The Bodger, by Alice Dean
“The rhythmic action of the feet and hands and the gentle sway of the body, and the smooth finished legs and stretchers produced, fascinated me so much that I would talk to him at great length about his work, and all that went into the production of a chair leg and the stretchers or spars…”
Andy Dean, one of our Woodlanders volunteers, has found all kinds of treasures in his private archives, including this account of bodgers’ lives and work written by his grandmother, Alice Dean who became the family historian. Alice starts by describing watching her father-in-law, Richard Dean, working his pole lathe. Three of Richard Dean’s sons went into the family bodging business – William Sidney Dean, Alice’s husband (known as Bill) and Alec and Owen Dean, who were some of the last bodgers to work in the Hampden woods. After Alice and Bill married in May 1934, they lived in Monkton Cottages, Hampden Road, Speen. Later Alice published her research in a booklet ‘Speen. A Historical Essay.’ Andy has kindly offered to make this more widely available and a scan of the booklet will be available here soon.
I first became interested in these craftsmen in 1932 when I started visiting the home of my [soon to be] husband in Speen, this pretty village in the Chilterns. I would watch for hours my father-in-law, Richard Dean working his pole lathe. The rhythmic action of the feet and hands and the gentle sway of the body, and the smooth finished legs and stretchers produced, fascinated me so much that I would talk to him at great length about his work, and all that went into the production of a chair leg and the stretchers or spars. The lathe was made by the man who was going to work it, so that it was the right height for comfortable and easy use. The tools were handmade, the village blacksmith producing the metal part and the bodger the handles. This was done so that each tool fitted the size of the man’s hand, thus producing a balance of weight and pressure for each individual.
The bodgers worked mostly in the beautiful beech woods of the Earl of Bucks’ estate at Great Hampden. The trees were bought at auction once a year either in late December or early January. The buyers were issued with tickets for the sale which would also entitle them to lunch and ale at the Hampden Arts. Previous to the sale the buyers would walk the woods inspecting the lots of timber marked for sale, and would estimate how many trees he needed to buy to last him one year.
At the beginning of the year the Estate men would fell the trees, before the green leaf appeared. The bodgers would then set to work cutting the tops off to preserve the sap in the trunk of the tree, as only green beech could be turned successfully in the pole lathe; nothing was wasted. The twigs were made into bundles of faggots ready for the bread ovens, the larger branches into logs for winter fuel.
The largest trees, too big for pole lathe work, would be sold to the timber mills for sawing into planks and would be transported in the town on timber bobs, pulled by shire horses.
The bodgers would set up their lathes at the site of the felled timber inside a very primitive type of hut in the beech woods. The logs would then be rolled up on to trestles and sawn into the lengths required for the size of the leg to be turned. This length would then be spilt into half with a wedge and axe, and the half log then placed on the tall piece of log with a wedge shape cut in it for firm holding and then cut into billets with a flam (or froe) to the required size. The billet would then be held on the chopping block and the first shaping made with the shaping axe. He would then take it to the shaving horse, a long wooden seat with three legs and foot holds, which had a swinging motion; pushing the feet forwards [he] would grip the partly shaped leg in iron teeth, and then a draw shave would be used to shape the leg ready to be put into the lathe. At this stage the leg would be measured and any surplus sawn off.
In Hampden Woods, Owen Dean, one of Richard’s eight sons, stacks chair legs vertically into a stack called a hedgehog. Great Hampden, December 1949.
When a number of legs were ready the bodger would climb to the back of the lathe and start turning. The leg would be gripped by two metal pieces named dogs and tightened by means of the dog screw handle. He would then use a gouge to rough out the leg, and a smoothing chisel to smooth it off. Then according to the pattern to be turned a tool called a buzz would used; this would cut into the wood making a buzzing sound. These cuts would then be smoothed out to make a perfect finish.
The finished leg would be pushed through a little flap in the side of the hut ready to be stacked for maturing.
The men would take their meals for the day, plus bottles of water for making tea. A long iron rod with a hook on the end was wedged into the ground over a fire made from the shavings, and a big iron blacksmith kettle would be boiled, they would sit round the fire to have their meals.
The choppings made when shaping the billet were put in sacks and sold for lighting wood. The smaller shavings and choppings would be scattered along the path out of the wood, to make it easier to see the way home when it was dark – as I said before nothing was wasted. They would work at night by candlelight or oil lamp. This was a very lonely life, but you could hear these men singing miles away. They seemed to really enjoy this hard but rewarding life. They could turn four dozen legs per hour or eight dozen stretchers. The price they received for one gross of legs and nine dozen stretchers was twenty-one shillings [£1.05p] – this made up the under parts for thirty-six Windsor chairs. For a smoker chair consisting of four legs, four stretchers, six spindles and two stumps the price was two shillings and sixpence [12.5p] to three shillings [15p] per chair.
Richard Dean had eight sons, all of whom had to learn the craft of pole lathe turning. Not all of them stayed in the family business, but sought work elsewhere. The craft gradually died and there are very few left now who can do this work. None at all is carried out now on a commercial basis, but people have been showing an interest in how this work was done and an effort has been made to show the young people of today a little of the past history in practical form.
by Alice Dean
Footnote: Richard Dean died in 1934. Recently his business has been found listed in Kelly’s directory for that year and is registered as being in Lacey Green. Speen was not listed separately at that time.
Editor’s note: additions in square brackets for clarification.
Photos courtesy of Andy Dean and High Wycombe Museum. You can find more photos of Owen and his brother Alec on Sharing Wycombe’s Old Photographs. https://swop.org.uk/
The Heart of the Chilterns: Volunteers #6, Susan Holmes, Woodlanders Lives Researcher
Hazel spent a year learning butterfly, bird and plants identification and survey methodology with the 'Tracking the Impact' project.
Historic England and AONBs sign joint statement to conserve and celebrate iconic historic environment
England’s AONBs and Historic England have signed a joint statement outlining their ambition and intent to work together to conserve and enhance the historic and cultural environment of England’s 34 AONBs.
Celebrating the Chilterns in literature – a new collection of ten tales
The Chilterns will soon have its own collection of stories celebrating the diverse cultural and natural heritage of the AONB.