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A Look at a 17th Century London Wood Turner
Updated 4/16/04

Notes in progress gleaned from the book:

Wallington's World :
A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth Century London
by Seaver, Paul S. 1985, ISBN: 0804712670.
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Nehemiah Wallington (1598-1658) left behind an extraordinary collection of 2,600 pages of personal papers. Although many other British Puritans left memoirs and other writings, most of these are from the upperclasses, clergy, gentry, or the occasional merchant. Wallington's papers are significant, in that the lives of simple artisans from the time are usually only glimpsed through fragments in guild records, wills, or court records. He was apparently intending to leave record of his life for posterity since he attached a title to the last of his notebooks "An Extract of the Passages of My Life and a Collection of Several of My Written Treatises."

Unfortunately for historians of woodturning, most of Wallington's writing consisted to a great extent of notes on religious matters including several lists of ways in which he could improve himself. In fact, his biographer calls him an "an inveterate cataloguer and list-maker" -Old Nehemiah apparently had some personal "issues."(He even kept a "poor box" which he used to fine himself the odd pence, or ha'-penny to punish himself for his own sins). At the very least, if he were living today, he perhaps missed out on his true calling as a writer of religious self-help books. In spite of some of his seemingly obsessive writing, he left nothing in the way of account books for his business. However his biographer did write one chapter that deals primarily with what can be gleaned from Wallington's writing to provide some information about his business, and the turning trade in London. I am mining tidbits from it that I find interesting and will be adding them here as I have time.

Guild Matters

Wallington was admitted as a Master by the Turners' Company in 1620 "by patrimony" (his father was a turner) on payment to the guild of a silver spoon. The normal "fine" (fee) to become a guild member was 13 shillings, 4 pence. Wallington may have had to pay extra since he was only 22 -under the required age to be a journeyman, much less a master. But then, his father was Master of the guild at that time, and so some allowance may have been made for him. Following in his father's trade was apparently not that common for turners. According to his biographer the guild records show the majority of the members had served as apprentices with other turners. Only about 5.5% entered the guild by claiming a son's right to his father's trade.

The standard "proof piece" by which a "freeman" demonstrated his competence in his trade was a simple stool with turned legs. A freeman appears to be a term for someone who was finished with their apprenticeship and free to seek employment as a journeyman away from their original master. A rule sanctioned by the London Common Council during the reign of Queen Mary stated that all "freemen" must be aged 24. With two-years of mandatory wage-labor as a journeyman, a freeman would normally be at least 26 before becoming eligible to become a full master in his trade. The guild had been given the right to govern itself with many of the other trades in London by the 13th century, but it was not one of the more prosperous guilds. In 1422 a list of London trades lists the Company of Turners as the 75th of the 111 mentioned, and in a precedence list for a Lord Mayor's Show during the reign of Henry VIII they are number 36 out of 60 guilds. Wallington's biographer describes the income of retail woodturners as being a level of "comfortable mediocrity."


Most turners mainly produced humble households articles and wares for "industrial" a list of products from the book mentions is: chairs, wooden bowls, shovels, scoops, bushel measures, washing tubs, wheels, pails, trays, spoons, pulleys, blocks, sheaves, deadeyes and other maritime tackle, wooden bottles for bandoliers used by musketeers (sometimes called twelve apostles today, although that term was not used at the time), and "other commodities." On a very bad sales day Wallington also listed some wares, complaining that he sold only "a sack bottle, two pence, a pair of nipples, three pence and a top, a half penny." London shops seem to have sold items made "in house" as well as wares purchased wholesale from other turners working in the countryside, although the amount they could out-source in this way was limited by the guild.

Turners guild members were restricted from expanding into other product markets by the other woodcraft guilds. On one side the more powerful Joiners' Company kept them from expanding into household furniture making, and on the other side, the even more powerful carpenters guild kept them out of the contruction trade. For a while a large number of turners were violating the guild rules by working out of the shops of better-off joiners and carpenters. The problem was common enough that the guild feared becoming a mere adjunct to to wealthier joiner's guild. As a result, the guild's Court of Assistants ordered all turners who were caught working in joiner's, carpenter's, or coachmaker's shops after being warned to stop, to pay a fine of 10 shillings per week.

'Prentices & Journeymen

Between 1610 and 1620 the Turners Company bound some 265 apprentices. What is surprizing is that only 8.3% during that period seem to have been London born (12% if you include Middlesex as part of London); although the percentage increased to as high as 32% later in the century. Some also came from far afield, during that decade of 1610-20 fifteen apprentice came from Scotland, Ireland, or Wales -more than than from any single English county save for those from London itself. Wallington kept 9 apprentices between 1621 and 1655. General members of the turners company were only allowed to have one apprentice at a time. Liveried members could have two upon payment of a 5 pound fine (fee), and the with the approval of the guild, the top officers could have 3 apprentices upon payment of 2 pounds. The cost of keeping an apprentice, at least as estimated by Wallington, was about 10 shillings/month (6 pounds/year).

A shop also could only have one journeyman at a time. Wages for a journeyman were around 8 pounds/year plus meat, drink and etc. Although the incident with Wallington's apprentice Roberts (see below) shows that arrangements for paying journeymen seem to have varied.

Money Matters

Wallington does not seem to have been much of a businessman. Among the 50 volumes of writing there were no ledger books recording his sales and expenses (at least none have survived) Once when his house was robbed while the family was at church, he had only a vague idea of home much money had been stolen. In 1630 he discovered Roberts, his journeyman had been skimming the profits, and this had gone on for a couple of years before Wallington realized his employee was cheating him. During the time his journeyman was cheating him Wallington complained:

"I found my estate to decay and ruin in debt very much, and I and divers others could not tell how, and we did wonder at it, being I had very good trading and great helps, but I and my wife had many reproaches and hard words, and we were judged to consume our estate ourselves."
When Roberts left to set up his own shop he asked for his back wages -claiming he had not been paid in two years, Wallington couldn't argue and even wrote "he had scarce asked me before, neither did I offer him any till now". Since Wallington did not have the cash on hand he initially agreed to help Roberts furnish his shop in lieu of cash. It was only on the suggestion of his father and a friend who pointed out that Roberts had been supporting a wife, a sister and his sister-in-law and had a furnished house that he must have had some source of income during the previous year and a half. The only reason Wallington was able to prove anything is when one of the maids said she had seen Roberts pocket a customer's money and offered to swear an oath to the fact. When his Puritan "guilt" finally got the better of him, Roberts finally confessed that he had taken no more than 18 pounds (which seems to have changed to only 8 pounds the following morning...). In the end Wallington seems to have figured he was out about aournd 100 pounds over the course of two years.

There is enough information in Wallington's remaining papers to give some rough estimate his income. Based on occasional journal notes mentioning how much he made in a day, it is estimated that when things were adequate Wallington was earning 35-40 shillings per day (545 to 624 Pounds per year). In years when business was poor the estimated 26, or 27 shillings a day (410 pounds/year). The English Civil War seems to have been the one of the roughest periods. Nevertheless, they obviously were making enough money to have a housemaid. Wallington's lack of bookkeeping suggests that much of his financial problems may have been due not to a lack of income, but rather due to his inability to monitor his cash flow. The fact that he didn't notice 50 pounds a year being pilfered by his journeyman seems to say a lot about his accounting skills, although there are hints that he kept better track of his income after being burned.

Ancient lathes Continual rotation lathes Spring-pole lathes
Bow lathes Tools Related Machines
Quotes about turning Notes on a 17th Cent. turner
My bow lathe Bibliography Links