Sunday, 20 March 2016

Gervase Petter: craftsman, wheelwright and coach-maker

Gervase Petter: craftsman, wheelwright and coach-maker

We now know that Gervase Petter (1819–1900), father of Frederick Charles and grandfather of Archibald Graham, was apprenticed (probably for 6 years and aged 14 or 15, so from about 1833 to 1839) to the village wheelwright in Fyning (a wheelwright’s cottage built in 1904 with a barn for carrying on the business, exists today as a private house). His indentures stated that he was bound after a financial payment to a master who would ‘teach and instruct’ him in the ‘art and trade of the business’ in return for food and lodging, washing facilities and medical attention if necessary. Gervase appears to have carried on the trade after his indentures were complete, as the 1841 census has him still living at home at Hambledon House on his father’s farm in Fyning, making farm carts and carpentering wheels, gates, fenceposts and even coffins for the church.

We know that by 1852 he was in Castle Place in Tottenham, and by 1861 married to Eliza Sarah Forster and living in 3 Church Terrace in Lower Edmonton, where he raised his five children (Walter, Arthur, Frederick, Kate and Albert; there is an eight-year gap between Kate and Albert, so one or more children may have died). Only Church Lane exists today, but there was a typhus outbreak there in 1850 so it must have been an insanitary, crowded area. The nearby Church Street was the commercial quarter of the area, near to imported sources of wood brought by barge down the River Lea to the coach-building firms such as Eleazer Booker in Fore Street: 44 firms in the coach-building and related trades were listed in the 1841 census.

The trade of making a wooden wheel and cart goes back to Roman times and is one of the most skilled trades: there were no mathematical drawings or guides to help the carpenter except the knowledge in traditional practices passed down from the man to whom he was apprenticed. He had to know his trees – oak for the spokes, elm for the hub, beech for the felloes (rim) and ash for the frame of a carriage. He had to be able to saw the wood into a correct length with no knots in it that could cause a weakness in construction and be able to accurately strake the spokes into the circumference of the wheel so that the local blacksmith could nail on an iron rim – there was always a smithy/forge near any wheelwright’s shop.

By 1861 Gervase is listed in the census as a wheelwright and coach-maker, building the wooden frames, body, steps and panelling for vehicles such as the two-wheeled ‘hansom cab’ or the carriage known as the ‘Whitechapel’ which was the favoured transport for commercial travellers after about 1870. The hansom cab, known as the ‘gondola of the London streets’ was regarded as the peak of the coach-builder’s craft. There was also the four-wheeled ‘Sociable’ carriage, patented by Bookers in the 1850s, shown at the International Exhibition of 1862 and in general use by the 1880s. Gervase was clearly a well-regarded craftsman, (we are trying to find if and if so when he was accepted into the Worshipful Companies of Wheelwrights and Coachmakers) and able by 1891 able to afford a home in Park Lane in Edmonton, bordering on the open country of the Pymmes estate, several steps up the ladder from Church Terrace. This may in fact have been the home to which he retired, as coach-building was a physically demanding occupation and by 1891 he would have been 72. Of his sons, we know that Arthur Lewis, his second son, was a draper’s assistant in lodgings in Marylebone in 1871 and an accountant by 1891; both Walter Forster, his eldest son, and Frederick Charles, father of Archibald Graham, were commercial travellers, and Albert Sidney, the youngest son, was a rate collector. His third son, Frederick Charles, predeceased him, dying in 1893, but he did not live to see the death of his eldest grandson Frederick Charles Gervase in 1901, nor his youngest, Harold Rupert, at Arras in 1917.

Thanks Barbara for this information

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