roman bone intaglio

Roman Bone Intaglio

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Wheelwrights

by Pat Preece

The origin of the spoked wheel is unknown; apparently Persian chariots had spoked wheels as early as 2000 BC. There is also evidence to suggest that spoked wheels existed in Britain before the advent of the Romans (1). It is interesting to think that wheelwrights may have worked for thousands of years, possibly using similar methods.

Nowadays it is rare to find a wheelwright, although some do still exist. They were found universally up to the advent of the motor car, as even in the railway age the goods had to be ferried to the station. As a child I can remember a line of horse wagons outside the station, with their blinkers and feedbags and the smell of them as you walked past.

Wheels were of different sizes, from the very large heavy wheels of farm wagons, specimens of which can still be seen at the Museum of Rural Life at Reading University, to wheelbarrow wheels.

The construction of a wooden wheel

The main parts of a wooden wheel are the nave or hub, the spokes, the felloes which are sections forming the rim of the wheel, and the 'box', an iron ring in the centre of the nave which forms a bearing to take the axle arm or 'axle tree'. The wheel was tyred either with lengths of iron called strakes or an iron hoop enclosing the felloes.

Albert Paddick and workmen

Fig.1: Albert Paddick and workmen (c. 1880)

The nave was usually 'heart' of oak or possibly elm and was probably originally shaped with an adze, but when available a huge hand-powered lathe was used. The blacksmith applied the iron nave hoops to 'bind' the nave. Then the mortices were cut into the nave to take the spokes. The 'tongues' were cut on the spokes and shaped to fit into the felloes; this was done with an adze together with a spoke shave and a plane known as a 'jarvis'. The spokes were then hammered into the nave. In the past strips of iron called strakes were generally used to tyre the wheel but later they only continued to be used where heavy loads were carried over difficult trerrain. They had the advantage that they could be nailed back on by a farmer in an emergency.

The hoop tyre came later. The wooden rim was measured using a 'traveller', a measuring device with a wheel, and then a bar or iron of the right length was selected to form the tyre, with the blacksmith, by experience, knowing how much it would shrink to make a tight fit. To apply the hoop tyre it was heated until red hot and the wheel was put on a tyring platform and the hoop was dropped into position on the rim. Using iron tyre 'dogs', the tyre was quickly levered over the rim and was sledge hammered on to the wheel. When it was on correctly, water was poured over the hot tyre and as it cooled the felloes were forced close together. The wheel was then placed in a tank of water to cool.

The wood used for making wheels

The woods in this area provided timber for the construction of the wheels. Beech was used for felloes, often called 'vellys' locally. In 1667, in an inventory of George Cranfield, a timber merchant of Henley, he had '800 longe beechen velleyes' and '400 dry velleyes' on his wharf waiting to go to London (2). In 1776 at Cane End there is an account presumably of a wheelwright called George Hyde, of various felloes:'1300 coach vel' and '135 long vel'. Whether these were being made at Cane End or elsewhere is unknown as they appear in a general account book including wood accounts (3). Along with these felloes are various other items such as 'extrees' which can be presumed to be axle trees, and others which are unknown but are probably local names for parts of wheels. If anyone knows the origin of some of these terms I would be grateful:100 quarters (there is a reference to '03 quarterns of quarters' in the Cranfield inventory), 100 wood mongers, 300 clefts (these might be the result of splitting oak for spokes as apparently the spokes were from oak cleft in the wood from the heart of the oak where the timber is strongest and the grain straightest (4)); others were 456 randmers, five sharpes, seven pulleys and 4360 touchplanks (these may be used in the construction of the body of a wagon).

Beech was still being sold for wheels even up to the 1940s. In the accounts of the Goring Charity, 1000 cubic feet of beech were felled in Bensgrove Wood and cleaved to order from Messrs Peal and Co. for 3000 spokes, largely for export.

Mobile steam engine

Fig.2:

The mobile steam engine. Note the blacksmith with the divided apron

Ash was sold to wheelwrights and was another wood used for felloes and sometimes spokes. Strangely, locally a trunk of ash was usually referred to as a 'stick' - certainly I have never found any other timber so described, although in a dictionary of woodland terms it is stated that a stick is a felled trunk, with no specific tree mentioned (5). In the Cane End accounts, 43 sticks of ash from various woods were sold to Thomas Green, a Caversham wheelwright, for 9.5s.

The late Charles Paddick of Gallowstree Common referred to his father walking through the woods to choose the shape of wood for his wheels and wagons.

Local wheelwrights

Locally there was probably a wheelwright in every village and sometimes the same firm would make and repair wagons and carts. Nettlebed had three wheelwrights in 1850 (6); as Nettlebed was on a main road they may have been needed for repairs to passing traffic. Burgess was mentioned in the 18th century Cane End accounts as a wheelwright and probably the family continued working until the 19th century, as there was a John Burgess, a wheel wright in Goring Heath in 1853 (7). In 1864 Thomas Cox, described as a carpenter and wheelwright was working at Gallowstree Common. Albert Paddick took over his business in 1881 (Fig. 1) and his son Charles lived at Coxs Cottage until his death. The tyring platform is still in existence as is the paint shop but the sawpit has gone. In Albert's time a horse walking on a circular track of granite blocks powered a saw bench. Later a traction engine (Fig. 2) and saw bench came to the yard every so often. He made coaches and carts and repaired them and was proud of a wheelbarrow which Charles described as 'a Rolls Royce of a wheelbarrow', which cost 4 and was designed by Albert. Some of these went to some of the 'great' houses.

The Paddicks took on apprentices, two at a time, who lived with the family. The Goring Heath Charity school mostly provided the boys for apprenticeship and paid the 40 indenture fee. The sons of men working for the Paddicks were taken on for free. Sadly the connection with the Paddicks is lost and Coxs Cottage is now called Withy Copse after the wood behind, part of which was owned by them. Charles Paddick gave me a great deal of information and photographs; he had a wealth of knowledge about the woods and the men who worked in them.

References

Other Sources

This article was first published in SOAG Bulletin No.59 (2004). The SOAG Bulletin is published yearly and is free to members.