Doffing Mistress


Jon simply says of this, “From the spectacularly good Silly Sisters.” Maddy and June of course, who recorded this twice. It’s likely that this Irish song came to their attention via Anne Briggs and Mainly Norfolk has a detailed account of the various recordings, as you’d expect. This is another song very much form the industrial heritage, although linen production in Ireland goes back many centuries, this is clearly from the mechanised, rather than home spun era. I’m quite taken by the line “She hangs her coat on the highest pin,” and the explanation that as a supervisor she didn’t have to spend her working day bent over, so had no trouble reaching it. There is a certain cheekiness to it as well, with the factory boss or foreman obviously not held in high regard. Although it’s also a surprisingly cheerful little song, that probably speaks of comparative, communal prosperity, despite what must have been some fairly grim working conditions, not to mention the child labour.

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44 Responses to “Doffing Mistress”

  1. Jane Ramsden says:

    I mentioned how much I liked this song at about No 78 ‘In the Shade of the Old Harris Mill’. It can be sung with such gusto, the doffin’ mistress getting the respect the higher-ups don’t, because she is just a notch above the ordinary worker. Love it! Glad you included it here, Jon. I’d like to hear you sing Four-Loom Weaver from the same album, which has some wonderful lines, but far less cheer.

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  3. Shelley says:

    Interesting point about her hanging her coat on the “highest pin” – I hadn’t thought of the fact that it meant her body wasn’t bent over, I thought it was as a sign of her authority or the regard the other workers held her in. You learn something new …..

    The first version of this I came across was on “Bib and Tuck” sung by Maddy Prior, but this time with her daughter Rose Kemp and Abbie Lathe. I now have the Silly Sisters’ version too.

    A great song, which deserves to go on my “to learn” list, and well song by Jon.

  4. Hmm, the “she hangs her coat on the highest peg” because the doffers spent their day bent over … a bit of romantic whimsy based on a misunderstanding.

    The sleeve notes for a Brass Monkey CD (“Going and staying” I think it was) say that the doffers would have been bent double over getting the heavy rolls of finished cloth off the looms. Part of the misunderstanding.

    Sorry, but as I know from frequent visits to mills (now museums) the doffers were the workers who replaced full bobbins with empty ones on spinning frames (ring frames). The workers (invariably female and often children) would have had several frames to look after so would have spent the day constantly moving between them and replacing full bobbins.

    Hard work for hours on end in noisy, dusty, smelly conditions, but the bobbins were not heavy (not back breaking in any way) and they would not have spent the day bent double.

    It seems more likely that Shelley (above) is correct in that it indicates that their new “doffing mistress” was held in high regard and putting her coat “on the highest pin” was an indication of her character and that high regard.

  5. a bit more …

    “tie up your ends”, when a thread broke the doffers would have had to move (quickly!!!) to tie up the ends to get the bobbin winding again.

    My Father used to show us two kids round these old mills (mostly in Bradford) and his parents and Irish grandmother used to work in Lister’s Mill, Bradford, then the largest mill in the world. He escaped by becoming an engineering apprentice, something his mother was not initially very pleased about since he was not going to earn at the mill.

  6. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Andrew: my grandmother worked at Lister’s Mill and lived in one of the nearby mill houses, as I did as a child. Lister himself once lived 2 doors down from where I am now.

    At its height, Lister’s Mill employed 11,000 men, women and children, manufacturing high quality textiles using state-of-the art technology. Lister was known as the King of Velvet, though was equally famous for high quality silk, but he was not so soft as his products, being less of a philanthropist than Sir Titus Salt of Salt’s Mill.

    When the introduction of US import tariffs began to impact on the profit from the plush department at Lister’s, managers posted a notice in the mill announcing the intention to cut the wages of 1,100 workers by 25 per cent in the run up to Christmas, and threatening lock-out to those who refused. Lister was a multi-millionaire and, had he accepted a mere 5 per cent drop in yearly profits, that figure would have saved the company as much money as a 25 per cent reduction in wages.

    Not surprisingly the workforce resisted and, at its height, a strike saw 5,000 people downing tools at the mill. The dispute dragged on from December to April with riots in the streets and frequent, but futile, attempts to negotiate a settlement. Various reports describe Lister’s attitude as ‘obstinate, overbearing and undiplomatic’. He was also accused of shifting his negotiation position frequently in order to prevent a mediated settlement.

