Zylpha – Handmade in Lancaster: the Text

Zylpha Thompson

Handmade in Lancaster

Gillows of Lancaster, later known as Waring and Gillows, were furniture manufacturers. The firm started in the early 1700’s and finally closed in 1962 and for over 250 years they created furniture of outstanding quality, examples of which are still around today.

Their first premises which housed offices and workshops can be seen on Castle Hill  (taken from geograph.org.uk with Creative Commons License) near the Judges Lodgings.  It was in here that it all began. By the 1770’s there were about 40 people working there in different departments or workshops covering all aspects of their trade. They’d make desks, tables, chairs, bookcases, chests of drawers, bureaux and clock cases. There’d be an upholstery workshop, a polishing shop and one where carving was done making spindles, chair and table legs and ornamental trimmings on a mass production basis. By doing it this way guaranteed that they looked the same.

They worked six long days a week and discipline was fierce.

Gillow’s employed journeymen – those men who had completed a rigorous apprenticeship; and master craftsmen – those whose work was exemplary and who could teach their skills to apprentices. An apprentice would start aged  14 or 15  and be taken on by a master craftsman, who, for the next 7 years trained them in the art of furniture making. The apprentice had to be sponsored by his father or guardian and pay a fee to Gillow’s. There were two types of apprenticeships – an ‘inside’ apprentice lived with the master craftsman’s family who provided him with board and lodgings. An ‘outside’ apprentice lived at home and received a small wage. They worked six long days a week and discipline was fierce.

Before being taken on as an apprentice a boy’s height, weight and general health was checked as was his aptitude for learning.

Initially he was given menial tasks – sweeping up, delivering messages getting the workshop ready in a morning which included heating up the animal glue ready for the day’s work. It can’t have been a pleasant working environment because animal glue stinks! Learning furniture making skills was mainly achieved by watching the master at work who would explain what he was doing, why he was doing it that way and the sequence in which it needed to be done. Eventually the apprentice would be given the opportunity to attempt to make a dove tail joint,  to plane a piece of wood,  to cut the wood without wastage and to sandpaper a piece of wood from rough to smooth on both sides. The boy had to be dedicated to his goal of becoming a craftsman as it was tedious, repetitive and exacting. Many didn’t make it. To appreciate the skills of a craftsman he’d be taught about furniture design, the types of wood that were used, and their country of origin.

He’d be shown the tools that were used and schooled in their care and sharpening.

Once an apprentice had his own tools they had to last a lifetime – saws, chisels, smoothing planes all needed to be kept in pristine condition or they spoilt the wood.

During the 1770’s two brothers, Thomas and John Dowbiggin, were employed at Gillow’s. They were superior cabinetmakers; skilled in their profession to a level of expertise that equipped them to create fashionable, desirable furniture that was sought after by the gentry. Furniture that displayed the highest level of artistic and technical ability. Well designed, functional and made from the best of woods.

They built furniture using mahogany – an exotic hard wood grown in the West Indies and transported by ship to Lancaster.

Because of its cost, mahogany was only used to create the finest furniture. Its strength allowed it to be weight-bearing so rails, chair backs and legs (chair) could be carved far more elegantly and slender than when made from softer wood. This always gave the finished piece a graceful appearance.

First and foremost the brothers understood the nature and quality of the wood they used. They knew the way to cut it for strength, they knew the way to finish it to reveal its richness and depth of colour, and they knew the way to match its grain. They each had a deep passion for wood – they loved the feel, the smell, the colour and they had the skill to visualise the finished product.

A bookcase commissioned in 1772 by Lady Mary Hutton Rawlinson, the widow of a wealthy Quaker merchant, required all the skills and craftsmanship the brothers possessed. The Quaker lifestyle was usually based on austerity, however, many of the Lancaster Quakers, including the Rawlinsons, preferred to use their wealth on conspicuous consumption enjoying fine clothes, elegant town houses and superior furniture.  Thomas Dowbiggin designed the bookcase to Lady Mary’s specification, which was far more ornate that Gillows usually produced at that time, and between them the brothers created a piece of furniture that was exceptional, exquisite and expensive. They made a tree into a bookcase, a piece of furniture into a work of art. This bookcase survives today nearly 250 years later and displays the workmanship of two talented craftsmen.

It was handmade in Lancaster.