Stories of the Bodgers

Stories of the Bodgers

Part 1: Memories of my father, Reginald Tilbury, by Doug Tilbury

My father Reginald Tilbury was born in 1898 and died at 92 years of age. He went to Lacey Green School until he was allowed to leave at the age of 12, after passing the Labour Exam. During school holidays Reg was sent stone picking in the fields down Lily Bottom Lane where he lived. The stones were left in heaps to be collected by his father Eldred Tilbury. Loaded onto a horse and cart, and taken to Cuddington for road making. The money which he earned over the summer holiday would pay for a new pair of boots, which had to last for the next year. On a Saturday night, he and his father would walk to Spring Coppice, Speen, where the cobbler would instruct him to stand on a piece of leather. The cobbler would then draw around his foot with a pencil, allowing a little extra room for growth. The following Saturday night they returned to the cobbler to collect the new pair of boots.

He started to work for Jack Rixon, a woodbodger for the princely sum of 6 pence per week. His first job was crosscutting lengths of timber for 2 hours every morning to a suitable length for making into Windsor Chair legs and stretchers. Mr. Rixon was a man of few words, and there were many days when he did not speak at all.


Bodgers working in the woods

It was hardly surprising that my father volunteered to join the army at the start of World War One. He was assigned to the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. He gave 6 pence from every pay packet to his mother. In the event of him being killed, she would receive a small pension for life, and sadly his brother was killed. His mother saved all the money he sent to her and gave it to him as a lump sum on his return. He used it to purchase a Lister Stationary Engine and Lathe from J W Cubbage of High Wycombe. He was not demobilized until 6 months after the end of the war and was catering for 60 men.

After his return home, he joined Speen Bodgers, who worked in the Hampden Woods. Members of Bodging groups were known as Pardoners. Reg did the buying and selling because he could read and do sums. The lots (or falls of wood) were sold by auction in Great Hampden Village Hall. Money was tight, and those with little capital could only afford to buy the poorest of the hard timber, which was often from Keepers Hill on the left of the Bryant Bottom road, where the soil was stony, and the bark of the trees was very rough, which meant that the timber would be hard work to cut. On the right was Monkton Wood, where the very best trees grew on good soil. Their bark was smooth, and easy to shape, which meant that those who could afford to buy the better trees would be able to make more chair legs in a set time, and would earn more money.

Hampden Estate felled the trees in the autumn. The tops were cut off and later sold as firewood. The trees were left where they fell for one year to mature (or season).

During that year, brambles would grow over them and protected the timber from drying out too quickly.

After about a year, the bark would crack off in lumps. The timber was now ready for turning into chair parts. It was cut into 18-inch lengths for chair legs and 12-inch lengths for stretchers. The pieces were split using an ax with the grain. This resulted in a clean split. The same applied to the rough shaping of the pieces with a spokeshave. Finally, they were held on a donkey (or horse) for turning on a pole lathe.

Mature trees were felled every 7 to 8 years. The woods on the Hampden Estate were all named. I recall my father talking about Monkton Wood, Keepers Hill, Barns Grove, Winchester Wood, The Hangings, Pheasant Pond, Springs Coppice, Sutes Sole, Whiteleaf, The Hillocks, Speen Firs, Solinger Woods, Little Boys Heath, Spring Coppice and The Glade.

The Hampden Estate grew a small area of Larch Firs, specifically for the Bodgers to obtain the poles for their pole lathes, and these were free! I remember that in the woods at Green Hailey were sawpits, that were dug out specifically for trees to be pulled across, and sawn into lengths. One man (the underdog) would be in the bottom pulling the saw down and would be showered with sawdust. Another man (the top dog) would be at the top, pulling the saw up.

The Bodgers would set up their workshops (sheds) in the woods where the fall of trees which they had purchased was. That way they had to carry the wood for the shortest possible distance. The heavy timber had to be carried on their shoulders, sometimes for a hundred yards or more. Birds like Jenny Wrens (as they called them) would often make nests in their workshops, and when the bodgers had to move on they felt very sorry for the displaced birds.

Men working in the woods at Whiteleaf and Sutes Sol would hear the twin hooters from the Aylesbury Firm of Hazel Watson and Viney (Printers) at 7 o’clock, and again at 1 o’clock. These were steam-powered and could be heard for a distance of 10 miles, especially when the wind was in the North. In the winter, the men would walk to work using Hurricane lamps.

The bodgers usually wore corduroy trousers, a waistcoat, and a shirt with a detachable collar. A stiff collar could have been affixed to this with collar studs, but they went open-necked.

A typical working day was to arrive for work and make a start at about 7 in the morning. They would stop for a break at about 10, having first lit a fire with deadwood which had fallen from the trees. It usually fell to the youngest member of the group to make the tea, so in my youth, in school holidays. it became my job. (I am now 85 years of age).

The men would stop again at midday when there would be a good heap of red embers on which to cook a “rasher on a stick”. First, you would take a small branch of beech tree a little over 2 feet long. This would be sharpened to a point somewhat like a knitting needle by removing the bark. A piece of bacon was then threaded onto it. You took a hunk of bread in your left hand and hung the bacon over the red embers. When it was sizzling over the fire, you would catch the fat by dabbing the rasher onto the bread. I have never tasted anything better. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that now? What a joy.

Reg Tilbury demonstrating how to use a pole lathe

The bodgers would stop again at 4 for another tea break, and then walk home about 6 for a meal. After that, they would work in the vegetable garden and later go for a pint in the pub. In our case that was The Pink and Lily. The same process was repeated every day. That was life.

Bodging in the woods became non-viable when automation came in and was more profitable. My father bought two more lathes, and had the trees transported to his home on a “timber bob”. His father Eldred did this, moving one tree at a time. Owen Smith was his “number one man” on the lathes, which were now powered by a 5 h.p. Lister Stationary Engine, via a shaft down the length of the workshop. Once each chair leg was turned it was passed through a 6-inch pop hole to the outside. When a sufficient number had been turned they were stacked endways for the air to dry them out. After drying, Frank Reading the coalman took them to Mealings of High Wycombe for making into Windsor chairs.

As a small boy, I once said to Owen, “Please can I help”? “Course you can my duck”, he replied, “ Every little helps said the lady as she tiddled in the sea”. Of course, this amused me no end. There were many such sayings used by the bodgers, most not printable! I recall, that when I got my foot caught in a bramble, they said, “There you go, boy, arse over tit falling over again”.

The last wood bodger who worked in Hampden Woods was Oakey Dean. He lived in Great Hampden and spent his last days working in Monkton Woods until 7 every night. He was a fervent follower of the Labour Party. I recall visiting him on a moonlight but rather misty night. We found him by the sound of his bow saw. It could be difficult to find your way out of the woods by night, so the bodgers would put down a trail of shavings leading to the nearest road. You could follow these with the light from a hurricane lamp, and when the wind was in the West, you could hear the sound of the steam trains on the Risborough to High Wycombe line, and that could also be helpful.

The last wood bodger from Lacey Green was Freddie Rixon, who died in 1940. He was also a Chapel preacher. On one occasion, he preached in Lacey Green, then cycled to Cobblers Hill, near Little Hampden. It started to snow, After he preached that evening, the snow was so heavy that he could not ride his bike, and he was 4 miles from home. His wife became worried, and friends launched a search party. He finally arrived home at 9.30.p.m.

More stories to follow next month….

All photographs are courtesy of Stuart King


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