    But the most damning indictment of his conduct and attitude came from his own hand. After threatening to close down the mill altogether and move production to nearby Addingham, he wrote a self-justifying denunciation of his workforce in a letter to the local papers:

    “The women spend their money on dress and the men on drink, so that the begging box goes round – it matters not what wages are.”

    Since they were denied any help from the Poor Relief, poverty and hunger drove the strikers back to work in April, giving Lister a complete victory and ensuring that his profit margins remained at an optimum.

    But, as a result of the strike’s defeat, the previously unorganised workers in textiles and other industries flocked to the ranks of trade unions, turning their back on the Liberal politicians who had dramatically turned their backs on them during the dispute. The workers realised that a new, specifically working class party was needed and the formation of the Bradford Labour Union led, by a series of stages, into the formation of the Independent Labour Party, the forerunner of the modern Labour Party.

    Indirectly, that was because of Samuel Cunliffe Lister. Maybe the doffers had experience of mill owners like him, and so reserved their respect for the likes of Elsie Thompson!

    Of course, she might just have been an unusually tall lady ‘to hang her coat on the highest pin’ and so all the more commanding!

  7. SRD says:

    ‘The workers realised that a new, specifically working class party was needed and the formation of the Bradford Labour Union led, by a series of stages, into the formation of the Independent Labour Party, the forerunner of the modern Labour Party.’

    Made a mistake there didn’t they.

  8. Dave Rogers says:

    SRD, it’s one thing to highlight the historical background to a song featured on AFSAD, as Jane has done, and quite another to use it as an opportunity for point scoring based on current politics.

    I don’t think that’s going to serve any useful purpose, do you?

  9. Phil says:

    Thanks, Jane.

    “I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”
    – William Morris

  10. Steve says:

    Besides which (and not wishing to stoke a party political debate) its pretty undeniable that the ILP and the Labour Party did much to alleviate the types of outrages that Jane Ramsden brilliantly describes. That they may have subsequently lost their path (in whatever direction you may wish to come at it from) is not really the point. I really enjoy it when the folk song weaves itself into the fabric of whatever was going on at that point in history. Thank you Jane.

  11. SRD says:

    ‘SRD, it’s one thing to highlight the historical background to a song featured on AFSAD, as Jane has done, and quite another to use it as an opportunity for point scoring based on current politics.

    I don’t think that’s going to serve any useful purpose, do you?’
    It depends on how much you happen to think that politics is in everything we think and everything we do. My comment may stimulated conversation here and may stimulate further investigation into relevant music and lyrics. Or it may remain as an off the cuff reaction to other’s comments on the song presented here.

  12. Jane Ramsden says:

    Wow! Well, thank you all for engaging so energetically with a bit of my local history fleshed out by a little research.

    Given that politics is in everything we think and do, I am ashamed to say I have a hard time keeping appropriately informed and involved, tending more to respond to social hardship and unfairness, or what I think of as such.

    So I am resoundingly with Phil on this one! His quotation from William Morris sums up what I think is important in the whole matter. Whatever the politics, the important thing is to keep striving for social change and betterment, and that people keep coming along who have the will and energy to pick up where others left off. Of course, they don’t always succeed or don’t always get it right, but I would hope to ally myself with the ones who have the best track record for beneficial and equitable social reform, in so far as I can judge. But, as an illustration, such history does inform some traditional music, which is no doubt one reason why we all remain ‘hooked’ on it. As Phil says, why ‘it just works.’

    SRD, I realised your remark was off the cuff. In a nutshell, I think you were summing up what I didn’t realise when considerably younger – that political parties may go by the same name and banner, but they shift considerably between Left & Right over the years – not to mention career politicians and the thorny issue of where representing the people abuts with toeing the party line and institutions serving themselves. For the record, I believe the Cunliffe Listers had very strong connections with the Conservative Party.

    Fortunately however, since our Doffin Mistress seems to hail from Lancashire, she probably won’t have had to work for Samuel Cunliffe Lister in Yorkshire! So we can return to the happier notion of “a surprisingly cheerful little song, that probably speaks of comparative, communal prosperity, despite what must have been some fairly grim working conditions.” Phew! I feel better for that!

  13. @ Jane Ramsden

    They lived (Grandmother, parents and 6 kids) in Silk Street almost in the shadow of the mill, I forget which number.

