At the height of the industry, around the turn of the century, oak swills were made by the thousand, mainly in the Lake District and Lancashire.
They were produced in small family-based workshops and sent out to many parts of Britain and overseas.
The name ‘swill’, as we said last week, seems to come from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘swilian’ meaning to wash, which describes one of the baskets’ common uses. Other believe that it was the basket makers who earned their name as ‘swillers’ because of their love of ale.
The swill basket is hand-made from boiled and split oak woven around a rim of hazel, willow or ash. It will stand the test of time with heavy use as long as it is kept in the dry.
Some contact with damp will not affect its durability, but may cause the natural oak tannins to darken the wood. Therefore, it is advisable to line the basket with paper to prevent damp articles from staining.
Among the Singletons, John Singleton the Second’s son, John Singleton the Third, started his apprenticeship in 1923, when he left school at 14.
John Singleton the Third is known to have said in the latter part of his life: “My grandfather would come over to my dess (stack) of swills and knock it over. He would take the weakest looking swill and stand on it. If it didn’t take his weight I was in trouble.”
John Singleton the Third changed his profession in 1956 and gave up the traditional basket making craft.
However, 30 years later, when he was in his 70s, he made a point of passing on the skills of this dying craft to Stella Dawson (born 1958), a newcomer to the village of Wray.
However, he was not at all certain at first “that it was suitable work for a lass”.
To learn the specialised skills of the oak basket maker required a long apprenticeship to a time-served swiller. Therefore, any long break in production almost spelt the death of this ancient craft.
Circa 1920 another oak swill basket making workshop had opened for business in the village of Wray.Tom Bevins, who was married to John Singleton the Second’s sister Agnes, left the Singleton workshop and set up on his own at Roeburndale, Wray.
Both Tom Bevins and John Singleton the Second had by this time become journeymen (high class craftsmen) who could each make 48 baskets per week; the average swill maker produced 36 baskets per week.
Tom Bevins used to work from 5am to 3pm. Often, after work, he would walk down to John Singleton the Second’s workshop and talk about parish council business with John until John finished work at 5pm (John Singleton’s working day started later at 7am).
Tom Bevins’ son Dick followed his father into the family swill basket making business. Dick Bevins, the last full-time swill basket-maker in Wray, continued producing swills until approximately 1967.
Most swillers had gone out of business by the early 1960s when the practice of woodland coppicing died out and cheap wire baskets had come on to the market.
Thomas Parker Foxcroft used the old Free Church on Wray Main Street as a joiners workshop circa 1954-1969. Dick Bevins, whose swill basket making workshop was situated nearby, would come to Thomas Parker Foxcroft’s workshop every Monday morning to collect the waste wood and shavings.
This waste was used to fire the long cast iron boiler in his workshop; the oak had to be boiled to make it soft and pliable.
Dick Bevins was the last full-time swill maker in Wray.
His old workshop, which was situated in the garden behind his house on Wray Main Street, can still be seen today. It is visible from the ‘Spout Lane’ looking down towards the village.
Dick Bevins was never enamoured with swill basket making arguing that the only good thing about swilling was that it was nice and warm in winter. Dick often said that his ideal job would have been a village postman.