It was obvious from an early age that Jim enjoyed working with wood. Born in Leicester in 1929, it was at the age of five that he received a woodworking set as a Christmas gift and he vividly remembers that by the evening of Christmas Day the kitchen floor was covered in sawdust.
Jim passed his eleven plus and chose to go to the Gateway Boys School which, at the time, stood opposite the College of Art and Technology in the Newarks.
For the first two years at the school the lessons were the normal English, maths etc. but in the third year pupils had the choice of carrying on with normal lessons or studying art and technology. Jim opted for the latter and was taught at the college under the guidance of Laurence G Brewster, a cabinet maker.
It was Mr Brewster who introduced Jim to the work of Ernest Gimson and a love of Gimson’s style was to inspire Jim in his own work. Ernest Gimson was a famous local architect and furniture-maker. He designed the house ‘Stoneywell’, the only National Trust property in Leicestershire, and many examples of his furniture can be seen in the house.
When Jim was due to leave school at fifteen, his obvious skill had been noticed by Laurence Brewster and Jim was offered a five year apprenticeship at the college. Four years later at the age of twenty Jim was told by Laurence Brewster that the college had been commissioned to make two solid oak chairs for Leicester Cathedral and that he would like Jim to make them. He said it was the proudest moment of his life and the second proudest moment is when the chairs were installed in the cathedral.
The Lord Lieutenant and the Lord Mayor use these chairs on ceremonial occasions. It shows what a craftsman Jim was at a very young age. Today the chairs can be seen in the cathedral and in fact were used during the service of internment for Richard III. Whilst at college Jim also used to help teach the boys from Gateway during their first woodworking lessons. When his apprenticeship ended, Jim was immediately called up to do his National Service and actually started on his twenty-first birthday. During this time Laurence Brewster formed his own company, Wreake Valley Craftsmen, and when Jim finished his National Service he was installed as manager with the firm. He was to spend many happy years there.
In the 1950s a new church, St. John the Baptist, was built in Carlton, Nottingham: all the furniture and fittings were made by the skilled men of Wreake Valley Crafts under Jim’s guidance. Jim himself made all the carved side panels of the pews. Wreake Valley also made oak refectory tables and to age the oak they were left in a room overnight absorbing the vapour from ammonia that had been put into saucers. This resulted in a beautiful mature colour.
Jim moved to Barrow over sixty years ago when he was courting his future wife, Pem. Later on in life Jim worked from home in the workshop that he had built in his back garden. One of the more unusual things he made were xylophone frames for Premier Drum of Leicester.
In retirement Jim has more time for his other passion: fly fishing. I understand he is very successful at this. Could it be the fact that he makes his own flies? One only has to visit Jim in his home to appreciate what a craftsman he is. Thank you Jim for an informative and interesting afternoon.