    My Grandmother continued to live almost on the same spot in one of the council houses that replaced the cramped 2 up 2 down terraces.

    Dad was a fund of stories about his life growing up in Bradford and had a great knowledge of local history which alway fascinated me.

    The formation of the ILP in Bradford is a famous story (well, it was in our family anyway) and I have a book on it inherited from my Dad; lurking somewhere on my bookshelves (the book that is, not my Father). His own politics took a turn whilst he was serving his apprenticeship as he started to read the Daily Worker brought in by one of the workers at the Gas Works and ended in in the YCL and then the Communist Party … his Catholic Grandmother was particularly horrified.

  14. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Andrew W

    My grandmother lived in Victor Terrace, also very near Lister’s Mill, but not so near as Silk Street, which is near the bottom of Patent Street that ran down the side of the Mill. That was an enormous wind tunnel, which regularly nearly blew me away as a child walking to nearby Lilycroft School (not Catholic, so didn’t go to St Cuthbert’s).

    My house was in Lily Street, a back-to-back mill house, one up, one down! (save cellar and attic), no running hot water, no bathroom and only an outside privy (midden!) that has long since been pulled down. Victor Terrace still stands though, where the houses were better appointed.

    Yes, the formation of the ILP in Bradford was a famous story in my family too. My father would tell me the first meeting of the forerunner to the Labour Party took place ‘in the front room of that very house’ every time we walked past a tiny terrace house in Conduit Street. I can’t remember the number, but it has also long since been pulled down and I don’t believe there is even a plaque on the replacement dwellings – retirement flats, I think, but set further back from the original straight-onto-the-street terrace houses. I must check whether there is anything on the wall of the local Carlisle Library almost opposite.

    There was also a famous story about Lister’s Mill Chimney, which said it was so wide round the top that a man could drive a coach and horses round it. This is not true! But you can see why the Mill size created a wind tunnel down Patent Street!

    I was party to an anthology of poems for the City’s centenary in 1997 called Spirit of Bradford. A contributor called John Turner wrote a poem called Lister’s Mill, too long to quote here in full, and I do not have the poet’s permission. Near the start of the poem, he writes “Lister’s Mill Chimney/Fills my window…/As tall as Blackpool Tower/Wider than two houses./It is well-known/That the parapet on the chimney top/Is so wide/That two coaches and horses/Can be driven around it/Abreast.”

    At the end of the poem, he writes “Brian…..has the ear/Of the public records officer/Knows the secret/Suppressed for years/Has seen the plans/Measured the drawings./The parapet/On the chimney top/Is three foot six wide./Two dogs could not/Run round abreast.”

    Then he adds, with typical Yorkshire humour, “Dan Woodend at 72/Would not survive the shock/Of this unwelcome truth./I/At half that age/Merely choke on my coffee.”

  15. muzza says:

    So the folk song site also provides social history. I attach a link to a great site called vpike that lets you move a little man all around the streets that you mention. I suspect that you Northerners will have so many reminiscences that the blog will put “Doffing Mistress” at the top of the poll! In which street was Lister’s Mill and the wind tunnel?

  16. Jane Ramsden says:

    Hello Muzza! Great site! If you put your ‘little man’ – heehee – at the end of Patent Street, where it meets Lilycroft Road, the ensuing picture gives you a good long view of the wind tunnel with the famous Mill Chimney at the end.

    The Mill frontage looked slightly different in my childhood days, which were (sorry, ‘was’ – my Yorkshire taking ovver!) when the Mill was still working and before Urban Splash converted it to ‘luxury flats.’ There used to be a metal, horizontal, mechanically-sliding trap door in front of the Mill where the hessian-wrapped woollen bales were lowered down by a man with a pulley. We kids used to try hit the time it was opening for a ride.

    Will try to keep history comment sensible length, but I like Doffin’ Mistress anyway! However, my absolute favourite this month, and all ways round so far, is Sea Coal. I’m happy to knock New York Girls off its spot for either of these two! Sorry, Jon, since it’s on Hedonism!

  17. Jane Ramsden says:

    Addendum: Put the little man about two thirds of the way down the Mill block below Patent Street, towards Heaton Road, and you will see the remnants of the sliding trap door still exist on the pavement under the Urban Splash billboards! You can zoom in for a better look. My old primary school, Lilycroft, is on the opposite side of the road higher up.

