History of the cockle basketmaking industry
Mark Bushell writes:
The following words are the little history I know of my Grandfather and memories of time spent with him between my birth in 1955 up until 1966 when he was hospitalised with a failing heart due to his time spent as a deep sea diver for Royal Navy during WW1 and WW2. All we know about the cause of death was that during his service he suffered many bouts of 'the bends' as a result of being brought rapidly up to the surface from great depths. However during the time I spent with him I never knew him ever to be sick or ill once and would start work in the basket shop at 7.30 am religiously six days a week and could often be found working on an order in the shop after midnight.
Tom was born and raised around London Fields and Shoreditch in 1899 to a strict Salvation Army family who made their living as Basket makers, one of 9 brothers he became very disenchanted with what he described as 'That bunch of bloody religious hypocrites' and at the age of 12 in 1911 lied about his age and forged his fathers signature on a form given to him by the local Royal Navy recruitment office which enabled his escape to follow his dream of seeing the world.
After a brief training at HMS Ganges recruit school in Ipswich he was sent on what was then known as 'Your China's' where he was stationed on The Yangtze river for 2 years at Weihaiwei until the outbreak of WW1 in 1914. Throughout WW1 he was engaged in convoy duty in the North Atlantic escorting merchant ships carrying grain between Nova Scotia and Liverpool.
At the end of the war Tom continued his service and trained as a deep sea diver and PE instructor.
My knowledge of Tom between WW1 and 2 is only that he returned to East London and rejoined the basket making business with his family, working throughout the week in the family 'factory' as a maker and travelling salesman trying to drum up business. Apparently one Sunday he went for a day out on a charabanc (single decker coach) outing organised by his local pub 'The Cat and Mutton' (which still stands today) to Leigh on sea where he spoke to local cocklers who were complaining about the problems with getting baskets from Yarmouth, travel costs etc. Tom immediately saw the potential and started going to Leigh on a weekly basis to sell baskets.
His main contact was a woman Named Elizabeth Bearman who worked at the cockle sheds selling cockles, whelks, Mussels, winkles and shrimps to the general public. Tom was greatly impressed with her business skills and looks and decided it would be good to have her 'on his side' and proposed marriage which she accepted. This provided Tom with yet another escape route from the family and enabled him to start up on his own in Leigh on sea servicing the small fleet of cockle boats with cockle baskets of varying shape, size and use as well as 'grub baskets' which were effectively lunch boxes for boat crews. It wasnt long before the cocklers wives started to ask for shopping baskets, cat/dog baskets and various 'fancy goods'. During this period Tom and Liz became well known and respected figures in the local community and the basket workshop was always very busy with local customers and day trippers coming down from London at weekends to 'take the sea air' and a few pints of ale from the 4 beachside pubs.
Tom and Liz had 4 children before the outbreak of WW2, Grace, Joyce (My mother) Roland and Tommy who sadly died of whooping cough when he was just a few weeks old. At the outbreak of WW2 Tom decided that although he had served his time and was well above conscription age that he would not be able to stand staying at home not being able to fight back against Hitler and the rise of Nazism in Europe. Having actively fought against Mosley and his blackshirts at the battle of Cable Street and fully aware of what had been happening in Spain with the Civil War, which he described as Hitlers 'practice run' he decided to re-enlist with the navy and was taken on as a chief petty officer due to his previous experience in WW1.
Tom returned from the war and resumed his trade in Leigh, moving to a bigger premises with a flat over the workshop where he lived and raised his family until he was hospitalised in 1966 and finally leaving us 1n 1968.
My mother Joyce and for a short time my Father Roy both worked as basket makers in the workshop and as a child I witnessed the business go in to decline due to the arrival of brightly coloured 'modern' plastics that were a great deal cheaper than willow or cane baskets. In an attempt to survive economically my Mother learned chair caning and seagrass work and would also make rattan baskets that would have a few rows of coloured plastic cable in an attempt to look 'modern'. From around the age of 4 I was taught to make round bases of varying sizes for which I was paid 6d a day for until I mentioned it at school whereupon it was reported to the authorities who visited the shop to inform Grandad that this was regarded as 'child labour' and had to stop immediately to which Tom reacted with 'Well bugger off and come back with a policeman to arrest me', they never returned. As far as I remember that was the only time I saw him express anything like 'anger'. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of travelling up to London on the train with Tom with a stack of baskets to sell to market traders in Houndsditch and Petticoat Lane, I felt incredibly grown up with a smaller version of the wooden frame that enabled the carrying of a stack of baskets on your back with 2 rope shoulder straps. These trips were very special to me as it meant I had time with him alone and could listen to his stories and anecdotes without interruption from other family members but although I constantly badgered him to tell me about the war he would always shake his head and say 'We did that so you lot wont ever have to experience it' and then carry on trying to explain Cockney rhyming slang or a story about his childhood in London, chasing after and throwing stones at the toffs riding in their newly invented 'horseless carriages' or as you call them now, motor cars!
