A Dying Craft - Old Joe Stout

This extract was prepared by Elizabeth Shorrock from the 1933 diary of the late Norman J Frankland, a local man.

 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

The village wheelwright is passing away—fast—and soon will be merely an echo of village life. True, there are many village joiners who can do a bit of this sort of work; but there are very few of the old type left—the old slow-motioned, hardworking country wheelwright, proud of his work and his traditions.

Old Joe Stout was one of these, and one of the last of his type. Some ten years ago he passed away in his native village under Ingleborough. Wilson was his real name, but everyone knew him as Old Joe Stout. He was not at all stout, but this name had been derived from his fondness for the flowing bowl. In his later years this scarcely interfered with his work, but he knew of the time when all workmen were excused on Monday mornings to arrive at their own time. Every now and then most of them would "strike the rant" to use a local expression. For days, sometimes more than a week one or more would disappear, and if a search had been made they would have been found at some pub in a not-too-distant village "drinking, drinking, drinking" till all the money was done. Many's the time Old Joe had "struck the rant" in his younger days.

There is something sad about old times, old folks, old customs, and old crafts, which are forever passing away, but perhaps it is all for the best as we sincerely hope the world is improving, and perhaps reading about these things is far easier than living among them. Old Joe was about seventy when I first knew him, and it was then that I worked as an apprentice under him for a fair long time. He was well known in the district as one of the best, if not the best wheelwright within a big radius of the village, and farmers and others came for miles with carts, traps and wagons, for Old Joe to repair and deal with in his superior way.

"Master of his craft" he was and everyone knew it was so, and his practical eye could see at a glance every defect in a wheeled vehicle. And his deft fingers could fashion a wheel on a wagon so true and strong that it would last a lifetime.

I can see him now coming down the village street to his work. His old putty-smeared billycock stuck slantwise over his head, and his long white apron folded up in a roll under his jacket. His hands thrust deep in his trousers pockets and a long curved pipe protruding from between heavy side whiskers. He was only a little man and his legs were slightly bowed, but everyone respected him, and as he puffed at his pipe and sauntered along, he would be met at frequent intervals by "mornin' Joe".

Sometimes, when we were to work out, he came on his bicycle. When on it he was all right but sometimes when dismounting he failed to lift his leg high enough. At such times, there was a flop and a crash, the bike flew one way and Old Joe flew the other, and although I have seen him fall off in this way many times, he always landed on his feet. In his early days he was a lish, agile man and although his legs were stiff with age now, he still kept a good deal of his agility. Once long ago he was at the top of a 30ft. ladder pulling a hold-fast out of the wall. It came out rather quicker than he expected, and the ladder and he flew backwards. But he landed on his feet as he always did, like a cat, very little the worse.

When Joe built a cart it was a cart. Put together slowly and accurately until it was turned out bright and ready for use in its coat of rich orange-coloured paint lined with black. Nothing but the best would Joe use. Every piece of wood he handled had to be thoroughly seasoned and perfect. It was looked at, talked about, and tested—crudely but non-the-less accurately—before he began work on it to form part of the finished cart or wagon.

Practically all timber used in old-time cart construction was English grown. The framework was of oak, the shafts of ash, the sides and boards of larch. The axletree of elm or ash, the naves of elm or oak, the spokes oak, and the felloes or wheelrims ash. Joe preferred elm to oak for naves, as he said it did not respond to the weather so soon, and so avoided loose rattling spokes in summer.

The wood was felled locally and laid for years in the wheelwright's yard before it was cut up into planks which were again stacked for several more years until thoroughly dry. The cutting of the trees into planks was performed by hand in saw-pits, one man underneath in the pit, and one above, saw-saw-sawing day in and day out—work it was I can tell you, and Old Joe knew it. Many of these old saw-pits are still to be seen lying derelict in wheelwright yards never to be used again—long deep built up pits, and here and there one sees the old tapering saws once used, corroding away on a hook by the wall. Occasionally when wandering in Craven one comes across an old time village worthy who has oft sweated in his youth in the bottom of one of these pits. Soon even these lingering dalesmen will only be a memory, and nothing will be left but the tumbledown pits to speak for themselves as best they may.

It is grand to think about Old Joe, as he sat astride the stock in the wheelwrights shop, bumping away at a pair of naves as he morticed them well and truly, each hole true to one thirty-second of an inch—or less. Then with pride he would stand up to survey his handiwork. Nor was he backward in explaining all the little intricacies of the trade to me his pupil, but he was always firm in the opinion that all marks should be planed off or buried in mortice holes to keep the secrets of the craft inside the building.

The building of carts in the old way has almost gone. Each wheelwright had more or less his own pattern, and own peculiarities of adornment, and in each village down the generation this was strictly adhered to. Old Joe could tell at a glance where a cart had been made, or at least the district up to fifty miles away. This keeping to type did not change rapidly from village to village but across the countryside one form merged gradually into another. The further up the Dales one went the smaller were the carts, owing to the rough mountainous ground.

Old Joe Stout and many another old craftsman like him have gone never to return, and now many village wheelwrights, instead of building wheels in the good old-fashioned way, merely send away to some wholesale firm and buy the wheels—machine made-ready for fixing. Many carts now have the boards and sides of pitchpine or larch from Archangel—even some of cheap redwood from Northern Europe. The spokes too are often made of softer oak from Russia. I wonder what Old Joe and others like him would think of this.

Motor vehicles have almost pushed the horses off the road. Carts are now used practically only for field work and so do not need to be built to stand the centuries. Furthermore, most farmers could not afford to pay for such solid building, or even yet the old-time wheelwrights would still exist. Many wheelwrights now own a garage attached to the old shop, and have turned their attention to motor body building and repairing.

Yes, times have changed, and let us say that all we hope is that they are for the better.

Elizabeth Shorrock is an amateur botanist interested in conservation. She was previously Recorder for Craven Naturalists, and organiser of South House Nature Reserve at Selside. Her present commitments include membership of the committee of Southerscale Nature Reserve and that of the Craven Museum Skipton; also Conservation Officer for the Dales Region of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.

Photograph loaned by Helen Bean.

Photograph loaned by Helen Bean.