Sew What?

Embroidering Adversity in Charity and Orphan School Needlework

March 11, 2021 Isabella Rosner Season 2 Episode 6
Sew What?
Embroidering Adversity in Charity and Orphan School Needlework
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Isabella discusses samplers and other needleworked items stitched at eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English charity and orphan schools. Special attention is given to the St Clements Danes school samplers and Bristol orphanage samplers. 

As always, images and sources are available at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The podcast has a new website,, and a Patreon,

Whatsup stitches!! Welcome to Sew What? It is a thrill to be with you all once more, talking about needlework in a hopefully coherent way. Today’s episode is all about charity and orphan needlework, which I threatened to talk about in the first episode of season 2. But now, it is time. And I bet you’re thinking, “Wait, didn’t you talk about orphan needlework last season?” Yes, I did, but this is very different. First of all, the last time I discussed that I talked only about orphan samplers made in South India. This episode is not only about a different place and time period, but also some very different types of objects. Love to see it! Variety is the spice of life etc etc.  

As always, check out images and sources discussed in today’s episode on the Sew What? Social media at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Or check out this week’s post on the website! At! Aaand if you feel generous, please support the podcast at People who support my patreon get exclusive blog posts and videos and fun content like that!! Such fun! Anyhoo, on with the episode. 

 So, today’s episode is all about charity and orphan needlework made in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There’s A LOT of relevant stuff that survives. Also, when I say charity needlework, I mean that that was made at charity schools, which were schools for children from poor families. And I’m assuming you get what I mean when I say orphan schools – they’re literal schools for orphaned children. The blossoming of charity and orphan schools began in the beginning of the 18th century. That’s because urbanization and population growth in London and other cities was booming and eventually, women outnumbered men in those areas because there was an increased demand by the leisured and merchant classes for domestic servants, seamstresses, laundresses, and other associated occupations. And then on top of that, women were moving to get jobs in retail because shopping was becoming increasingly popular and important. 

 Because of all this, it was increasingly important and in demand to be literate. And on top of that, to know numbers and basic math was even more desirable. But there was not yet any system of universal education in Britain, so the poor, especially poor women, struggled to find jobs. Dudes had apprenticeships, but gals rarely did so they were solidly at a disadvantage. 

 But at this time, right around the turn of the 18th century, charity and orphan schools began popping up. According to Carol Humphrey, honorary keeper of textiles at the Fitzwilliam Museum who has a really good chapter about charity and orphan school needlework in her book Sampled Lives, the movement to found these schools came largely from the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, or SPCK. That organization was originally tied to the high church portion of the Anglican Church. It was founded by Thomas Bray in 1698 and one of its prime aims was to set up schools across the entirety of England that were to be financed and run by private subscription and benefactors. 

The goal of the SPCK schools was to impart “the Knowledge and practice of the Christian Religion as professed and taught in the Church of England and for teaching such things as are most suitable for their condition.” The hope, then, was for these schools to get children to join the Church of England instead of nonconformist Christian sects like Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, etc, which were getting increasingly popular. Even into the nineteenth century, it was religious organizations, not the state, that educated the poor.  

So what were girls taught at these charity and orphan schools? Well, needlework, of course. And also reading and writing but mostly sewing and knitting. Stitching was muy muy importante. And stitching a sampler was a fundamental part of that. In the 17th century, a sampler showed its maker’s competence in the use of a wide variety of stitches and techniques. But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as lettering and inscriptions became more important and stitch variety became less, the sampler mirrored the widespread move toward female literacy. Samplers were useful for poor girls because they were a way to show future employers their sewing skills. It was the Linkedin of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Orphan and charity school samplers really took off in the 19th century – there are SO many and a lot of them are easy to identify as parts of school groups. But in the eighteenth century, those samplers are a bit rarer. There are samplers definitely made in such schools and even samplers that belong to larger orphan and/charity school groups, but for the most part, these earlier examples don’t have names of schools stitched onto them like they do in the 19th century. 

 There’s a group of 18th-century samplers made at an early charity school that are very popular precisely for those reasons – they’re early examples of charity school work and there are a few of them that survive. The group I’m talking about here is the St Clements Danes school group. It was one of the 69 schools set up by the SPCK. The school was associated with St Clement Danes church, located on the Strand. The school itself was in Drury Lane, Covent Garden. I wonder if the students knew the muffin man. 

