Newsletter 11: Summer 2016

Excursion to Chedham’s Yard Wellesbourne 29th July

Eight Members attended.  The weather was kind and nobody got lost.

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History

Thomas Chedham, a journeyman wheelwright from Herefordshire, moved to the village in 1816-1817.  He set up his own business in 1820 to meet the needs of the local agricultural estates.  Work at the Yard finally stopped in 1967, five generation later.  The purchase of the site and the creation of the Museum were assisted by the Heritage Lottery Fund in recognition the outstanding national interest of the buildings and their contents.

Perhaps misleadingly, it is described as a wheelwright and blacksmith business.  The two trades seem always to have been run separately on the same site because handling of the raw materials required specialist skills and a forge in a woodworking shop is not a promising combination.  They did, of course, come together when strakes or tyres were fitted to the finished wheels.  George Sturt who was not a time-served craftsman recorded all this in ‘The Wheelwright’s Shop’ (1923) after he took over a family business in Farnham.

Context

Younger Members may not be aware of the depressed state of farming, even when I was a boy.  We used to drive from Norwich to explore the winding lanes of Suffolk where the hedges grew together over the road.  I now realise this was neglect and dereliction.

The difficulties began after the battle of Waterloo in 1815, when soldiers returned to unemployment and the massive spending on the armed forces dried up.  Industry was a powerful force politically and cheap food was essential to maintain low wages.  The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 allowed the import of foreign grain, to be followed by fruit and frozen meat.  There was not much sustained interest in technology and respectable people engaged with what we now call financial services.  Interestingly enough, someone had neatly recorded the passing of the 1846 Act and other events in sign written letters, on a beam in the wheelwrights’ workshop.  The yard had supplied signs and notices, as well as painting owners’ details on their vehicles; many examples of this work were casually displayed. 

In 1872 the Agricultural Labourers’ Union was founded outside the village pub where we had lunch; it could not accommodate the two thousand farm workers who met here in the hope of better things.  Of course, the farmers were affected too.  There was little money to commission new carts and wagons or to pay bills for repairs and tools.  To make a living, the Chedham family had the capital to diversify into agricultural contracting and, later on, motor vehicles.  The last Chedham ruefully noted that bills were only paid when more work was needed.

Working Methods

The workshops were open sheds. One contained a jumbled mass of specialist appliances, patterns, tools and examples of what was produced by the firm throughout its working life.  Of course Richard Arnold found some moulding planes.  It was striking that almost all the wagon parts were elegantly shaped with flowing curves and that chamfers were used everywhere to reduce weight, giving scope for elaborate paintwork.

The pace of change was slow, though eventually powered circular saws came into use, probably powered by gas engines.  The saw bench stood in the open air.  George Sturt casually remarks that his father introduced the lathe into his Farnham workshop but it had to be turned by hand.  The hub of the old cartwheel which transmitted the belt drive had been neatly shaped with an axe.  With no evidence of a pit, local timber may have been sawn on trestles.  Having thought about it, it is possible that the conversion of large butts of timber for this small business was undertaken elsewhere in the village or locally.  At the yard space is limited and access for a timber bob, two pairs of massive high-wheeled axles from which the tree was hung, would be difficult.   Written sources suggest that sawyers had specialist skills, were itinerant and that the work was to some extent seasonal.  Apparently their behaviour was eccentric, drunken and unreliable.

 

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A straking pit survives at Wellesbourne.  Before the use of continuous iron tyres, staggered rows of separate iron strakes were nailed to the wooden wheels.  Each strake was fixed, hot from the forge; the work had to be completed in seconds to avoid burning the wooden rim.  Once nailed, the wheel was turned to quench the heated section in the water below.

A working blacksmith manned the forge where the hundreds of small fixings needed to complete and equip wheeled vehicle were once made, as well as the metal work for axles hubs and tyres.  

Conclusion

Members enjoyed the visit, helped by enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteer guides.  Anyone intending to go should be aware that usually the Yard is only open on Saturdays and that, unless there are special events, it closes at 1400 hours.

Michael Woods                                                    Tel: 01572 722448 mikerwoods@btinternet.com

7th October 2016                                       * Please keep in touch