Pinner’s Bone

March is Women’s History Month so I’ve been spending time immersed in researching a spectacular recent Thames find, long since at the top of my ‘mudlarking finds’ wish list, that fits the bill perfectly regarding exploration of the lives of women in the past and their links to living and working on the Thames.

The challenge of in-depth research is both exciting but also daunting if you want to do your subject the justice it deserves, and I’m only at the very start of this journey.

No research is ever done in isolation and I’m grateful to Professor Tracey Hill, who has kindly signposted me in the direction of the Guild of Pinmakers or Pinners, a Guild no longer in existence and one I didn’t know existed. Tracey has also told me how she’s found pins used to mark a particular page in historical manuscripts. This was apparently a fairly common practice, though archivists and conservators tend now to remove them from documents in the interests of preservation and avoid staining and tearing of fragile documents.

15th/16th century Pinner’s bone found by me this year on the Thames Foreshore

Every find starts with a trip to the foreshore and it wasn’t the greatest of low tides the day I found my Pinner’s bone. I pretty much had the foreshore to myself, which was an unexpected bonus and doesn’t happen very often.

What seemed to me to be a fairly common bovine bone, I initially thought a femur though my knowledge of animal bone names isn’t my greatest strength, caught my eye when I noticed some deep grooves and clear chiselling at its base as I picked it up to take a closer look.

I’d found a Pinner’s bone.

Pinner’s Bones or Pinholders were usually made from the lower leg of a cow or horse, ie the metapodia or cannon bones. They were sawn in half with grooves, such as in the trio of photos below shown from different angles, where the pin wire was placed ready for filing.

Trio of photos showing the carvings on my Pinner’s Bone from different angles

London Archaeological excavations have found many Pinners’ bones at the site of religious orders, particularly, though not exclusively, nuns, suggesting this was a popular way for an Order to generate additional income. Before buttons became widely used, rich and poor were literally pinned into their clothing with a variety of different types and lengths of pins, which is why mudlarks find so many of these, fallen off clothing or washed into the river via drains.

Pinner’s Bone showing a pin nestling in a groove, ready for sharpening

Pinners’ tools, such as my find, were used by the maker to help sharpen the pin, beginning life as drawn wire (brass/copper alloy.) This was placed in the groove at the end of the bone, at an angle, and rotated to fashion a pin point. The pin head, which could be a solid head or wound wire-head, was soldered by hand afterwards.

A glorious handful of Thames-found pins, pin-tie, buttons, hooks and fastenings from the Foreshore
A selection of larger pins, including shawl pins, found on the Thames Foreshore

The 14th century saw a huge expansion in the Pinners’ craft, the pin makers’ process becoming more refined and elegant. Finer ones were used to pin delicate materials such as silk, linen headdresses or transparent veils, and sometimes shown in Medieval art.

Pins were sold in different sized bunches and held together by pin-ties
German Triptych by Stefan Lochner showing high status women wearing ornate headdresses pinned in their hair, Cologne Cathedral, circa 1440

Queen Elizabeth I’s household accounts show her pin maker, Robert Careles, supplying her with hundreds of thousands of pins every six months, from ‘small helde Pynnes’ to ‘great verthyngale Pynnes.’ They were looked after and stored carefully on pin cushions when not in use. Pins were never left in precious fabric as this might tear or stain the garment due to oxidisation. It took at least two hours to pin the Queen into her clothing every day, and a similar length of time to unpin her afterwards. Pity her ladies maids who had to do this without actually touching the Royal body.

Yet the primary purpose of this blog and current research isn’t so much to discuss pins and their use in depth, but rather to begin the process of drilling down to a different layer of the pin making trade. This is a huge work in progress, and I’ve barely scratched the surface, the scale of this project making me realise just how much work will be involved in order to bring to life the stories of women who worked in this business.

I’m grateful for the fact that while the south side of the river (Southwark/Bankside) was largely a stinking, chaotic, unregulated mess during the medieval and later periods, the north side was subject to strict and careful regulation by the Guilds within the City of London.

The British Library has The Pinners’ Book, showing early accounts from 1462-1464. This is evidence of the Pinners organising themselves into a craft of recognised standing, and in 1463 they showed their growing influence when they petitioned Edward IV for protection from increasing foreign imports.

A preliminary search through documentation shows that women (often completely absent from medieval records unless they paid poll tax or committed crimes) begin to be named from the early 14th century onwards as members of the Pinners’ Craft, but only if they were the wives or daughters of a deceased pin maker. It seems this practice was also in existence in France where the Parisian aglet-making Guild protected widows by allowing them to continue with the business run by their late husbands.

Margaret Hall is listed as having paid 10 shillings, a lot of money for that time, to become a member of the Pinners’ Craft in 1477. Other widows are named as paying 3s 4d to keep up a Pinners’ workshop after the death of their husbands. Among their number were Margaret Exnyng, Margaret Golde, Margaret Crawford and Katherine Smyth, who were all admitted to the Pinners’ fraternity in 1498, though accused of being ‘forins’, ie trained outside the City of London.

The London Metropolitan Archives has further documents that first mention a Guild of Pinmakers or Pinners as early as 1376, thought not their detailed accounts, which began to be kept much later. From the late 15th century onwards they had also become associated with the guild of wire-workers, and later in 1567/8 with the Girdlers’ Company.

But by 1605, the Pinmakers’ Company received their own charter of incorporation. Seven years earlier, in 1598, the Company left the Hall in Addle Street, west of Mansion House and bordering Addle Hill, just off Carter Lane, west of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The Pinmakers’ Company had rented the Addle Street Hall from the Plaisterers’ Company, after which they decamped to a site in St Mary At Hill, and eventually to St Katherine Cree, which they abandoned in 1723.

The most detailed records of the Worshipful Company of Pinmakers are from the 17th to 19th centuries, the latter date surprising as it shows that full scale industrialistion hadn’t fully put paid to the hand-made pinning business although by this time pins were being mass-produced in factories.

The next stage of my research is to look in more detail at the wills of women actively involved in the pinning trade, and see what new light this might shed on their status and role in business during the late Medieval period.

2 thoughts on “Pinner’s Bone

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.