The Costume of Cornwall

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Work Wear of the Newlyn Area in the Late 19th Century

Josephine Stewart


This information is intended to satisfy the curiosity of anyone who is  interested in the clothes worn in the late eighteen hundreds in the west of Cornwall, and also to aid the reconstruction of Cornish costume from this period.  These pages are also published in book form and available through An Daras sales.
Contents   Click on a topic







Further Evidence 


Gallery of Illustrations   



Acknowledgments:My  thanks  go  to  the following:    Penlee  House  Gallery  and  Museum, Penzance,  for   their   help  with   research  and  for   their   permission  to reproduce  paintings  and  photographs;  Royal  Cornwall Museum, Truro, for  permission  to  reproduce  paintings;  Cornwall  Centre,  Redruth, and Gibsons of  Scilly  for  permission to  use  photographs;   Sarah Thursfield for  endless  letters  about  styles  and  patterns;   Christina Jane for her theatrical costumier expertise;   Marjorie  Cardew, Millie Roberts, Marjorie Holmes, Rita Howells and Mary Williams for their memories;  Jenefer  Lowe  and  Rob Hogg for modelling and for help with things technical;  and  Dave,  Ben  and  Elizabeth Stewart for  their  patience  and encouragement.

 Introduction:Working clothes worn in the west of Cornwall changed very little during the nineteenth century.  The industries of fishing, mining and agriculture dictated  very much the everyday wear of the people.  Although the clothes worn reflected the styles of Queen Victoria’s kingdom, changes were slow to reach the far west, making it always a little behind the times. Regional variations within the Duchy were very strong, and even with the introduction of better communications and transport, with the event of the coming of the railway, traditional local styles hung on well into the twentieth century. The strongest evidence of what was worn in the Newlyn area at the end  of  the eighteen hundreds can be observed in the paintings of the Newlyn Colony of Artists who painted the local people at work in the Penzance area. Early  photographs  of West Cornwall also show the everyday wear of the people.



BLOUSES of late nineteenth century Newlyn were collarless, sometimes with a narrow neckband.  The body was close fitting, following the line of the undergarments, and usually buttoned at the front with pearl buttons.  Sleeves were slightly fuller around the upper arm, and there was no cuff.  The medium or lightweight cottons used were mainly pastel colours plus dark greys and browns, and occasionally had a tiny print.  They were often worn with the lower sleeve rolled up


SKIRTS worn at the time in West Cornwall had a flat, sometimes gored front, with most of the fullness at the back, either gathered or in cartridge pleats (see plate 1).  The material used was serge, flannel or heavy cotton drill, and a button or hook fastened the waistband.  The length was mainly just above the ankle, and pin-tucked pleats were often added to give weight and fullness to the hem of the skirt.  Colours were dark: brown, grey and black, but occasionally beige or light grey.   


PETTICOATS worn with work clothes were always a dark colour, and were  made  from a medium weight cotton or flannel.  In cold weather several petticoats were worn at the same time


APRONS  were made from  heavyweight  cotton,  canvas or hessian,  sacking. White aprons (and gooks, see HATS)  were often made from flour sacks obtained  from  the  local mill, which were boiled until they were bleached white.  Brown sacking aprons (known in West Cornwall dialect as towsers) were worn for dirtier jobs, sometimes over the top of white aprons.  Aprons were very wide, nearly reaching all around the skirt and  were  about  six  inches  shorter than the  skirt length.  They were gathered into a narrow waistband and the ties passed around the back to meet again at the front in a small bow (see plate 12).  This was sometimes tucked  into  the  waistband.  One of the lower corners of the apron was occasionally tucked into the waistband on the opposite side           (see plate 3).  This has sometimes been mistakenly interpreted as a shawl worn around the waist – a style that was never used in Cornwall at that time.  To keep the apron firmly in place during heavy work or in windy weather a second tie often attached the two apron sides together across the back of the skirt, roughly eighteen inches below the waistband (see plate 4).


