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Helmdon Historical Articles

A Craftsman's Notebook

The Notebook and its Author

an article by Diana Burfield


As I am not writing a novel, I must deny myself the pleasure of speculating why a village craftsman should confide his designs and measurements for various everyday articles to a pretty little album with gilt-edged pastel-coloured pages rather than a more prosaic notebook.  Yet this is the item that turned up in my second-hand bookshop among a miscellaneous “lot” some twenty years ago.  The book, measuring 7¼ by 4½ inches, contains 196 pages, nearly all of them covered with specifications – written in ink and pencil in a bold and fairly legible hand, and accompanied by some wobbly sketches – for a variety of vehicles, farm and domestic items, and plans for cottages.  Sometimes the name of the customer or farm is given, but there are few indications of date or cost. Presumably these were the first rough notes on which to base a costing and an estimate for the customer.

Interspersed with the specifications are revealing oddments of information: recipes for polish (Figure 1), addresses of suppliers; a list of the duties of the parish overseer; references to a few significant public events.  These suggested that the owner of the notebook was a wheelwright and carpenter probably working in Helmdon at the end of the nineteenth century.  The earliest date cited is 1876 (a list of tenders for the restoration of Helmdon church)¹, the latest 1901, the Coronation holiday of Edward VII.


Figure 1
Figure 1.


The identity of the wheelwright is less certain; there are two possible candidates.  Alfred Watts, the only person listed as both carpenter and wheelwright in Kelly’s Directory for 1894, also appears in the Censuses for 1891 (as a builder living at School House, Helmdon) and 1901.  In the latter he is living “near School”:


Alfred Watts, head of household, aged 39, builder, contractor. Employer working at home,  born at Weston by Weedon, Northants.

Mary A.E Watts, wife, aged 36, born at Moreton Pinkney, Northants
7 children aged 5-12, and a general domestic servant, Dora Brightwell, aged 15, all born at Helmdon.


The 1901 Census also lists, living at 62 Chapel Road, Helmdon:


Arthur Taylor, head of household, aged 50, carpenter and wheelwright, worker on own account living at home, born at Woodend, Northants. Ann E. Taylor, wife, aged 43, born at Sulgrave.
Harry D., son, aged 10, born at Helmdon.


Others employed in related trades as workers are Daniel Wilkins, aged 37, wheelwright and carpenter; Thomas Templeman, aged 16, carpenter’s apprentice; Malcolm E. Ellis, aged 18, builder’s apprentice.²  There is also a blacksmith, who would certainly have had a close working association with the wheelwright.

Which of these was the author of the notebook?  I am inclined to think it was Arthur Taylor, mainly because he bid for the contract for Helmdon Church in 1876 (see Note 1) when he would have been about 25.

Working Life

With this much apparent from a preliminary examination of the material, the urge to explore further was irresistible.  An additional incentive was to compare the life and work of the Northamptonshire craftsman with George Sturt’s classic account of his own experience at Farnham in Surrey over roughly the same period (The Wheelwright’s Shop, 1923).  Both men practised highly skilled, centuries-old trades vital to their rural communities at a time when they were beginning to be superseded by the advent of the internal combustion engine and the transformation of coachbuilding by the mechanized factory-production of standardized parts.  Nevertheless, horse-drawn transport still predominated up to, and even during the First World War, and the demand for custom-built vehicles persisted.

From the mid nineteenth century factory-made parts as well as specialized machinery, for instance for spoke-shaving, were available from suppliers who advertised in the trade press – journals such as Work: an Illustrated Magazine of Practice and Theory  (established 1889) and the splendidly titled The Blacksmith, Horse-shoers Gazette, Wheelwright’s and Cart and Wagon Maker’s Review.  However, from the evidence of his notebook, the wheelwright had little recourse to ready-made components, and may have constructed some of his own machinery (Figure 2).


Figure 2
Figure 2.


Local conditions created specialized needs, as Sturt so eloquently expressed:


But where begin to describe so efficient an organism, in which all the parts interacted until it was hard to say which was modified first, to meet which other?  Was it to suit the horse or the ruts, the leading or the turning, that the front wheels had to have a diameter of about four feet?  Or was there something in the average height of a carter, or in the skill of wheel-makers, that fixed these dimensions?… I only know that in these and a hundred details every well-built farm-waggon (of whatever variety) was like an organism, reflecting in every curve and every dimension some special need of its own countryside, or perhaps some special difficulty attending wheelwrights with the local timber (Sturt, 1923: 66-7).

