Devon

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Making a withy pot

I promised when I got back from the Basketry & Beyond Festival to write a blog post about ‘lobster pots’, having spent three days next to Dave French, a fifth-generation lobster pot maker, watching him make them. And it wasn’t just Dave – on the third day of the Festival he was joined by two other pot makers, each making pots in a different way. I’d previously ‘met’ Dave via comments he’d posted on this blog about lobster pots, so jumped at the chance to speak to him in person and find out more.

I quickly picked up a few key facts:

  • There’s no such thing as a ‘lobster pot’ or a ‘crab pot’ – they’re the same thing, and are called ‘withy pot’.
    What you catch with them depends on what type of bait you use – fresh bait for crabs, older bait for lobsters.
  • There’s a lot of variation in the shapes of the pots, and details in the weave make it possible to tell where, and even by whom, the pots were made.
  • Traditionally, Cornish pots have straight sides and are known as ‘inkwell’ pots, while Devon pots have more sloping sides.
  • Furthermore, the spiral tends to go anti-clockwise on the Cornish pot, and clockwise on the Devon pot.
  • Pots tended to be made in two sizes – a full size pot (approximately 2 feet tall and 26–28 inches in diameter at the base), and a ‘store pot’ of nearly twice the size for storing the catch until it was landed.
  • It takes 4–5 hours for one man to make a full size pot, although historically families would work together to make the pots.
  • The pots last 1.5–2 years with constant repair.
Withy pot 1-3a

From left to right. 1: Dave makes his pots standing up, and constructs them on a stand. He begins by inserting withies into the stand. 2: Dave weaves the mouth of the pot. 3: The fully-woven mouth.

Withy pot 4-6

From left to right. 4: Dave uses a ‘former’ to bend the withies down to form the curved top of the pot. 5: Dave ties the bent withies to the base of stand. 6: Dave has finished weaving the spiral sides of the pot. As he’s weaving, he inserts extra withies into the sides for support.

Withy pot 7-8

From left to right. 7: Dave takes the pot off the stand and turns it upside down to begin work on the base. 8: Dave cuts off any protruding bits of willow. This is particularly important around the mouth, to ensure that the fisherman’s hands weren’t cut when putting bait into the pot, taking the catch out of the pot etc.

Withy pot 9-11

From left to right. 9: Dave begins to make the base by bending down opposing sets of withies. 10: Dave bends down more sets of withies and ties them in place. 11: He begins to weave the base.

Withy pot 12-15

From left to right. 12 & 13: Dave continues to weave the base. 14: The finished pot!

Withy pot MERL

And finally, the withy pots we have here at MERL. Left: MERL 64/207. A full size pot. Right: 64/206. A store pot. Both were made by A. Hutchings and Sons of Beesands, Devon.

You can view the full records with further photos of our withy pots, as well as the rest of our collections, on our online catalogue.

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‘We’re bobbin’ and bobbin’ and bobbin’ and bobbin’’ is what I like to sing to myself when cataloguing bobbins and other lacemaking equipment (much to Felicity’s annoyance, I’m sure). This weekend I went on a beginners’ bobbin lacemaking course at the Weald and Downland Museum. Lace is one of those crafts that I’ve always wanted to have a go at – it’s mesmerising to watch and fascinating to think that such beautiful things can be made by weaving some pieces of string. I also thought that having a go at making lace would help me with cataloguing, by giving me a better understanding of how the equipment is used, and hopefully giving me a personal connection to it which would make it more interesting (as with the baskets).

Lacemaking was an established craft in England by the seventeenth century, with centres of lacemaking appeareing in Devon, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. The industrial revolution led to the creation of machine lace, which had an enormous impact on the lacemaking industry, and today lacemaking is mostly done for pleasure. There are two main types of lace – bobbin lace and needle lace – and we were learning the bobbin method on our course. The Lace Guild’s website is good if you want to find out more.

We began by making a pattern for our lace, pricking the design we were going to create into a piece of thick card. We then pinned the pattern to the pillow, a firm padded cushion on which you work. Pillows were traditionally packed with straw, and sometimes have a roller around which the lace can be wound as the length of the work increases.

Left: 51/829 Lacemaking pattern from MERL. Right: The pattern we used on our second piece on the course.

Left: 51/128 Lacemaking pillow at MERL, from Ickford, Buckinghamshire. Right: My pillow and work.

