Knitters of Wellesley

It’s well known that Needham has a rich history involving the manufacturing of knitted clothing. In fact, a book on the subject came out last year: Knitters of Needham by Chaim M. Rosenberg and the Needham Historical Society. It chronicles the history of the industry from its arrival in the early to mid-1800s to its demise early in the 1900s. I’m not going to try to reproduce that history on this blog (though I encourage everyone to buy the book). Instead, I’m going to talk a little bit about Wellesley’s history of knitting. Although it pales in comparison to what went on next door, there were still several knitters in Wellesley and their presence is largely unknown.

Before I begin, I just want to say a few words about manufacturing in Wellesley. It’s hard to believe, but Wellesley used to be quite the industrial town. A full explanation of that last statement would create a large book, but I’ll briefly say that during the 1800s, there were hubs of industry at a few locations throughout the town: Lower Falls, Longfellow Pond, Paintshop Pond by Lake Waban, and the junction of Cottage Street & Washington Street. In addition, there were scores of small workshops throughout Wellesley, usually adjacent to dwellings, where locals would make or finish some small product (in particular shoes). Most of these cottage industries bit the dust after the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the Northeast, but some hung around through the early 1900s.

One of these cottage industries was knitting. Like I said before, most of the knitters lived in what is now Needham. But there were two knitting ‘hotspots’ in what is now Wellesley that I want to talk about — Brookside Road and part of Cedar Street. Let’s start with Brookside Road because that began earlier, almost 180 years ago. Right now, if you walk or drive down Brookside Road from Oakland Street to Wellesley Avenue, you don’t see a whole heck of a lot:

On the west side, there’s the community gardens, the Country Club golf course, and the former Dana Lowell residence (the 1951 ranch now owned by the Country Club). And the east side is entirely woods that back up to Rosemary Brook with the exception of the former site of a sewer pumping station, which was razed in 2002. (That station actually has a really fascinating story, as do most of the water and sewer stations in town, but it will be told on another day).

Well, way back in the mid-19th Century, Brookside Road was home to several knitters and even a small knitting shop. Now to tell this story properly, I first need to jump across the ocean to jolly ol’ England — specifically, the East Midlands region during the 16th Century. Located in central England, this area was quite chilly and raw in the winter time and a lack of home heating made warm clothing and hats hugely important. Therefore, knitting became a fairly large cottage industry there. And early on, the knitting process was slow and tedious as workers used only their hands to stitch the fabric. But all that changed in 1589 (during the reign of Elizabeth I) when William Lee of Nottinghamshire invented the stocking frame, which was a hand and foot powered mechanical knitting machine that produced knit-goods much faster. I’m not going to try to explain how it works mainly because I have no idea. I guess you sit on the chair portion and pedal away, using your hands to make sure the top part is working correctly. Anyways, this revolutionized knitting and made central England a thriving knitting and weaving industrial center.

Stocking_Frame

Stocking Frame
(Taken by John Beniston — Wikimedia Commons)

Now let’s jump ahead to the early to mid-1800s. The Industrial Revolution was now well under way in England and many of those knitters using the stocking frame were being pushed out of business by textile manufacturers who had built factories that harnessed external energy (from steam or water) to power large knitting machines. As a result, thousands of unemployed knitters emigrated to the United States, most of them settling in Pennsylvania and New York, but many came to the Boston area as well.

The first knitter to settle in what was then Needham (including modern-day Wellesley) was John Turner, who came here between 1825 and 1833. At first, he lived in the old Ephraim Ware house, still standing at 200 Oakland Street at the head of Brookside Road (though he didn’t own it). Some time later, he moved into his own house on Brookside Road. The exact location of this house is unknown, as the earliest map of the area — the 1856 map of Needham — shows two Brookside Road residences with his name (though they probably belonged to his son of the same name as the elder Turner died in 1854). Both dwellings were located on the west side of the road, one where the community gardens are today and the other a bit south near the first bend as seen in the map above. In addition, there was a ‘Weaving Shop’ just to the north of the southern house. Whether the shop had a stocking frame is unknown, but I would imagine so given its importance to the craft.

(And just for the record, I’m unsure about whether Turner’s shop did knitting, weaving, or both. It seems that many of the sources I consulted used knitting and weaving interchangeably. They are, however, different. Knitting is basically making fabric by intertwining yarn in a series of connected loops. Weaving, on the other hand, is taking two distinct sets of yarn and interlacing them at right angles. Maybe knitters were also weavers and vice versa. Perhaps someone could fill me in.)

In addition to establishing his own knitting/weaving shop, John Turner was instrumental in bringing other knitters and weavers from his native England to this area during the 1840s and 1850s. One of those included John Wakefield, who had a house further down Brookside Road on the west side slightly more than halfway between the first and second bends in the road. (It was still located there in 1897, but was removed long ago.) Also, various sources mention that newly-arrived immigrants would stay at the Turner residences both before and after his death.

