The Terrible Knitters of Dent

Newsletter #9

The Terrible Knitters of Dent

(October 2022)

I’m going to share a poem with you. Not one of mine, you’ll be pleased to hear. This is something I came across during my research for George Calvert’s story, part of my work-in-progress, The Descent of Chloe Jackson.

George is one of Chloe’s great great grandparents, and the story takes place in North Yorkshire, in the Dales, in 1900. It’s a place I know well from family holidays, and where my parents have gone to retire, but I only know it as a visitor. So, when the story requires some dialogue, there’s the question of whether I try to use the Dales dialect. Even more so, as the story is set so long in the past, when local dialects throughout England were much stronger.

I thought I knew how people talk in this part of the world, but then I went rummaging in the Internet, and came up with a short book of the collected poems of John Thwaite.

John Thwaite was born in 1878, and lived all his life in Upper Wensleydale, running a grocer’s shop in Hawes. His poetry wasn’t published until after his death in 1941, when this collection was put together and published in pamphlet form. He writes about the birds and animals of Wensleydale, and working life on the farms, and the cattle market. And he writes with love about the people.

I bought it thinking I could use some of the language in my story, but the sad truth is that if I had George Calvert speaking as he would have in one of Thwaite’s poems, he would be all but incomprehensible to most of my readers. And, what’s more, I would get it wrong. It would be a horrible pastiche.

So, I have compromised. George has the odd hint of Yorkshire, but I have ditched realism in exchange for narrative flow.

But that is a terrible shame. Because the Wensleydale dialect, as recorded in the rhymes of John Thwaite, is beautiful. So, I am now going to do my bit to spread the joy by sharing a poem from the above collection entitled The Old Dent Knitter.

Dent is a remote village some ten miles west of Hawes, once famous for its hand-knitting industry. It’s been romanticised a fair bit, and people still talk of “The Terrible Knitters of Dent” (“Terrible” meaning “Terribly good”). You can find out more on the Internet – try the Dent Village Museum & Heritage Centre…

Some of the last of The Terrible Knitters of Dent (photo: Dent Village Museum & Heritage Centre)

The truth is that the people of Dent (men, women and children) probably knitted every hour God sent them just to make a living. It would have been hard.

Anyway, enough from me. Enjoy the words of John Thwaite, as he describes one of the last of those terrible knitters…

The Old Dent Knitter

Ay, it’s reyther dowly livin’, we’ve lile change fra day te day,

Ah’s ower owd te dance, ye kna, an’ t’ picters is miles away;

But doon i’ Dent we’re gey content as t’ Dee dances doon te t’ sea.

Though ther’s lile but neet an’ knittin’ fer sike-like fooak as me.

“We’re fain te git a bit o’ wark – te knit an’ wesh an’ beake,

Ther’s rent an’ rates, and cooal te buy, an’ than yan’s bit o’ keeake;

These gloves ye see me knittin’ noo, wi’ t’ buyer’s neeame an’ t’ date

Mun be i’ London in a week – mi order com fra t’ ‘Gate’.

“Some day seun ‘ll be mi last, fer t’ doctor’s been an’ telt,

They’ll pop me under t’ sod, an’ sell mi needles, sheath, an’ belt;

They’ll say, ‘That’s t’ last o’ t’ knitters, when yan’s deead an’ when yan’s gone,

An’ we s’aw be seun fergitten as t’ wolld keeps rowlen on.”

It was knit, knit, knit ay, en’ neeane ower good was t’ pay,

Yan had allis a heeamely welcome, they could work an’ chat away;

Ah’ve seen ‘em thrang as thrang could be – ay, maur an’ yan Ah kent.

Te me they waur winsome, wonderful, them “terrible knitters of Dent.”

My spellcheck had a field day with that. “Thrang” means busy, in case you were wondering.

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All the best