A remarkable woman and her spinning wheels

Post revised on 22 March

This picture, apparently taken around 1930, caught my eye when I was looking for something else.

Collection: PAColl-0614-1: Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper, Alexander Turnbull Library

Of course I wanted to find out more about this lady and the spinning wheel on which she is demonstrating so elegantly. Anna Elizabeth Jerome Spencer (1872-1955) was known to her friends as Bessie but among the Women’s Institutes (a movement she founded) she was Miss Jerome Spencer. Spinning and weaving were a large part of her life. I hope she will forgive us if we call her Bessie.

Brought up in Napier, she taught at Napier Girls’ High School, becoming principal in 1901. Her interests were many: she loved all things rural, but also studied (gaining her BA extramurally from Canterbury College in 1895) and read widely. With an interest in religions, she joined the Havelock Work, a movement which promoted cultural interests and also esoteric spiritual beliefs. Interestingly, two makers of spinning wheels had involvement with Havelock Work, Chapman-Taylor who laid down the foundations of their house and temple Whare Ra, and John L. Moore who lived in Havelock North for much of his life. Bessie very likely knew both of them.

In fact Moore mentions her in a 1932 letter to her lifelong friend Amy Hutchinson, whose name New Zealand readers may know from her little book Plant Dyeing. My copy is typically old and well-used.

Bessie retired from teaching in 1909 and devoted herself to running an orchard and apiary and other country affairs, living for some years with Amy and her husband at their home at Rissington (inland from Napier). From 1914 she was involved in war work, and organised sewing meetings, but in 1916 she went to England where she nursed injured soldiers at Lonsdale House Hospital in London.

On the back of this photo she has written ‘Some patients and their work’ and named several of the men, as well as ‘Fluffy, a dear little friend now dead’ (can you spot Fluffy?). Bessie herself is at the right of the back row on the steps.

In England, she came to know about the Women’s Institute there and its involvement in crafts. Back in New Zealand after the war, she spent time spinning and weaving with Amy at Rissington. In January 1921 they called a meeting and the Rissington Women’s Institute was formed. The two pictures below were probably taken in that year, perhaps at a gathering of members of the new institute.

Her little spinning wheel in these photos is very simple, made without the use of a lathe except presumably for the bobbin which unfortunately we can’t see. Enlarge the photo by clicking it and you may agree that the flyer assembly looks a bit odd, but clearly it works.

It’s pared down to essentials like the (more elegant) wheels later made by Harold Martin, and has a similar drive wheel except that this one has no thickening of the rim so probably (unlike Martin’s) was originally made for a sewing machine.

In late 1926 the New Zealand Herald reported a talk in which Bessie said there were now twelve institutes in Hawkes Bay, two in Wellington, one at Henderson and one at Swanson. ‘The members’ fee was 2s a year … A yearly programme … comprised lectures, demonstrations and exhibits of handcraft ..’

Here she is in the same year, spinning in the Women’s Institutes display at the Dunedin Industrial Exhibition surrounded by handcrafted items including skeins draped over a loom.

She is using a different wheel this time, a little upright which is equally unidentifiable. We’ll look at it again in a minute. She’s working rather close to the orifice, and doesn’t look as relaxed as in the 1921 photographs above. Behind her is the big walking wheel we saw earlier.

We can be fairly sure that she made her outfit herself. When she gave a talk, she regularly mentioned that she had spun and woven her own outfit. The social column in the Auckland Star (17 June 1929) reported on her clothes during a visit to the city:

‘While in Auckland she was delightfully attired in a hand-spun and woven woollen coat, made in the latest style. It was dyed a beautiful golden brown, with dye made from the tufted lichen, which grows on old posts and on old trees in the bush. This supplied a delicate shade of the new rich coffee brown, and is absolutely fadeless.

‘It was banded, at the bottom and on collar and cuffs, with Naples blue, dyed with indigo dye, and scarlet and cyclamen patterns of a delicate shade—one made with cochineal and the other from madder—all dyes used being vegetable, which do not fade like the chemical dyes. Her skirt was also hand-spun and woven in light beige, with pattern of darker brown, all being made from the different shades to be found in the natural wool of a light brown sheep’s fleece.’

This is clearly not the same outfit as the one she’s wearing in the first photo above, and probably not the one in the Dunedin Exhibition picture (the fringe would surely have been mentioned).

Though the institutes kept her very busy, she still found time for a great deal of spinning and weaving. There are a couple of photos of her weaving.

In this photo and another (with thanks to Shan Wong for her comments on looms, not my field at all) she is using ‘a four shaft counter-balance loom, quite similar to a Kentish loom with overhang beater.’ She is wearing a different outfit from the ones we’ve seen, no doubt also handmade.

Next we see the ‘loom room’ in the Hutchinson home at Rissington. Even I can see that this loom is not quite the same:

Its style is ‘Scandinavian barn loom, which in the old days, 4 shafts were basically sufficient. This one might be a replica/modern build.’

There’s also a little spinning wheel, which is almost certainly the same one as in the Dunedin exhibition photo above, and also in this one taken at Rissington in the 1930s.

