Joe the Quilter

While re-rolling some of the quilts in our collection (see previous blog post), I came across Quilt.16, labelled with a small swing tag inscribed ‘Joe the Quilter’. Although not being considered for display, the quilt needed re-rolling, on a wider, sturdier tube, with archival materials. At first sight, the quilt is similar to many others in our collection, a white cotton/linen wholecloth, with quilted design incorporating flowers, feathers and fans, with a fringed edge.

Detail of Quilt.16 showing scallop design
Detail of Quilt.16 showing scallop design

The designs can be hard to make out, and don’t always show up well in a photograph, so a quick tracing onto Melinex with a permanent pen highlights one of the designs (there is no risk to the object in doing this).

Quilted design - a pot of mixed flowers [Quilt.16]
Quilted design – a pot of mixed flowers [Quilt.16]
A closer look revealed an inscription, in ink, in one corner of the quilt. It reads “This was done by Old Joe the quilter in 1824, who was Murdered Jan 5. 1826”.

Inscription [Quilt.16]
Inscription [Quilt.16]
‘Joe the Quilter’ was Joseph Hedley, who lived in Warden, in West Northumberland. Originally trained as a tailor, he took up the profession of quilting, and was by all accounts prolific. The majority of his quilts are now lost. The Bowes Museum has one quilt attributed to him, Beamish Open Air Museum has two, and a fourth is known in Carlisle.

He was thought to be 76 at the time of his death (making him 74 when our quilt was made), which remained unsolved, despite a reward of one hundred guineas being offered. It has been speculated that he was killed for a fortune he didn’t have. He lived off the parish after the death of his wife, but was generous to the poor, and had a reputation as a famous quilt maker.

[Image courtesy of Beamish Open Air Museum]
[Image courtesy of Beamish Museum]
His name lived on in popular memory, and his house was subsequently demolished. It’s foundations have recently been excavated by students from UCL and Newcastle University, overseen by Beamish, as part of their ‘Remaking Beamish‘ project. They are planning to reconstruct Joe’s cottage, using information from the excavations, alongside contemporary reports and later illustrations in their new Georgian hamlet. The lives of the working poor were rarely recorded in Georgian Britain, we know so much about Joe the Quilter because he was made famous by his death. A plan of his house was made, and a list of its contents, as they were subsequently auctioned off.

A detail of the fringed edge [Quilt.16]
A detail of the fringed edge [Quilt.16]

The following verses were written at the time of his death by Mr. A. Wright, of the Theatre in Hexham:

And the lone cottage on the hill; Is it without a tenant still ?; No. It remained vacant till; ‘Twas ta’en by Joe the Quilter.

Then it became the main resort; There lads and lasses went to court; To chat and have a bit of sport; With canny Joe the Quilter.

Old Joe hedged in a rood of land; As from the stroke of magic wand; A garden sprung beneath his hand; Industrious Joe the Quilter.

His cot secure his garden neat; He loved the lone and still retreat; Glad were his neighbours all to meet; With honest Joe the Quilter.

Of each he had some good to say; Some friendly token to display; And few could cheer a winter’s day; Like canny Joe the Quilter.

Joe was beloved by all. The great; Forgot the lowness of his state; And at their tables sometimes sate; Respected Joe the Quilter.

By efforts of superior skill; He paid these tokens of good will; Humble but independent still; Was grateful Joe the Quilter.

His quilts with country fame were crown’d; So neatly stitch’d, and all the ground; Adorn’d with flowers, or figured round; Oh, clever Joe the Quilter!

Joe’s wife was sick, bed-rid and old; To ease her pain he spent he sold; Oh, there was never bought for gold; Such love as Joe the Quilter’s!

He was her housewife, doctor, nurse; But still the poor old soul grew worse; And she was lifted to her hearse; By weeping Joe the Quilter.

His labour still supplied their need; Till eight years’ sickness bent the reed; And then the parish took some heed; Of poor old Joe the Quilter.

And now in widowhood and age; Frail, fail’d in sight, his hermitage; Was little better than the cage; Of feeble Joe the Quilter.

But there were friends who cheer’d his days; Money and food they strove to raise; And kinder still relieved with praise; The mind of Joe the Quilter.

A favoured duck was dead, but yet; He had two hens on which he set; High value, and a cat, the pet; Of tender Joe the Quilter.

These were his wealth, and these to guard; He’d just receive his work’s reward; And darkling homewards trudging hard; I’ve met the thoughtful Quilter.

Thus oft from Warden Paper Mill; He’d toiling climb the weary hill; Tho’ bed and supper with good will; Were press’d on Joe the Quilter.

His friends, his hens, his cat and garden; He never thought his lot a hard one; And the old Hermit of High Warden; They called good Joe the Quilter.

Oft in his solitary nook; With shaking head, but steadfast look; Through spectacles on goodly book; Was seen the pious Quilter.

His lowly latch was thought secure; At night he seldom ope’d the door; Except to lodge the wand’ring poor; Oh ! hospitable Quilter.

Who raised the tale ’twere vain to scan; But far and wide the story ran; That there was scarce a wealthier man; Than poor old Joe the Quilter.

Satan by this vain tale, ’tis said; Had put it in some monster’s head; To violate the lowly shed; And murder Joe the Quilter.

Missed by his friends at Walwick Grange; Who thought his few days’ absence strange; They sought the cot and awful change; There lay the murdered Quilter.

We pass the horrid scene of blood: For when hath feeling hearts withstood; The grief of the afflicted good?; All mourned for Joe the Quilter.

Know, then, ye proud ones of the earth; How light weigh greatness, wealth, and birth: To lowly virtue’s heavenly worth: And envy Joe the Quilter.

Katy Smith, Textile Conservator


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