Glass engraver Tracey Sheppard has won Maker of the Year in the 2021 Heritage Crafts Awards supported by the Marsh Charitable Trust, which was presented at a prestigious Winners’ Reception at the House of Lords on 2 February 2022, sponsored by Swaine Adeney Brigg.
The result was one of four revealed at the COVID-delayed ceremony hosted by Heritage Crafts Vice Presidents Baroness Garden of Frognal and Lord Cormack. Other recent successes were also celebrated, including seven national honours and the awarding of the second annual President’s Award for Endangered Crafts, set up by Heritage Crafts President HRH The Prince of Wales and won in 2021 by watchmaker Rebecca Struthers.
The Heritage Crafts/Marsh Maker of the Year award was won by glass engraver Tracey Sheppard, who took up glass engraving at evening classes in the 1980s and soon reached the pinnacle of her craft, receiving commissions from Historic Royal Palaces to present to Her Majesty the Queen, and to be part of the Downing Street Collection of engraved glass. She has worked tirelessly on behalf of the Guild of Glass Engravers and is now their President, alongside being Master of the Art Workers Guild.
The Heritage Crafts/Marsh Trainer of the Year award went to Greg Rowland who runs a wheelwrighting workshop in Devon with his father and fellow master-wheelwright Mike. Greg was nominated by his current trainee Sam Phillips who is being trained through the Livery Companies Apprenticeship Scheme as well as a Bench Joinery apprenticeship with Exeter College. As well as training apprentices of his own, Greg was also instrumental in the development of the apprenticeship standard in collaboration with the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights.
The Heritage Crafts/Marsh Trainee of the Year award went to violin maker Niam Chauhan. Niam is studying at the Newark School of Violin Making, but began learning violin maintenance from the age of 13, before starting an informal apprenticeship with the late luthier and clock-maker John Bedingfield at the age of 16. Violin maker Melvin Goldsmith said: “[During my 30 years as a professional violin maker,] I have had some excellent students of the craft visit my workshop but of them all Niam is the outstanding example.”
The Heritage Crafts/Marsh Volunteer of the Year award
went to violin maker Colin Garrett, who has been a member of the British Violin Making Association for over 20 years and in that time has served many roles including Chairman and BVMA Enterprises Secretary. For the last 18 years he has also been Treasurer of the Rowan Armour Brown Trust, a charity that helps supports student luthiers with financial grants, wood distribution and work experience placements. He is also Treasurer of Luthiers Sans Frontiers, a charity that offers free training to some of the poorest countries in the world.
The finalists were as follows:
Heritage Crafts/Marsh Maker of the Year
Fabian Bush – boat builder
Rachel Frost – hat maker
Tracey Sheppard – glass engraver
Heritage Crafts/Marsh Trainer of the Year
Deborah Carré – shoemaker
Delyth Done – blacksmith
Kevin Millward – potter
Greg Rowland – wheelwright
Heritage Crafts/Marsh Trainee of the Year
Kieren Berry – papermaker
Niam Chauhan – violin maker
Francis Lloyd-Jones – potter
Anna Olafsson – hand engraver
Heritage Crafts/Marsh Volunteer of the Year
Colin Garrett – British Violin Making Association
Jane Kerr – Wooden Boatbuilders Trade Association
Debbie Richardson – Braid Society
The next round of nominations open on 1 March 2022.
Heritage Craft Training Case Study – Greg Rowland and George Richards
What happens when an apprentice moves on?
Mike Rowland & Son Wheelwrights and Coachbuilders dates back to 1964 and remains a father and son business of Mike and Greg Rowland, both Master Wheelwrights. The original motivation for taking an apprentice into the business came from George Richards, a young local lad who expressed an interest in becoming a wheelwright. From this initial approach, and his obvious aptitude for the craft, Greg saw the potential benefit in future-proofing his business and succession planning. George joined the business as part of the Livery Company Apprenticeship Scheme that gave financial support to craft businesses wishing to take on apprentices. He excelled in the job and became a fully qualified Journeyman Wheelwright and talented wagon builder.
In early 2020 George left the business to set up on his own. This is a concern cited by many small businesses; what happens when you invest in a trainee and they then leave the business? Despite George moving on and some obvious sadness at his decision to leave, Greg describes the process as having been ‘massively successful’ and that his business is now more resilient and financially viable for the future.
