As you’ll know, each year we run our Winter Craft and Gift Fair, which showcases the work of local craftspeople and provides a unique venue where modern day local crafts can be celebrated alongside the traditional crafts of the past. The crafts we sell today often mirror those that were once an essential part of life in St Neots. Our curator Liz tells us more…
Huntingdonshire has been an essentially agricultural county for many centuries, growing wheat, barley, oats and vegetables for local people and for distribution to the wider world. In such a rural area, traditional crafts continued to be practised widely until the outbreak of the First World War.
Woodworking and carpentry are both ancient crafts and, in Edwardian St Neots, Charles Gill was well known as a cabinet maker and also as the maker of the houseboats, which he rented out as holiday homes in the early 1900s. He could turn his hand to almost any sort of woodwork, a even made a lovely wooden box to hold the records of the commemorations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, which is now on display in the museum.
Basket making was another long established craft in St Neots and Eaton Socon, because of the plentiful supply of willow trees growing beside the river and its tributaries. The osier beds (willow trees from which young branches were cut to make the baskets) beside the river still existed until the 1960s, and hundreds of different items could be made from the willow, from hampers to shopping baskets to babies cradles.
Sammy Hawkesford was a well-known local basket maker, carrying on a local craft which dated back to prehistoric times when baskets were used to catch eels and fish in the river Great Ouse. Mr Hawkesford made baskets for local farmers and market gardeners, though despite his hard work, prices were very low at ten shillings (50p) for a dozen round bushel baskets!
The blacksmith and farrier were also essential local craftsman until well into the 1940s. Horses were used on every farm and, until the First World War, for all types of transport, regularly needing new shoes. The well-known local company of Ibbett’s at Great Paxton began life in the 1850s as a blacksmiths shop behind Brook Street, St Neots. As farming methods and machinery changed though, they became agricultural engineers, and by the time Cyril Ibbett took over the business from his father in 1939 they had also begun importing and selling farm machinery.
In the Victorian period, the invention of the sewing machine led to the mass production of clothing, but many tailors, dressmakers and milliners continued to thrive in rural areas like St Neots. Mr F. C. Riseley advertised millinery and dressmaking ‘by experienced hands’ in his advert of September 1914 in St Neots Advertiser, and Rowell and Sons advertised ‘costumes to measure from 47/6’ (£2.37 in modern money!) Rowell’s advert also emphasised the craft involved in their work, stating that their clothes were:
‘Correct in cut and style, perfect in workmanship and finish. We are prepared, for a moderate price, to give you tailoring that for correctness in every detail of cut and fit cannot be exceeded in our district.’
Stay tuned for more about local crafts in a future post, and do stop into our modern day Craft Fair at the Museum, open from 11am-4pm until 23rd December!