We wound the threads onto the bobbins by hand (although you can also use a machine if you need a lot of thread). Bobbins come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials, including wood, horn and plastic, and are often decorated in various ways – with pewter bands, inscriptions, inlays etc. We used ‘spangled’ bobbins – bobbins with beads on the end to weight them and help keep the thread taut.

Left: 51/238 Assorted decorative bobbins with spangles at MERL, from Ickford, Buckinghamshire. Right: Plastic bobbins with spangles that I used.

We stuck pins into the top row of the pattern and hung the thread/bobbins on them and began to make lace. I won’t say it’s simple, but if you can get the hang of it, it’s quite rhythmic. You work four bobbins at a time, moving them over each other to the left or to the right (in combination) to create the stitches, and hold the stitches in position by pushing pins through the pricked holes in the pattern and into the pillow.

My second piece of lace under construction.

We spent six hours on the course, although probably only about 4.5 hours making lace once you take coffee breaks into account. In that time we each made two pieces of torchon lace – one about 5cm x 2cm and the other 7cm x 2cm. It certainly isn’t a ‘quick’ craft – in fact, I would think it is one of the most time intensive crafts there is.

The two pieces of lace I made.

We have quite a lot of lacemaking equipment at MERL, including bobbins, a bobbin-winding machine, pillows, patterns, a candleblock for maximising the light from the candles, and a warming pot – a pot filled with hot wood ashes from a baker and placed under the chair of the lacemaker to keep her warm (a fire would create soot and dirty the work). Have a look at our catalogue to find out more about our lacemaking objects.

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I’m straying into Ollie’s blogging territory a bit here, but I found that the polehead collection got me thinking quite a bit about place, and the relationship between objects and places.

Seeing so many place names at once, I started to draw connections between them and notice patterns. The most obvious was the number of places with ‘combe’ in the name, especially in Somerset. The strong relationship between the names of places and their geographical features can be found throughout the UK, in English, Welsh and Gaelic. ‘Combe’ comes from the Saxon word for ‘valley’ and Compton, which I’ve also catalogued a few of, means ‘valley farm’.  There’s a handy website with more examples and look out for a blog post on this theme in the future.

Another idea that came to me, although I’m struggling to articulate it clearly, is how a polehead can relate to place in so many ways. Not only is the polehead connected physically to a place in that it was actually used there, it is also connected symbolically – it represents membership of the Friendly Society which was formed for the benefit of the people there. As mentioned earlier, the form and shape of the polehead can directly represent the place it comes from – such as an anchor if it comes from a village near the sea, or a deer if the squire owned a deer park. On a wider level, these types of poleheads are representative of the West Country in that they are only found in this region of England.

And finally, while cataloguing the Shickle Collection I made a list of all the places mentioned. I think it would be good to add the other polehead collections to it when we catalogue them… I’ll try to persuade Felicity.

