Have you seen BBC’s The Repair Shop? If you’re in the UK you can (at the time of writing) watch most of the episodes on BBC iPlayer, but you can also watch shorter clips on YouTube, and I assume these clips will be available for anyone, anywhere in the world.
The programme is described as ‘an antidote to throwaway culture’ and ‘a workshop of dreams where broken or damaged cherished family heirlooms are brought back to life’, and I’m on board with both of these philosophies. But for me it’s more than that.
There is of course the beautiful craftmanship of the wonderfully talented group of artisans who work individually and in combination to bring life back to treasured possessions. As a lover of crafts and the beauty of the handmade myself, I appreciate this fine work.
Then there are the stories behind many of the pieces – stories of loved ones and the memories and emotions that can be wrapped up in a single treasured item. We all have something like that, don’t we – often something that may be of little or no value to anyone else but to us means so much more. The emotions with which the restored items are received by the owners tell their own story.
On top of all that there’s the heritage of the skills themselves. In England there was a tradition of apprenticeship which gradually died out as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Boys (usually, although girls could be apprenticed too for certain trades) were apprenticed at around 12 or 14 to a master craftsman. The apprenticeship would last seven years, and at the end of it the young man was qualified and experienced in all aspects of ‘the art and mystery’ of his craft. Something I’ve noticed about my own male ancestors is that in the first half of the nineteenth century they were generally valued tradesmen – weavers, tailors, drapers, blacksmiths and so on, often with their own small family-run businesses – and along with every other artisan in the town they had a specific, important role to play. After all, everyone needed clothes, shoes, ironware, and so on. By the end of that century every single one of my ancestors had a role that, even if it could be given a specific title, like ‘engineer in a woollen mill’ or ‘flax dresser’ it could equally fall into the lowly, catch-all term of ‘labourer’. They were cogs in someone else’s wheel: their jobs were boring, repetitive and often dangerous, and there was little call for creativity.
Of all the craftspeople on The Repair Shop the one who most attracts my attention is Suzie Fletcher, the saddler. My 4xG grandfather, Robert, was a saddler and harness-maker. His apprenticeship began in 1781 and at a cost to his father of £31 10 shillings was clearly a highly prized trade. When I watch Suzie Fletcher I reflect that many of the techniques and tools she uses have changed little from the time when Robert was plying his trade. But I also note that along with knowhow, skills, experience and tricks of the trade there is a need for creative thinking: she sometimes has to take a step back to work out how she might be able to achieve what she needs to do. I imagine Robert would have done that sometimes too.
Perhaps one of the craftspeople on The Repair Shop – carpenter, horologist, ceramicist, smith, etc – shares an occupation with one of your ancestors. You might just learn a little more about them by watching an episode or two.