In the nineteenth century with prison reform the idea was that prisoners should make themselves useful while in prison, breaking stones, working a treadmill (which sometimes was not actually connected to a mill so their labour was just pure punishment) and picking oakum.
I think I had the wrong idea what oakum was – I thought it was rope covered in tar to make it waterproof which was then picked – in fact unpicked, to make ‘oakum’. However it seems that the old ropes and cables which were used on sailing ships weren’t wasted but chopped up and pulled into pieces and that was the oakum. The ropes had to be chopped and then hammered with a big mallet because they were coated in tar to make them waterproof. This was mixed with something water-resistant which could be melted and would solidify such as tar or grease. This gunge was very useful – it could caulk the gaps between the wooden planks of ships and thus keep them watertight.
Picking oakum was done by male and female prisoners, and of course children who were also in jails. It was terribly hard and boring work, physically difficult as although tools such as knives, nails, pieces of metal could be used fingers were often the only way to process the oakum.
Another thing I learned, the name given to the old ropes before they were processed was junk. The word we have today comes from this nautical use – a word used on ships for the last seven hundred years! No-one is sure of its origin, and the word for a Chinese boat is completely different!
I know some of my ancestors were in workhouses, but I wonder if any of them picked oakum? My dad who was a scientist was convinced there was genetic memory and I wonder if I have a genetic memory of oakum and its unpicking? From being a little child I have always liked and been very good at unravelling wool, string, cable and unpicking knots. I’m sure any oakum pickers did not ‘love’ their task, but to me the puzzle of sorting out a big tangle of something is engaging and satisfying!
Just today I sorted out a totally jammed extension cable which had got jammed in its casing. My husband would have thrown it in the bin, but no! i sat and worked at it and reeled it back and forth and threaded cable in and out of the casing… and yes! It is now neatly wound, all in the right direction, with no knots or tangles!
Here is a very interesting article about junk and oakum: