History

Tamar Valley Chip Baskets

The Tamar Valley marks much of the boundary between Cornwall and Devon and has long been famous for fruit and flower growing, as well as for a rich industrial mining history. The steep slopes of the valley provided an ideal micro climate for growing fruit and, until recently, the area supported a huge market gardening industry. For almost 100 years the valley was famous for producing the earliest strawberries in the country.

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The Tamar Valley had always supplied produce for local markets but, in the mid 19th century, with the arrival of the Great Western Railway it became possible for growers to supply distant markets with perishable soft fruit within 24 hours of picking. This prompted a rapid expansion of market gardening, with every available and suitable space throughout the valley being turned over to production.

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The soft fruit was packed into wooden punnets which were often made in the winter months as a cottage industry. The wood was cut into thin strips which were woven into punnets and chip baskets. By the late 19th established to make the punnets and chip baskets on a larger scale to meet the demand from the growers.

During the 1920’s a factory was started in the village of Calstock by a co-operative called the Tamar Valley Growers Association. The factory was on the site of an old brickworks and became know as the ‘Chip Basket Factory’. During the height of its production this factory supplied not only the local growers but it also sent baskets all over the country to meet the needs of other horticultural areas. Some of the timber was sourced from local woodlands but it was also imported from Canada and Russia.

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Along with the strawberry punnets there were different sizes of basket for different produce. Watercress baskets were fitted with lids and mushroom and tomato baskets usually had handles and were made in 4lb, 6lb and 12lb sizes. The factory employed over 60 people at the height of its production, mainly women and girls who were paid a basic wage plus production bonuses which made it comparatively well paid work for the area.

With competition from imported fruit and the demise of the railways in the 1960’s the flower and fruit growing reduced in the area. Along with the introduction of plastic containers the demand for chip baskets declined and the factory closed.

Devon Stave Baskets

Jack Rowsell, who lived at Tiverton, was one of the last makers of this type of basket. Stave baskets were commonly used on the farms in the north Devon area to harvest potatoes and mangels, and for mixing feed, often chopped turnips, and taking it to the animals. The baskets were made in graded sizes, and were oval.

There were two smaller sizes with a central handle – called stave baskets, and several larger sizes with hand-holds at each end – commonly known as maunds. Jack also made a large round basket with integral side handles called a half hundred (would hold half a hundredweight).

The baskets were not made by professional basketmakers. Jack and his brother were farm labourers and made the baskets as a sideline when they weren’t busy with other work on the farm.

Jack’s baskets were made close boarded – ie there were no gaps between the staves, but in the blue clay area of north Devon examples found locally have gaps of varying sizes between them. This would have allowed the soil to fall through.

The baskets are made in two stages. The ‘bonds’; bands of cleft and shaved wood that hold the basket in shape are made in advance and worked when semi green. They are then carefully bent into shape on formers and left to set in shape and dry. Each size of basket has it’s own former, the smaller baskets have both hoop and handle formers. Various materials were used for this, some use hazel or willow but ash is the most suitable. Some baskets even have metal strip bonds. The cleft and shaved handle is flat in form with a rounded top, the top outside bond is shaved to a wedge shaped ribbon that fits the sloping side of the basket. The bottom bond is put on at the end once all the staves are in and is worked green.

The base board of the basket was often elm, the side staves pine.
An angle is cut on the base board and each stave is fitted to it, has its own place in the basket and is sawn to a particular shape.

Jack’s original formers which must be well over 100 years old now are now in the hands of Mark Snellgrove who works Tavistock woodland and lives in N. Cornwall.

The Museum of English Rural Life at Reading has two of Jack’s baskets, a collection of photographs of him making a stave basket plus a few other examples of stave baskets by other makers.