For much of the second half of the 1800s and first half of the 1900s, Beckingham was home to a willow working, cottage industry. The willow industry in the village is likely to have predated the building of the willow works. In the early 1900s, so many people in the village were involved in the work that the school held an annual celebration of the willow production (which meant a day off for the children). There were, at the peak of the operations, two willow works. One was on the west bank of the Trent, near Dog Island, the other where its remains still stand, half way from the village to Beckingham Yards.
In addition, work was carried out in houses in the village. This included stripping bark and weaving the willow. The willow works on the Trent bank, which seems to have been more associated with Gainsborough than Beckingham, is no longer in existence. Overall there was probably an area of 50 hectares used for growing willow. Fields to the north of the remaining willow works were filled with willow and, at some point, fields on the south side of the road. There were some further to the north west (which used to be called Beckingham Holt). None of the willow plantations remain.
The products from the willow operation included many everyday artefacts such as chairs and baskets. It is not known how many genuine Beckingham willow products remain in the village, but it would be interesting to discover. Likewise it would be interesting to know what other remains of the willow operation remain in the village – for example there may be, lying around in outhouses, curious Y-shaped pieces of wrought iron. These were a tool used for stripping the willow bark.
The willow works is built in a style unknown elsewhere in Nottinghamshire and it is unlikely there is another similar building in the whole country. It is a unique feature of the village’s, county’s and, probably, country’s agricultural and industrial heritage.
From the road, the building may look rather forboding, with its long, windowless south wall. Outbuildings at the two gable ends are either in ruins or else completely removed. The north wall, however, has many windows and two large doors – one to the ground floor and one opening straight into the upper floor. This pattern of fenestration is the opposite way round to that in many of the older cottages in the village. These are aligned with the gable ends at west and east, a north facing wall with few, small windows and a south facing wall with more, larger windows which catch the warmth and light of the sun (they certainly knew about solar power in those days).
The willow works was built deliberately so that the sun’s heat would not overheat the inside of the building and this would prevent the willow from drying too quickly. The north facing windows allowed enough light for working.
Herbert Gale & Family
Herbert Gale (born 1882) was the son of William Alfred Gale who was a very reputable wicker basket manufacturer of Bury, Lancashire and whose father made a cradle for Queen Victoria and Albert’s second son, King Edward VII. Herbert married Emily Webb in 1901 at St Thomas’s Church, Radcliffe, Bury. They lived in Union Square, Haywood and he worked with his brother, William for C Ramsay & Son (also in Heywood). Emily died aged only 33 in 1918 but before her death they had four children, William (who died at birth in 1901), Ivy, Vincent and Florence:-
Ivy married Arthur Kellett and she is buried in Beckingham Churchyard where there is a memorial to her mother on the gravestone. Ivy died in 1944 aged 36.
Vincent, who was born in 1908, married, had two children and died in 1990.
Florence, who was born in 1915, died in 1932 aged only 17.
After Emily’s death Herbert married Elizabeth Ann Harty (who was Emily’s cousin) in October 1918 in Bury and had they 2 children. At that time they lived at Little Crimble Farm, Heywood. Between 1922 and 1924 Herbert, Elizabeth and their two children, Emily and Norman moved to Beckingham with Ivy, Vincent and Florence from his first marriage.
Herbert took over the running of the Willow Works from Mr Aldous (the original owner) and they moved into the left house of the pair that stand next door to the Willow Works. These houses were built in 1909 and are still there today.
Herbert had inherited his father’s knowledge of willow craft and it was this, and probably also his management skills that he brought to Beckingham. At one time there was a shop on Bridge Street, Gainsborough where the business sold their baskets and other goods under the name Herbert Gale & Son.
The above images show the Herbert Gale business card that was used and also (centre) an advertisement that would have appeared locally – note the text “no foreign rubbish” which would not be allowed today! (click on centre image for larger view)
The goods that Herbert Gale & Son would have sold from the shop would have been wicker baskets in all shapes and sizes that had been produced at the Willow Works. The baskets would have been for a variety of uses such as potato baskets, hamper baskets, linen baskets, shopping baskets, laundry baskets etc and would also have included willow woven fencing and furniture. The image to the left shows a selection of ‘miniature baskets’ that were made by Herbert Gale & Son and which are currently at the Lincolnshire Life Museum in Lincoln. These show a selection of the type of goods that were manufactured by Herbert Gale.
Surprisingly none of Herbert’s sons went into the willow industry. In addition to the three surviving children from his first marriage Herbert had a further two children from his second marriage; William (born and died 1901), Herbert Vincent (born 1908), Norman Ronald (born 1922), William Alfred (born 1928 and known as Alfred), Emily (born 1920) and Hilda Phyllis (born 1924).
Alfred married Jacqueline Sherman and they had 3 children. It is believed he eventually emigrated to Australia.
Norman married Joyce Baines and he worked for Tim Pickering as a lorry driver collecting milk from the local farms. Norman and Joyce had three children, David, Alan and Graeme and they lived at number 7 Walkeringham Road.
David John – David emigrated to Australia and nothing had been heard from him for several years until recently (2009) when he contacted his brothers Alan and Graeme.
Alan – the middle son formed a band called The Hybirds with two other friends from Beckingham, Malcolm Lundy and Michael Simpson. They formed the group whilst at Misterton Secondary School and played in local pubs, clubs and working mens clubs. At the age of 18, he followed his friend, Owen Cochran, to Bournemouth where they spent a couple of years pursuing fame and fortune in a band called Sabastian. Alan then went on to do a degree in model making and today he still lives in Bournemouth with his wife, Susan, and their three children, Peter, Amy and Naomi.
Graeme – also moved to Bournemouth where he married Marilyn and had two children, Philip and Louise.
Norman and Joyce separated and Joyce moved to Bournemouth to be nearer her two sons and despite moving back to Doncaster for a period she eventually returned to Bournemouth where she died in 2007. Despite their separation Norman and Joyce remained very good friends. Norman died in Bournemouth Hospital 30th March 1998.
Emily was born in 1921 and married to become Emily Wright. She lived locally in Gainsborough and had two children, Ian (who lives at Morton) and Barbara who married Gerald Newman and also lives in Gainsborough.
Phyllis married Cyril Jones, whose father was the Stationmaster at Beckingham Railway Station, and had no children.
The Old Willow Works went into decline after the 1947 floods when the whole area was underwater. After these floods Gainsborough built its banks up to avoid further flooding, thereby creating a natural flood plain in Beckingham where the Willow Works stood. It finally closed down some time in the 1960s.
Herbert died in 1957.
Hilda Spriggens was a well known character who worked at the Old Willow Works. She made a daily trip to the railway with baskets on a pole. She lived in the wooden bungalow at the back of the drying and weighing shed (see diagram) with her daughter Daisy.