These samplers are easy to identify because, well, the girls stitched the name of the school on their samplers. But more than that, they all look very, very similar. They have bands of motifs in between bands of text and they consist almost exclusively of red, blue, and green thread. The first motif band features lil boxers in between flowers and the second big decorative band has a big anchor in the middle, surrounded by trees, swans, and birds. An anchor is the symbol of the St Clements Danes school, so that obviously tracks. Surrounding the anchor is a tiny S, C, and D, standing for St Clements Danes. The last decorative band has a woman in a bonnet and a man with a long coat flanking a vase with flowers. The man and woman are delightfully angular. Their arms go out like those muscley dudes who are so muscley they can’t rest their arms at their sides and instead they have to kinda put their elbows out. Look at the image of these figures on the Sew What social media pages and you’ll get what I’m talking about. Some believe that the two figures possibly represent the master and mistress of the school or a boy and girl in uniform. Either way, they look like fun people. 

Perhaps the most well known St Clements Danes school sampler was made by Mary Derow in 1723 and is now at the Fitzwilliam Museum. An inscription on the sampler reads, “MARY DEROW OF THE CHARITY SCHOOL OF ST CLEMENTS DANES AGED TEN YEARS BEGUN THIS SAMPLEER AUGUST THE TWENTY NINTH ANNO DOM 1723,” which tells us a lot. According to the Fitzwilliam, Mary was born in 1713 and was admitted to St Clements Danes School in 1722. She left when she was 12 in 1725. That’s all that’s known about Mary Derow, so it’s unclear if she was an orphan or just poor. 

 So now, about the school. When Mary attended the school, there were 40 female students. The earliest known sampler from the school was made by Elizabeth Clements in 1712. By the time Mary Derow rolled through in 1723, female students were being taught by Mrs Amey Parsons, who was replaced by Mrs Armstrong that year. These ladies were likely widows of the parish. There were two Mrs Parsons, one who taught from 1710 to 1718 and the other 1718 to 1723. The first Mrs Parsons was likely a very good needlework teacher, and it was she who provided a model sampler for all the girls and that’s why it’s so easy to identify samplers from the school even if they were made decades later. 

 Each year, the students would show their work to the school Trustees. We can’t say with certainty but the samplers may have been sold to benefit the students and the school. The students were given a blue uniform as well as shoes, caps, quills, ink pots, and sewing supplies. Cute!! 

 So yes, St Clements Danes school samplers! Such fun right? There are I believe 6 known samplers? I’m sure that more will come to light at auction and given to museums sometime eventually, as two just came to light in the last few months. It’s the St Clements Danes school samplers’ time to shine!!! 

 But St Clements Danes was not the only charity school in Britain in the eighteenth century. There’s another example of an eighteenth-century charity school sampler that comes to mind and it’s one I saw several years ago at the Met Museum and it’s even rarer than the St Clements Danes samplers. It’s a sampler made by Rekebah Rowe in 1731 using only red silk thread on a linen ground. It’s clear it’s a charity school sampler even though it doesn’t have a school name on it. You can tell because of how simple and plain it is – it’s not plain for religious reasons, but likely because it needed to involve as little material as possible because it’s not like orphan and charity schools were rolling in cash. It makes sense to me that Rebekah stitched exclusively in red, too – red thread was used to mark household linens with numbers and initials. I’ve tried to find Rebekah Rowe but haven’t had any luck. Presumably, she went into domestic service after getting her education. I hope she led a decently happy life! Her sampler is not as early as some of the St Clements Danes samplers, but it is still quite early in the grand scheme of surviving needlework made in orphan and charity schools.

 I say that because I can’t really think of many samplers made in those kinds of institutions until closer to the end of the 18th century. Some schools are known but samplers that were made at them haven’t been identified yet. The example that comes to mind is one from my PhD and it’s an example of charity schools in Britain before the SPCK was founded in 1698. See, by at least 1674 if not earlier, there was a school for poor Quaker children in London. We know this because a Quaker with a really dumb name, Richard Richardson, was appointed master of a school for the children of poor Quakers at Devonshire House, in Bishopsgate, London. There are samplers I very much believe were made at a school related to Devonshire House, but those samplers were all made by the daughters of rich merchants. So where’s the needlework from the students in the Devonshire House charity school? It’s the question of the hour, every hour. If I can conclusively find samplers made at that Quaker charity school, I will announce it on the podcast and I’ll be very excited about it. Anyway, in short, there were clearly charity schools in Britain before the official establishment of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. And there’s a hole in the scholarship when it comes to early examples of charity and orphan school needlework beyond some quite specific examples. I hope someone digs into that gap sometime soon! 

