identical hat, dated 1815. I was privileged to be able to handle this green silk bonnet and examine its construction, which is identical with that of the black crepe hat. There is, however, one marked difference, the green hat has three tiers of gathered material and the black one only two tiers. The middle and the bottom only are corded. On looking closely at the crepe bonnet one can see that the top tier has, at some time been removed. In 1831 Mrs Ann White died. There seems little doubt that Jane made some alteration to the bonnet, possibly in order that she could wear it unrecognized to her aunt’s funeral! This could explain the alteration, otherwise inexplicable.

The third item on the list is a small white muslin shawl of an early date. This is decorated by drawn threads dividing the shawl into two-inch squares with small embroidered flowers in each partition. It appears to be an Indian muslin and is well-worn and mended.

We now come to a late bonnet dating about 1845-50. This would have been most attractive when it was new, it is now faded and worn, but still pretty. Crown and brim are in a straight line and the sides of the brim cover the sides of the face. The blocked canvas shape is entirely covered from front to back with folded ribbon and narrow strips of folded tulle and ninon in very pale blue. The back of the crown, the curtains and lining are of taffeta to match. Bows and strings are of the same beautiful gauze ribbon edged with looped threads in white. There is a narrow blue ribbon to fasten under the chin to prevent the real strings from creasing.

Jane is now in her fifties, and the last dress of hers is a magnificent black satin – about 1858-9. The material is clearly of Chinese origin, embroidered all over with small pink flowers and green leaven and was possibly a present from a travelling friend. It may have been made up at home as it has rather that. appearance and is not professionally finished. The bodice is cut almost like a bolero and the sleeves are bell-shaped in two tiers. Bodice and sleeves are edged with plain black satin. The enormous skirt is as wide as a house, vandyked all round the hem with satin to match the bodice. This would have been worn with a crinoline, nothing else was possible.

A shawl is the only outdoor garment, that could be put over so large e skirt, and the one we have is also very large and of about the same date. It is in printed taffeta with a chine pattern of flowers and a knotted fringe in cream and brown. Unfortunately all is much perished, probably due to tin loading which was introduced about 1860.

There is a pretty parasol of the same period in dark brown taffeta with a wide cream chine printed border and a cane handle.

A very charming spoon bonnet of the early sixties completes the outfit. The Bonnet crown is of mauve silk corded with fine cane and rucked between, the cords running from front to back. The spoon-shaped brim appears to be made of a heavy paper-like material stamped to represent fine white Leghorn straw. It is trimmed round the base of the crown with black lace and very narrow, bead-studded black velvet ribbon and embellished with two bows of the same material as the brim. Inside the brim are frills of black net and white lace finished with a small spray of mauve flowers. The strings are wide white watered ribbon, and, as in the last mentioned, there are narrow ribbons to tie under the chin.

On the 27th November 1835 a new vicar ‘became settled at Theale and on Monday the bells rang merrily. It was supposed by some that the joyful occasion upon which they rang was the arrival of a new minister’ – but it turned out to be for the birth of a daughter to Mrs White, neé Jane Tyley.

The dress we now have to consider must have belonged to this daughter, as she was the only one born to them. Her name is given by her father as initials only – A.J.W. – it is probable that she was christened Abigail or Ann, after a grandmother, and by 1864-5 she would have been in her late twenties. This is a very charming ball dress of white spotted muslin. The short waisted bodice, boned and lined, has small puffed sleeves. Round the wide low neck is an edging of hand-made silk lace threaded through with a very narrow velvet ribbon. This ties in front where the bodice fastens with brass hooks and handworked eyelets. Below this is a wide frill of similar lace decorated with small glass drops on the points of the lace, which catch the light and sparkle when the dress is in movement. Placed on the lace are little satin bows in magenta ribbon at three or four inch intervals. Sleeves are trimmed in the same way.

The long white skirt is plain in the front and gathered fully at the back, making a small train. A pleated six-inch frill at the hem is also decorated with small magenta bows at four or five inch intervals all round the head of the frill and edging the bottom. With the dress there are two long full muslin petticoats, one of them with a pleated frill, the other plain.

The bright magenta shade of the bows was then in fashion as it was the first colour to be produced by the new aniline dyes invented about, 1860-2 and called after a French battle of that name. According to Violetta Thurston, an authority on vegetable dyes, these aarly aniline dyes were the fastest colours then known and today have not lost their colour.

When I was living in Wedmore as a child there was a rumour to the effect that an old lady lived there who still wore the long curls of the 1840s-1850s. I never saw her myself, but it is said that Abigail did still live in Wedmore in 1913, could she have been the wearer of this dress?

At this point another Miss White comes into the story. This Miss White must have been the daughter of one of the Rev William White’s sons. She gave to Mrs Pitcairn the larger part of the collection of family clothes which we have here, and there is a suggestion in the next item that she was a little uncertain of what constituted fashionable styles. One interesting addition to the outfit described. above is a. square-yoked shoulder-cape in the style of the early 1890s. It has large frills over the shoulders and round the bottom of the yoke, and is made up of alternate rows of magenta satin ribbon and silk lace inserts of the same width. It appears to have been made in the 1890s in order to bring up to date the dress of thirty years earlier, described above. however, as it was never completed it seems that the lady abandoned the idea as not being quite suitable. In any case it does look wrong when put over the earlier dress and could never have been elegant.