During my childhood I only ever saw my mum working with rattan or seagrass but I discovered many years later that her skills as a willow worker were undiminished. Her brother Roland and sister Grace both married and moved away neither of whom had any interest in maintaining the skills which to them represented exceedingly hard work, long hours and little money. However, my mum stayed in Leigh and continued doing cane and seagrass chair work right up until the early 1980's when the onset of arthritis prevented her from doing anymore.
However, in 1992 after spending a good few years Living in Manchester and raising my own family I moved back to Leigh and mum started suggesting that I should pick up the willow again as no one was doing it anymore and that we had a duty to keep it alive for future generations. The thought of being able to rekindle the bond I had with Tom, my mum and the willow was extremely seductive. Without telling me, mum ordered a few bolts of buff from Musgroves and from the garden shed produced a box of Toms tools she'd kept and we spent the next few months with me as her student relearning everything I picked up as a child and a lot more beside. Very Sadly this was short lived as one evening she suffered a heart attack and passed away very suddenly. From that point on I couldn't bear to even look at basketry again until about 2 yrs ago when I found myself sitting under a willow tree in Walthamstow wetlands and decided to 'give it another go' So now at 65 years of age I find myself spending the bulk of my time weaving and am pleased to say that people are impressed enough with my efforts to buy work from me. On reflection it's been a long and wonderful journey where Tom Sage has never felt very far away, something that I am eternally grateful for.
Details of the manufacture of the baskets. Tom was the only basket maker in SE Essex and consequently all the baskets seen in this and several other videos on Youtube under the search title of 'Cocklers Leigh-on-sea' will have been made by him or his son Roland.
Initially when Tom started providing for the industry all of his work was made from either buff or white willow delivered to Leigh from Somerset on the back of a flat bed lorry that would arrive once a month. I have no idea of the lifespan of these willow baskets as by the time I was born Tom had discovered a source of very heavyweight Pelambang cane that was apparently used as packing in the shipping/freight business at the time.
This cane made much sturdier and weather hardy baskets but had to be soaked for long periods to enable weaving, plus removing the cane from the soak trough required wearing elbow length gauntlets to protect the skin, Tom discovered this as a result of picking up some kind of skin infection from some kind of tropical bacteria that transferred from the cane to the soak water which dried his skin and made it crack open resembling the pattern you see on cracked soil, he was off work for several weeks in considerable pain with both arms and hands bandaged to just above the elbows.
The basket design and shape is dictated by function, a 14 inch 3 through 3 round base using a 4 rod wale to upset and either randed or paired to a height of approx 24" finished with a simple 2 behind 4 border.
These baskets needed to be tight and strong as they were used daily to carry cockles from source, just below the surface of the Thames mud, back to the boats and then, once back to shore, from the boats to the sheds where the cockles, whelks and winkles would be steamed and sold to the public.
To enable carrying on the shoulder yolks Tom used Manilla hemp rope that he soaked in linseed oil and cut to a length of 6 feet.
Once the rope had either been threaded between the rows of weaving or sometimes bound the outside of the basket with string the ends would be spliced together (A skill that he acquired as an able seaman during his service in the Royal Navy) Usually one but occasionally 2 lengths of rope would be used that would form a cross at the base of the basket.
At the top of the basket if 2 lengths had been used the rope would be opened up with a bodkin allowing one rope to pass through the other and then tightly bound with string at the join where the hook from the yolk would attach for carrying. Many configurations of rope harnessing were tried in an attempt to prolong the life of the basket.
To give some idea of the strength of these baskets, each one carried approx a hundredweight (112 pounds) of wet cockles and on each trip to the mud flats a single cockler would fill each basket directly from the mud as it sat beside him soaked in mud and seawater approx 40 times.
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