  • Aller, Somerset
  • Alveston, Gloucestershire
  • Ansford, Somerset
  • Ashby Saint Ledgers, Northamptonshire
  • Ashcott, Somerset
  • Axbridge, Somerset
  • Banwell, Somerset
  • Batcombe, Somerset
  • Bath, Somerset
  • Bathpool, Somerset
  • Binegar, Somerset
  • Bishop’s Hull, Somerset
  • Bishops Lydeard, Somerset
  • Bitton, Gloucestershire
  • Blagdon, Somerset
  • Bower Hinton, Somerset
  • Bowlish, Somerset
  • Bradninch, Devon
  • Bridgeyate, Gloucestershire
  • Bristol
  • Broadway, Somerset
  • Bruton, Somerset
  • Buckhorn Weston, Dorset
  • Buckland Dinham, Somerset
  • Burrington, Somerset
  • Burrow Bridge, Somerset
  • Burton, Wiltshire
  • Butleigh, Somerset
  • Cannington, Somerset
  • Carlingcott, Somerset
  • Castle Cary, Somerset
  • Charlton Horethorne, Somerset
  • Chedzoy, Somerset
  • Chew Magna, Somerset
  • Chewton Mendip, Somerset
  • Chilcompton, Somerset
  • Chiselborough, Somerset
  • Churchill, Somerset
  • Clutton, Somerset
  • Coalpit Heath, Gloucestershire
  • Combe Florey, Somerset
  • Combe Hay, Somerset
  • Combe Saint Nicholas, Somerset
  • Combwich, Somerset
  • Compton Martin, Somerset
  • Corsley Heath, Wiltshire
  • Corston, Somerset
  • Creech Saint Michael, Somerset
  • Crewkerne, Somerset
  • Crowcombe, Somerset
  • Curry Mallet, Somerset
  • Ditcheat, Somerset
  • Dowlish Wake, Somerset
  • Downend, Gloucestershire
  • Drayton, Somerset
  • Dudley, West Midlands/Worcestershire
  • East Stour, Dorset
  • Evercreech, Somerset
  • Farrington Gurney, Somerset
  • Fifehead Magdalen, Dorset
  • Filton, Bristol
  • Filton, Gloucestershire
  • Filton/Whitchurch, Somerset
  • Fishponds, Bristol
  • Frenchay, Gloucestershire
  • Frome, Somerset
  • Glastonbury, Somerset
  • Halberton, Devon
  • Halse, Somerset
  • Ham, Somerset
  • Hambrook, Gloucestershire
  • Hanham, Gloucestershire
  • Hardington, Somerset
  • Harptree, Somerset
  • Hele (near Bradninch) Devon
  • Henstridge, Somerset
  • Henton, Somerset
  • Heytesbury, Wiltshire
  • Holcombe, Somerset
  • Huntspill, Somerset
  • Ilchester, Somerset
  • Keevil, Wiltshire
  • Kelston, Somerset
  • Keynsham, Somerset
  • Kilmersdon, Somerset
  • Kilve, Somerset
  • Kingsbury Episcopi, Somerset
  • Kingsdon, Somerset
  • Kingston Saint Mary, Somerset
  • Kingswood, Bristol, Gloucestershire
  • Larkhall, Somerset
  • Long Ashton, Somerset
  • Long Burton, Dorset
  • Lopen, Somerset
  • Maiden Bradley, Wiltshire
  • Mark, Somerset
  • Marnhull, Dorset
  • Marston Bigot, Somerset
  • Martock, Somerset
  • Meare, Somerset
  • Merriott, Somerset
  • Mickleton, Gloucestershire
  • Milverton, Somerset
  • Middle Chinnock, Somerset
  • Misterton, Somerset
  • Monkton Farleigh, Wiltshire
  • Montacute, Somerset
  • Nailsea, Somerset
  • Nether Stowey, Somerset
  • Nibley, Gloucestershire
  • North Cadbury, Somerset
  • North Coker, Somerset
  • North Perrott, Somerset
  • Norton Saint Philip, Somerset
  • Nunney, Somerset
  • Oakhill, Somerset
  • Panborough, Somerset
  • Pawlett, Somerset
  • Potterne, Wiltshire
  • Priddy, Somerset
  • Publow, Somerset
  • Pucklechurch, Gloucestershire
  • Puddletown, Dorset
  • Radstock, Somerset
  • Redhill, Somerset
  • Rode, Somerset
  • Seavington Saint Michael, Somerset
  • Shepton Beauchamp, Somerset
  • Sherborne, Dorset
  • Shirehampton, Bristol
  • Siston, Gloucestershire
  • Somerton, Somerset
  • Soundwell, Gloucestershire
  • South Brewham, Somerset
  • South Petherton, Somerset
  • South Wraxall, Wiltshire
  • Stalbridge, Dorset
  • Stapleton, Bristol
  • Stogursey, Somerset
  • Stoke Saint Michael, Somerset
  • Stoke sub Hampton, Somerset
  • Ston Easton, Somerset
  • Stone Allerton, Somerset
  • Stourton Caundle, Dorset
  • Street, Somerset
  • Studley, Wiltshire
  • Sturminster, Dorset
  • Sutton Veny, Wiltshire
  • Swineford, Gloucestershire
  • Taunton, Somerset
  • Temple Cloud, Somerset
  • Templecombe, Somerset
  • Timsbury, Somerset
  • Tiverton, Devon
  • Tividale, West Midlands
  • Tunley, Somerset
  • Wanstrow, Somerset
  • Warminster, Wiltshire
  • Watchet, Somerset
  • Wedmore, Somerset
  • Wellow, Somerset
  • Wells, Somerset
  • Wembdon, Somerset
  • Westbury on Trym, Bristol
  • West Chinnock, Somerset
  • West Coker, Somerset
  • West Monkton, Somerset
  • West Pennard, Somerset
  • West Stour, Dorset
  • Westonzoyland, Somerset
  • Whitechurch, Somerset
  • Wick, Somerset
  • Williton, Somerset
  • Willoughby, Warwickshire
  • Winsley, Wiltshire
  • Winterbourne, Gloucestershire
  • Wrington, Somerset
  • Writhlington, Somerset
  • Yate, Gloucestershire
  • Yatton, Somerset
  • Zeals, Wiltshire

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Time for the technical stuff…

One of the key points of focus in our cataloguing is location (hence all this place-related blogging). The Shickle Collection covers about 180 villages, many of which were not listed on the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names, so I spent quite a lot of time exploring Google Maps of Somerset, Wiltshire, Devon, Dorset and Gloucestershire. I’d love to see all of these places pinned on a map to see just how big an area the Shickle Collection covers, and to get a feel for whether it is very evenly spread out, or clustered in particular areas. Perhaps that’s something for a rainy Sunday afternoon…  We hope that one of the outcomes of the cataloguing work we’re doing will be to have our collections pinpointed on a map so maybe one day I’ll get lucky!

