The George Lailey lathe

George Lailey

One of the top spots on our guided tour of Bucklebury earlier this week was Turner’s Green where George Lailey, widely known as the last traditional pole-lathe bowl turner in the country, had his workshop. George Lailey was born in 1869 and died in 1958, aged 89, and both his father and grandfather were bowl turners. Lailey never married and had no children so had no one to pass his skills on to. By the 1930s Lailey was very well known and was signing his bowls, supplying bowls to Harrods, and receiving visitors to his workshop.

The commemorative plaque on Turners Greener in Bucklebury.

After Lailey’s death, MERL acquired the contents of his workshop, including his lathe, tools, and bowls, and has continued to acquire Lailey bowls over the years. The foot-powered lathe is a must-see for woodworkers. Robin Wood built a replica of Lailey’s lathe and has helped to revive Lailey’s techniques, assisting in the reintroduction of bowl turning to numerous countries across the globe.

Lailey's lathe.

Some of Lailey's tools.

Today we had a visit from bowl turner Jamie Carr, who is demonstrating this week at Oxfordshire Art Weeks. Lailey was particularly skilled at ‘nested’ bowls, in which several bowls of decreasing size are made from the centre of the previous bowl and this requires specialist tools. Jamie was keen to have a close look at Lailey’s tools so that he can make his own.

I think we both learned a lot from the visit. I certainly learnt a lot from Jamie about all sorts of things pole-lathe related – from explanations of how the tools were used to how the wood was worked – and took plenty of notes. It makes such a difference when cataloguing objects and writing object descriptions if you really understand how something was used and why, so these sorts of visits are a big help to us too! It was also my first time supervising a visiting researcher alone – I think it went quite well!

If you want to find out more about Lailey, his lathe and bowl turning in general, why not visit MERL and the Reading Room, or have a look at the following:

‘The Reading Lathe: A link with Anglo-Saxon Migration’ by Philip H. Dixon, 1994 (MERL LIBRARY 5850-DIX)

‘The Wooden Bowl’ by Robin Wood, 2005 (MERL LIBRARY OVERSIZE 5850-WOO)

‘Making Things: An Introduction’ in ‘Journal of Museum Ethnography’ no. 24, 2011 by Oliver Douglas