The Christening Gown

The white cotton of the old Christening Gown is delicate with age but it has many stories to tell. Over a century of time it has seen plenty of history. It is well traveled now, but it wasn’t always that way. Its journeys reflect the times of its wearers.

In its first sixty five years it remained in its country of origin, England. Indeed it didn’t even stray from its county of origin, Yorkshire. For its first thirty years it didn’t travel out of its birthplace, Pickering on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, a Market town in ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Herriot’ county.

The piece of white cotton broderie-anglaise was lovingly fashioned into a Christening gown by a Yorkshire lass by the name of Sarah. It was for the christening of her first child who’d been born in January 1912, just a few days before Sarah herself turned twenty seven.

00001aSarah was a talented seamstress. A qualified dress maker and tailoress, she had done an apprenticeship with Miss Wood in Norton, eight miles from her home. It was the small town where she’d met her future husband Thomas Smith.

Sarah’s nimble fingers were kept very busy. She had five sisters, the Mintoft girls, who all expected to be kept in the height of fashion. They would often appear with a mountain of material and many requests for the latest fashion to be produced immediately. None of them were ever forthcoming with some payment for all Sarah’s hard work!

00010Ida, Mary, Sarah, Joan, Floss, Emma

The small christening gown would have been sown with extra love and care: the treadle Singer sewing machine would have hummed along with ease, it was not something made for other people, or for one of her sisters. It was special; it was for Sarah’s own baby, Vera, born in January 1912, who was the first to wear the beautiful christening gown.

It would be eight long years before it was needed again; years in which the country was at war; years in which hundreds of thousands of men died. Sarah’s husband Harold went to war, serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps. He came home mentally scarred and with the lung infection tuberculosis. The British Legion built a shed in the yard for him to sleep, so he could have as much fresh air as possible.

Their next child Joan was another January girl, born in 1920, just 5 days before her mother’s thirty fifth birthday. The christening gown would have its second outing.

It is possible that the third and fourth outing was for Vera and Joan’s younger cousins, Bill Mintoft and Peter Belbin, but those ‘notches’ are something we’ll never know for sure. Certainly Peter and his wife Doreen did not use them for their two daughters Angela and Christine, and Joan didn’t recall its use at the christenings of Bill’s two boys Trevor and Philip.

By the time we know the gown was needed again, Europe was in economic depression; Britain and Germany were tossing insults across the Channel in a phony war. Sarah was a widow; her husband had succumbed to the lung infection he’d brought back from service in the Great War, the war between Britain and Germany that was supposed to end all wars.

The gown was needed because Vera had a daughter of her own, Judith Ann born in  February 1938. A year later war became a horrific reality, separation inevitable. Vera’s husband John, like her father before, served overseas. It was four years before Judith had a brother John Adrian, another February baby born in 1942. His christening was during a rushed few days of leave.

Joan worked in the office of the local coal-yard and here she met Frank who ran his own haulage business. Just a few months before she became an aunt for the second time, Joan and Frank were married on Christmas Eve 1941. The young couple continued his haulage business, transporting stone from the quarries for road repairs and aerodrome construction. Their happiness was to be short lived. One day Frank collapsed and suffered fifteen seizures. It was the first indication of a large tumour growing in his brain. He was sent to London for surgery during the height of the bombing raids. The operation failed. He was sent back home to die. He lived for several long painful months, now a diabetic and with a changed personality, finally dying in July 1943. The christening gown would not be needed. It would remain carefully stored in Sarah’s cupboard.

By war’s end Vera’s husband had returned from the desert and another baby was on the way. Out came the gown for Antony James, born in December 1946 and another ceremony in the church at the top of Pickering Market Place.