An interesting side note is that many of these immigrants, often middle-aged men, served for the Union forces during the Civil War. The most fascinating example, in my opinion, was that of John Coulter, an English knitter, who moved to Brookside Road in the early 1860s after spending many years in Surrey, Maine. In 1815, Coulter had served as a bugler under the command of the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo at which Napoleon was defeated. More than forty-five years later, Coulter tried to enlist in the Union Army here in Wellesley, but the enlisting officers became skeptical when the 60-year-old gave his age as 45. Only when they learned of his service under the Duke of Wellington did they accept him as a soldier. (Fun fact: the Duke’s birth name was Arthur Wellesley, but his name has nothing to do with our town name, which comes from the ‘Wellesley’ estate of Horatio H. Hunnewell on Washington Street — Hunnewell named it in honor of his wife’s family, the Welles.)

Another important English knitter to stay at the Turner residence on Brookside Road was Mark Lee, who came to Needham in 1853. Three years later, he and his brother started their own shop on Hunnewell Street (in what is now Needham). This business eventually became the William Carter Company, which operated several large brick factories and was the largest knitting manufacturer in all of Needham, employing between 300 and 400 people at its peak.

In addition to the John Turner shop on Brookside Road, there was also a weaving shop on Cedar Street that was started by his nephew, Edwin Turner. This story is quite fascinating as well. Edwin had emigrated from England to the United States in 1846, along with his parents, siblings, and their children (a total of at least 25 family members by my count). All of the adult males were knitters, and surely the introduction of steam-powered knitting machines in England put them out of work, so the entire family relocated to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A few years later, in the early 1850s, Edwin and at least two of his brothers left Portsmouth and settled in Needham. And by 1856, Edwin had a house and a few weaving shops on Cedar Street:

The three Edwin Turner buildings — house & two shops? — were located in a row along the west side of Cedar Street right beyond where it bends just north of Route 9 (right around that triangle formed by Cedar Street and the Route 9 westbound on- and off-ramps).  In 1867, Edwin Turner sold these properties and moved with his family to Toronto, while his brothers and their families moved to Newton. Unfortunately, the old Turner buildings didn’t stay around for a long time afterwards. In 1868, one of the shops was either razed or significantly remodeled into a dwelling. And by the 1880s, the old Edwin Turner house had been remodeled so much that none of the original structure remained. (And I have no idea about the other shop.) Then in 1895, the Water Department of Wellesley acquired the former Turner land in order to manage the water supply of Rosemary Brook, which flowed just south of the properties. The remodeled/rebuilt Edwin Turner house was moved north along Cedar Street and is now #3 Bobolink Road. And the remodeled/rebuilt shop was moved south and is currently located at #200 Worcester Street at the corner of Cedar Street and the Route 9 eastbound on-ramp that passes by The Wok.

But the story of the Turner family in Wellesley doesn’t end there, as Edwin’s son, George Turner, returned from Canada to live on Cedar Street around 1890. George had married Susan Hurd, who grew up on a 29-acre farm just north of the original Edwin Turner property. When her father died, she acquired the land and farmhouse and the Turners moved back to Wellesley. This property stayed in the Turner family until 1951 when it was sold and developed into Redwing, Bobolink, Oriole, and Bluebird Roads. The original Hurd-Turner farmhouse still stands at #7 Redwing Road.

So that’s the story of knitting in Wellesley. Although both Brookside Road and Cedar Street today show no evidence of this cottage industry, we should not ignore their past. This is especially true because this period in time was an important part in Wellesley’s history, one that culminated in its secession from Needham. Without these little shops and the immigrants that they brought to the area, Wellesley might very well be a completely different town today. So from now on, as you drive down Brookside Road or the stretch of Cedar Street just north of Route 9, try to envision the small knitting and weaving shops that lined the roads during the mid-19th Century. They may be long gone, but their history and importance should never be forgotten.

Sources:

  • 1856 Map of Needham
  • 1876 Map of Needham
  • 1897 Wellesley Atlas
  • Epitaphs from Graveyards in Wellesley (former West Needham), North Natick, and Saint Mary’s Churchyard in Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts by George Kuhn Clarke (1900)
  • History of Needham, Massachusetts 1711-1911 by George Kuhn Clarke (1912)
  • History of the Town of Wellesley, Massachusetts by Joseph E. Fiske (1917)
  • Wellesley Townsman: 9 February 1917
  • Knitters of Needham by Chaim M. Rosenberg and the Needham Historical Society (2012)
  • Wellesley Historical Commission files: 3 Bobolink Road; 225 Oakland Street; 7 Redwing Road; 200 Worcester Street; Brookside Road Area
  • Descendants of George Turner — genealogy prepared by Ricky Bain http://fromscotlandtoamerica.com/turner/  (accessed in January 2013)
  • Google Maps

(And just to be complete, I need to note that there’s no evidence that Turner Road in Wellesley has anything to do with the Turner family mentioned above. This road was renamed from Morse’s Pond Road around 1947.)

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