Wray was once home to the skilled craft of oak swill basket-making and here from the archives the following passage details a visit to Mr John Singleton’s workshop at Wray by the Lancaster Gazette in 1932.
Mr Singleton’s workshop was in full swing. There were three generations at work: the grandfather, over 80 years old but hale and hearty still, Mr Singleton himself and his son, a young man of about 24.
The process is fascinating and the name ‘swill’ 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.
First, the oak trunks are sawn into lengths of about four feet by Mr Singleton and the old man using a two-handled saw with the ease and skill of long practice.
As a big log fell with a flurry of sawdust it was whisked away for splitting.
Only good oak trees are used, mostly coming from the Furness District, and no branch or small timber is even considered for raw material.
Jamming a four-foot length of trunk into a special hole in the cobbles, the workman attacked it with a latte axe. This is a queer tool, like a long handled axe on the top of the blade instead of the front.
With it the craftsman can split a log from end to end, as if it were made of mica instead of 40-year-old oak.
There was something of the slow spaciousness of country life in the answer I got when inquiring the next process, “Oh we just leave it to season for six months or so”. And we in town count in minutes and in seconds.
In the country the procession of the seasons is their clock. “And after it is seasoned ....?”
For answer I was shown a large cast iron trough where the timber was boiled for hours. It was a queer idea, after long drying and seasoning, but it makes the wood as pliable and whippy as whalebone. In the workshop Mr Singleton sat down on a low stool and wielded a long knife and ‘knocker’ and stripped off layer after layer of softened wood with the neatness of a bacon slicer.
These strips were scraped until they were almost as springy as rubber and yet, despite their thinness, I doubt if the strongest man could have broken then with a direct pull.
The material for plaiting now being ready, it was necessary to make the rim, which is fashioned out of long, thin saplings.
Taking one sapling, which had been boiled to almost whale bone suppleness, he slipped it into a home-made machine, which resembled nothing so much as a Heath Robinson drawing, all wooden wheels, pulleys and weights.
A few moments of skilful twisting and bending and the sapling, which had erstwhile adorned a Lakeland fell side, was now an oval hoop some 30 inches long.
All was now ready for the final weaving process. The three men (whose age by the way totals to a century and a half in this same trade) sat outdoors in a line, hoops on their knees and strips of soft oak wood to their hands.
They went swiftly to work, building a framework like the ribs of a boat. With deft fingers the strips were threaded like raffia. Back and forth, in and out, tightening a loose ‘lat’ there, pattern building, as intricate as hand loom work.
I watched the basket shaped before my eyes. It was a neat, coracle-shaped bowl, all white and shining new.
These baskets must be indestructible without resorting to real violence.
I was told that any of the three men could do five per day with ease, so that, at about 3s 6d, is evidently a good living in this little known trade.
Oak basket making is as much Lancashire as ‘Bowton Trotters’ or Dobson’s Chimney and Lancashire men have taught the few ‘outsiders’ who carry on the trade beyond the county boundary.
Lancashire timber is mainly used and the chief market for the finished article is in engineering, bobbin-making and agriculture.
So the next time you see a ‘swill’ with its two stone load of potatoes, green stuff or root crops, you will know that there is evidence of one of Lancaster’s least known trades.
l Wray memories by David Kenyon also next week.