Item number ten belonged to Mrs Pitcairn’s mother, Mrs Smith, the Lady of the Manor, and a very grand lady at that. I remember an incident in 1914. There was a sudden imperious knock at the front door and the maid, saying that this must be Mrs Smith, threw off her apron, patted her hair, and hurried to the door. Instead of Mrs Smith in all her glory, she saw the two-year-old boy of one of the Belgian refugees billeted temporarily in the large empty house next door standing there without a stitch on.

Mrs Smith wore this hat about 1875, when she was five or six years old. This is a lovely little hat in green velvet, trimmed with green ostrich feathers and green and pink satin ribbons attached with tiny silver bird-headed pins. It has a flat brim and a low, two-and-a-half-inch crown. Under the brim is a detached wired band with a bow in the centre. This was worn on the forehead, tipping the hat up a little. It is very elaborate for a child of her age, but so typical of the period.

About 1888 Mrs Smith first met her husband, and we have the dress she wore on that occasion. Apart from the sentimental value, this dress is of great interest since bustle dresses of that kind are not common in museums. It is supposed to be a simple washing dress made of printed calico, but it is so elaborate that it takes more than three hours to iron the skirt alone. The gown has a very elegant line, slender and petite. It is perhaps not surprising that her husband fell in love with her on the spot.

The bodice is high-necked with long plain sleeves, both edged with lace. A small piece of drapery is attached to the right shoulder and is fastened on the left side of the waist, covering the tiny pearl buttons of the front opening. In front the skirt hangs straight to the ground with a slight drape; at the back there is a large bustle which stands out nearly horizontally for twelve or fourteen inches and then drops straight down to the ground as at the front. There is an inner skirt of the same material which has a calico lining with three rows of wide tape at the top running parallel to the hem, which evidently contained steel or whalebone to bold up the bustle. The strong elastic ties, now perished, were finished with tapes to tie across the back, holding up the large amount of fullness in the centre of the skirt.

A dark navy velvet jacket accompanies this garment. It has a pleated tail at the back edged with wide black lace and the whole thing fits over the dress as though it were intended to do so, but it is uncertain if they were ever worn together; the jacket may have had its own skirt to match.

The last two items in this collection were worn by Mrs Pitcairn herself, but neither of these garments was made in Wedmore; both are from America. They are known to have belonged originally to the famous Drexel family of Boston, U.S.A. Early in the century a cousin of Mrs Pitcairn, married a Drexel daughter who came to live near Wedmore with her husband; from time to time her family sent her dresses from America, presumably because they thought, that living in the wilds of Somerset, she would be unable to obtain sufficiently stylish garments for her needs. On one occasion, about 1909-10, very soon after receiving a parcel, she went home to America, on holiday, but, not wanting to take the clothing back again, she gave a suit and dress to Mrs Pitcairn.

The suit dates about, 1910, and has a woven name tape:

Mrs Ralston & Co.
26 East 55th Street,

The material is broad corduroy velvet in a beautiful shade of mulberry. The collar, cuffs, and pockets are edged with satin in the same colour. The jacket is long with a slight cross-over to the front edge, which fastens with satin-covered buttons. Unfortunately the skirt is missing. This had been made into a suit for Mrs Pitcairn’s small son, and charming it must have looked. Originally it was long and had loose panels at the front and back of mulberry satin fastened down lightly at intervals. It is a pity that we no longer have it.

The last dress dates from the same period and is an evening gown in very dark brown ninon, mounted on a bright tan satin underdress, now much perished. This is an extremely fashionable garment, as would be expected from its provenance and shows the very new kimono sleeves, the new cross-over front, the short waist, and hand embroidery on the wide tan belt – then much in vogue. The fullness of the skirt is controlled at the waist with very fine tucking and is long and full with two wide tucks towards the bottom. Below this is a triple row of dark brown satin ruching matching the neck and sleeve edges of the bodice. At the hem is a wide ninon-covered tan satin frill. To complete this ravishing confection there are long doubled floating panels at each side. These are made in ninon and weighted with small lead buttons to keep them in place.

Mrs Pitcairn told me that she wore this dress -to dances during most of the 1914 war when she was working as a Red Cross nurse at a London hospital. This favourite dress of hers she somehow thought had dropped to pieces and been thrown away. Her delight when I showed her the repaired and restored garment was ample payment for the labour to lovingly put into it.

This account of a century’s clothing put into its family setting is surely of interest to students of costume, the description of dresses without the setting is only half the story. We see here that the clothes themselves, when examined with care and imaginative sympathy, can actually tell us something of interest about the lives and times of the original wearers.

Acknowledgements – I should like to thank Captain P.H.Pitcairn for kindly lending me a silhouette of Jane Tyley White before her marriage, and also Mrs Angela Tucker for the loan of early brochures of Mr Tonkin’s shop in Wedmore.

Authorities consulted

Memoir of the Rev William White of Sand House, Wedmore. Wells 1860.
A Brief History of Wedmore . W.Miazaton Acres, FRMS.
A History of Wedmore – F.T.Pearce.
Morris Directory, 1872.
Kelly’s Directories, 1875, 1839, 1894.
Victoria County History of Somerset.
English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century.
Willett Cunnington, 1937.
English Women’s Clothing in the Present Century.
Willett Cunnington, 1952.
Costume Catalogue No.5, 1939.
The London Museum.