The woman in this carte-de-visite portrait isn’t identified anywhere on the photo. When I bought it last year, I never expected to learn her identity. Three weeks ago, while browsing the website of Britain’s Royal Collection Trust, I noticed a woman who looked very familiar. The first thing that drew my attention was her shawl, then her eyes and facial expression. I could be wrong, of course; see what you think: Ann Birkin, Hosiery Embroideress, June 1898.
Ann Birkin (1816-1909) was a chevener, or embroiderer of hosiery. On a genealogy forum, RootsChat.com, a user posted the following excerpt from an article in the Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, published February 27, 1901:
A chevener is a finisher. The word is used in Nottingham to designate the women who ornament the stockings with silk clocks and other kinds of embroidery. Chevening, or embroidering, is essentially a cottage industry, and the very finest knitting is also done by workpeople at their own homes on hand frames………….The Queen’s chevener, or stocking embroiderer, is Miss Ann Birkin, who lives in a neat cottage in the little village of Ruddington, where she is a notable personage on account of her occupation……At the present time Miss Birkin, who is eighty-four years of age, has been in the employment of Messrs Morley for seventy-two years.
When I searched a newspaper database (Newspapers.com), I didn’t find the article quoted above. However, I did find a later article which mentioned Ann Birkin. On June 9, 1934, the National Post in Toronto, Canada, published the following article, which I’ve transcribed in its entirety so that non-English speakers can copy it into a translation program if they wish:
“World’s record for continuous employment in modern industry appears to be held by Robert Harrison, of Culverton, Nottinghamshire, who, for 76 years, has been in the employ of I. & R. Morley, British textile manufacturers. Mr. Harrison is in his 90th year, having started with Morley’s at 13. He is one of the few hand-frame knitters extant, a survivor of the early machine improvements of the industrial revolution, as is the firm for which he works. His work is done in his own cottage, with the assistance of a son aged 60, and a grandson aged 24. All his 10 children have worked for Morley’s at some time, and five generations of his family have been employed by this firm.
Mr. Harrison, to achieve his record, had to surpass that of Ann Birkin, who was in Morley’s employ for 72 years as a chevener, or stocking embroiderer. She too was a cottage worker, and was Queen Victoria’s chevener. She embroidered the Queen’s stockings for the ascent to the Throne in 1837, for the Jubilee in 1887 and the Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
Queen Victoria, incidentally, wore very fine black cotton stockings, supplied by I. & R. Morley, and knitted for many years by an expert employee, John Derrick, who, although he made the stockings for the ascent to the Throne and the Jubilee, did not live to perform the same task for the Diamond Jubilee.
Until about 1888 there was no such thing as a “fast” black dye. And although the black dye tended to come off on the skin of the wearer, the Queen made black stockings popular. Her Majesty, however, avoided the stains by wearing a pair of white stockings beneath the black pair. She used to order in large quantities and had the stockings marked, one, right, one, left; two, right, two, left; and so on. There was no chance of getting the stockings on the wrong foot, and even the pairs of black and white could be matched by this device.
These bits of information which apparently have escaped the attention of feature writers on London dailies, we learn from a recent Old Country visitor to Toronto.”
I’d be curious to know who the “recent Old Country visitor to Toronto” was, but the National Post doesn’t say.
My photo of Ann was taken in Hastings, on the southeast coast of England, by photographer Melancthon Moore (1862-1917):
In the photo, Ann is holding something, but I haven’t a clue what it is. Any ideas? And what was the purpose of the little white pouch, shaped like a finger?
In conclusion, I’d like to mention that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were enthusiastic collectors of photographs. You can see an impressive sample of their collection in the Royal Collection Trust’s Portrait Gallery.