British Patent: No. 5831
Date of application: 9th March 1898
Date of acceptance: 30th April 1898
Title: Improved Means for Restraining Ladies’ Skirts in Position when Cycling
Patent Holder: Esther Matthews, of 172 Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury, Married Lady
and Catherine Carter, Brampton House, Havelock Road, Belle Vue, Shrewsbury, Spinster
This patent is a collaboration between two women (and initial investigations indicate that female partnerships are rare) and the way they self identify is related to their marriage status. Esther is a ‘Married Lady’ and Catherine is a ‘Spinster’. As we know, men were more likely in Victorian society to self identify in terms of their professions, with vocations such as ‘Engineer’, ‘Tailor’, ‘Buyer’, ‘Watch and Clockmaker’ and even ‘Inventor’. Women might be ‘Dressmaker’, ‘Costumier’ or ‘Gentlewoman’ but mostly reference their relationship status.
While the invention description is the most important task of a patent, the job title provides insight into who, how and why the individual invented an item and sought to patent it. The absence of this for women effectively mutes their interests and skills, making it harder to gain a glimpse into their lives (which is why I am also digging into their genealogies – see below).
This particular invention is representative of a category of fashion. Unlike Margaret’s Patent #2 which was a skirt with built-in bloomers, this is a skirt engineered to stay in place.
The design comprises a steel strip covered in material and stitched into the lining from the waistband to the hem at the front of the skirt. The core aim was to maintain the integrity of the garment in the context of mobility.
Esther and Catherine talk specifically about the dangers of ‘disarrangement’ caused by the wind. It was not uncommon for skirts, even specific cycling skirts which were less voluminous than period fashion, to blow into wheels and chain rings. Articles in broadsheets and popular periodicals of the time often featured gruesome stories of disfigurement or death caused by cycling skirts.
The following account of an accident was given us by an eye-witness – “I was in Landsdown (Cheltenham) one evening last week, and two young ladies were riding side by side, It was very windy, and the skirt of one blew into the wheel of the other, where it got caught. They both turned somersaults. When they were picked up, their skirts were very nearly taken off them – well, I found it necessary to look the other way”.
Daily Mail, April 11, 1897.
Sir – I see in your columns a doubt expressed as to cycle accidents due to dress. We have had a terrible one in these parts which can clearly be traced to the skirt. I allude to the death of Miss Carr, near Colwith Force. The evidence of her friend who rode just behind her, says that “Miss Carr began the descent with her feet in the rests, but finding the hill become much steeper, she strove to regain her pedals and failed”. I think she failed because she could not see the pedals, as the flapping skirt hid them from her view, and she had to fumble for them. Could she have taken but a momentary glance at their position, she would have had a good chance to save her life. The poor girl lingered a week. Yours truly, (Miss) E. Whittaker
Daily Press, The Lady Cyclist at Home, Sept 20, 1896, p.27
Esther and Catherine explain how their invention works:
Would this actually work? I’m not sure. Esther and Carter are essentially sewing a fairly hefty piece of metal into a skirt with the premise of being simultanesouly flexible and stiff enough to enable legs to pedal but also keep the skirt low and out of the wind. I might have to make it in order to see…..
It is clear from a map of their addresses that Esther and Catherine lived close to one another in Shrewsbury, Shropshire (try saying that fast). They were located less than a mile apart. It would have been an easy cycle.
Esther tells us that Matthews is her married name and that she lived, at least in 1898, at 172 Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury. So I immediately dismiss any Esther Williams’ who list Matthews as their ‘maiden’ names.
Catherine Carter declares (or the Patent office assigns her this identifier) that she is a spinster, so I begin looking for her full name in relation to being the daughter or sister of another Carter.
At first I wonder if they were sisters – Esther having changed her name in marriage. But this yields little results.
These two women turn out to be much harder to find than previous patent holders. They have popular names and (at first) my archival searches do not come close to fitting with the scarce info we have on them.
I am more successful with Catherine Carter when I stumble across reference to insurance policies bought by Catherine and her sister Sarah Carter for Brampton House. They apparently took out an Alliance Assurance Company fire policy in 1894 and Government Aircraft Insurance in 1911 and 1916 – both with Arnold, Greenwood and Sons, Solicitors, Kendal. I was initially excited about the later suggesting that one of them might have been an aviatrix. But it was more likely a policy to insure against ‘Aerial Craft, or shots, shells, bombs or missiles’ (ref).
What this tells us is that the sisters lived together in the house until 1916, with neither marrying during this time – as the man’s name would most likely have been listed as the key insurance holder.
Knowing that Catherine had a sister provided more evidence to trawl the records. I did find one potential combination of Catherine and Sarah Carter in the 1891 English Census records.
If this was them, they lived with their mother, Elizabeth, a widow and the ‘head’ of the household at 66 years of age. In terms of employment Elizabeth is listed as ‘living on her own means’. The census has them living at 122 Grassendale Road, Shrewsbury, at this time (which I can’t find on any current map). Catherine was 34 and Sarah was 32 in 1891 which would have them at 41 and 39, respectively at the time the patent was lodged.
Now that I had a lead, I looked into the 1881 English Census.
I found a family that matched in terms of dates and locations. Here, ten years earlier, we find Catherine’s father still alive. He is 53 and working as a ‘Timber Merchant’. He was born in ‘Lancashire, Kirby’. Perhaps he died from work place incident? Maybe this made the sisters even more aware and sensitive to accidents that could be averted (hence the skirt invention)?
This Census also shows they were part of a much larger family; there were also three sons living at home (21, 19 and 14). Two older boys are ‘Clerks’. I can’t decipher what the younger one is. It should be ‘Scholar’ at this age but it appears to start with ‘M”. (Assistance welcome!).
The family is also registered as living at 5 Mayfield Road, Garston.
The following decade was quite tumultuous for the family. John Carter died, all three boys left home and the women moved house. Yet, they clearly retained the means to lodge a patent and live independently.