SHAWLS were always made from wool, usually fringed, but sometimes just  left raw-edged.  They were a plain, checked or plaided weave, and although they could be quite bright in colour, they were mainly subtle dyes.  Working women in the Newlyn area wore short shawls at the end of the nineteenth century; the edge fell half way between the shoulder and the elbow (see plates 2 and 4).  Shawls were worn quite firmly around the neck, fastening with a pin, not brooch, just under the chin.  This caused the  front of the shawl to be open across the chest and allowed the arms full  movement  for  work. These  small  shawls  were  also worn as headscarves (see plate 2).   


HATS  of  all  kinds  were worn in West Cornwall in the late eighteen hundreds.  Straw hats were popular, ranging from large brimmed hats to straw boaters which were worn horizontally on the head (see plates 7 and 12).  Shallow bonnets made from dark coloured felt or straw were often worn by older women over a white, cotton bonnet edged with a frill (see plate 2).   Most  hats  were  trimmed  with ribbon.    However, the most interesting hat worn by the working women of Cornwall was the gook, from the Cornish language word kogh meaning hood (see plate 6).  These bonnets were worn through the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,  protecting  the  wearer  from  the sun,  wind,  dirt  and dust of outdoor work.  Each village had a different style of gook, and all the women in that village wore the same style (e.g. the ladies of Gulval, see plate 5).  Gooks (and aprons) were often made from flour sacks from the local mill which were boiled until they were bleached white, or from heavy weight, white cotton.  They were made to last, involving yards of material, string, cord or sometimes rope to strengthen and support the shape.    In  the  early  twentieth  century gooks were made from pastel coloured cotton, either plain or with a small print.  

FOOT WEAR for the working classes had to be hardwearing.  Small-heeled,  button  boots  were  worn  (see plate 4), but many women wore ankle-high, lace-up boots, like the men.  Shoes were also worn – these were   flat,  slip-ons  (see plates 2 and 7).        This   subject  needs  to  be researched further.



SHIRTS were a square cut with the shoulder seam falling a little way down  the  arm  (although  shaped  sleeves and  yokes  had been worn elsewhere in Great Britain since the middle of the nineteenth century).  The back and front were often cut as one piece, with the fold lying across the shoulders, and a hole cut for the head and the front opening.  Sleeves were added, and the side seam and sleeve seam were sewn in one.  The front opening was short, only two or three buttons long, and the shirts were   collarless.  They  were   very  generous  and   loose,  and  the  recommended length of a man’s shirt in the mid eighteen hundreds was down to the knees.  The shirts were made from a medium weight cotton, and colours ranged from dark brown, rust and grey, to beige, apricot and light grey.  


TROUSERS  were  made from flannel or serge and were dark colours plus beige or light grey.  They were fairly loose all over, had a high waist, and the centre back seam was much longer in the nineteenth century than nowadays, making the trousers baggy at the back.  Often, they were held up by braces.  They had a button fly, and the front pockets sometimes had a flap which could button down or button up,  possibly  to  secure  the contents of the pocket when the wearer was at sea (see plate 9).  Some farm workers wore yarks – this is a Cornish dialect word meaning binder twine or straps worn around the lower trouser leg, under the knee, to give the  trouser  knee more  flexibility  when  working,  and  to prevent snakes and mice from climbing up inside!  


SMOCKS were, and still are, worn by fishermen in the west of Cornwall.  Newlyn fishermen’s smocks are ‘T’ shaped with a wide, straight neck and a stand-up collar, or a small slit at the front with a flat collar (see plates 8 and 10).  They have traditionally been made from sailcloth or a very heavy cotton drill, so are ideal garments to protect an outdoor worker from wind, rain and sea spray.  Colours at the end of the nineteenth century varied from greys and browns to cream and light grey.  


GUERNSEYS (knitted sweaters) were known in the Newlyn area of Cornwall as worsted-frocks.  They were knitted on long stocking needles using navy coloured, four-ply worsted.  The style was similar throughout Cornwall: they were knitted in the round until the armhole, then the back and front were knitted separately until the shoulder, when both parts were knitted together, leaving the neck to be finished later.  Stitches were picked up from the armhole and the sleeves were knitted on.  This gave the garment a ‘T’ shape, with a dropped shoulder seam.  The pattern across the chest, upper back, and sometimes the top of the sleeve, varied with each garment, so that each fisherman wore a different pattern.  


