It’s a My Place Wednesday! I’ve known today’s designer – entirely through interactions here on this blog – for several years, and am so happy that she decided to contribute this brilliant pattern to the My Place project. As well as being a knitter, Lucy Razzall is the author of Boxes and Books in Early Modern England, a book which explores the cultural and literary importance of chests, reliquaries, boxes, and other containers in the Seventeenth Century. Lucy’s research sits very much at the intersection of thought and things – and the same might be said of her beautiful My Place design. Inspired by a distinctive feature of the London pavement that’s often barely noticed, Lucy’s pattern takes inspiration from the very ground beneath our feet and celebrates the creative work of everyday design. Operculum is Lucy’s first published pattern, and she’s kindly making it available on Ravelry for free. Here she is to tell you more about it.

In March 2020, when the world suddenly shrank under Covid-19 lockdowns, I had two children under 4 years old at home. As city-dwellers without a garden to speak of, we felt the closure of public parks and playgrounds profoundly, and had to find new ways of being outdoors. In those extraordinary days, we enjoyed exploring the immediate surroundings of our neighbourhood in more intimate detail. My younger son took his first steps on the eerily empty pavements of central London, and amongst our discoveries during these slow adventures were the Victorian coalhole covers which punctuate many of our local streets.

These plates of cast iron, usually 12-14 inches in diameter, were in use from the mid-nineteenth century until the 1920s. Set into the pavement in front of terraced townhouses, each covers a chute, down which deliveries of coal would be emptied into the cellar below. These traces of a time when coal was the main source of energy for cooking and heating might be easily overlooked in the hustle of the modern city, but they survive as beautiful examples of Victorian craft. The surface of each cover bears a decorative design, ranging from kaleidoscopes of dots and circles, to snowflakes and exploding stars, grids, and concentric rings. These patterns are often combined with elegant lettering, marking the names and addresses of the local ironmongers who made them. 

Many of the London coalhole covers were sketched in 1863 by Shepherd Taylor, a medical student at King’s College Hospital. His images were eventually published in 1929, and Taylor called these artefacts “opercula”, from the singular “operculum” meaning “cover” or “lid”, a Latin term presumably familiar to him from its multiple uses in zoology and human anatomy. When I saw Taylor’s sketches, I was immediately struck by the resemblance of these graphic circles to knitted tams, with their similarly branching designs that embrace the circular form and play with radial and concentric patterns. I have borrowed Taylor’s term for these coalhole plates, with its associations of both covering and warmth, for my hat, Operculum, which is inspired by the geometric designs I walk over every day. 

Coalhole covers are invitingly tactile, adding texture and interest to the surface of the pavement. Indeed, my older son and I occupied some of those long lockdown days making wax rubbings of the covers near our house. 

Some research then led me to Lily Goddard, Vienna-born textile designer and lecturer in the mid-twentieth century, who exhibited her own extensive collection of coalhole rubbings in the 1970s at the Central Library, Kensington and Chelsea, and at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge. She gave some of her rubbings of coal hole covers to the Victoria & Albert Museum, which also holds samples of her wallpapers for Cole & Son and her printed textiles such as these joyously leaping deer, as well as more abstract patterns which further attest to her interest in the two-tone effects of surface and relief. Goddard also published an educational book about coalholes, with explanations of how to take and mount rubbings, and suggestions for using them as creative inspiration in other media, from collage and clay to lino cuts and block and screen printing on textiles. Coalhole rubbings, she observes, “with their image of clearly defined lines and small solid shapes, present both textured and graphic solutions […] exciting themes can be found, arranged, and rearranged, and the various elements of the original coalhole pattern will offer endless combinations if treated in a free and imaginative manner”. The book makes no reference to knitting, but Goddard’s principles apply to my hat design, which uses two contrasting shades of Milarrochy Tweed and some simple repeating colourwork patterns in response to the striking effects of these coalhole rubbings. I used Ardlui and Hirst here, but there is much potential for playing around with other combinations from the eighteen shades in the range.

In researching Lily Goddard, I discovered that she also published a small book of her own creative writing, which includes several verse elegies to Victorian street furniture, from street lamps and bootscrapers to coalhole covers, praising “the skilful labour” of their makers. However, what really struck me as I read this little volume while thinking about the KDD My Place project, was how intensely Goddard herself thought about ideas of place. She shares memories of Brighton, Cambridge, and the river Thames at Richmond, but also, very movingly, some of her family history. After escaping to London with her mother as refugees from Austria in 1939, she never saw her father again. In an especially poignant detail from this time, she describes precious photographs which came with her to London, “treasured and judged more important than other belongings” which were “‘hurriedly packed and put into a suitcase – tucked between woollen jumpers and shoes. They also escaped to a new country that offered refuge and freedom and, finally, love and home”. 

Thank you, Kate and the KDD team, for prompting me to think about my part of London in new ways, especially the pavements whose cast iron decorative features have been intriguing to so many in different ways over the last 160 years.

Thank you Lucy for a hat whose creative celebration of the ordinary thing-ness of place is what this project is all about!

Lucy’s Operculum design is now available on Ravelry

Further reading: 

Lily Goddard, Coalhole Rubbings: The Story of an Artefact in our Streets (Tunbridge Wells: Midas Books, 1979)

Lily Goddard, Nostalgia without Tears: Reflections in prose and verse (Richmond: Kingprint, 1983)

Shepherd Taylor, Opercula (London Coal Plates), Sketched by Æsculapius Junior (Cambridge: The Golden Head Press, 1929)