Editor’s note: In 1981, Charles H. Hayward wrote some short autobiographical pieces about his time as a young woodworker in England before the Great War. To give you a better picture of the man behind our new book, “The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years,” we offer some excerpts for you to enjoy.
Looking back over the years perhaps the most outstanding difference between a cabinet-making workshop as I remember it in the years before the war of 1914 and that of today is that, whereas in the early days a man made a piece of furniture from start to finish, today he may carry out just one process in a whole chain of operations. It is, of course, the result, partly of mechanisation and of specialisation. There are a few workshops in which a man may make up perhaps one of an individual piece for a customer, but in general the furniture of today is not only mass-produced but is the product of several specialised operations, one shop cutting parts to size, a second laying veneers, a third cleaning up, another assembling, and so on. To a man of today the day’s work may be one long repetitive process, and he may never see the final outcome.
In the early years of which I speak, there were of course some machines in use, circular saws, bandsaws, planers, spindle moulders, and so on, but mass-production on a grand scale had yet to come, and it was still possible for an individual cabinet-maker to make a living, turning out one or perhaps two or three of an item.
I recall that remarkable district of Shoreditch as it was before 1914 when it was the home of the furniture trade. There were a few factories in which a dozen or so men might be employed in turning out bureaux, tables, or whatever their specialty might be, but for the greater part whole streets of houses were let out, sometimes in individual rooms to cabinet-makers, each self-employed. One man might be making the finest grade cabinet work, serpentine-front sideboards, or oval writing desks, etc., while his neighbour was turning out the cheapest grade flimsy items made from plywood faced with veneer. No one thought there was anything strange about such curiously mixed classes of work, and each man went about his business sublimely indifferent to the works of his neighbours.
Of course, even in those days the necessity for machines to reduce costs had made itself felt, but few men had the room or facilities for installing even a basic machine, and so came the development of machine shops which undertook to do planing, fret-cutting, sawing, spindle moulding, turning, and so on. Thus a cabinet-maker could take his timber or partly prepared parts and have the moulded, rebated, or given whatever treatment was needed.
And even here the curious system often maintained in which, say, a woodturner would hire the use of a lathe for a day or more, and would then earn whatever he could on a piece work basis from regular or chance customers. His clients would bring him their timbers with a drawing or note of whatever was wanted, and bargain for a price.
I recall as a youngster wanting a set of oak turned legs for a table I was making. One of the men from the workshop where I was an apprentice offered to take me to Shoreditch when he had finished work on Saturday at 12:30 pm. He knew the district well, having worked there himself, and we went by tram to Old Street (there were still a few horse-drawn trams in those days, though they were mostly electric). The machine shop was in a dismal back street, and apparently had been the basement of a large house, for we went four or five steps down from the pavement. The turner must have been a master of his craft (as he needed to be because he was far from sober and was in the garrulous stage of drink). He leaned against the stand of his lathe for support as he finished off the legs and entertained us with a recital of his matrimonial difficulties. I have never seen a man work so quickly with gouge and chisel and still turn out a really clean job. When we paid him he made an elaborate bow, gave us his blessing, and picked up the next square of timber for turning, apparently set for an afternoon’s work. Maybe he found it more congenial to remain at work than face further contact with his life companion.
I cannot recall that there seemed to be anything odd about either the district or the people who worked there. Things in those days seemed to produce a species with curiously emphasized characteristics, and working conditions and sanitary arrangements were tolerated to a degree difficult to realise today. I remember being taken to the East End of London a day or two after the Sydney Street Siege to see the site of the street battle, and opposite the blackened building were two women, both drunk, fighting like furies, one with her blouse torn open up the front and both with black eyes and scratched cheeks. Eventually one fell into the gutter, and the last I saw of her was as she was carted off screaming, strapped into a wheeled hand-stretcher by two policemen, one of whom had his helmet knocked off. (These wheeled hand-stretchers, by the way, were used as much for removal of drunks as for use in street accidents).
— Charles H. Hayward