Ok, I know – I haven’t managed to blog for a while. I don’t know how these people keep their virtual worlds going – week in, week out. It seems to me that every time I think I have the time to blog a bit, real life gets in the way and I have to postpone my virtual journey. But today is the day, it is almost a year since I first started this lovely traditional crafts road trip and I am back on the fibre optic track.
Today I am in Southport to look at the Southport boat basket and before I even begin to look at the boat, which is not a boat by the way, I need to work out where I am. I have found over the course of this trip, regional traditional crafts don’t usually stick to modern county boundaries, instead they follow the geography of the land and local industry. However, as I like things nice and tidy, I usually list things under the modern county boundaries, but that was before I looked up Southport! It seems Southport hasn’t quite decided where it should be, it used to be in Lancashire and is now in Merseyside, but many people who live there would like to move back to Lancashire.
Anyway I am not to discuss local county boundaries, I am here to look at local baskets. I found out about the Southport boat through a friend of mine, Greta Bertram, who works at the Museum of English Rural Life. We had been discussing Historypin and Greta wrote a great post on their blog, A Sense of Place about how Historypin was evolving and she mentioned the Southport boat within her post. So I absolutely had to trot off to Southport to go and find the basket.
This basket has proved rather elusive. It is known locally and amongst basket makers, but there is very little information out there about it. The first thing I did find out was it doesn’t come from Southport at all but from a small village nearby called Mawdesley, which incidentally is still in Lancashire. It is said the name Mawdesley originated way back, when a certain Matilda-Mawde married a local lad and the town was named after her as part of her dowry. The Mawdesley family were the local ‘lord of the manor’ type and have lived in Mawdesley Hall, built by William Mawdesley in 1625, pretty much ever since.
Over time the town became famous for its basket making and the baskets were known for their strength, mainly due to local growing conditions which resulted in nice strong willow. By 1862 there were eleven basket making businesses in the village and this rose to twenty in 1874. Even the Mawdesley family established themselves as basket manufacturers and ran one of the larger businesses at Towngate Basket Works which remained open until the 1960’s.
The industry supported many people, some working full time and some working at home to supplies the frames of the basket lids. Plus, there were many farmers who grew the willow, dependant on the industry too. In 1914 there were 200 acres of willow around about the village and all those twigs had to be cut by hand and then sorted, dried and peeled. The local industries mean there was no shortage of demand for the baskets. Supplies were made for coal mining, shipping, fishing, agriculture and mills.
So, the Southport boat was one of many baskets made in the basket making village of Mawdesley. What made the basket special was that the design can be put down to one man, Mr Cobham of Mawdesley, who reportedly came up with the design in 1830. The boat basket was invented to carry eggs and butter to Southport market and the design combined the Morecombe Bay cockle basket and other gipsy baskets. Once Mr Cobham had come up with the design, the manufacture was developed by Thomas Cowley, who owned a local basketmaking firm and then adopted by other basket making firms.
However, I tentatively suggest it is more probable that Mr Cobham actually refined and commercialised existing traditional baskets rather than actually invented a new one. I say this as the development of the Southport boat is similar to the Sussex trug and although not familiar with the Southport boat, I know in great detail how people in Sussex dispute whether the trug was invented or whether it was ‘refined’ from earlier spale baskets. I would love to know more if anyone can add to the Southport boat story, please let me know!
Whatever its origins, the Southport boat was a very successful design and was soon made by many basket makers. The boat is a type of frame basket (a basket made around a frame, rather than self supporting). It’s rim and handle are made from hoops of split ash and it has ribs which fan out, radiating from the handle. These ribs are not attached to the rim but added as the basket is woven. Interestingly, like the Welsh Cyntell basket, the Southport boat is woven from the top down as opposed to bottom up, as most baskets are.
The basket making industry in Mawdesley began to decline, like many other traditional crafts, during the twentieth century due to all to familiar reasons; the migration of workers to the cotton mills and rubber works, the invention of plastic, cheap imports and the effect the over extraction of water and river pollution had on the osier beds.
Nowadays, although the shape of the Southport boat will be very familiar to many people, I have not been able to find any basket makers which list the basket as one of their products. So please, please – if you know of anyone who still makes Southport boats then get in touch so I can list their details in this post – thank you very much.
Baskets in Europe - Maurice Bichard
Complete Book of Basketry – Dorothy Wright
Traditional Country Craftsmen – J. Geraint Jenkins