A Life in a Year – 3rd February, The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights

Whilst the Wheelwright’s craft has been practiced for over 4,000 years it was only in 1630 that the Wheelwrights of London, having become sufficiently wealthy to pay the costs and legal fees involved in incorporation, formed a committee to approach the City authorities.  Later that year the leading wheelwrights and coachbuilders came together and petitioned for incorporation as a single company.

In the next thirty years or so the City was preoccupied with other matters including the Civil War, Life under the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, the Dutch War, the great plague and the fire of London.  On 3rd February 1670 the wheelwrights, independently of the coachbuilders, made a separate petition for incorporation and Charles II granted the wheelwrights a Charter.  The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights became, in order of precedence, the sixty-eighth Livery Company of the City of London.

My great, great, great grandfather was Thomas Insley whose son Joseph married (Florence) Lillian Hill in or about 1908.  The Insley family lived in Shackerstone in South West Leicestershire.  Today Shackerstone is a pretty unspoiled rural village and in the mid nineteenth century the village was a successful self-supporting Victorian community that had four farms, two pubs, two shops, a bakery, a builder, a carpenter, brickworks, a post office, a coal merchant, a dressmaker, a shoemaker and a blacksmith.  Shackerstone Mill was situated by the River Sence and was operated by the Petcher family who owned Bridge Farm where there was a bake house.

It also was the home for a successful coach building business that was first established in the 1770s.  It was run by the Insley family, which provided employment for a coachbuilder, a wheelwright and up to thirty other employees and it took orders from London, Liverpool and all over the country. The coach works were situated in Insley’s Lane in the centre of the village and convenient for the railway station from where it supplied wagons and later on wheelbarrows throughout the country.

The invention of the wheel was arguably the most important ever and the skill of a wheelwright in building a wheel was considerable and this made the Insley’s very important and influential people in the village.

The hub, or nave, of a wheel was made from seasoned wych elm that would not split even with mortises cut in it for spokes.  It was barrel-shaped to accommodate two iron stock hoops that were shrunk to fit direct from the red-hot forge.  The hub was then set in a cradle and the spoke mortises marked, drilled and cut.  The mortises had to allow for a tapered fit and also for the angle of dishing of each spoke.  The hub was augered to receive a cast-iron ‘box’ or ‘metal’, which was driven in and was the bearing for the axle.  Finally, the top of the hub was cut away so that a cotter pin could be later inserted to retain the wheel onto an axle.

The spokes were usually made from oak, which had been seasoned for a minimum of four years.  They had square ‘feet’ that fitted into the hub and circular ‘tongues’ that fitted into the felloes.  Two spokes would fit into each felloe, which was made of ash or hickory.  The felloes would have preferably been grown curved so that when the wood was sawn using a template, less grain of the wood was cut resulting in a stronger component.  Felloes were joined together with an oak dowel.

The complete wheel was held together with a tyre made from iron.  The tyre would start life as an iron bar, perhaps four inches wide and three-eighths of an inch thick for a working cartwheel.  It would be shaped using a tyre-bending machine, which is a set of rollers operated by a handle that bent the bar into a perfect circle and after welding the two ends of the bar to form a ring the tyre was heated in a circular fire.  Meanwhile, the wheel was mounted on a tyring platform – usually a large stone or metal plate – using a clamp to hold the hub of the wheel.

When the tyre was ready it was carried from the fire with tongs, and placed over the rim of the wheel.  After hammering into position, water was poured onto the hot metal to cool it before the wood of the wheel became burnt.  As the metal contracted it crushed the joints of the wheel tight and so completed the job.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the traditional craft of the wheelwright faced increasing competition from the manufacturing industries and factory produced cast iron wheels and they had to diversify and find new business.  One way was to expand into the coach building business and by the 1901 census both Thomas and my great grandfather Joseph were recorded as ‘coach builders’.

From documentary evidence and first hand accounts we can be sure that the Insley coachbuilders manufactured a full range of carts and wagons for local farms and businesses including the nearby water mills.  Their catalogue included the ‘gig’ which was a light two-wheeled sprung cart pulled by one horse or a pony and a ‘dray’, a versatile four wheeled flat bed cart usually pulled by two horses but they were also well known for a specialist cart of East Anglian or Lincolnshire design called the ‘hermaphrodite’.

This was a unique type of two-wheeled cart that could be converted to a four wheel wagon when extra capacity was required in the fields at harvest time.  Although they were all rather similar and were based on the same overall design, each had their own distinct differences in regards to their place of manufacture and according to records the Insley design was quite unlike anything else made locally at the time.

For smaller farms that could not afford a barn full of expensive specialist vehicles the selling feature of the cart for was that it was a multi-purpose vehicle that could be used throughout the year.  For most of the time the top frames, raves and fore-carriage could be removed and the rear part was used as a conventional tip cart, whilst at harvest time an ingenious conversion provided a wagon with the large carrying platform and the additional length and the temporary advantage of four wheels converted it into a high capacity hay wagon.

This multi-purpose design explains the name hermaphrodite which is a term that derives from Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite in Greek mythology, who was fused with a nymph, Salmacis, resulting in one individual possessing physical traits of both sexes, i.e. it was interchangeable.  Locally the wagon was referred to as a wagonette, the morphy or the moffrey.

The drawing is of an Insley wagonette that was probably built in the 1920s for the farmer H S Forman of Stapleton, Leicestershire, about ten miles from Shackerstone.  The maker’s name, Insley, can be clearly seen on the front of the wagon on the front board of the tub. It was in regular use until about 1965 and was eventually transferred to a rural museum in Herefordshire for safe keeping.  The drawing is by the grandson of the owner M A Forman, himself a Leicestershire farmer.

Coach building was another trade that required enormous skill and to complete a single order could take as long as six months.  They were very successful at this as well but what they probably didn’t need was Henry Ford and the assembly line and the business ceased trading in 1935.

My Great Grandfather Joseh Insley, his wife Lilian and his four children, Dorothy (my grandmother), Arthur, Harold and Eric.



3 responses to “A Life in a Year – 3rd February, The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights

  1. Pingback: The Wheelwright (1935) - Movie

  2. Stumbled across your site. I presume that the compiler is the same that I contacted about the Insley wagonnette built for my grandfather H S Forman of Stapleton? Flatereed that you should use the image but respectfully request that you remove the offending E in FORMAN! The story of the wagonette is that it wa made in 1925 as a wedding present to my grandfather HS. All his brothers had similar wagonettes as presents. One, A J Forman, was broken up at hte family farm and I made the frames for my two pictures from the ash rave rails, George Thomas Forman’s wagon is in Snibston Discovery Museum (painted a wholly sickly plum colour rather than Insley soft pink!), and the fourth was returned to relatives of Thomas Minion Forman (whereabouts now unknown)

    • I visited Snibston last year primarily to see the wagon. I agree about the colour and I was disappointed that it was a bit crammed in but then a suppose space there is at a premium. Offending E removed with apologies.

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