The Wheelwright's Shop Part1 Back to the Main Historical Society page
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from The Barwicker No. 32
December 1993

Until the middle part at this century most villages had a wheelwright's shop. They could not manage without one. The wheelwright looked to the farmer for most of his work, for making his carts and wagons, wooden ploughs and harrows, wheelbarrows, horse stands in the stable and cow stands in the mistel, Dutch barns, cattle troughs, sheep troughs, field gates and many other things on the farm. All this and much more fell to the lot of the wheelwright. In addition to the wood working, the wheelwright's shop had its own blacksmith's shop as there was 50 much iron work involved that the woodworkers would not have been able to carry on without a blacksmith's forge. Host villages also had one or more separate blacksmith's shops to shoe the horses and to do much metal forging and repair work.

But sadly all this has gone, fallen under the tread of 'progress', so I want you to forget the traffic jams and stress of travelling to and from your place of work. Let us turn round and retrace our steps on this road of so-called progress and go back 60 years to that (in my view) idyllic decade of the 1930s.

March 20th. 1931 was my fourteenth birthday and I left Barwick School at the end of the week. The following Monday I began work at 'Henry Pullan and Son, English Timber Merchants and Wheelwrights'. They were also the Village undertakers. The firm was owned and run by the Pullan family, starting in the mid nineteenth century by Francis Pullan. He had a saw-pit and wheelwright's shop at Potterton, which was a larger place at that time than it is now. When he retired the firm was run by his son, Henry (Harry) Pullan, by which time they had moved to the lime kilns in Potterton Lane, which had once been a lime quarry. The building is still there and used as a woodworking business run by Mr Bulmer.

I did not want to work at this place. I had no interest in woodwork at all. What I wanted was a job in a garage to be with motor cars and motor bikes. r had spent many hours as a boy with a first class motor mechanic called Bob Walker, the son of 'Uncle' Jim Walker who lived on Main Street. Bob had a 'bike hole' in the lane where I now live and also lived then. It follows that I was 'well fit up' to work in a garage.

This job in the wheelwright's shop was only a stop gap until I found the job I wanted in a garage. Twenty years later I was still working in the same wheelwright's shop, with no desire to change. Didn't old Harry Pullan tell me many times that any man who wasn't a wheelwright was "a gormless bugger".

Let me then invite you to come with me as 1 make my way to work at the saw-mills at the limekilns in Potter ton Lane. Work started at 7.30am until 5.30pm with a lunch break from 12.00 noon to 1.00pm. There were no tea breaks, these started during the Second World War. On a Saturday morning we worked from 7.30am to 12.00 noon.

At this time 1 lived, until 1938, with my parents at 'No.1, The Cross Hill'. We start off on foot at about 7.15am and turn into Towler Fold between 'The Black Swan' and 'Ings House'. There were four maybe five houses in this fold and one was still occupied by Mr Fred Cheetham. The rest were semi-derelict.

At the end of the fold we turn left and see the Barwick Fire Station with a cared-for look about it. We then turn right under a huge sycamore tree, with the ancient earthworks on our left and Mr David Cooper's garden on the right. It was single file all the way.

"Tony Shinn, the writer of this article, who used the skills he learned in the wheelwright's shop
to repair the church gates"

To walk down that path at 7.3Oam on a dark: winter's morning was a pleasure indeed. You had to go through countless cobwebs that you could not see. It was still and quiet and then all at once there was the smell of pungent tobacco being smoked by XI' David Cooper. He was at work in his garden. We would exchange greetings and 1 would ask him what he was on with. His reply was that he was "getting it blackened ower"; of course, that meant he was digging. Tobacco never smelt so nice as on those dark winter mornings.

At the end of the ginnel you climbed over a stile and the footpath went diagonally over a small field. In the summer time in the meadow, the grass would be cut and the smell of the hay was delightful. Also there was the view of the land over Whinmoor. You could see the seasons come and go and the work that the farmers did - the seed-time and the harvest. It was all around you. This was the environment that you were working in. This was rural England in which the wheelwright's shop played an important part.

The footpath led to a second stile and into another short ginnel and out onto Potterton Lane at the limekilns. As you turn off the road at the sharp left-hand bend you descend into the old lime quarry, where lime was burned by the Pullans in former times. This is where the saw-mill and wheelwright's shop stood.

