Who Do You Think You Are?
Ancestors At Work
Adèle Emm uncovers the lives of our forebears who worked in this highly skilled profession
Did anyone in your tree work as a carpenter or joiner?
The word ‘carpenter’ derives from the Old French carpentier/ charpentier, from the Latin word carpentarius meaning carriage. Carpenters have traditionally installed rafters, roofs, beams and joists to support a building, while joiners, according to early-19th-century manual The Book of Trades, spent their days
“fitting various pieces of timber together”. In other words, joiners made and/or fitted windows, doors, wainscoting, picture rails, dados, skirting boards, staircases and floors in domestic interiors.
In reality, our ‘chippie’ forebears often combined these jobs, and it’s common to see “carpenter/joiner” as an occupation in census records.
The joiner was the higher skilled, and his handiwork more exposed to the eye. But workers in both trades required a knowledge of geometry, measuring and arithmetic.
A village carpenter did jobs for anyone who put work his way, although it goes without saying that poorer neighbourhoods struggled to put food on the table, let alone
build or renovate a house. In lean times, a carpenter made the coffins as well.
All At Sea
Carpenters living by the coast might go to sea as a ship’s carpenter, whose task according to The Book of Trades was to keep a ship in repair “attending to the stopping of leaks, to caulking, careening, and the like… in time of battle he is to have every thing prepared for repairing, and stopping the breaches, as made by the enemy’s cannon”. You might see an ancestor calling himself “ship’s carpenter” in one census but “carpenter” in the next, like Folkestone’s Charles Copping (1820–1892). Charles, a journeyman carpenter in 1861, was fully trained by 1871; in 1881, aged 60, a ship’s carpenter. He was back working on dry land when he died.
In a town or city, a carpenter often hired himself out to large contractors on building projects like Manchester’s new town hall, constructed between October 1868 and its grand opening in September 1877. The main contractors were Messrs Clay & Sons and Messrs Smith, who both subcontracted workmen. Carpenters are among the first on a site and last to leave, and here they erected 2.5 acres of roofing, wood centring for arches, plus the interiors. A workman on such enterprises might be at the same site for years.
Carpenters were a feisty bunch, and thought nothing of downing tools for better wages and conditions. In March 1876, members of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners of Manchester and Salford held a meeting at the Mechanics’ Institution in Manchester to discuss a demand to increase wages by 1d an hour to 8½d, plus reduce the working week from 52 hours to 49½ – conditions already enjoyed in nearby Bolton and Warrington! At that time, the
Amalgamated Society had 1,400 members while a similar union the General Union of Carpenters and Joiners boasted 1,800 members.
Such long hours were normal. Since no one was paid for his lunch hour, carpenters frequently worked a 10-hour shift (half an hour for lunch) including Saturdays. In May 1872 in Sheffield master carpenters went on strike for a raise to 6½d an hour, making their pay commensurate to about 32s 6d a week; they had already negotiated a 50-hour week. The boom in construction in London in the 1850s–1860s (building the Embankment, sewer systems and railways, among other projects) triggered a skills shortage, and construction workers were constantly striking for better pay.
Training was by apprenticeship, and it was common for a son to follow his father’s trade. A master carpenter took on a boy, usually at 14, for four to five years. The first thing an apprentice did was fashion a wooden toolbox that he used throughout his working life, and these often became heirlooms. For example, my grandfather was a railway coach-builder apprenticed at Wolverton Works, Buckinghamshire, for seven years; his toolbox resides in my cellar.
In the early 1800s, a carpenter’s tools might be worth as much as £10–20 – an enormous
‘Carpenters thought nothing of downing tools for better wages’
investment compared with how much a journeyman carpenter earned. According to the 1818 edition of The Book of Trades, this was between 3s 6d and 4s 6d a day, equal to 21s (£1 1s) and 27s (£1 7s) for a six-day week. Journeymen were paid by the ‘jour’ (‘day’ in French), with no guaranteed work. However, when you compare his pay with an agricultural labourer’s average weekly wage in 1834 of about 10s, a carpentry indenture was well worth the investment.
Hazards Of The Job
Skills were a buffer against entering the workhouse, but no insurance against accidents or ill health. Tools were sharp. Lack of concentration when tired could result in an accident. If infection set in, then carpenters lost fingers or died from septicaemia. Wood chips in an eye meant blindness, and breathing in sawdust led to respiratory diseases. Hard physical work took its toll on the body and, before the state pension was introduced, no savings meant working until you dropped. In 1841, Jacob Chandler was a journeyman carpenter in Great Bardfield, Essex. Forty years later, a widower of 73, he was still a carpenter, providing for two spinster daughters. Jacob finally retired 10 years later.
At the time of Jacob’s retirement, woodworking tools were still hand-powered. The biggest change for carpenters and joiners was the invention of electrically powered tools. In 1889, Arthur James Arnot and William Blanch Brain patented a drill driven by electric motor. The first portable handheld drill was created in Germany by Wilhelm and Carl Fein (C&E Fein) of Stuttgart. Weighing over 16lb, it was slow, heavy and unwieldy, requiring several men to operate it – but it still became the mainstay for the next two decades.
In 1910 in the USA, Duncan Black and Alonzo Decker (now Black and Decker) set up a workshop to improve the C&E Fein drill by adapting the gun trigger from a Colt 45. Their version, patented in 1917, is the father of modern drill design. The Michel Electric Hand Saw was patented by Edmond Michel in 1924; the time and effort to manufacture anything from wood now dramatically reduced. Operators initially suffered from what we now call repetitive strain injury (RSI) and, at a time when safety regulations were less stringent, electrocution.