William Smith, basket maker

'Imagine him, day after day, twisting, weaving, threading, bending, conjuring objects of beauty and utility out of the air'

We have gone too long without the beautiful writing of Anne Boileau, so here’s a delightful piece to lighten our summer spirits…

Delving into Trevor Disley’s fascinating book of old photographs of Coggeshall, I discover William Smith, basket maker, who supplied our town with all manner of baskets from his workshop in West Street. Before plastics there were baskets!
Laundry hampers, picnic boxes, bread baskets, creels for fish, eel traps, cradles and bassinets for babies, hot-air balloon baskets, crates for beer, cages for birds and poultry, punnets for strawberries, panniers for bicycles, picnic hampers, containers for the mail on trains, flower baskets, bushels for logs, crates for wine, hanging baskets filled with geraniums.
And at Bradwell the withy beds beside the Blackwater yielded an ever-renewing supply of canes.
Before the First World War the domestic basket trade collapsed in the face of German competition. German baskets were cheap, strong and well-made and as a consequence put British basket makers out of business. When hostilities broke out between our two countries, British basket makers had to get back to work to satisfy demand.
Withy beds were tidied, pruned, restored; old women who remembered how to do it cut the canes with bent backs; they boiled them, stripped them, stacked them neatly; and old men who were not being measured up for uniforms, nor required to board trains to France, and had even rudimentary memories of the basket trade, set to work; as the war machine gathered pace, so basket-making in England resumed.
In August 1918, not long before the end of the war, Emily and George Smith of the Fleece in West Street received a telegram informing them that their son William had been wounded. He had lost his right foot. He came home, underwent surgery and was sent on to Roehampton to be fitted with a prosthesis; and because he could no longer work as a farm labourer he was trained in a trade for which he could sit down and use his hands: wicker work, basket-making.
He set up a workshop at the back of The Fleece, his parents’ public house; in the image below (left) he stands in front of the pub in West Street. The setting sun throws a shadow on the door behind him; he is wearing a blazer and a tie, twill trousers and a homburg hat. A printed sign under the window behind him announces W E SMITH BASKET MAKER and below that sign is a carefully displayed collection of his merchandise: baskets of all shapes, sizes and functions.
In the top image, we see him sitting at a sloping bench in his workshop; imagine him, day after day, twisting, weaving, threading, bending, conjuring objects of beauty and utility out of the air, persuading canes to assume whatever shape he requires.
Does he recall those dark times in the trenches in France? But that’s a long time ago. He looks content now, his hair in a tuft, surrounded by canes waiting to be given shape and purpose. All your basket needs are met here in West Street, Coggeshall, courtesy of Mr William Smith.
Baskets and wickerwork. A life’s essential and as old as time.

                                                                                    Anne Boileau
                                                                                    June 2022

William Smith in front of his parents’ pub, The Fleece (left). His mother, complete with dog, is pictured in the right-hand photograph taken in about 1910