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Lost trades: The industrial origins of crafts and hobbies

Published: 20 August 2021

Many activities regarded as hobbies today were once thriving industries. This selection of photographs from the Daily Herald Archive captures the origins of these trades, many now rare or lost.

What is the Daily Herald Archive?

The Daily Herald was a British national newspaper published between 1912 and 1964. At one point, it was the top-selling newspaper in the world, with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.

Every photograph and negative taken for the newspaper was stored in a picture library, categorised and filed for easy access should they ever be needed again. This amazing collection—comprising 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives—is the Daily Herald Archive, which we now care for at the National Science and Media Museum here in Bradford.

The images in this selection were all taken from the archive.

Trade, craft and industry

The world of work is an ever-changing one. Economic challenges, changing needs, fashion and new technologies impact which jobs exist and the number of people an industry can support.

Technology impacts all our lives. It has enabled us to connect with each other more often, and more easily, than ever before. Today, many of us take for granted the ability to read any book or listen to any album wherever we go, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, work, education and entertainment moved almost entirely online.

As a result, many people now want to get away from their screens and reconnect with the skills of the past. But some crafting hobbies of today were once booming industries.

The photographs in this story, taken between the 1930s and 1950s, show people working in a variety of manufacturing industries which are perhaps more commonly associated with craft.

Trade, craft and industry - gallery

Basketry

Basketry is one of the oldest crafts in the world, believed to pre-date pottery. Thin strips of wood, straw and plant fibres have been woven, knotted and twisted to form containers, furniture and tools for around 12,000 years.

In an article published in 1956, the Daily Herald described basket making as a dying trade due to ‘the attraction of labour to modern industry’.

The first image below shows Kitty Winchester, who was photographed at work in Burrow Bridge, Somerset. With seven years’ experience, she was an expert in an industry once thought to be exclusively suitable for male workers.

Basketry gallery

Kerbside caning

London became the UK hub for caned furniture in around 1660. Though new to Britain, caning was an ancient craft which originated in Asia, where the raw material taken from rattan palm trees grows.

Brought to the UK via trade links with China, cane furniture became extremely popular throughout all sections of British society, including royalty. While most caned furniture was made in London, mobile tradespeople provided a portable ‘repair shop’, travelling from town to town and often working by the kerbside.

The photograph below shows Leonard Seaton mending a chair in Malden, Surrey, in 1951. Mr Seaton was 64 at the time, and had been caning chairs since leaving school aged 12.

Man leaning against a tree as he mends a chair © TopFoto/SMG Images
Leonard Seaton leaning against a tree as he mends a chair, 1951

Trug making

The willow baskets known as ‘trugs’ have been made in Sussex since 1829. They were invented by Thomas Smith who adapted the heavier, boat-shaped ‘trog’ used since Anglo-Saxon times.

They were used for harvesting crops, as both a measure and container. Mechanisation in farming led to the decline of the trug making business, but they remain popular with gardeners.

The photograph below and the accompanying Daily Herald article beautifully capture the scene at Herstmonceux, the home of Sussex trug making. Unfortunately, the craftsman is not named.

Trug making Unknown photographer, 1939
Trug making, image used in Daily Herald article dated 24 July 1939

Walking into one of the sheds of the village where the trug-makers work, I might have entered an Anglo-Saxon workshop. There was no machinery: an excellent article was being produced by hand.

Old men sitting astride wooden “horses” were thinning down strips of ash with draw knives. Others were steaming the strips to give them the right angle of bend and others were “bottoming” the trugs, or nailing the strips into position.

—H.V. Morton, Daily Herald, Monday 24 July 1939

Artificial flower making

The Victorian era saw an explosion of artificial blooms. No bonnet or drawing room was complete without a floral display, and factories in London and Manchester sprang up to meet demand.

