Knitting belts

Knitting belts

Countryman Magazine

In a recent Countryman magazine, a reader asked if anyone could identify an object found in Norfolk.

It was a knitting belt.

knitting belt

My own knitting belt

I have always wondered how widespread the use of the knitting belt was.

Prior to the commercially produced knitting belt, a straw version, a wisp, was used by tucking it into the waistband, and knitting needles could then be stuck into the end.

wisp - early knitting belt

A straw wisp – an early version of the knitting belt

These and wooden versions were used in many areas of the UK.

Apparently, it is thought that although other devices were once used to support the right needle in the UK and elsewhere, the knitting belt is perhaps unique to Shetland, where they are called “makkin belts”.

However, they were possibly also used in the north east of Scotland. I know I have seen one in a museum in Nairn, near Inverness.


Knitters in Shetland wore their belts everywhere, walking home with a “kishie” full of peat, gathered with other knitters around the fire, the belt would still be in use because there was still knitting to be done.

Two women carrying kishies

Two women carrying kishies.
Photo Source: Shetland Museum

The “makkin belt” consisted of a leather pad stuffed with horsehair and attached to a belt. The technique requires the use of double point needles.

Shetlanders still use them.

So, how did a knitting belt  come to be found in Norfolk?

I wonder if  gutter girls from Shetland, who followed the herring all down the Scottish coast and as far as Great Yarmouth, gutting the herring, (taking their knitting with them to work on when off duty) introduced the knitting belt to others as they traveled.

Gutter Lasses

Gutter lasses knitting in front of barrels.
Photo Source: Shetland Museum

If anyone has any information about knitting belts used elsewhere, I would love to know!

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Light Keepers recorded at home

Muckle Flugga Lighthouse

Muckle Flugga from the seaward side
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Mike Penningtongeograph.org.uk/p/941026

The North Unst Lighthouse, or as it is now known, Muckle Flugga Lighthouse, was one of the few lighthouses in Scotland which had a separate shore station that served as accommodation for the lighthouse keepers when they were off duty. Three Light Keepers would be on duty at any one time, and the others would be on shore leave.

Lighthouse Shore Station

The Shore Station, Burrafirth
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Mike Penningtongeograph.org.uk/p/311395

In the census returns for Unst, you can see the Light Keepers recorded in the census at the Lighthouse, and their families recorded in the shore station.

1871 Census

ROAD, STREET, &c., and
No. or NAME of HOUSE.
NAME and Surname of each
Person.
RELATION
to Head of
Family
CON-
DITION
AGE
of
Rank, Profession, or OCCUPATION
Males Females
Light House Robert Burnett Head Mar 44 Principal Light Keeper
William Anderson Assistant Mar 37 Principal Assistant Keeper
Peter Anderson Assistant Mar 34 Assistant Light Keeper

1871 Census

ROAD, STREET, &c., and
No. or NAME of HOUSE.
NAME and Surname of each
Person.
RELATION
to Head of
Family
CON-
DITION
AGE
of
Rank, Profession, or OCCUPATION
Males Females
Light House Shore Station Elizabeth Anderson Head Mar 37 Light Keeper’s Wife
Laurence     Do Son 15 Scholar
Grace         Do Daur 11 Scholar
Catherine     Do Daur 5     Do

Except that is for 1861.

In 1861, the Light Keepers are all recorded as living with their families in the shore station, and there is no record of anyone at the Lighthouse. Now 1861 is some 134 years before the Lighthouse was automated in 1995, so there were definitely Light Keepers on site. Perhaps instead the problem was that this was the first census since the Lighthouse was built. It was first lit on 1 January 1858, so perhaps the enumerator simply wasn’t familiar with how he was supposed to record the keepers.

At the bottom of Page 25, of the 1861 census for Unst, Enumeration District 2, there is the following note:-

15 May 1862. Messrs Stevenson Engineers state 3 Lightkeepers were on the Lighthouse which is on the Island of Muckle Flugga. The ??????? with wives & famililes on Unst.

I’m not quite able to decipher all the words in the last sentence so an image is shown below if any of you can decipher it. However, you get the gist of it. They weren’t where the enumerator said they were!

Light Keepers Census Note

Light Keepers Census Note

Oops!

The puzzle of Jemima Georgeson

I do love a good puzzle, especially when you find the last little piece of the puzzle fits in perfectly and proves all your remaining outstanding questions.

I was actually following the branch of an Unst gent, Charles Peterson who, like many Shetland men, had moved to Toxteth Park to work in the docks. I found two possible marriage records for him, which upon further digging both turned out to be him as his first wife died not long after they married, as he is then recorded as a widower in the census and then in the second marriage record.