The picture on the front cover was painted by the late Bart Hammond and made available to us by Mrs Barbara Duckett. It shows the wheelwright's shop and timber yard. When I started in 1931 it was different, it was a low building. The end farther away from Potter ton Road was the timber store and the other end was the wheelwright's shop. In front of the building on the way down the yard you passed the oak logs; they were always unloaded here. Then there was an area where farm carts and wagons were kept and I can remember as many as half a dozen 'reared up' waiting for repair. Also in this area was the hooping fire All this was on the west side looking onto Potterton Lane. Still further down the yard and on the north side was a sliding door approximately 10ft. wide and 7ft. high.

It is 7.30am on a cold morning at the end of March 1931, my first day at work. The door was pulled back by my cousin, the late Edgar Wilson, and what I saw would best be described as some kind of museum from a past age. We stepped inside. It was very quiet and so still. I could smell the sweet smell of sawdust from the freshly sawn English timber - ash, oak, beech, elm, sycamore, larch - all mixed together. There was a big circular saw bench just through the doorway, with sawdust 2in. deep or so strewn on the floor around the bench.

Looking further into the darkness, I could see a much smaller circular saw and a band saw. There was a planing machine and other machines that I could not see properly in the dim light. All the machines were driven by flat belts and the motive power was a steam engine with a big fly wheel. At the side of the engine was the boiler house with an upright boiler. The steam pipe passed through the wall from the boiler to the engine. Outside was a tall chimney and the fire box of the boiler was connected to this chimney.

The first job every morning was to light a fire in the boiler and raise steam. This took about half an hour and I remember it was a pleasant job on cold winter mornings. It was a good start to a long day. All wood waste, sawdust and chippings were gathered up each morning and this, with a little small coal, was the fuel for the boiler.

By this time it was much lighter and Mr Bill Stirk turned up for work. He was a wheelwright and joiner. He started work at 8.00am. Soon after that, Mr George Pullan turned up for work and then around 8.30am his father, Mr Harry Pullan, came in. Each of them in turn went into the bailer house, looked at the fire, shovelled on some rubbish, checked the water level in the boiler and made sure that the water injection pump was working and that the water level in the boiler was correct. This was the pattern every morning and at regular intervals during the day.

On the first morning I was given an oil can and instructed to oil all the bearings on the main shafting and also on the machines. This was more or less a conducted tour as I had to be shown where everything was. I did this every morning and it was a time absorbing job. The press button electrical system had not yet arrived in this part of rural England.

On my way round I passed and went between many piles of wood. Stacked up in neat piles they were of different kinds and sizes, all fresh sawn, sweet smelling and all home grown. There were pieces of beech and sycamore for table legs. They were piled in layers of six or seven with an air space between each one and each layer laid at right angles to the one below. They were easy to count when done in this way.

Then there were pieces of English elm, sixteen inches square and one and a half inches thick. These were for chair seats and with the table legs were for the furniture trade. There were piles of Dutch elm discs, one and three quarters inches thick and 18 in. in diameter. These were for dart boards and were going to 'Proctors Wire Works' in Leeds to be wired up.

I passed piles of cart wheel spokes. These were or English butt-end oak i nothing else was good enough. Then there were the cart wheel 'felloes' (pronounced 'fel11es') . These were curved pieces that made up the cart wheel rims and were cut from ash, but elm and beech would do.

But what were those beautiful cylindrical pieces of wood standing an end near the spokes and felloes. These were the hubs or 'naves' (pronounced 'naffs') for the wheels. They had been turned in the lathe and had decorative beads on the nose and the recesses far the nave hoops. They had two lines between which the mortice holes far the spokes would eventually be cut. But mare of this later. Remember that this was my first day at work.

At about 8.30am a small furniture van came to collect the table legs and chair seats. The saw-mill floor was on two levels and these table legs were on the lower level. They had to be carried up three steps and out to the van. It was a slow job and took quite some time. After this the fire in the boiler room was attended to and the steam engine was started up. There was much hissing of steam at first but when it reached its working speed it was almost silent and ran smoothly. There was hardly any noise and certainly no vibration. Then there was the pleasing smell of engine oil and steam mixed together. Mr George Pullan used to say that if a steam engine was set up correctly you could stand a penny on the frame and it would not fall over. He should know; he was an engineer. I was later to see that this was correct.

