LOOKING BACK: amazing glimpse of working life 100 years ago

Willow making in St Neots around 1907.

Willow making in St Neots around 1907. - Credit: Archant

Liz Davies, curator of the St Neots Museum writes for The Hunts Post this week.

Basket maker Sam Hawkesford.

Basket maker Sam Hawkesford. - Credit: Archant

Liz shares these wonderful photographs which have been lent to the museum by a Mrs Dodman, showing local willow strippers around 1905. This was seasonal work, mainly for women and an essential stage in basket making, in and around the St Neots Neots. They provide an amazing glimpse of life for working people more than 100 years ago.

Every autumn, St Neots museum holds a Winter Craft and Gift Fair showcasing the work of local craftspeople and providing a venue where modern-day local crafts can be celebrated alongside the traditional crafts of the past.

The crafts we sell today often mirror those that were an essential part of life in the past such as wood working, needlework, pottery and basket making. Huntingdonshire has been an essentially agricultural county for many centuries growing wheat, barley, oats and vegetables for local people and for distribution to the wider world. In such a rural area traditional crafts continued to be practised widely until the outbreak of the First World War.

Ibbetts in St Neots around 1900.

Ibbetts in St Neots around 1900. - Credit: Archant

Woodworking and carpentry are ancient crafts and in Edwardian St Neots, Charles Gill, was well known as a cabinet maker and also as the maker of the houseboats which he rented out as holiday homes in the early 1900s. He could turn his hand to almost any sort of woodwork and made a lovely wooden box to hold the records of the commemorations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 which is now on display in the museum.

Basket making was another long established craft in St Neots and Eaton Socon because of the plentiful supply of willow trees growing beside the river and its tributaries. The osier beds (willow trees from which the young branches were cut to make the baskets) beside the river still existed until the 1960s and hundreds of different items could be made from the willow, from hampers to shopping baskets to babies cradles.

Sammy Hawkesford (1874 – 1966) was a well-known local basket maker, carrying on a local craft which dated back to prehistoric times when baskets were used to catch eels and fish in the river Great Ouse. Mr Hawkesford made baskets for local farmers and market gardeners, but it was hard work as prices were very low at ten shillings (50p) for a dozen round bushel baskets.

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The blacksmith and farrier were also essential local craftsman until well into the 1940s because horses were used on every farm and, until the First World War, for all types of transport, and regularly needed new shoes. The well-known local company of Ibbett’s at Great Paxton began life in the 1850s as a blacksmiths shop behind Brook Street, St Neots. As farming methods and machinery changed they became agricultural engineers and by the time Cyril Ibbett took over the business from his father in 1939 they had also begun importing and selling farm machinery.

In the Victorian period, the invention of the sewing machine led to the mass production of clothing, but many tailors, dressmakers and milliners continued to thrive in rural areas like St Neots. Mr F. C. Riseley advertised millinery and dressmaking ‘by experienced hands’ in his advert in the September 1914 St Neots Advertiser, and Rowell and Sons advertised ‘Costumes to measure from 47/6’ (£2.37 in modern money). Rowell’s advert also emphasised the craft involved in their work stating that their clothes were ‘Correct in cut and style, perfect in workmanship and finish. We are prepared, for a moderate price, to give you tailoring that for correctness in every detail of cut and fit cannot be exceeded in our district.

The St Neots Museum is based at The Old Court House in New Street, PE19 1AE. Call: 01480 214163; email: curators@stneotsmuseum.org.uk or online: www.stneotsmuseum.org.uk.