More than a pair of socks

Archival Moment

July 9, 1918

More than a pair of socks, knitting for their soldier boys.

More than a pair of socks, knitting for their soldier boys.

On July 9, 1918 the local paper, The Twillingate Sun, published a letter under the caption “Thanks for the Socks”. The letter was one of hundreds that would have been printed in local Newfoundland newspapers, it was a thank you letter from a young soldier (Edward G. Noftall) “Somewhere in France” thanking a young woman (Miss Clarke of Twillingate) for a pair of socks that she knit for him.

The letter gives considerable insight into a ‘home front’ war time activity.

In the early days of the First World War, the Patriotic Association of the Women of Newfoundland (W.P.A.) was formed with a mandate “to assist in aiding the British Empire in the present crisis by providing the necessities needed by our soldiers at the front.” The necessities that were identified were knitted socks, helmet liners, scarves, mittens and waistcoats for the men overseas. In every corner of Newfoundland and Labrador women were knitting for their ‘soldier boys.’

Many of these women decided to add a personal touch to the product that they had knitted inserting into the sock or mitten a note wishing the soldier well with their name and home address. Typically the sentiment of the note was “Into this sock I weave a prayer, That God keep you in His love and care.”

In May 1918, Edward Noftall, age 19, originally from Rocky Lane, St. John’s, Regimental #83 (one of the First 500) received a pair of socks from a Miss Clarke of Twillingate. Upon receiving the socks he felt compelled to write a note of thanks. He wrote:

Dear Miss CLARKE: – Just a note thanking you for the socks which were very nice indeed and in such a place as France. I know the people in Twillingate must work hard working for the soldiers of Nfld. I don’t know if I know any of your friends out here, but I can tell you that all the boys that are here at present are feeling well. My address is 83 E.G. NOFTALL, 1st Royal Nfld. Regt. B.E.F., France.

Your friend, Ted.

Some young soldiers upon receiving their knitted socks with notes inserted while they were in the trenches in France were not content with sending a note of thanks, some resolved when they returned to Newfoundland that they would visit the young woman who had knit their socks. Several cases have been documented anecdotally of young soldier boys returning, seeking out their knitter and in some cases, they developed romantic relationships and they married. (If you are aware of such a case please let me know. I would like to document as many cases as possible.)

Edward (Ted) Noftall was never to meet his Miss Clarke in person. This young man who had marched with the First 500 from Pleasantville to The Florizel, had seen action at Gallipoli in 1915 had been hospitalized several times for injuries in the trenches died of appendicitis at the 3rd Casualty Hospital, Belgium a few short months after he wrote his letter of thanks.

Miss Clarke and the thousands of other women knit many socks and wrote many comforting notes that they inserted in the heels. It is estimated that between 1914 and 1916, the women produced 62,685 pairs of socks, 8,984 pairs of cuffs (mittens with a trigger finger), and 22,422 mufflers.

For some they were simply a pair of grey socks, for the young soldiers in the cold trenches, the socks were a connection with home, the socks reminded the soldiers that at home in Newfoundland they were loved and remembered.

 A Pair of Grey Socks

A woman is knitting most all the day

A sock that shapes from a ball of grey,

Her fingers fly, and the needles click,

Fast grows the sock so soft and thick.

“Why do you knit at such a pace,

Dear woman, with patient face?

Is it for tireless little feet,

Or covering warm for the huntsman fleet?

“Or maybe for fisherman strong and bold,

Who fights the sea when the winds blow cold.

Or perhaps for the strong brave pioneer,

Who faces new worlds with dauntless air?”

“No, no, my child, ’tis for none of those

That I patiently knit in endless rows;

’Tis for nearer and dearer” — then a broken pause,

“For those who are fighting their country’s cause.

“For those who sailed on the ocean wide,

To do their bit ’gainst a lawless tribe.

Thus, I do for my country a woman’s part,

Who give the pride of their mother’s heart.”

“But what means the white row I see right here,

Is it a sign to make the pair?”

“No, that marks the socks for the slender youth,

Who does his part for the cause of truth.

“The red is the sign for the hardy man,

At the height of his strength in life’s short span;

But young and old alike do the same,

For life or death, for honour or fame.

“Blue in the sock is the medium size,

The colour dear to the sailors’ wives,

So in the grey socks, red, white and blue

Form our colours so bright and true.

“And that is why all the livelong day,

I sit and knit in the same old way;

And into each sock I weave a prayer

That God keep our boys in His love and care.”

Recommended Reading: “A Pair of Grey Socks. Facts and Fancies. Lovingly dedicated to the boys of the Newfoundland Regiment. And to every woman who has knitted a pair of grey socks. By Tryphena Duley. Verses by Margaret Duley.”

Recommended Archival Collection: Distinguished Service: the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the Great War, this on line exhibition documents the lives and experiences of the province’s soldiers and aims to encourage interest in research on the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. This on line exhibit focuses on the World War I service records of the Regiment, available at the ARCHIVES on microfilm. Some of the service records are on line at:

Recommended Exhibit: Pleasantville: From Recreation to Military Installation. Level 2 Atrium Pleasantville before the First World War was the site of the St. John’s cricket grounds. With the declaration of war, Pleasantville quickly emerged as a tent city, the home of the storied “First 500”. It was here that the First Newfoundland Regiment recruits began preliminary military training during the months of September and October of 1914. This exhibition highlights some of the activities and training of the Blue Puttees up to their embarkation on the SS Florizel for overseas service.

Knitting Socks: Demonstration: Sock Knitting: In just two years, the women of Newfoundland and Labrador knit 62,685 pairs of socks for the troops in the First World War. Come to the Collecting the Great War: Enlisting Your Help exhibition to watch a pair of grey socks being made, using the original pattern, and try your hand at knitting. Demonstrations are ongoing every Thursday from 2 – 4pm on Level 2 at The Rooms.