The construction of carts (2 wheels), wagons (4 wheels), and carriages varied both according to function and to regional style.³ For instance in Northamptonshire, the Rutland wagon, a box type, was common in most parts except the southern fringe, where the S. Midlands spindle-sided bow type, of which the Oxfordshire wagon is an example, predominated (for details see Jenkins, 1981).  Each type had its distinctive livery – yellow, with a red undercarriage in the latter case.  The Helmdon wheelwright fulfilled several orders for Oxfordshire wagons (Figure 3), as well as for other types including a “double shaft wagon for Mr Fairbrother”, and “straight-bedded wagons” to various specifications.  The range of carts was even wider: carrier’s cart, donkey cart, dung cart, “light size two horse boarded rave cart”, light one horse cart” for Mr Salmon, “one horse Crosskill cart”4, Scotch cart and Scotch cart bed (1897)5, and various spring carts for G. Hawkes, J. Watson, and Mr Jeffry, and two cart beds for Mr Barford, Astwell Park.  Carriages included one for W Humphrey, Hay Merchant (in 1894), a one horse carriage for Mr Hill, Northampton, a spring trap for Mr Constable, a “stout carriage” for Mr Liddington, and several timber carriages.6


Figure 3
Figure 3.


Barrows, which were regarded as test pieces for apprentice wheelwrights, came in various styles: box barrows, a “boy’s string barrow”,  a large stable barrow for Mr Thomason, hand barrows and Navvy barrows.  The wheelwright also provided the local farmers with pretty well everything that could be constructed of timber, from cow stalls and hen-pens to gates and fences, as well as scalding trays, potato troughs, and even implements such as harrows and turnip cutters. Domestic items included assorted pieces of furniture, clothes horses, and kitchen equipment such as a flour bin and a salt box.  A lace-making pillow horse testifies to the practice of this traditional Northamptonshire craft by the village women.

The building side of the business involved repairs and replacements, as well as the construction of cottages to fairly simple specifications.  Plans for a row of cottages on Mr Sanders’s farm at Fleet Farm, near Aylesbury, for Christ Church, Oxford, encouraged me to hope that it would be possible to view an example of our craftsman’s work, but so far the archivist has been unable to trace any records, though Sanders’s Farm was part of an estate purchased by the college in 1867.  The only other example shows elevations and floor plans for a pair of two-up, two-down cottages for Mr Bird.  A diagram and specifications are given for a staircase and windows for Mr Treadwell’s house at Slapton, and windows for Mr Adkins, Mrs Kelly, Miss Liddington, Mrs Young (Stuckley), and Culworth Cottage.  Accommodation for the dead as well as the living was not neglected in the shape of biers, coffins, and brick graves.

But there were also village festivities, requiring the author of the notebook to construct a set of tables for the Conservative dinner;  a theatre stage complete with footlight and curtains; and a refreshment tent for the Coronation holiday, 90ft  x 21ft, with a lock-up store for 6 barrels of beer and a urinal (Figure 4) – apparently it was not thought necessary to provide facilities for the women.


Figure 4
Figure 4.

The Village and its Inhabitants

It is instructive to compare the picture of village life given in the notebook with information provided by Kelly’s Directory for 1894, which shows Helmdon to have been a largely self-supporting farming community, population 502, with its own church and chapel, Board School and Infants’ School, a post office pub, Reading Room, various retailers, and a railway station.  The principal crops are given as wheat and beans.  It is clear from the notebook that livestock were kept – sheep, cows, pigs, and poultry, perhaps in small number for domestic use – and there would have been considerable numbers of horses for farm work and transport.  Kelly’s lists the principal landowners as the provost and Fellows of Worcester College, Oxford, Lords of the Manor; the President and Fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford; and the Trustees of the late James Fairbrother, and gives the area of the parish as 1,739 acres at a rateable value of £2,583.  The table below appears in the wheelwright’s notebook.