A move like this doesn’t come without its impacts. The biggest change that had to be made was in the costs incurred in insurance, wages and pensions. It is a big step for a small craft business to start administering and paying for an employee, and this was daunting to begin with. The workshop also had to be made safe and compliant, which was a financial hit, particularly with the machinery. Work had to be scaled up in order to keep George employed and new approaches had to be developed. However, Greg views this as a positive move forward and as a step change in the longer term sustainability of the business.
“It has increased our work and our resilience. I now have more knowledge of my own business and my approach to business…It has made me better at running my business.”
Heritage craft skills will have also benefitted as George is a now fully qualified wheelwright and talented wagon builder. Greg also comments that it has impacted on his own skills: “not the hand skills as such, but the business, promotion and people skills”, which are crucial to managing a viable heritage craft business and in keeping it relevant.
“I would do it again”
In a couple of years the business hopes to take on another apprentice and Greg is confident that this will continue to benefit both his business and the longer term sustainability of wheelwrighting.
Livery Company Apprenticeship Scheme – It wouldn’t have been possible to have trained George without additional financial support from LCAS which gave £16,000 over three years to the host business.
Length – 3 years
Qualifications gained – Level 3 Diploma in Bench Joinery and is a Journeyman Wheelwright.
Financial support – Supported by the Livery Company Apprenticeship Scheme which offered £16,000 over three years to train an apprentice.
Payments to apprentice – Paid at above the minimum apprenticeship wage and then employed as a Journeyman Wheelwright.
Recruitment process – None, as the initial approach was made by George himself.
We have linked up with AirBnB Experiences, to offer a range of heritage crafts experiences from tassel making to building your own cart wheel. The Experience workshops will be led by craftspeople from the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts, and guests will be able to learn about these crafts and the skills that are required. The following workshops will be the first to be hosted:
Hadi Moussa, AirBnB General Manager for Northern Europe said:
We’re delighted to work together with the HCA and enable craftspeople to offer these unique workshops through our platform, connecting travellers and locals to authentic historical crafts. We’ve seen a growing appetite for Arts & Crafts Experiences on our site, with an increase of 180% in bookings to this category of Experiences in 2018, making it a powerful platform to raise awareness about teh crafts in danger of dying out.
There’s so many craft-based skills which take years to properly hone and develop that are in danger of dying out. We must not let this happen. Shooting with Greg, JoJo and Lucy I got a unique insight into their work and why we should fight to keep crafts like these alive. Rankin
The 2020 survey indicates a regional split between 50% in the Midlands and 25% between the rural South West and South East. Wales and Northern Ireland have representation.
Origin in the UK
Current no. of professionals (main income)
30-50 (based on a 2020 survey carried out by the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights)
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
Current no. of trainees
2 apprentices following the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights Apprenticeship Scheme
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers
The wheelwright’s craft is amongst the oldest known to humanity. Some of the earliest examples of solid wheels date back to 5000 BC, while spoked wheels were in existence in Asia Minor by 2000 BC. A complete wheel dating from the Bronze Age was discovered in Peterborough. Other ancient preserved specimens have been found in various parts of Britain, for example preserved in Irish bogs, and of Roman date from Somerset (where a wheelwright was active in the Glastonbury Lake Village) and Edinburgh. There are records of trade in wheel parts among finds at Vindolanda, a Roman fort and settlement near to Hadrian’s Wall.
In the nineteenth century almost every village had a wheelwright for he was essential to the movement of goods by cart, but with the advent of motorised transport and metal wheels the need for the craft declined. The craft has developed over time reaching the point in the Victorian era which furnishes most antique vehicles being preserved by wheelwrights today, and the designs upon which most modern wooden wheeled vehicles are based.
The basic wheel making technique now practised was developed in the mid-eighteenth century, using a tyre shrunk onto the wheel to hold it together by compression. This technique had previously been used by Celtic peoples but it disappeared in western Europe after the end of the Roman Empire. Late-nineteenth century developments include fitting solid rubber cushioning onto the iron tyres, which were formed into a channel shape to receive it.
A wide range of woodworking skills are used, as well as those of the blacksmith. The techniques differ in some details from other wood trades because of the forces acting upon wheels when in use. The wheelwright has to appreciate these forces fully, so it is desirable that he/she is familiar with the vehicle being worked on and seeing it in action.
