Samuel Rockall: last of the chair bodgers

The two RockallsThe proud brick quoined flint cottage still stands alone on Summer Heath, once home to the Rockall family for an uninterrupted 180 years. But no longer can freshly cut Beech butts be seen stacked in the shade of a tall hedge or the whinny of Dapple, the family cart horse be heard from the meadow.

A traditional Chiltern Hills way of life ceased when Sam Rockall died aged 84 in 1962. The local newspapers announced: Samuel Rockall, the last of the Bodgers is dead.

Sam learnt the trade from his uncle, another Samuel; he was born in 1823 and clearly remembered the day he was considered a man by passing a test, to carry a sack of corn. This was how a child of the time was considered fit for adult labour. Sam used to recall his uncle’s stories about his father and life in the woods and on the Heath, thus providing a continuity of family tradition and oral history way back in to the 18th cent. Uncle Sam Rockall died in 1913 but not before imparting his skills and a strong sense of tradition on to young Sam.

In the early years of the 20th cent there were about 30 chair Bodgers scattered within the vicinity of Sam’s home busily feeding the veracious appetite of the High Wycombe furniture trade. Although there was great camaraderie and kinship amongst this close community never the less a professional eye was kept upon what each other was doing. Who was supplying whom and at what price? His account book for 1908 shows he was receiving 19 shillings (95p) for a gross of plain legs including stretchers. With three stretchers to a set of four legs this amounted to 242 turnings in total.

Sam Rockall at the shave horse

There was also endless discussion regarding the quality of timber from ‘this woodland or that,’ the state of the chair trade, the latest factory fire in town, or, just as important, the garden. Growing fruit and vegetables was taken seriously. Sam was no exception; he loved his garden and was very proud of his fruit preserves that would last his family throughout the long winters. Garden produce and money earned by the lady members of Chiltern households through lace making and straw -plait work made a significant contribution to the family budget. A bit of gleaning in the harvest fields and some poaching of the landowner’s game all made a useful contribution.

For the men it was the shave horse, side axe and pole lathe that earned the bread and so it was with Sam until the out break of WW1 when he was called up and private Rockall became company cook to the Machine Gun Corps. His recipe book still survives with hints on how to make a stockpot, bread and butter pudding and batches of 120 scones. After the war Sam returned to his beloved cottage on the Heath to live and resume his calling of working with wood, converting some of the very trees he played amongst as a child into chair legs.

At some time shortly after the war Sam decided to relinquish the pole lathe and change over to wheel power in the form of a treadle wheel lathe, something he was to continue with for the rest of his life. The workshop was conveniently by the side of his cottage with plenty of room for his lathe and equipment. Behind the lathe hung several dozen ‘patterns’, There was one for each style and size of leg, stretcher and spindle he ever turned. These patterns were in fact wooden tool rests containing marks and knotches relating to the required decoration of each turning style.

Being a perfectionist and one who preferred to turn by the bright light of the oil lamp rather than candlelight as preferred by some of his contemporaries during dark winter nights, he had this observation:

“Chair legs turned by candlelight should only be seen by moonlight”, or as they say in Bucks when referring to a full moon, under the village lantern.

Sam Rockall with chair legsSam Rockall was far more enterprising than most in his profession, he developed a wide range of skills including Chair making, I’m not aware of another bodger who could also make the finished article. He never made chairs on a large scale but in 1924 his accounts include the following.

2 doz. small chairs complete & 3/10d per chair

6 arm chairs complete & 6/9d per chair

H.J.Massingham, a prolific writer on country matters refers to an armchair made for him by Sam Rockall in ‘Chiltern Country’ published 1940. The two men became firm friends and Massingham wrote quite lyrically about Sam;

“He can hardly be called the Sylvan deity of his Heath and woods, and yet he is a microcosm of nature, the genius of his place”.

“Things made for mans daily use by the practice of inherited craftsmanship are inevitable and yet incidentally beautiful. Beauty is the by-product, and in the same way the poetry and romance of Samuel Rockall are the by-product of his trade, his happy bird-like spirit and his life long devotion to his craft, his family, his countryside and his independence”.

He was not a man to do nothing; I can’t imagine him having spare time. If chair work was slack he would be mending coppice styles for farmers, sweeping chimneys or sharpening tools. In 1945 Sam was still finding plenty to do. Apart from woodturning his account book informs us he was doing some repair work for a local landowner including repairing a music stand, chest of draws, fitting new castors on a set of easy chairs, grinding a pair of grape scissors and putting a new handle in a garden hoe.