She’s spinning long draw, with carders conveniently beside the deckchair. This time she (and the cat) look quite relaxed. But let’s look more closely at that spinning wheel – here is an enlarged detail from the 1926 exhibition photo:

Although the outlines have become a bit fuzzy, we can see that it’s set up in flyer lead/scotch tension. The bobbin brake stretches down from a cord that runs between the maidens, passing along the groove in the bobbin with its lower end secured to the mother-of-all. This was a not uncommon way of setting up scotch tension in the UK in earlier times, and the wheel might have come with her from England when she returned after the war.

When we see it a few years later (if it really is the same one, and they are very alike), in the loom room and spinning in the sun with the cat, it’s set up differently. It’s still scotch tension in the spinning photo and probably in the loom room photo but has no visible cord across the maidens, so the brake by now was probably fixed to the MOA at both ends.

Did this little wheel actually belong to Bessie, or to Amy Hutchinson? In a November 1978 article in The Web, Pamela Simcox writes she was given the wheel by Amy, and I believe the photo below confirms that it’s the same one. Of course it’s possible that Amy had inherited it from Bessie, who died in 1955. Or that it was one of the many things in their lives that Amy and Bessie shared.

Photo credited to the Hawkes Bay Herald-Tribune, from The Web, November 1978

As for the wheel on the right, it was evidently Bessie’s, and she gave it to Pamela Simcox during her lifetime. It’s a Schofield – see
They were made in large numbers in the 1930s and 40s, for use in schools and technical institutes. Their wood was very light and few have survived to the present. (I thank Carol Wingate for sending me the article and photograph from The Web.)

Bessie’s energy is astounding. Here is a drastically shortened account from the Bay of Plenty Times (26 December 1932) of a visit she made there in 1932, as Dominion President of the Women’s Institute. Arriving at Opotiki on Monday, she formed a new Institute at Otara. On Tuesday she went to Taneatua for two meetings. On Wednesday there was a School of Instruction for officers and organisers at Whakatane and on Thursday the Council Meeting of the Bay of Plenty Federation. In the evening, she met the committee of the Te Puke Institute.

On Friday morning her first stop was at Hairini where a new Institute was formed and ‘she addressed the meeting fully’. Next at Omokoroa she spoke to the members of the Institute there. ‘The aims and ideals of the movement were the subject of the address, and many points were explained.’ Moving on, she gave an address to the to the Whakamarama Institute. At 6pm she returned to Tauranga, and at 7pm met the members of the newly formed Gate Pa Institute.

On Saturday morning a School of Instruction was held in Tauranga, where ‘commencing at 10 am Miss Spencer held the attention of her audience for two hours.’ At 12.45 she spoke again, and after a digression for a ceremonial visit from the Mayor, she concluded this lecture just before 2pm. Later she gave a ‘delightful address’ on Institute work to about a hundred members from around the area. After a unanimous vote of confidence in her as President, the audience rose to sing ‘For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow.’ That evening she met more local members. Next morning, she met members of the newly formed Institute at The Mount, before leaving for Hamilton.

Just thinking about all that, I feel I need a lie down!

In 1937 she received an OBE for her work. By the 1940s she is slowing down just a little but we see her still in demand as a guest speaker at meetings.

Returning to our very first picture, it may have been taken at a display of handcrafts by the Women’s Institutes in Wellington in 1932. The Auckland Star (26 November) tells us that Miss Jerome Spencer gave an exhibition of hand spinning on an Irish wheel. Could this be it?

Collection: PAColl-0614-1: Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper, Alexander Turnbull Library

It probably is. The little Ulster Museum book illustrates a similar wheel from the Aran Islands (p.27), and Baines (p.61) has a c.1905 photograph of an Irish spinner using one. Let’s take a closer look at the business end (what we can see of it).

In front are one maiden and part of the flyer of a little upright wheel (not the one we looked at earlier, the maiden tips are different – thanks Shan for this correction). You’ll notice the cord across the maidens, stretching from the tip of the front maiden and vanishing out of shot. Just visible to the left is the brake, attached to this cord and running down to the bobbin whorl.

Behind that, we can see a board slanting up from the table of the great wheel and what looks like plaited straw securing the spindle to it. Both the Ulster Museum wheel and the one in Baines’ picture have such a board, to which the spindle is (or was originally) secured with straw. The straw on Bessie’s wheel looks exactly like that in Baines’ photo. So yes, this is what used to be called in Ireland a ‘long wheel’.

We’ve seen that she owned, or at any rate used, at least five different different wheels during her life.  In 1921 she had a very home-made looking wheel. In 1926 we see her using a little upright with the bobbin brake attached to a cord across the maidens, and in the 1930s she was spinning at Rissington on an upright that may be the same one with a change to the bobbin brake. This one may have actually belonged to Amy Hutchinson. Then there are the big Irish wheel, and the little one in front of it, in the 1932 demonstration. And finally we learn that she also had a Schofield wheel.

It would be good to know where these wheels are now, particularly the big Irish one. I wonder how Bessie came by it, and whether it is still lurking in an attic or barn somewhere!

All the photographs except those otherwise captioned are from the Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi – https://collection.mtghawkesbay.com/
Patricia Baines, Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning, London 1977
https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/ – various newspaper articles
Pamela Simcox, ‘Wheels of interest’, The Web November 1978
Ulster Museum, Spinning Wheels (The John Horner Collection) reprinted March 1969.
Susan Upton. ‘Spencer, Anna Elizabeth Jerome’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4s38/spencer-anna-elizabeth-jerome

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