The wagon and cart builders from one county to the next would have made distinct designs, which were locally acceptable. Coach builders within England tended to follow the example of London designs closely as they were a fashionable commodity. Slight stylistic differences can sometimes be detected between Scottish and English patterns, and from country to country across the Continent. This would be true of artillery pieces as well, but in all areas of the trade, such as guns, carriages, farm vehicles, still more distinct differences exist across time.
It should be noted that the wheelwright’s trade depends on other trades for the complete construction of vehicles. These include engineers (for axles and other parts), spring makers, foundrymen, coach painters, coachbuilders, upholsterers and coach trimmers.
At one time there were separate disciplines for making different types of wheels e.g. for carts, coaches/carriages and motor cars. Nowadays they are frequently made or repaired by the same person.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Market issues: Much of the work of the wheelwright is associated with the maintenance and conservation of vehicles that are an important part of social history and their upkeep is dependent upon the availability of private/public funding. In times of economic restraint the availability of funding to carry out the work is likely to be constrained. At the same time there is competition from abroad (e.g. Poland) to take on the work traditionally carried out by wheelwrights in the UK.
Training issues: the Government’s new arrangements for apprenticeships are not helping those crafts that only need small numbers of apprentices to sustain them for the future. The Wheelwrights’ Livery Company has put in place its own arrangements on limited resources.
Training issues: Most wheelwrights in the UK either work alone or with one or two other people. This makes it difficult for a wheelwright to take time out to train an apprentice and pass on the skills, without detriment to their business.
Shortage of raw materials: There are serious issues relating to the woods traditionally used by wheelwrights, such as sudden oak death syndrome, Dutch elm disease, and ash dieback. However these do not currently seem to be affecting the supply of raw materials to the trade although some wheelwrights are using alternatives to those traditionally used.
Dilution of skills: There is a huge issue with the dilution of skills and ‘have-a-go’ makers in the craft. There are quite a few people practising the craft, but the quality varies.
Dilution of skills: In the 1970s the craft was at its nadir and many people taught themselves. These people are now retiring and are passing on their skills. However, because they were self-taught they do not have the lineage behind them and are not passing on a depth of knowledge because they’ve never had it.
Market issues: Some wheelwrights are now diversifying and expanding into other markets e.g. gun carriages, market barrows.
To enable new wheelwright apprentices to be trained the Charity of the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights providing funding to support them. They are also arranging for the assessments, mentoring support and are working with the Livery Companies Apprenticeship Scheme Ltd to monitor progress and ensure that the apprenticeship is backed by an electronic log of evidence.
Within the Wheelwrights Charity a separate Craft Fund has been set up, with a view to that providing funding to support apprenticeship in the future. At the same time the Wheelwrights Livery Company has launched a 100 Club, (i.e. a small lottery) and monies raised from this will go towards the Craft Fund.
Craftspeople currently known
See the list of Working Wheelwrights on the website of the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights, which is reviewed annually.
The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights are planning for up to 20 apprentices over the next 40 years. This number of apprenticeships is believed to be sustainable and will maintain the current stable position of the craft – there is currently enough work for those in the trade, but too many new people entering the craft would mean less work for all and would be detrimental to the skills. While funding has been put in place for the current apprentices, there are no guarantees that sufficient funds will be available for future apprenticeships. It is also dependent on the Livery Companies Apprenticeship Scheme (LCAS) Ltd providing the administrative support needed to run the apprenticeship and the agreement with them continuing into the future. This is dependent on the extent to which Livery Companies in general use the services of LCAS Ltd. going forward.
Area craft currently practised: Wheelwrights are currently spread thinly across the UK in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. As far as can be ascertained in England they are located in a number of counties including Bucks, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Shropshire, Somerset, Suffolk, Sussex, Warwickshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire. Some are also based in our major cities, such as Birmingham, Durham, Sheffield and Southampton. That said many of them are approaching retirement age and some are not fully employed as wheelwrights.
Sturt, George, The Wheelwright’s Shop
Bennett, Eric, The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights of the City of London 1670-1970
Wright, John and Hurford, Robert, (1997) Making a wheel, how to make a traditional light English pattern wheel