 So from here, let's fast forward to the early nineteenth century. Obviously not because I don’t love the eighteenth century, because I do. It’s because when it comes to charity and orphan school samplers, much of the eighteenth century is a desert wasteland. There is not much happening from around the 1730s to right around 1800. But then the nineteenth century hits and charity and orphan schools are left, right, and centre. That’s because the population of Britain was absolutely POPPIN in the nineteenth century. 

 In the first half of the 19th century, the population of Britain went from around 10 million to almost 19 million in the 1850s. So things were changing fast. Resources like shelter, food, education, and employment were coming under enormous pressure. Children were dying young and many of those who lived past childhood did not have the resources to get an education. So charity and orphan schools were more important than ever. They provided students with literacy, a knowledge of math and reading and writing, and sewing skills that could get them jobs. In addition to needlework, the girls at these schools were also taught reading because it enabled them to study the Bible. So the connection between Christianity and schools for poor and/or orphaned children that is very apparent in the 18th century with the founding of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge is alive and well in the 19th century, too.  

What becomes even more central to charity and orphan school education in the 19th century is, well, consumption and capital. To quote Carol Humphrey in her chapter on charity school samplers in her book Sampled Lives, which I mentioned earlier because I LOVE IT and you should to, “Samplers made in institutions variously called asylums, hospitals, Schools of Industry, and so on, were often made to be presented to the trustees or governors as proof of diligence and progress. Once sufficiently competent the pupils of many of the charitable foundations were expected to make ‘trifles’ which could be sold, and any profit benefiting the school. Pin cushions, little boxes, bags, purses and pockets were typical products. Some included appropriate short inscriptions, some were dated, a few carried personal and place names, and many more were anonymous.” 

 A lot of these trifles, these little needleworked goods made by girls at these charity and orphan schools and sold to get money for the schools themselves, survive. There are pin cushions that survive from the Cheltenham Orphan Asylum stitched by students in the early 19th century, which I discussed briefly in my podcast episode about southern Indian samplers. They have things like “Religion is our guide and Industry our support” and “A present from Cheltenham” stitched onto them. Then there are pocket samplers that are long and vertical and have a literal pocket on one side. They were meant to be hung. They have some pretty grim verses stitched onto them, including, “Our parent’s death has snatched To sleep beneath the church yard stone They left us here and we must stay To wander through the world alone What peaceful hours we once enjoyed How sweet there memories still But they have left an aching void The world can never fill away” and “We are orphans and fatherless We have no parents but our God Yet will we not in grief defpair, For he this veil of forrow trod To make the defolate is care ‘To him who from heaven’s Highest throne, beholds his Children in distress, and claims The orphan, for his own, as Father of the fatherless.” Oy, right? SO grim!! And very poignant. Other trifles like these included pockets and mini cushions and watch holders and really they are all beautiful and very heart breaking. And, unfortunately for us and the girls who made that stuff, many of those pieces are anonymous. I really wish we knew more of these girls’ names so we could find them and learn their stories and honour them hundreds of years after they lived some very hard lives.

Now, if you’re hip to orphan and charity school samplers, you probably know about the Bristol orphanage samplers. They’re all the rage amongst collectors and museums and people who remake historic samplers. Bristol orphanage samplers are EXTREMELY detailed and really quite stunning and were made at a school that kept really good records so it’s usually pretty easy to find the sampler makers. So, basically, a German dude named Dr George Muller was a minister in Bristol who wanted disadvantaged children to learn the skills to better themselves, to enter into service or other paid employment, and to never return to being poor. He wanted to save and educate orphaned children. My man!!! A hero!! In 1836, George and his wife Mary opened their home on Wilson Street in Bristol to 30 orphaned girls. When they needed more space to house additional children, they rented more houses on Wilson Street. But by 1845, neighbours started complaining about noise levels and the number of kids in the area. So, influenced by the big orphan houses he remembered from his native Germany, George Muller built a large orphanage to accommodate more than 300 children. The site was at Ashley Down in Bristol and the first orphan house opened in 1849. By 1870, there were five such houses and thousands of orphans were students in what Muller called “New Orphan Homes,” to distinguish them from orphan asylums. Muller’s school housed, fed, clothed, and educated more than 10,000 children, which is so rad!! 