As part of the cataloguing process I had to create thesaurus terms for all of these places. This was not an easy task.

 

Challenge 1: Getty.

Many of the places, being very small villages, were not listed in Getty. This wasn’t too bad, as it could be overcome by using other online sources such as Google Maps and A Vision of Britain through Time.

 

Challenge 2: Spelling.

Along with variant spellings and alternative names for places, there was also quite a lot of mis-spellings on the original accession records, so I had to search for lots of possible spellings and scour the maps to find what I was looking for. Thankfully, many of the villages were recorded as being near somewhere so at least I had a starting point to look at.

 

Challenge 3: One name, several villages.

Place names aren’t unique and we’ve come across many instances in our catalogue of several places sharing the same name, but these are usually in different counties and can be distinguished by this on the Adlib catalogue. The problem I had this time round was when there were two, or more, villages sharing the same name in the same county, such as Hele in Devon. In this case, it wasn’t possible to distinguish them by county so instead I had to resort to using ‘near’ e.g. ‘Hele [near Bradninch]’ and ‘Hele [near Ilfracombe]’.

 

Challenge 4: One polehead, several villages.

In some cases it was hard to establish the relationship between the polehead and the place recorded in the accession records. Did the (tangible) polehead belong to the identified place, or was it the (intangible) design which belonged there? When a polehead was identified as belonging to several clubs, does it mean that several villages shared the same tangible polehead, or shared the intangible design? There were many subtleties in the wording on the accession records to do with degrees of certainty and I tried to rationalise the cataloguing in the following ways:

  1. It belonged to the Club at A – A recorded as ‘place used’
  2. It belonged to Club at A and B – A and B recorded as ‘place used’
  3. It probably belonged to Club A – A recorded as ‘associated place’
  4. It probably belonged to Club A and B – A and B recorded as ‘associated place’
  5. It belonged to Club A or B – A and B recorded as ‘as associated place’
  6.  It belonged to one of Club A, B or C – A, B and C recorded as ‘associated place’

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I don’t have time to visit every place I’ve catalogued (see my post on East Hendred and the Lavinia Smith Collection), but I feel I’ve been getting to know Somerset (and the surrounding counties) through the Shickle Collection of Friendly Society poleheads (search ‘Shickle’ under collection in the online catalogue). MERL holds four collections of poleheads – the Shickle Collection, the Allen Collection, the Jardine Collection and the Forster Collection. The Shickle Collection consists of about 250 and occupied a happy week of cataloguing from the year 1951. It’s definitely Felicity’s turn to catalogue the next polehead collection!

Poleheads from the Allen Collection.

Friendly Societies were village clubs formed to provide insurance for members in the case of sickness or death, and they also played an important role in the village social life. A government act was passed in 1793 to encourage their foundation, and they were common until the late-nineteenth century. Most Friendly Societies held an annual meeting which was followed by a church service and a procession, or ‘walk’, around the parish. In many areas, simple poles were carried in the processions, but in Somerset and the adjoining counties brass poleheads, like those in the Shickle Collection, were commonly used.

There are two basic types of poleheads in the Shickle Collection – the ‘spear’ type, which is essentially flat, and the ‘bedpost’ type, which is bulbous. These are often embellished in various ways – with cut out designs, curved edges, projections, differently shaped and sized bulges and so on. Common motifs include crowns, oak leaves, clasped hands, birds, diamonds, triangles, hearts etc. and in some cases the motif represents the interest of the Friendly Society or the place where they met. The Society at Frome in Somerset met at the Ring of Bells pub and their polehead is spear shaped with cut outs of five bells and two crescents (51/913). Unfortunately the Shickle Collection poleheads are all packed away in boxes so I couldn’t take any photos, but the Allen Collection is on open display in our stores.

Spear type poleheads with an array of emellishments.

Close up of a bedpost type polehead.

 

 

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