This week I spent two days at the Suffolk show a major rural show in the East of England, promoting my Wheelwrights Business.
As a modern wheelwright I am used to being a rare commodity. An educated guess would suggest there are approximately 30 wheelwrights left in the UK. But in the olden days every decent size village would have a wheelwright , and whilst we are going back into the 1800s you still meet folk, who can remember their grandparents as wheelwrights and of course are delighted for an opportunity to relive their memories.
In those days a wheelwright in order remain solvent would multitask, so as well as making wheels, they would also be the local carpenter, builders, and undertaker. Due to this multitasking in a small community they would know everyone, and everyone would know them. The first memory that was shared with me concerned a small village wheelwright who called to see a customer, in a house hold which included an elderly gentlemen relative, sitting in a chair by the fire. He perked up as the wheelwright comes into the room to say ” Oh your early I’m not dead yet”. It was rapidly explained he was here to discuss wheels not a funeral, when the old bloke insisted laying on the kitchen table so the wheelwright could measure him for his coffin, thereby saving him a journey in a few days time.
The second story I was told was a wheelwright who had just finished making a coffin, and laid the deceased inside. The lid was put in place and screwed down. No sooner had the last screw had been tightened when he became conscious of a scratching sound. In an effort to find the source our man puts his ear to the coffin currently residing on his workbench, and too his horror the scratching was undoubtedly coming from within. Uncertain what to do he went off and had a cup of tea, and on his return listened . There once more was the scratching. He calls for the boy to run for help, and starts to undo the screws. The local constable bursts in as he withdraws the last screw and together they lift the lid. A mouse scrabbles out.
For the last memory we come forward to be between the wars. Apparently Crematoriums were just starting to be built but were still a new thing, and mourners were very apprehensive about them. In this particular crematorium the cremator was situated in the basement, and to transport the coffin downwards the catafalque was a disguised lift operated by a winch in the basement. With great ceremony our wheelwright and assistants place the coffin on the plinth to discover the winch operator downstairs had forgotten to replace the locking pin in the winch mechanism, as a result the coffin descended unexpectedly, with great speed and a loud bang. The winch operator having a crafty smoke downstairs was shocked as his next customer came crashing down prematurely , causing him to shout and swear whilst at the same time exhaling cigarette smoke. The mourners upstairs who hadn’t quite known what to expect having never been to a crematorium before, were horrified to see the coffin disappear, into a cloud of smoke and profanity as they ran for the exit.
I am delighted to say as a wheelwrights these days don’t get involved in undertaking, having said that I have made some coffins but that’s a story for another day. Thank you the folk of Suffolk for two lovely days and sharing what are priceless memories.