 Muller’s orphan houses were designed to take in girls and boys born in wedlock who had lost both parents through death and who had no relatives able to take care of them. Boys were trained for trade and girls for domestic service. Girls could stay until they were 17 or 18 and spent their last three years basically in a domestic training school. 

 The samplers to come out of these orphan houses are really easy to identify because they’re all so similar. The all use only red thread and all have shared alphabets, motifs, and format. All of the samplers had SO many alphabets in different fonts. I’m talking like 16, 19 different alphabets. And there are several strings of numerals. And then below those alphabets there are bands of geometric patterns. And then there are individual motifs like a Bible, a crown, a feather, a house, etc. etc. and sometimes there are short inscriptions, most often “Behold the book whose leaves display Jesus the life the truth the way.” And there is almost always a name and year of the maker, as well as a listing of exactly what wing of which orphan house they were in. And because Muller kept really good records, you can almost always find the exact sampler maker. 

 I said earlier that a charity or orphan school sampler was like the Linkedin account of the 18th and 19th centuries and in the case of the Bristol orphanage samplers, it’s really true. These girls made these extremely detailed, precise samplers to learn necessary needlework skills but also because once they were done, their work acted as a resume. All the skills they needed to be a successful domestic servant were right there. The value in these samplers lay in the process and the end product. There are looooooads of Bristol orphan samplers that survive and if you want to read about specific makers, which I absolutely recommend you do, go to because that website is entirely devoted to these bad bois and there is some really in depth research available there. Get ready to go on a truly excellent needlework-based spiral. 

 And there’s one more thing I wanna talk about and that is the miniature clothing girls at some charity and orphan schools made as part of their education. Imagine a really well made, finely stitched 19th-century undershirt. But imagine it like 20 times smaller than life size. Some schools taught students things like shirt making and darning and button hole stitching in miniature, so girls made these miniature objects and put them in the empty pages of their school manuals. An example of this an instruction book from 1838 at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The manual is called Instructions on Needlework and Knitting as derived from the Practice of the Central School for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in the Sanctuary, Westminster. This kind of education allowed girls to learn the skills they’d need to be servants without using an excessive amount of material. It’s very charming and a bit poignant to see these books and to see these incredibly delicately wrought socks and shirts poking out from the pages. These manuals held all of the knowledge these girls learned, in words and in stitches. Turning the pages becomes a literal tour of a girl’s education. It’s poignant to me, though, because the tininess of these stitched objects reflects the limitations of these girls before they were given the gift of education. That is not to say that their education was perfect – it wasn’t, it was probably extremely rough and brutal. But it did give these girls a chance to escape the limitations and disadvantages of poverty. Being a domestic servant probably also sucked a lot but at least these women had a chance to make their own way in the world and to breakout from the systemic suckiness and hardship of poverty. 

 I think that’s one of the reasons I really like orphan and charity school samplers. Sure, I like them because they’re very pretty and really interesting in the context of social and cultural history and I can learn the stories of girls I wouldn’t know about otherwise, but also because they represent hope and a chance at survival and of breaking away from adversity. These seemingly simple objects and tiny stitches represent SO much. The connection between Christianity and education is REALLY clear in orphan and charity school stitchery which is a whole thing I don’t have the time or energy to get into and which I really get because of how incredibly central and fundamental religion was to life in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, but to me, the humanity is the more important part. It’s about these girls being saved by education and by being actually given a chance. I really like that. The opportunity that comes with being given a chance. It makes me hopeful.

 So there you go, a whole shebang all about orphan and charity school samplers in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Samplers from these institutions do make up a pretty big part of samplers that survive from Britain, so it’s important that I talk about them! It speaks a lot to the incredibly rapid rate of population growth and industrialisation in Britain that orphan and charity schools just exploded in size and importance over the course of less than 200 years. Interestingly, in the nineteenth century, as technology and mechanisation began to do the jobs people had been doing for centuries, stitching, which became increasingly possible and easy with machines, became even more important to do by hand. As technology changed how humans interacted with their surroundings, needlework never lost its importance. It was always essential. And it changed lives. And that’s all I got!

 As always, thanks for listening!! And for being here for season 2! And for everything else! It’s such a joy to be able to talk about this stuff I’m so passionate about and to have people listen. So thanks!

 Now go out and stitch some stories and be really grateful for education. Bye!