I have said that the steam engine ran smoothly and silently. This could not be said for the other machinery. The whole building rattled. There was a long piece of shafting across the building under the floor with different size pulleys on and a flat belt for each machine. These belts varied in width from 5in. down to 2in. depending on the power required for each machine. The main belt from the steam engine to its pulley on the shafting was about 6in. wide and very heavy. It was my job every morning as a bay to oil all the bearings in this tunnel-like shaftway under the floor. You needed a lighted candle to do this. It was dark and deep in sawdust.

On each machine there was a fast pulley and a loose pulley with a lever to shift the belt from one to the other as the belt was in motion, sa that when the machine was not in use the belt ran on the loose pulley. Same of these loose pulleys were worn and the noise they made together with all the other noise added up to a terrific din, but then after a time one became used to it. There was one sound that I shall never forget. It was the sound of the flat belts running over the loose pulleys when the machines were idle.

The ends of each belt were held together with a metal belt fastener and each time it went over the pulley there was a 'clack' every time it made a circuit. If this belt broke and had to have a short piece inserted then there would be two metal joints and you would have a 'clack-clack' every circuit. Some of the belts were made up of three or four different pieces, all of varying lengths. It was like listening to a percussion band. It was a very soothing sound and I remember it with much pleasure.

In addition to the main shafting under the floor there was also some up in the roof timbers, propped up here and there with heavy support posts. There were pulleys and belts everywhere. Some of the belts were running crossed, that is the belt went over the top of the drive pulley and under the pulley that was being driven, thus giving a reverse rotation.

The first day seemed such a long time. I was tired and after my evening meal I went to bed. The second day, Tuesday, was much the same as Monday. The furniture van came again and I helped to carry the table legs up the steps and out to the van. After that George Pullan, my cousin Edgar Wilson and myself went out to the timber yard with a cross-cut saw to cut some lengths of oak to make gate posts. By the end of the second day, my body ached all over and on the Wednesday I could not go to work. My slender frame was not used to that kind of punishment.

I went back to work on the Thursday and thought that would be the end. But it wasn't. George Pullan set me to work to stack some floor boards that had fallen over. Then he and Edgar Wilson with Joe Walton and his motor wagon went to Becca Woods to load timber. I was left alone. It seemed very quiet. After a while old Harry Pullan came to see what I was doing and told me to pile the boards best side up so that customers could see what they were buying. Then he told me to leave that job and go with him. He took me through the saw-mill into the wheelwright's shop, where he and Mr Stirk were working. Mr Pullan told me that in future I should report to the wheelwright's shop, otherwise I "wouldn't be worth a light". I did not know it then but this was where I was to receive my higher education.

Mr Pullan scorned the meagre education I had at Barwick School. He told me that I could not write, that I had no 'rhythm'. He seemed amazed that a lot of things had not been taught at school. He seemed to think that I should know what everything was - spokes, felloes, the square, the straight edge, etc.

At that time they had pieces of equipment with names that were peculiar to the wheelwright's shop. I remember one day later on when Harry Pullan asked me to go to fetch the 'little big hammer'. I went to the workshop and told Mr Stirk what I had been sent for. He painted to several hammers reared up against the wall. One was a short one-handed hammer weighing about 2½ lbs. The next was a large one, double-handed with a long handle weighing about 7lbs. Next to that was an even larger one with a long shaft weighing about 12lbs. And last of all there was a huge hammer with an even longer shaft and weighing about 14 lbs.

"Now, lad", said Mr Stirk. "That big one is 'gur t big 'ammer'. The next one is 'big 'ammer' and that one 1s 'little big 'ammer'. And the next one is 'lump 'ammer'. Now, remember that!"

I thought "How stupid!" But later I found out when another wheelwright came to the shop with his little horse and float to pick up felloes and wheel spokes that he referred to them in the same terms. It was the common language throughout the wheelwrights' shops.

But all this was in the future. At the end of my first week I found that nothing had been deducted from my wages because of my absence and I proudly collected the princely sum of 10s.0d.


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