    The wind tunnel on Patent Street was created more strongly then than now, because there were rows of old terrace houses on the opposite side of the street from the Mill when I was a child that have been clearly demolished.

  18. muzza says:

    There I was, with my little man,at the end of Patent street, looking at t’mill…
    “what’s all this then?” says PC49….. My case comes up next week!
    But it really was fullfilling listening to Doffing Mistress and from that, seeing the history of similar songs that arose from the mills around Bradford. Good ol’ AFSAD.

  19. Jane Ramsden says:

    All part of the service, Muzza…but then perhaps that’s why your case comes up next week? Adds a whole new meaning to Doffing Mistress, a title that has always made me laugh, since it has connotations with ‘doffing off.’ Round here, that means taking your clothes off.
    Oh, I forgot to tell you, the police station is right opposite the end of the Mill below Patent Street – I jest not!

  20. Hey there! This is kind of off topic but I need some advice from an established blog. Is it very hard to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty quick. I’m thinking about making my own but I’m not sure where to start. Do you have any points or suggestions? Appreciate it

  21. muzza(S.E.England) says:

    @Marie…ref blog…take your pick from this:-

    Back to AFSAD…….I see I got into all sorts of trouble with this in keeping quiet!

  22. muzza(S.E.England) says:

    @Marie……. am a silly old duffer…just seen that your comment was July you do dat?

  23. Diana says:

    Apart from the song itself, I found all the above comments so interesting. It is surprising the information one gleans from all these clever people.

  24. Simon says:

    You know what..? I’ve only just caught up with all of the above. I didn’t always have time to read through all of the comments with the pressure of having to keep the daily entries on schedule along with other tasks. I appreciate the early correction to my romantic folly, but more than that, the real stories that have brought the history of this to life. Creating this site has been a great education.

  25. Jane Ramsden says:

    Well, no surprise if I say I still love this song!

    @ Diana & Simon: So glad you enjoyed all the comments. I enjoyed re-reading them myself.

    As I mentioned under yesterday’s song ‘Good Old Way’ I am going into Lister’s Mill proper (now Manningham Mills Community Centre) on 19th November to see ‘1611 The Word in The Beginning.’ This is a musical play by Nigel Schofield and Helen Hockenhull to celebrate the 400th anniversary of King James’ Bible. I’ve posted more information and web links under yesterday’s song. Can’t wait!

  26. Old Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Cor blimey guvnor………we need ‘alf a day to read up all the old comments!

  27. Diana says:

    The song is interesting – sadly a sign of the past.

    Muzza how right you are – there is such a lot to take in. Glad to see you up and about.

  28. Old Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    How the years fly………….I hope that you have all kept up with that site where you can travel all over to see places from the comfort of your armchair….
    and don’t forget 31 Oct is the closing date for Islington Folk club ‘Trad2mad 2014’ unaccompanied singing competition….have a go…they don’t bite.

  29. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:

    I’m in a panic now as I haven’t put in my entry for the 2015 Islington Folk club Trad2mad….I hope I remember how to do it!

  30. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:

    I’m not a follower of ‘Eastenders’ but I always think of this song when the ‘Doff, doff, Doff’ comes at the end of each episode

  31. Jane Ramsden says:

    This is still one of my forever favourite folk songs… so stop with the ‘Doff, doff, doff,’ Muzzy Muzzander! That is East End, not Northern! Should be ‘Dum, dum, dum!’

    Sad to relate, Manningham Mills Community Centre (where my lovely cousin Ashley worked, running the community café) has now closed down as of end of March this year due to spending cuts. So the right wing austerity agenda of the day has impacted yet again on mill life. Fortune, or the lack of it, turns the wheel… *sigh*

  32. Ray Padgett says:

    One set of lyrics shown has Bertha Wallace rather than Elsie Thompson as the Doffin Mistress ~ this was of course the maiden name of Bertha Brown and some may remember Tom and Bertha Brown from Worksop? Tom originally from Caister in Norfolk had quite a repertoire of fishing songs and did perform locally in Derbyshire and Yorkshire and also guested at Sidmouth one year

    Point being Bertha was from Northern Ireland and worked in the mills ~ NIreland was famous for its linen industry at one time by the way!

    So change of name to Bertha Wallace is quite understandable!

