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Monday, 2 January 2012

Three old trades - trunk-maker, wheelwright and hawker

Whilst researching The Gilded Lily, and London low-life of the 17th century, I was often impressed by how labour-intensive simple manufacturing was, before the industrial revolution, and also how ideas of ethical ways of making a living have shifted over the centuries. I thought I'd share some of the trades that are now almost lost to us in England.

The Trunk-Maker
A trunk-maker made trunks, chests, portmanteaux and cases for holding knifes or weaponry. He needed to be skilled in woodworking, metalwork and leatherwork in order to carry out his craft. So that although it was not highly regarded, he must have had to master a number of different skills.The wood needed to be shaped in the same way a barrel-maker made barrels, and then the structure covered with horse or sealskin with the hair left on, or hide tanned in the tannery. To stretch the leather over the wooden frame it was first boiled and pummelled with a mallet to soften it. Once it was stretched over, metal bands secured the whole thing in place. The bands were heated in the fire and hammered and nailed on. Travelling trunks had rings to strap or chain them before or behind the carriage. Portmanteaux and buckets were made solely of leather. The Portmanteaux carried linen clothing or hats, gloves and stockings, and could be shaped to sit over the horses back or attach to the saddle. Buckets for watering horses, or carrying other liquids were also stitched together by hand and then sealed with rabbit-skin glue and the seams greased to make them watertight.

The Wheelwright
The wheelwright made wheels for road-waggons, carriages and carts.This is why the name "Wheeler" was quite common. I used the name Wheeler in The Lady's Slipper for one of my characters who I felt 'turned' from his original ideals. When making a wheel, it consisted of several parts.There was the nave or centrepiece, a circular wooden boss, and the spokes which were inserted into the nave, and also into the fellies or outside rim of the wheel. An iron tyre was fitted to the outside edge whilst  red hot so that it moulded well, and also so that it burnt a small depression into the wood.This made it lay flat with the wood and roll easily.Considerable strength was required to bend the wood to make the fellies, and for the stretching of the iron band around the rim. Picture and more information about wheelwrights from

The Hawker
A street seller of birds called himself a "hawker" from which we get the name for any person who travels door to door selling his wares.There is evidence that goldfinches were caught just outside London at Chalk Farm (then an actual farm rather than a Tube station!) and also at Finchley. Goldfinches were favoured because they looked pretty and lived the longest of caged birds - about fifteen or sixteen years, and were therefore better value than the average bird which survived three to nine years in captivity.Birds were also sold in bird shops, where as many as five hundred birds could be displayed. The hawkers skill was to catch the birds by means of a bird net fastened to the ground by stars - iron pins - and open at one end. A caged call-bird was put in the middle of the net. Hours went into the training of this decoy.The bird was trained to sing loudly to attract other birds, and when sufficient birds had congregated under the net the catcher pulled a line and the net fell.Birds were caught and sold for their song especially in London, where bird-song was prized. Linnets were very popular, but catching them was cold work as it could only be done in winter. Thrushes nests were plundered for their eggs, and the fledgelings were hand-reared in country cottages specifically for sale to the hawkers who would then sell them on at a profit.
Birds and cage images from and

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