A Sam Rockall chairFor chair bodgers there was also good business to be had selling firewood, much of it being the waste product from the business. For lighting fires one could buy bags of shavings from the shave horse, these could be followed by ‘chips’, the chunky wedges resulting from felling trees with an axe. Sam sold a sack of each for sixpence (2 1/2p). It appears Mr, Rockall also supplied bodging tools for in 1946 his book tells us:

Finding wood (Crab apple) and making beadle (beetle) 8 shillings.
1 pair of Beadle rings 6 shillings.
Two new wedges 6 shillings and sixpence.
Repairing hatchet 2 shillings.

Summer Heath is still a quiet place where today it’s peace is more likely to be invaded by recreational horse ridding and airplanes rather than the sounds of mans labour with saw, axe and lathe.

I will leave the last words to Samuel Rockhall’s Friend H. J. Massingham:

“When I left this time, he pressed on to me a sack of kindlings, a bag of nuts and a pot of his blackberry jam. One had to take them. Was he not a rich man? He is the wood-master. He has wood to burn, wood to carve and to turn, wood for furniture, what more could Sylvanus Rockall want? Surely he will climb to heaven up the tree of life.

Samuel Rockall’s bodging tradition was captured on film shortly after he died in 1962. His two sons helped in the reconstruction of his working life in the woods and his workshop. The colour film was produced by the furniture manufacturer Parker Knoll and follows the complete process using Sam’s own tools and equipment. A copy can be viewed by appointment at the High Wycombe Chair museum telephone: 01494 421 895.

6 thoughts on “Samuel Rockall: last of the chair bodgers

  1. I met Samuel Rockall perhaps a dozen times in the years 1946-48. At the time I was a school boy and idealised his way of life. On several occasions I turned the grindstone till my arm got really tired but I had to carry on. The chisels were not sharpened in seconds. He was always working if not in his workshop at the right hand side of the house or in the garden. I am sure he carried on working to the end. At 77 he still remanins on of my boyhood memories. It is good to know he has not been forgotten.
    I believe one of his sons became a woodwork master?
    Richard Alderman

  2. I went to Northend Primary school from 1934 to 1939 during which time William Rockall – youngest son of Samuel – was my best mate. I spent a lot of time at his home and the work of Will’s father has always been an inspiration to me in my hobby of woodwork. I have visited Will on several occasions but unfortunately the last time I saw him he was in an advanced stage of Pakinson’s desease. I could relate some interesting stories of our adventures on Turville Heath but space does not permit.
    Peter Ashton

  3. Hello, I am the great granddaughter of Samuel Rockall, and I have one of his stools with his name carved in it sitting in my room. I also have a set of six chairs identical to the photo above in my living room. After my grandad Bill there was only daughters which followed in the line but I have keep part of the bodger gene studying woodwork technology making a few chairs of my own. Unfortunetly being the youngest granddaughter I cannot remember very much of my grandad but it is great to hear some wonderful things about my family history.
    Kind regards Olivia Wagstaff (Rockall)

  4. I lived near Fingest 1933-1955. In 1944 I wanted a tall stool to sit at my bench, I enquired at the framing shop in Turville and was directed to Sam Rockall at Summer Heath. He made it for me, 30″ tall with an elm seat, it cost me 30 bob! I got to know the family quite well, Sam jnr. was an operator at the T.H. exchange,.We have a little chair like those they had by the open fire also another stool and a 14″ sycamore fruit bowl turned by Will.
    Happy days! Regards, Paul Read.

  5. I was born in 1948 and spent my childhood in the cottage next door to Sam’s. I remember spending the long summer days following him around and watching him work. Collecting timber from the beech woods with the aid of his horse and cart; watching him saw the logs into the right lengths on his saw horses, then splitting the lengths into pieces ready to be turned on the lathe. These were then seasoned under corrugated iron shelters on the common outside his house. I remember watching with fascination as he turned these into chairlegs on his lathe.
    I wonder if the beetle mentioned in your article was the one that he made for my father. It lasted for many years although it has now sadly disappeared.
    I recall that his only water supply was the well in our front garden, and he used to come round with two metal buckets suspended from a wooden yoke to collect water. I used to shout down the well to hear the echo; he told me I would wake the dead man if I wasn’t careful!
    I have many more memories of Sam and his wife, and remember going into his cottage many times.
    David Rance.

  6. Thank you for sharing some of your early memories of Sam, He is someone I would have loved to have met. Where would you find his like today?

    Best wishes,

    Stuart K

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