Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild

Looking up some information on Sir Percy Sillitoe in Tim Wright‘s book on The History of the Northern Rhodesia Police (review), I came upon a mention of the Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild having knitted jerseys as Christmas gifts for the British South African Police askari (ie black soldiers). The items might seem a little out of place given the perceptions that Africa is generally hot, but evenings and winters can be cold – it’s all relative, although these gifts would have arrived in time for the hottest time of the year.

More intriguingly though was who is this group which thoughtfully (even if misguidedly) lovingly knitted items for the BSAP? Stuart on Flickr provides a clue in the description of a badge he has photographed. In short, the Guild sorted extra clothing which could distributed to the front line and sourced items which the War Office required. Although there’s no mention of Africa, the Berkshire at War site gives a flavour of what the QMNG got up to, while a Canadian site refers to a branch having been set up in Gold Coast during the war. More recently, the organisation underwent a name change from Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild to Queen Mother’s Clothing Guild.

I haven’t come across reference to a branch in South Africa, but there was much clicking of needles there during the war which was organised by the wife of the Governor General. The product of their handiwork mainly found its way to the South African forces serving on the Western Front and no doubt to some who stopped over at South African ports on their way to East Africa, India or UK.

For an idea of what was knitted, see a Centenary stitches.

Centenary Stitches

I’d heard The National Archives (TNA, @UKNatArchives) in Kew was going to introduce exhibition displays on the first floor in the Open Reading Room. Having a few minutes on my last visit, I went to investigate – it wasn’t difficult to know the exhibition was in place because all the way up the stairs to the first floor, the bannister was decorated with crotched poppies.

What a refreshing display! Enough written words to supply context to the exhibit but not too much to overwhelm or detract from research time. This display in particular, Centenary Stitches comprises knitted and crotched items, recently made using the patterns of 1914-1918; the items being war-time comforts – socks, gun gloves, balaclavas, scarves and soldiers’ pillows. Alongside these were jerseys, jackets, berets, tam o’shanters (fittting for Burns Night on 24 January), shawls and other bits which would have been used on the home front. Many of the items were used in the filming of Tell them of Us.

You can read more on the website dedicated to the exhibition. The exhibition runs until 19 March 2016.

I was excited to discover there is a book to accompany the exhibition which has a brief overview of the project but all the patterns converted to twenty-first century logic. My wardrobe will soon be expanding… What added to the book was the explanation of how patterns were constructed a 100 years ago and what needed to happen to covert them to ‘modern’ language.

Although this is a London exhibition based on a UK family’s war-time experience, the patterns are international and would have been used by the women in Africa (led by people such as the Governor General’s wife and Mrs Lionel Phillips – Florence) and other dominions and colonies to provide the men with comforts – I can’t help but think of young Munro‘s complaint about a gift of knitted socks in the African heat!