Landowner’s name in parenthesis


Manor (Worcester College)
Lower Farm (Mr Fairbrother) 
J. Watson, Astwell Ground
Home Farm
Rectory glebe (Worcester)
Mr Stopps (Magdalen College)
Mr Wrighton (illegible)
Mr Salmon (Mr Ellis)
H.Wrighton (Mr Ellis)
J.Humphrey, Ladds
Mr Atkins
Mr Wood(s)
Peters, Edwards (Worcester)
Northampton Charity
Mr Gulliver (Magdalen)
Mr Wrighton, Top Farm
J. Jesset
J.Jeffrey, Astwell Ground
Jackson, (Magdalen)


The discrepancy in the acreage might be accounted for by the inclusion of non-agricultural land in the higher figure.  None of these farms is very large, so perhaps some of the tenants had land in other parishes or engaged in other occupations.  Several of these names appear in Kelly’s  (1894):  George and Thomas Adkins and John Jessett as farmers and graziers; Edward Jeffrey as butcher and farmer; James Watson as farmer and carrier; John Salmon, Edwin and John Wrighton, and James Woods as farmers. Some of the same or related individuals are mentioned by Smith and Brookhouse in their article on Jeff’s coaches in Aspects of Helmdon (2001); James Kelcher, Henry Watson, Frank Allbright, Ernest Gulliver, and Henry Carpenter.  In the same issue, Alan Ryalls in ”The Gullivers of Helmdon”, dates their arrival at Hill Farm to 1903, and provides much valuable information about the local farming community.

In Conclusion

It is gratifying to find that my conjecture that the wheelwright lived and worked in Helmdon from the eighteen-nineties into the nineteen-hundreds is amply confirmed by evidence from local sources, but his identity as Arthur Taylor is less securely established. Judging by the wealth of information published by local researchers, there is a fair chance that he will emerge from the shadows in the company of some of his neighbours and customers, who are already familiar figures to readers of Aspects of Helmdon.  Whoever he proves to be,  the sentiments unexpectedly inscribed on the opening page of the notebook, leave no doubt as to his role as a Victorian pater-familias:


Though the arts which embellish life claim admiration, yet when a man comes to marry it is as companion and not an artist he seeks, not simply the creature who can paint and pay and dance, it is a being who can comfort and console him, one who can reason and reflect and feel and judge and discourse and discriminate.  One who can assist him in his affairs, lighten his cares, soothe his sorrows, strengthen his principles, and educate his Children.


1. The figures were: £1960.2.0d; £1943; £1894; £1535.16.4d (Taylor); £1367 (Young accepted).
2.  Surprising to find that this young man lived at Fountain House, where his Irish-born father, described as “living on own means”, employed a governess, a domestic servant, and a nursemaid.
3.  Examples of carts and wagons (including a fine Oxfordshire wagon of about 1820 may be seen at Cogges Manor Farm Museum, Witney.  There is also a collection at the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading.
4.  William Crosskill started manufacturing trade and agricultural vehicles at Beverley, Yorks in 1827, and also supplied wheels and components.   He pioneered cast-iron hubs and patent axles.
5.  The Scotch cart was introduced into England in the late nineteenth  century.  It was a multipurpose, plank-sided vehicle, and relatively simpler and cheaper to construct.
6.  This suggests that local timber was available for the construction of wagons, each of which required specific types for different parts of the vehicle, for instance oak, the strongest and most durable, for spokes and frames; ash, tough and elastic, for shafts and felloes; elm, durable under water, for naves and axletree beds; beech, hard and strong for internal fittings (from the Royal Army Transport Corps Manual, cited by Thompson, 1983).


ARNOLD, JAMES. 1969. Farm Waggons of England and Wales,. London: John Baker
      “                 “       1977. Farm Waggons and Carts
      “                 “       1979. All Drawn by Horses. Newton Abbot. David and Charles
JENKINS, J. GERAINT. 1981 (1961). The English Farm Wagon: Origins and Structure. 3rd edn. Newton Abbot: David and Charles
KEY, MICHAEL. 1990. A Century of Stamford Coach Building: a History of Henry Hayes &  Son. Stamford: Paul Watkins.
LANG, JENNIFER. 1971. An Assemblage of 19th Century Horses and Carriages, from the original sketches by the late William Francis Freelove.  Farnham, Surrey: Perpetua Press.
NEWBY, HOWARD, 1987. Country Life: a Social History of Rural England. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
ROSE, WALTER.1937. The Village Carpenter.
STURT, GEORGE. 1923. The Wheelwright’s Shop: Cambridge University Press.
THOMPSON, G. 1983.  The Wheelwright’s Trade.
WEA,  HELMDON BRANCH. 2001. Aspects of Helmdon, No.4.

Diana Burfield

Note: The Craftsman's Notebook is now on permanent loan to the Northamptonshire Record Office. Diana Burfield has also compiled an index to the notebook.

[Article first published in Aspects of Helmdon 5 (2004), pp 211 - 219]

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