Joan carried on the haulage business following Frank’s death. For company she kept a liver and white Springer spaniel called Major. One day whilst buying some fuel for her car, she met Ron, a pilot who had been de-mobbed from his Air Transport Auxiliary squadron. He had returned to Pickering to help his brother at the North Riding Garage in Eastgate where he’d done his mechanic’s apprenticeship. He was looking for a spaniel dog to mate with his female. The conversation progressed beyond breeding dogs. A year later, in April 1946, the couple married in the ancient, spired parish church, St Peter and St Paul’s, at the top of the Market Place. Their daughter was born in March 1947.

The christening gown was required again. This time it moved from Pickering for the ceremony, but not too far, just thirty kilometres away to Hovingham, home of the Ron’s parents. But this time its stay in church for the ceremony was very short. The baby bellowed so loudly that the vicar suggested she be removed from the church so the service could continue. She’s rarely been back since.

The gown was retired for another ten years. With the passage of time Judith married John Ripley and became the mother of Bridget. The gown had to move even further afield, to York, over forty kilometres from Pickering.

And here it stayed for Judith’s next two children, Amanda and Jeremy. The gown was an hour by car from ‘home’. By now Sarah had passed away and Vera had become custodian of the christening gown. It moved with her to Leeds, a further forty kilometres from its birthplace. It was now three hours from ‘home’.

In 1963 a hibernation started that was to last for close to fifteen years. And with the end of the hibernation came a huge shock. Joan’s daughter had moved to Australia to work. She’d married an Australian. She was expecting her first baby Down Under. How surprised and excited Sarah would have been.

After sixty five years of living in Yorkshire, the gown was to go on the adventure of a lifetime and travel sixteen thousand kilometres to Australia. It was carefully wrapped and packed and entrusted to the care of the Royal Mail. It arrived safely. It was forty hours by plane and truck from ‘home’.

The baby boy was christened in May 1977; the gown was a link to Yorkshire, a bit of English tradition for a homesick young Mum so far from her own family.

The weather was warmer than in England and the gown was not too happy with the bright, burning sunlight on its delicate fibres. This foreign land was brown, harsh and brittle, not the verdant misty gentle of the moorland and wold-land it knew. The gown then journeyed alone back the sixteen thousand kilometres to England.

But as happens in the world, one little boy welcomed a brother and in March 1980 another young Australian was photographed in the beautiful christening gown which had journeyed across the oceans once more for special day on the Southern Tablelands of NSW.

Another return trip to England; by now the gown had over sixty four thousand kilometers of air travel under its belt. It was an old hand at clearing customs and quarantine.

A few years later and it was asked to come to Australia yet again, when another baby boy made his appearance. So in December 1983 the beautiful christening gown faced the hot summer sun Down Under and more photographs were taken of its long skirt and delicate eyelets and embroidery.

On its journey home to England this time the gown was convinced it would not see Australia again. The next generation of cousins was lining up to use it in “England’s green and pleasant lands”. Judith’s daughter Amanda and son Jeremy both welcomed a boy and a girl into their families. The gown was needed for Jonathon in 1988 and Caroline two years later, then for Maria in 1999 and Edward three years later.

The years skipped by. Antony, Adrian and Bridget had no children; sadly Judith died in 1994 followed by her mother Vera in 1996. Joan became the Custodian of her mother’s handiwork.

On the other side of the globe the three Australian boys grew into fine young men who married and welcomed children of their own. In September 2007 and again in May 2010 the christening gown, so carefully made by great-great grandmother Sarah close to one hundred years before, was in use again. With her daughter, the Yorkshire lass who started the Australian connection, Great-grandmother Joan was there to enjoy the occasions. Sadly she died just a few days before the time it was needed for another great-grandson in November 2012.

Four generations:  Philip with son, Peter, Paul with son, Joan, Caroline with grandsonGown wearers

The beautiful christening gown made with so much love and care over a century ago has woven its links between Yorkshire and New South Wales for many years. It has now traveled over one hundred and ten thousand kilometers. It has earned its place in the family’s history in its new home far across the sea from its birthplace.

By Caroline Gaden   ©

  1. Adrian says:

    Your writing has jogged a lot of memories – thanks for that.

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