Five years ago I blogged about ladder making. I had been contacted by Stanley Clarke who left school and became an apprentice ladder maker aged 14 in 1954.
At the time I said “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.” Well it took rather longer than anticipated but we did it far better than expected too. This week Steve Tomlin and I met with Stanley and over two days built a thatcher’s ladder. This is a builder’s pole ladder Stanley brought for us to see, made by him over 50 years ago.
On the first day we spent 5 hours planing the poles up, great fun and hard work, Stanley used to make 4 ladders a day on his own. Their timber was near perfect and needed far less work but he still must have been incredibly fit.
We learned so much, not only about ladder making but about how to ensure skills are passed from one genration to the next. Much research has been done around the world on how it is best for this knowledge to be captured. Filming a skilled maker is not particularly helpful as all the difficult bits are done with such ease you don’t see how to overcome the difficulties. The best records are made when the process of making is undertaken by skilled apprentices who know little about the particular trade so ask all the right questions to tease the knowledge out of the master. In our case Stanley is very weak having suffered Guillain-Barre disease and been seriously paralysed. This could have been seen as a problem but in fact I believe it helped with the process of knowledge transfer. Stanley desperately wanted to see a ladder made but his body would not do it. He had to give instructions for us to carry out. I would seriously consider in future learning situations tying the master to a chair so they had to work by instruction only. Here I am with our finished ladder, a thing of beauty
I was not really prepared for the experience of going up the ladder for the first time. Having been a tree surgeon and used aluminium ladders for access I hate them and regard them as dangerous places to be. The wooden ladder whilst heavy was incredibly stable, I would be perfectly happy clearing the gutters of my house from this ladder.
Here is Stanley beside the finished article, the first one he had seen made for 50 years, it was an emotional few days.
Stanley is far far more than a retired ladder maker, we visited his home and he showed us amongst other things the penny farthing he built from scratch. He rode this 4 times from Cornwall to France raising £180,000 for charity, he used to race it too, covering 100 miles in 4 1/2 hours. Whilst on the subject of unusual bikes we talked unicycles, I once rode mine round the top of the world trade centre, Stanley used to ride one in the circus, across a high wire with someone on his shoulders. He rode a works Norton 500 at the age of 17, he learned martial arts to a very serious level from William Fairbairn and whilst in the army he was the personal bodyguard to the Malaysian Prime Minister. The list of amazing jobs and achievements goes on and on and on I have never met anyone that has done so much to such a high level.
Back to laddermaking in due course there will be freely available videos of the whole process and we will also be running a free training course to pass the skills on to others that want to learn. Places will be available through the Heritage Crafts Association and priority will be given to folk that need to make ladders for their own work eg thatchers or folk that have a serious commitment to making more ladders. For those that just fancy making an odd ladder there will be an online learning resource taking you step by step through the process.