WAISTCOATS  were mainly worn by agricultural workers.  They were short, but usually covered the top of the high-waisted trousers, and they had a high button fastening at the front.  Occasionally they were made from leather or suede, but mostly they were made from woollen cloth, back and front.  The colours were dark or browns (see plates 7 and 8).  


HATS were always worn, and there were a variety of styles in  West  Cornwall  (see plate 8).  The traditional fisherman’s sou’wester shape was popular, made usually from oiled cloth, in dark or light colours.  A large version of  the Scots’ tam-o’-shanter was very often worn  (see  plates 7  and 8).  It was made from wool or cloth and was always a plain colour, never plaid.  Round-topped, felt hats, similar to deep bowler hats were also popular (see plate 8), as were flat caps with small peaks, made from either cloth or canvas.  Straw boaters were rarely worn by working men, but wide-brimmed, straw sun-hats were common in agricultural areas.  


BOOTS  worn  by  working men in the nineteenth century were very similar to the work boots of today: they were mainly large, heavy lace-ups, which covered the ankle.   Tall  boots were  also worn, mainly by fishermen (see plate 3), who also wore boots up to the thigh at sea.  Metal shapes  called scutes (Cornish dialect) were tacked onto the soles and heels of boots to slow down wear, and lengthen the life of the leather.  Nails were driven into soles and heels for the same reason.  The sound made as these metal-clad boots moved on the slate floors helped to create many step dances.  



In West Cornwall in the late nineteenth century children from working class  families  wore  cut down versions of what their parents wore, but otherwise looked very similar to Victorian children from elsewhere in the British Isles.


GIRLS often wore dresses instead of a blouse and skirt, with a pinafore over the top.  This either took the form of an apron with a bib, which had straps that went over the shoulders to join the waist ties, or, for mainly younger girls, the pinafore would be a loose coverall (see plate 12).  This tied at the back of the neck, and had frilled, cap sleeves.  Dress length  varied from mid calf to just below the knee.  High, button boots were popular, or ankle high, lace-up boots, which were worn with long or short stockings (see    plate 11).  Girls wore gooks, like their mothers, which, for economy, were often made in an adult size, and the child had to grow into it.  Children from wealthier families wore gooks made to fit them.  Girls also wore tam-o’-shanter berets and horizontal straw hats.  


BOYS wore worsted-frocks (see GUERNSEYS), like their fathers, over loose, collarless, ‘T’ shaped shirts.  Trousers were also loose, younger boys  wearing  them  at calf  length (see plates 11 and 12), and all wore ankle high, lace-up boots.  Berets and soft caps with small peaks were worn, and also straw sun hats.






Further Evidence  

More examples of the type of clothing worn by the people of the Newlyn area in the late eighteen hundreds can be seen in the following paintings:  

A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach – Stanhope Alexander Forbes  

The Old Pier Steps – Stanhope Alexander Forbes  

Loafing, Newlyn Harbour – Stanhope Alexander Forbes  

The Drinking Trough – Stanhope Alexander Forbes  

Chadding on Mount’s Bay – Stanhope Alexander Forbes  

Planting Broccoli, Cornwall – William Banks Fortescue  

Home from the Fields – Fred Hall  

Sad News – Walter Langley  

At Mousehole, Cornwall – Walter Langley  

A Cornish Idyll – Walter Langley  

A Fisherman’s Son – Walter Langley



Bradfield, Nancy, Historical Costumes,  

(London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1938)


Brooke, Iris, English Costume of the Nineteenth Century,

(London: A. & C. Black Ltd., 1935)


Fox, Caroline, Stanhope Forbes and the Newlyn School,

(Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1993)


Holmes, Jonathan, Penzance and Newlyn in Old Photographs,

(Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1992)


Langley, Roger, Walter Langley, Pioneer of the Newlyn Art Colony,

(Bristol: Sansom and Company, 1997)


Paston-Williams, Sara, Old Picture Postcards of Cornwall,

(Bodmin: Bossiney Books, 1989)


Peacock, John, Costume 1066-1990s,

(London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1994)


Smart, Dave, The Cornish Fish Industry,

(Penryn: Tor Mark Press, 1992)


Wright, Mary, Cornish Guernseys and Knit-frocks,

(London: Ethnographica, 1979)