Some of the less skilled tasks were carried out by poor families at home, often by children. The factories producing these colourful sprays also used child labour. The Children’s Employment Commission of 1865 reported that most employees were female, some aged just eight years old, and expected to work long hours. At seasonal heights, the working day could stretch to 18 hours. One 19-year-old girl even reported working through the night until 10pm the next day.

However, fashions change, and the 1920s saw a decline in the trade. The below photographs were taken at a factory in Manchester in 1934. They offer a fascinating glimpse into what was, by the 1930s, a dying trade. The women are seen using the same methods used by their Victorian counterparts—though, one hopes, in better conditions.

Artificial flower making - gallery

Candle making

When these photographs were taken at a Glasgow candle making factory in 1950, the days of relying on candlelight were thought to be over. However, the British power industry struggled to meet the growing need for electricity in factories, shops and homes.

During the cold, dark winter months, power cuts were seen as inevitable, and people were encouraged to use less electricity during peak times. This meant candle makers were back in big demand.

Here, Peter Meighan is shown during the first stage of candle making: placing large chunks of raw wax into a vat to melt.

Worker places large chunks of raw wax into a vat to make candles © TopFoto/SMG Images
Peter Meighan, a worker at a Glasgow candle-making factory, 1950

Edward Edmond, described by the Herald as a ‘very important person these days’, was photographed using a moulding machine. Once the candles had cooled, they were pushed out of the mould by hollow pistons. Notice the lengths of candle wick beneath the candles; these would be trimmed to the correct length before the candles were removed from the machine.

Worker using a moulding machine to make candles © TopFoto/SMG Images
Edward Edmond, a worker at a Glasgow candle-making factory, 1950

Neon lighting

These photographs show ‘glass benders’ at work at Boro’ Electric Signs Ltd., in London, 1933, in what at the time was an emerging industry.

The neon lamp was invented by the French engineer Georges Claude around 1902, when he applied electricity to neon gas sealed in a glass tube. Only red lights are in fact created using pure neon, while different colours are created using a variety of gases.

Claude presented his glowing tubes of light at the 1910 Paris Motor Show, and, though it was clear they were not suitable for use as conventional lighting, the commercial possibilities were quickly recognised.

Man inspecting a neon sign © Mirrorpix/SMG Images
The manufacture of neon signs at the Boro Electric Signs Ltd., glass benders, 1933

The Boro’ Advertising Company was founded by Abraham E. Abrahams circa 1897–99. In 1920 he sold the company to Odhams Press, later owners of the Daily Herald; they opened Boro’ Electric Signs Ltd, an offshoot of the main company, in around 1927. Abrahams went on to found Regal Cinemas, one of the first cinema chains in the UK—but he maintained links with his old company, and often used neon signs to advertise his cinemas.

Partly because of this link between Abrahams and Boro’, neon quickly became synonymous with the entertainment industry. Advertisements for Boro’ Electric Signs during the 1920s suggested that neon signs could ‘make your cinema as famous as Piccadilly Circus’.

There are few sights which create that feeling of excitement, fun, even danger, than the neon sign. Neon is still popular today, conjuring thoughts of Las Vegas, the iconic Blackpool Illuminations, and of course Piccadilly Circus. Many artists have also used neon light, including Tracey Emin and Chila Kumari.

Attract them by a good moving electric sign. It is the greatest attention-compelling publicity in the world. It has light, colour, movement and novelty.

Advertisement for Boro’ Electric Signs (1928)

Neon lighting - gallery

Changing industry

The photographs in this story offer a glimpse into the changing landscape of work and industry during the 20th century. Consumer demand, driven by technological need and changing fashion trends, continues to have an impact on jobs and the economy.

Some of today’s industries will decline while others will emerge. Each of us will impact those outcomes through the businesses we support and the goods we buy. The future of industry is in our hands...

Further reading

Books

  • Una McGovern, Lost Crafts, 2009
  • Colin Waters, A Dictionary of Old Trades, Titles and Occupations, 2002

Online

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