I have just been sent a lovely letter from Stanley Clark a retired ladder maker. He is 70 in April and no longer capable of making ladders but wishes to share some of his extensive knowledge of the craft.
He was apprenticed in 1954 straight from school to John Ward and Son Ladder makers, Bugbrooke Northampton. His letter tells how builders liked a narrow ladder as it made it easier to carry a full hod of bricks up and they generally had 2 ladders on the scaffold one up and the other was set in a hole on top of a straw bale so they could slide down holding the outside of the narrow ladder a little like a firemans pole.
Thatchers ladders were made to measure the thatcher would be measured from instep to knee so that when he stood on one rung his knees would come at the right point on one above as they worked kneeling on the ladder.
“We also made ladders for farmers that were made out of bent willow poles, they would just rock and not break when being pushed away from a loaded farm waggon etc. at one time we could not make them fast enough”
Stanley said they were “built like atheletes due to the incredible physical nature of the work”. They all worked a break neck speed…He could knock out 6 to 8 ordinary 18 rung ladders in a day, or 4 double extension ladders with 15 rungs a day. They cleft oak and ash rungs and hand shaped them with a draw knife..later in his career they turned them.
Stanley contacted my friend the timber framer Henry Russel after seeing him doing a TV program. We are hoping that maybe we can get a few of us together with Stanley and some materials so that he can pass some of his skills on to us. Stanley is also clearly an accomplished artist and has painted a series of pictures of the workshops as he remembers it. I hope to be able to show some of them here when I have asked his permission.
I am going to look into various sources to see if there is any way we can find some funding to spend time with Stanley, pay for materials and make a proper video record as we try to preserve these old skills. I am sure that one day in the future someone will find it useful to know how to build a wooden ladder quickly and efficiently. In fact I am sure that it would be possible to make a living today if you could make 6 or 8 ladders in a day!