    First recording I heard was from Roy Bailey who doesn’t seem to be cited anywhere

  33. old Muzza (NW Surrey) says:

    Just to note that our chirpy DAINA died today in 2018

  34. old Muzza (NW Surrey) says:

    26 Oct 2018 (not 8th Nov)…..she’ll be chuckling about that…Doh!

  35. Just in passing I can confirm that children did act as Doffin labourers ~ My dad told me he was a doffer in a Halifax mill for a while ~ Chapel” Hat pins” were longer than those found elsewhere, btw


  36. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Thinking of our Daina especially,today…..she was obviously sitting on Jane’s shoulder for her successful eye op today!

  37. Jane Ramsden says:

    Just dropping by on the 26 October, being the third anniversary of stalwart contributor Diana’s demise.

    Coincidentally, I went to a sellout Spiers & Boden gig at the Live Room in Saltaire this past weekend (22 Oct 2021. Can’t believe the original rolling out of AFSAD was so long ago in 2010!) The gig was showcasing their latest album ‘Fallow Ground’ & the show had a strong traditional element very reminiscent of here with some same songs & much historical meanderings. Music to my ears! Lol. Do check out the cd. Here’s the title track:

    Supporting John & Jon was a Bristolian singer-songwriter called Lady Nade. A prolific producer of deeply emotional & healing songs delivered by a rich voice hitting (& sustaining) high notes, but matched by a diversely low register.

    Her latest album ‘Willing’ is also well worth checking out on YouTube, so here is a link to her title track:

    Remember Diana & enjoy! Xx.

  38. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Holy Moly…….Our Yorkshire Jane has been lured down from the hills by the promise of a bit of Doffing!…..and I have just missed the event by barely 45 minutes!
    Drat !…. at the time, I was keeping an eye on the sprouts/potato/onion and carrots.
    Looks like the feisty gal has been out on the gigs out on the rigs attending the old John B venues…….
    Is now the time to tell her that I bought 240 bags of Yorkshire tea this morning…are these items smuggled out of Yorkshire and have I, unintentionally, aided criminal activity!
    Dear Daina would have put me right!

  39. Linda says:

    Hi Jane we did Pocklington show really enjoyed it…..Diana would have enjoyed the show bless her …….
    Contraband t-bags Muzza what next??

  40. OldMuzza(NWSurreyUK) says:

    Ha…..I have cracked open my bottle of ‘Father’s day port’ to raise a cheer for our much-missed Daina. It is good that she is still with us via her comments, as we leave her behind in 2018.

  41. Jane Ramsden says:

    I am on the red wine in memory of dear Daina even as I write. We don’t only drink Yorkshire Tea up North, & are quite happy to export our superior product to the likes of you, Young Muzza.
    ‘Doffin Mistress’ continues to delight me to this day. So glad it is a jolly song for Diana. I may even sing it into my phone & send it to you, Muzza. You did suggest it at one point. (Yes, I have moved on a bit since the start of AFSAD & actually sung a few songs to torture Muzza with! Lol. I have yet to get as far as a public performance at the Topic Folk Club, though somehow I now seem to be on the management committee. I’m sure that wasn’t the case at the start of AFSAD either!)

  42. Jane Ramsden says:

    ‘Ang abaht, Young Muzza! You cracked open your Fathers’ Day port at 6.22am… in the morning, when you had presumably just risen from your pallet ! Is that not rather early in the day to be hitting the bottle? Port for breakfast? Did you put it on your cornflakes? Lol.
    I, on the other hand, am drinking my wine at 2am… which is decent because I’ve not yet been to bed, so that constitutes drinking at an appropriate late night hour.
    Diana would love our rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle! Hahahaha!
    *Exit stage left to bed, to the strains of ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ on Classic FM.*

  43. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Whooa Jane (Yorkshire)…..aha….lured down from the hills yet again by the promise of a bit of Doffin’!
    Ref imbibing my ‘Father’s day port’……the secret of partaking at any time you like, is to have your own ‘yard arm’ and a bright torch to hand if you want to stick to somebody else’s absurd rules..
    Always makes me laugh in films when they say ” no thanks old chap…it’s a little early!”
    Looking forward to getting My copy of ‘Doffin’ Mistress’ from Jane…she is pretty good I’ll have you know!

  44. OldMuzza(NW Surrey UK) says:

    Peeking ahead and remembering Daina

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