Sussex trug making
The making of traditional handmade garden baskets known as Sussex trugs from cleft willow for the body and coppiced sweet chestnut for the frame. Ash is occasionally used for miniature trugs.*
|Historic area of significance||Herstmonceux, East Sussex|
|Area currently practised||East Sussex|
|Origin in the UK||Trug baskets are mentioned in documentary sources from the 13th Century but were probably made earlier as agricultural baskets.
The Thomas Smith Trug Company was formed in the 19th Century which brought the trug to wider public attention and developed what we know today as the Sussex Trug.
(See ‘History’ section for more information)
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||3|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||1|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
The traditional Sussex trug is made with materials that are specific to its locality. The sourcing of locally grown coppiced chestnut and making use of willow offcuts from the cricket bat making trade root them within a sustainable local economy. The form of the basket has been informed both by function and available materials, and the design has been refined through generations of makers to the trug that we know today.
The precise origin of trugs is unclear but they are mentioned in documentary sources from the 13th Century (Page, 2018 p130). It is likely that the trug emerged within the family of constructed stave and swill baskets that were widely used as sturdy working baskets across the UK. The use of cleft willow and chestnut reflects the readily available local materials in Sussex.
Thomas Smith is credited with bringing the Sussex trug to wider public attention. He established a successful business in Herstmonceux that employed many local people and put the village on the map as the centre of trug making in Sussex. It is thought that the business was established around 1829 and by 1851 Thomas Smith trugs were made famous when Queen Victoria purchased some personally at the Great Exhibition. His innovations to the traditional designs and promotion of the crafts have given him a deserved legendary status amongst trug makers today.
Two World Wars and a rapidly changing agricultural industry led to a significant decline in trug making. By the 1940s the agricultural industry was embracing mechanisation and yet, despite that, trugs survived and flourished by selling more for gardening. By the 1960s however, just three companies remained.
It seems there were always two different trug markets; the utilitarian for the farmers and gardeners and the ‘fancy’ market where trugs were made quite delicately and the wood often bleached and frames stripped of bark, sometimes decorated with pokerwork and paint. Most trugs today are sold for use in the domestic garden.
Today there are still just three commercial businesses making the traditional Sussex trug, all of which are small concerns.
The body is made from an odd number (usually five or seven) of thin willow boards (hand-cleft or sawn) hand finished and shaped with a drawknife and fixed together with nails or tacks. The rim and handle are typically made from steam-bent sweet chestnut. The feet are made from the same willow as the boards.
Some trug makers use copper tacks, particularly for the smaller ‘fancy’ trugs, but some will use steel or galvanised tacks or clouts on the working trugs as they are more robust.
Trugs come in a range of standard sizes No1 (smallest) to No10 (full bushel) which all trug makers will use. There are also variations in design including the garden trug, square trug, round trug, oval trug and various ‘fancy’ trugs. Some trug makers also make miniature trugs.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Overseas competition: Chinese-made imitations of the Sussex trug have flooded the world market, thus reducing the number of genuine Sussex trugs made and sold.
- Recruitment and retention of trainees: Over the past few years a number of apprentices have been trained but very few have remained as trug makers as the work is physically demanding and the pay often low in comparison with other local job opportunities.
- Small business issues: For the self-employed there are set up costs; insurances; rent; rates and other liabilities; quiet times and low profit margins which make it difficult to sustain a viable business.
- Lack of awareness: Potential customers are not necessarily aware of the difference between a genuine Sussex trug and an imitation.
- Availability of raw material: The raw materials for trug making rely on a number of other local craft businesses and trades such as cricket bat making (supplies off cuts that are used in trug making) and coppice workers managing sweet chestnut for a wide range of cleft coppice products, including trugs. Over recent years the quality of coppice material has declined due to disease and a reduction in the numbers of coppice workers actively managing local woodlands.
- The Association of Sussex Trug Basketmakers – protects and preserves the traditions of Sussex trug making.
- The Basketmakers’ Association
- The Worshipful Company of Basketmakers
Craftspeople currently known
Part time makers
- Dominic Parrette, Sussex Willow
- Dave Lister (Hampshire)
- Sam Bollen, The Truggery
- Richard Bingham
- Christopher Tuppen – Part time at Cuckmere Trug Company
- Sharon Mort, Cuckmere Trug Company
- Lewis Fuller – Apprentice at Cuckmere Trug Company
John Carnell has retired from trug making.
Businesses employing two or more makers
- Robin Tuppen, the Cuckmere Trug Company (incorporating Thomas Smith’s Trug Shop)
- Fred Page, The Truggery
*For the purposes of the Heritage Crafts Red List of Endangered Crafts, a Sussex Trug is made from UK grown sweet chestnut and willow using traditional techniques and hand skills. We acknowledge the plywood trug as a contemporary interpretation of the traditional design that is also made in Sussex, but we will no longer be including it on the Red List as an endangered craft.
(Statement by the Heritage Crafts Red List Panel, April 2023)