On Monday MERL hosted a visit from the Berkshire Bodgers, a local group of greenwood workers which was formed in the summer of 2013. The visit was part of craft connections element of the Reading Connections project, to engage with local craftspeople to raise awareness of our collections, the work we’ve been doing with them and their availability for research purposes.
MERL has a wonderful array of greenwood craft products and tools – including bowls, spoons, walking sticks, handles and chair spindles. One of the highlights for many woodworkers is the chance to see George Lailey’s lathe, tools and bowls. Lailey lived and worked in the Berkshire village of Bucklebury (find out more on the Sense of Place project blog), and is widely known as the ‘last bowl-turner in England’. He turned wooden bowls on a foot-powered pole-lathe until his death aged 85 in 1958. It was reported that the craft died out with him, but it has since been revived and is now popular with many greenwood workers.
The majority of the spoons at MERL (unfortunately we have no spoon-carving tools) were part of the British Council collection, which was put together in 1946 as a touring exhibition sent to Australia and New Zealand to show crafts that were still being practised in the British Countryside. Many of the pieces in the Collection were made specifically for the exhibition and have never been used. The spoons were beautiful – so highly finished – and some were surprisingly large!
Historically, the term ‘bodging’ refers to the craft of turning legs and other cylindrical parts of chairs. The examples we have at MERL were turned by Sam Rockall, the last in a line of bodgers who worked in the Chiltern beech woods. We’re lucky enough to have a few of the tools he used, as well as some spindles.
We had an amazing turnout for the visit, with eighteen bodgers – so we divided into two groups. While half looked at the Lailey material on display in the galleries, the other half had the chance to look and handle some of the other greenwood craft items, as well as exploring the Mezzanine and the wider collections. And during the lunchbreak we took a few minutes to listen to a BBC recording with George Lailey made in the late 1940s.
I love visits from craftspeople, as their enthusiasm, passion and knowledge is incredible. Simon Vowell, who demonstrated bodging at the MERL Fete in 2013 and helped organise the visit, said he was “vibrating with excitement”. And Chris Allen, head of the Berkshire Bodgers, described MERL as a “bodger’s heaven”. The visit also provided Phillippa Heath, Digital Content and Online Engagement Officer for Reading Connections, with the opportunity to conduct some oral history interviews with some of the bodgers, with more to follow next week. And the visit also got me really excited about the spoon-carving course I’m going on in April with Martin Damen, who also demonstrated at last year’s MERL Fete. So all in all, a great day all round!
Thank you to all the bodgers who came to visit. We really hope you enjoyed your day – it was great to have you! And don’t forget to take a look at our online catalogue to find out more about our craft collections.
Greta Bertram, Project Officer