Short History of Oak Furniture Making and the Carpenters’ Company
Here we have a picture of that most Emglish of trees. The mighty Oak. It’s become so much a part of our Englishness, including many expressions and idioms such as “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.”, “as strong as an oak”, “Little strokes fell great oaks” and “Hearts of oak”.
Oak furniture has been commonly produced since medieval times. Oak timber was prized for its strength and durability, and being a plentiful and cheap resource across most of England, was used in the manufacture of furniture for the poorest to the richest abode.
Henry the 8th and subsequent kings made huge inroads into the oak forests of England to build a world class Navy. Oak ships repelled the Spanish Armada and tea clippers and galleons were the backbone of the international trade that made England a world power.
As England’s wealth swelled from the increasing export of woollen cloth in the 16th and 17th centuries, a new and status conscious middle class emerged. The home was very much a sign of status and merchants were spending a great deal on interior furnishings for their properties.
Oak furniture and joinery was in demand for every room in the house, from a simple kitchen chair, to a fine panelled room, or an elaborate tester bed.
A career as a craftsman had healthy prospects, and sons followed their fathers into the carpentry trade by completing the seven-year apprenticeship required to become a member of a Guild. Competition became fierce among the workshops and craftsmen were very protective of their designs and techniques, hence the regional styles of decoration were formed. What about the Carpenter’s Company?
The history of the Carpenters’ Company goes back over 700 years, with the first written reference a mention of a Master Carpenter in the City of London’s records of 1271. It was originally a medieval trade guild, set up to look after the welfare and interests of carpenters living and working in London – one of a number of ancient guilds being created at this time. The Carpenters’ Company received its first Royal Charter in 1477, and in 1515 was ranked 26 in order of precedence out of the 48 City Livery Companies then existing. The Company’s considerable influence over the building trade reduced after the Great Fire of 1666, when many timber buildings were rebuilt in brick and stone. As a result, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Company’s links with its craft weakened and the number of members directly related to carpentry declined. However the Company continued its ceremonial and business functions, selling and purchasing land and maintaining its charitable activities.
The late nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the Company actively renew and foster its support for the craft of carpentry. Founding its own training college, establishing links within the building trade and increasing the numbers of members linked to the craft have been integral to this end.
The Carpenters’ Company today remains true to the spirit of its founders. It continues to support a broad range of charitable and educational activities, and to encourage and promote the highest standards of woodworking craftsmanship.
One of the most popular items of oak furniture, in the past and now, is the solid oak wardrobe: