The devil makes work for idle historians:
A nineteenth-century printed-textile sample

Jo Tierney


devil print

Devil print by Charles Swaisland, Crayford, Kent, BT 43/290/171123, The National Archives, Kew. Image © Jo Tierney, 2014.

The designs of nineteenth-century printed textiles are often colourful and diverse, with inspiration being drawn from natural forms, geometric forms, Indian and African art and design, and contemporary events to name but a few. It is not, therefore, unusual to find striking and intriguing samples of printed textiles. However, even for those familiar with nineteenth-century textile design, this devilish motif certainly attracts attention. This monochrome cotton print features images of devil-like creatures fishing for sinners, boiling a grotesque-looking man, carving what appears to be a bust of Satan himself and involved in other mischievous and wayward activities.

This puzzling design was registered for copyright with the Board of Trade on 20th January 1864 by Charles Swaisland and Charles Leonard Stable, owners of a textile printworks in Crayford in Kent.[1] Registered in Class 10 for printed dress fabrics, this original, amusing design is striking when viewed amongst the other, more familiar patterns for dress fabrics. Viewed alongside the hundreds of other samples in BT 43/290 it is difficult to imagine how fabric with such an unusual design would be used by its eventual purchaser. Was this design intended to become a dress, apron and shirt, or was it desirable purely because of its novelty factor?

While it is difficult, without supporting written documents, to say definitively what the intended use of this fabric was, there are a number of possibilities. For example, Dr Philip Sykas in his contribution to The Fabric of Our Town, a website devoted to the textile heritage of Crayford, Kent, demonstrates that a number of novelty, pictorial prints were popular for men’s shirting fabric from the 1840s.[2] In particular sporting themes were popular, including depictions of horse riding, hunting and cricket.[3] These designs would have been used for informal shirts, adding colour and interest during, it has been argued, a period when men’s clothing was becoming more sombre and subdued.

dancer print

Dancer print by Samuel Matley & Sons Ltd., Broadbottom, Manchester, BT 43/300/208135, The National Archives, Kew. Image © Jo Tierney, 2014.


Musketeer print by Samuel Matley & Sons Ltd., Broadbottom, Manchester, BT 43/300/208135, The National Archives, Kew. Image © Jo Tierney, 2014.

Furthermore, despite the originality of this design, such pictorial images were not all that uncommon in printed textiles at this time. Unlikely as it may seem, printed cotton textiles were decorated with images of cows, dogs, elephants, peacocks, sail ships, portraits, Napoleon Bonaparte and a cornucopia of other pictorial subjects. While these designs may be very different from most other printed motifs, they form an important genre of nineteenth-century textile designs. Samuel Matley & Sons Ltd. from Hodge printworks in Broadbottom, Manchester registered fifty such designs with the Board of Trade in 1867 alone.[4] Evidently, the fact that Matley felt the need to protect these designs from piracy suggests that he believed they could be financially successful and popular. Without sufficient consumer demand, it is unlikely that the genre of pictorial designs would have become so prominent and so broad.

Moreover, novelty was an important factor in the sale and promotion of printed textile designs, with manufacturers producing thousands of designs every year in an attempt to encourage clients to continue to buy.[5] The enormous variety of textile designs available to the working and middle classes by the 1840s offered consumers at the lower end of the market a large degree of choice, and allowed them to display through elements of their clothing their own tastes and individuality. While the degree of pattern originality could differ greatly, with some ‘new’ designs simply being the reintroduction of a previous pattern with a different colour palette, the range of available designs was vital to the survival and growth of the printed textile industry. Thus, while the devil may not be the most obvious subject for textile design, it offered a very original motif in a market where novelty and variety was essential. Although it is unlikely this design would have featured on gowns and large items of clothing, it may have been used for accessories and trimmings, and smaller items such as handkerchiefs and aprons.

While it is difficult to know for certain how this design was received and used by nineteenth-century consumers, a very brief analysis shows that while it may seem peculiar to us, this style of pictorial design was far from unusual in the 1860s. The imagination that is represented in these designs shows just how vibrant and enterprising the textile printing industry of the nineteenth century could be.


[1] Sample No. 171123, BT Register 43/290, December 1863-March 1864, The National Archives, Kew

[4] BT Register 43/300, March-July 1867, The National Archives, Kew

[5] Kusamitsu, Toshio, “Novelty Give us Novelty’: London Agents and Northern Manufactures’ in Berg, Maxine (ed.), Markets and Manufacture in Early Industrial Europe, (London & New York: Routledge, 1991), pp.114-138.


Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A.  If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us:


Jo Tierney – 

Jo Tierney completed a BA in History and French at the University of Warwick before joining the modern strand of the History of Design MA. She is currently researching nineteenth-century printed textiles and roller printing technology for her dissertation. Her other research interests include fashion history and theory and the presentation of dress in museums.


© Jo Tierney, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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