  • Oct-Nov-Dec 1890: Married Jemima Georgeson, Toxteth
  • Apr 1891: Recorded as a widower in the census return, where he is boarding
  • 4 May 1892: Recorded as a widower in the second marriage record

As I always do, I like to branch out sideways in the tree and find out what I can about spouses, siblings etc. But I didn’t really know very much at all about his first wife Jemima. I had an approximate age, and her father’s name Peter Georgeson, from the marriage record.

I had a Jemima Georgeson, born in Fetlar (the neighbouring island to Unst), with Unst ties in my tree, with the same approximate birthdate and father’s name. Could it be the same woman? I didn’t even know if Charles’ first wife was from Shetland, although it was certainly a common occurrence for two Shetlanders to meet in Toxteth Park and marry, I’d seen that many times already. If she was the same woman, then I wouldn’t find any evidence of her in the census in Toxteth Park because she was in Unst in 1881, and had died before 1891.

Then I found that she and Charles had a daughter, born in the same registration quarter that she died – suggesting a childbirth related reason for her death. This daughter died in Shetland in 1892. She wasn’t with her father in the 1891 census as he was on his own as a boarder. She must be somewhere in the 1891 census, perhaps she was already in Shetland by then, sent home by her widowed father to be looked after by relatives?

Sure enough I located her in Fetlar, living with her grandmother, her maternal grandmother. That link proved that Jemima Georgeson was indeed the one I already knew of. Also, the census showed that little Jemima Margaret Peterson was 4 months old in the 1891 census narrowing down her birth date from a registration quarter to a month, and also the same for her mother’s death date.

Charles Sinclair Peterson's Family Tree

Charles Sinclair Peterson’s Family Tree

Always check the real records

Transcribed records, provided by the various online genealogy websites are all very well, but part of your research should include checking the actual record image as well. For English records you may well be lucky enough to do this at the same time, and on the same website as the transcribed version, but for Scottish records you have to get them separately from Scotland’s People.

I had a recent person I was looking into that illustrated, again, to me, that it’s always important to look at the real records.

This lady was recorded as living in a house called Garden, in both the 1901 and 1911 census, and the transcription of the 1901 census said she was born in “North Unst”. That was in itself slightly unusual because most people recorded in Unst census returns have their place of birth recorded simply as “Unst”, without it being broken down any further. This is in contrast to the neighbouring island of Yell where birth places are broken down into “North Yell”, “Mid Yell” and “South Yell” because the island itself is not a single parish, and thus not a single registration area, unlike Unst which is.

When I found this lady’s birth record, it showed she was born in Garden, Unst. Not a surprise since this is where her parents, and later she, also lived.

Now there are two houses called Garden in Unst, one in Colvadale, and one in Snarravoe, neither of which I would consider to be in North Unst! See map for the two locations.

So, I brought up the actual 1901 census record, and it doesn’t say North Unst at all! It just says Unst. It would seem that the transcriber’s eye has been pulled offline to the record below her which records someone born in “North Yell”.

1901 Census

ROAD, STREET, &c.,
and No. or NAME of
HOUSE.
NAME and Surname of each
Person.
RELATION
to Head of
Family
CONDITION
as to
Marriage
AGE
(last Birthday)
WHERE BORN
Males Females
Garden Thomas Irvine Head Mar 34 Shetland, Whalsay
Janet Irvine Wife Mar 41 Do North Yell
Williamina Irvine Daur 10 Shetland, Unst
Thomasina Do Daur 5 Do Do
Andrina Williamsom Sister in law S 53 Do North Yell
Cathrine Do Do S 45 Do Do

So, remember it’s always worth checking!

Almost…

Looking through the Statutory Death Records for Unst today, I came across this record. Normally the age of the deceased is recorded just with a number of years, except in the case of infant deaths which haven’t made it to one full year yet.

I get the impression in this case that her grand-nephew wanted to make sure it was known how close to 100 years she achieved.

No. Name and Surname.

Rank or Profession, and whether
Single, Married, or Widowed.
When and Where Died. Sex. Age. Signature & Qualification of Informant,
and Residence, if out of the House in
which the Death occurred.
11 Elizabeth
Sandison

Widow of Charles
Sandison

Fisherman

1899
February
Twenty sixth
4h 30m P.M.

Muness,
Unst

F 99
years
11 mo
25 days
Thomas Gifford
Sandison

Grand-nephew
Muness

While she and her family and friends may have celebrated had she reached 100, the telegrams from the monarch to congratulate a centenarian didn’t begin until 1917.

Elizabeth was born before the days of statutory birth records, so the only record of her early life is a baptism record for 10 Aug 1802. With this detailed age on her death record however, we can calculate her exact birth date to be 1 Mar 1799.

Who is Elizabeth Fordyce?

To ensure I’ve found everyone who lived in Unst, I am going through each page of the census returns. In one page in the 1871 census I’ve come across an entry that has me stumped.

