Portsmouth Asylum
Oakum And Idle Hands - Perfect Match?

  From the Portsmouth Asylum Book of Registry:

"Amount of Oakum picked and delivered in 1849: 1601 pounds at 2 1/4 cts per pound."1

A fairly innocuous statement among entries for eggs, butter, and seaweed, or is it? What was this Oakum and what does it tell us about life in the Portsmouth Asylum?

Oakum is little known except by shipbuilders, plumbers, and historians. From a workhouse glossary on the web2, the following definition is provided:

"[Oakum is] loose fibres obtained by unpicking old ropes which were then sold to the navy or other ship-builders - it was mixed with [pine] tar and used for caulking (sealing the lining) of wooden ships. Picking oakum was done without tools of any sort and was very hard on the fingers."2
Ted Kaye, at Connecticut based Mystic Seaport, described the cycle of oakum production from ship rigging to ship caulking:
"Oakum is a recycled product. Before wire ropes, all rigging on ships was hemp. In running rigging, uncoated hemp rope for standing rigging was tarred, parceled, and served. The pine tar and varnish coating wears out in time and since untreated hemp goes slack when wet, worn rigging had to be replaced."3
Once replaced, the old hemp rope was ready to be recycled. As related by Ted Kaye:
"Used rigging was sent to poor houses and chopped into approximate 2 foot long strands. Oakum was picked by untwisting the hemp rope until the rope was reduced to individual fibers. The fluffy hemp fibers were then loosely twisted back together, piecing together a continuous oakum caulk strand while sitting, one hand on the upper thigh and rolling the fibers towards the knee."3
Picking Oakum was very tedious work and was typically performed by slaves, poor house inmates, and prisoners. The slang term "pickin' oakum" meant "getting into trouble", because few freely picked oakum unless coerced.

Oakum in Prisons
Prisons typically provided prisoners, under hard labor sentences, the option to walk the treadmill, pick oakum, or break stones.

Picking Oakum at Coldbath Fields Prison, from the Hulton Getty Picture Collection4

As described in the Coldbath Fields Prison:
"The work on the treadwheel was to hold on to a bar and walk up the wheel. You did ten minutes on and five off, for eight hours, climbing the equivalent of over 8,000 feet in the process. Picking oakum was separating threads out of disused ropes. This was then sold for making string or stuffing mattresses, hence the expression 'Money for old rope'."4
The Pall Mall Gazette, in documenting the prison conditions of detained author W.T. Stead, observed:
"It may be said that a prisoner sentenced to hard labour has to pick three pounds of oakum as his daily task: Mr. Stead, not having been so sentenced, will have to pick one pound."10

W.T. Stead Picking Oakum In His Cell
at Coldbath Fields Prison in 1885/1886

Of oakum, W.T. Stead related the following in his work "My First Imprisonment":10
"Then I set to work to pick oakum. It was not the proper oakum, but coir fibre. I had to pick from ten ounces to one pound. It is an excellent meditative occupation. But it is hard at first on the finger-nails. Mine wanted trimming; for, if the nails are not short, the leverage on the nail in disentangling the fibre causes considerable suffering."10
Oakum picking was introduced into prisons as a punishment for men in 1840:
"...prisoners were given a weighed quantity of old rope cut into lengths equal to that of a hoop stick. Some of the pieces are white and sodden looking... others are hard and black with tar upon them. The prisoner takes up a length of junk and untwists it and when he has separated it into so many corkscrew strands, he further unrolls them by sliding them backwards and forwards on his knee with the palm of his hand until the meshes are loosened. The strand is further unravelled by placing it in the bends of a hook fastened to the knees and sawing it smartly to and fro which soon removes the tar and grates the fibres apart. In this condition, all that remains to be done is loosen the hemp by pulling it out like cotton wool, when the process is completed... The place is full of dust... the shoulders of the men are covered with brown dust almost as thick as the shirt front of a snuff taker... the hard rope cuts and blisters their fingers." 11

Oakum in Poor Houses
We know oakum was picked in the Portsmouth Asylum due to records kept of its production.1 How widespread was oakum picking in poor houses in general? From English law "43 Elizabeth",5 the poor were to be provided with a number of materials including hemp. The poor were therefore working with hemp fibers as early as 1601. Numerous references to oakum production in English and American Poorhouses exist2 and poorhouse oakum references appear in the works of Charles Dickens6,7, Robert Louis Stevenson8, and Jack London.9

Picking Oakum in the East End of London in 1906 2
© PRO (PRO 30/69/1663).

It was only the failure of the poorfarm and workhouse that ended the cheap production of oakum. Without the availability of recycled hemp fibers, the cost of oakum went through the roof since virgin fibers had to be found. This was exacerbated with the introduction of steel and iron cables for rigging.

[1] Portsmouth Asylum, Book of Registry, 1849-1882, Rhode Island Historical Society.
[2] Workhouse Glossary at http://www.workhouses.org.uk/
[3] Conversation with Ted Kaye, Mystic Seaport, 3/1/02
[4] A Victorian Prison. Why were Victorian Prisons so tough? At http://learningcurve.pro.gov.uk/snapshots/
[5] An Acte for Reliefe of the Poore, 43 Elizabeth, I. Cap. II, 1601.
[6] The Uncommercial Traveller, Charles Dickens, a machine-readable transcription, version 1.0 1995-08-01
[7] Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens, on-line transcription
[8] New Arabian Nights, Robert Louis Stevenson,on-line transcription
[9] The People of the Abyss, Jack London, on-line transcription
[10] Benjamin Waugh, W.T. Stead: A Life for the People, (1885). The W.T. Stead Resource Site. Available [Online] http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk
[11] Criminal Prisons in London and Scenes of Prison Life, first published in 1862, H. Mayhew and J. Binny.


Portsmouth Asylum Links
  Historical Context
  Act Establishing (1832)
  Inventory Report (1833)
  Rules & Regulations (1838)
  Committee Report (1840)
  Committee Report (1857)
  The Portsmouth Cripple (1848)
  Produce Sold (1849)
  Meat Sold (1849)
  Town Council Excerpts
  1865 Census Excerpts
  1875 Census Excerpts
  1892 Account Book
  Committal Letters (1867)
  Oakum and Idle Hands
  Newport Daily News Clips (1851)
  Site Mapping (10/5/01)
  NPR Interview

Historical Texts:
  Report on Poor & Insane (1851)
  Fales Memoir (1851)
  Peterson's History (1853)

Selected Biographies
  Thomas R. Hazard -1
  Thomas R. Hazard -2
  Seth R. Anthony
  William R. Fales

Fun and Games
A Day at the Portsmouth Asylum

Other Poorhouse Links
The Poorhouse Story

Oakum Caulking ready to be pounded between a ship's planks.

Picking Oakum in the East End of London in 1906 2
© PRO (PRO 30/69/1663).

W.T. Stead in Coldbath Fields
Prison in 1885/1886
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