1871 Census

ROAD, STREET, &c., and
No. or NAME of HOUSE.
NAME and Surname of each
Person.
RELATION
to Head of
Family
CON-
DITION
AGE
of
Rank, Profession, or OCCUPATION
Males Females
Burnside Alexr Fordyce Head Mar 75 Fisherman
Catherine Do Wife Mar 75 Do Wife
Elizabeth Gaunson Daur Mar 38 Sea Capts Wife
Elizabeth Fordyce Grand Dr 14
Catherine A Gaunson Grand Dr 22M
George F Do Grand Son 3M

I have found Alexander Fordyce and his wife Catherine (neé Jamieson) and their children, one of whom is Janet Elizabeth who married George Gaunson and had several children, the first two being Catharine Ann Gaunson and George Francis Gaunson, two of the three grandchildren listed on this return.

Initial Fordyce Family Tree

Alexander and Catherine with their five children

It is interesting to see the daughter listed as Elizabeth here, and not as Janet/Jessie as in all previous census returns. She is listed as Elizabeth in the 1881 return as well (where she and her children are again seen living in Burnside with her parents while her Sea Captain husband is, one assumes, away at sea). Did she adopt her middle name upon marriage or does her father, the head of the household and likely person to convey names to the census enumerator, prefer to call her that?

So, what of this other grand-daughter, Elizabeth Fordyce?

At this point in my research, I was aware that Alexander and Catherine had five children, two sons, one who dies as a youngish man, neither of whom have any children that I know of, one daughter Ann dies young, and two remaining daughters, one also called Anne Ursula, both of whom have children.

We’ve seen the daughter Janet Elizabeth, on the census return. Her two children have the surname Gaunson as per her married name. If the other grand-daughter was also hers, she would have been born prior to her marriage (which would explain the surname being Fordyce) and when Janet was aged 23. This is certainly a possibility.

The other daughter, Anne Ursula, married Charles Johnson in 1856 and had a daughter, Catherine Elizabeth Johnson in 1857. This girl is a grand-daughter of the correct age, and could be known by her middle name. The use of her mother’s maiden name instead of her correct surname is not unheard of. This could be her, except, she’s recorded on the census in 1871 as being with her parents and siblings in their house in Lerwick.

I have seen several examples of people recorded twice in one census, some cases of grandchildren recorded both at home with their parents, and also at their grandparents house. One assumes the child was visiting the grandparents in the evening when the enumerator visited, but then went home and so met the criteria of “everyone who sleeps in the house on the evening of the census.” However, it is highly improbable that such a visit could happen in Unst by a grand-daughter from Lerwick.

Having ruled out that grand-daughter, I looked for all girls born in Unst (as this census return records she is) around 1857 (+\-2 years) with Elizabeth as a first or middle name (given the use of a middle name elsewhere in this household), listed in the 1861 census. There are 19 of them. My hope here was to find a girl in the 1861 census that is unaccounted for in 1871 and is maybe a grand-Neice or cousin of the family, who has just been rather sloppily referred to as a grand-daughter. However, none of the girls are unaccounted for in 1871. There is quite simply no-one called Elizabeth Fordyce born in Unst around that timeframe.

Having followed the premise that the name was wrong and that the place of birth was correct, I now changed tack. I started to search for Elizabeth Fordyce, born around 1857 anywhere in Shetland, which yielded nothing, and then born anywhere in Scotland. At this point out popped Elizabeth Fordyce, born 15 May 1856 in Edinburgh to parents James William Fordyce and Elizabeth McLeod. If this is James William Fordyce born in Unst, then she would indeed be a grand-daughter. I had not been able to find anything about James after he left Unst and was living in Edinburgh in 1851.

Having found this family through the grand-daughter Elizabeth, I could now see why. Her father James, is listed as having been born in Golspie, Sutherland and his wife Elizabeth McLeod is recorded as being born in Shetland. Following Elizabeth with her remaining children after James dies, it would appear that she was not from Shetland, it was she who was born in Golspie. So I believe that either the enumerator or the Ancestry record transcriber (since I haven’t seen the image for this one to know) has got the places of birth switched around. This is indeed James William Fordyce from Unst and his daughter Elizabeth Fordyce is visiting her grand-mother in Unst.

Fordyce Family Tree

Fordyce Family Tree
Green shows the people on the census return. Blue shows the family discovered as a result

Two wrongs don’t make a right, and in this case the two wrongs

  • Elizabeth Fordyce (grand-daughter) was not born in Unst, but in Edinburgh
  • James William Fordyce (son) was born in Unst and not in Golspie

left me with some searching to do, but I found them in the end!

The added benefit of locating this mystery grand-daughter was also the finding of the missing son and thus several more grand-children who are Unst descendants, so well worth the search.