This week I was devastated to learn that Clayton’s tannery one of a handful of traditional tanneries left in the country was to close after 178 years making some of the highest quality leather in the world. They have also been my leather supplier for the last 25 years. I feel very much for the people, the skills and the knowledge that will be lost.
This morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today program I heard the story of JJ Thompson the Physicist who discovered the electron and how his research could not be completed without the work of a skilled glassblowers D.S.Sinclair and Ebeneezer Everett.
In the book JJ Thomspon and the discovery of the electron we are told that when Sinclair left the Cavendish laboratory in December 1886, to set up his own business. His replacement, A.T.Bartlett, was unable to blow glass, and Thomson’s discharge work came to a complete standstill for several months.
• February 3 1887 Dear Threlfall, …It is a long time since I wrote to you but I have been having a lull in my experiments as I have been stopped for want of a glass blower since Sinclair left. I have been having the new man taught and I think he will be able to do it all right… March 20 1887 Dear Threlfall, …I feel Sinclair’s loss very much as the new man is not worth a cent as a glass blower..
• August 7 1887 Dear Threlfall, …I am going to get a private assistant who can do glass blowing as we feel the want of a glass blower very much.
Thompson headed the Cavendish Lab at Cambridge and Rutherford who first split the atom was amongst 8 of his research assistants that went on to become Nobel Laureates.
To me there is a connection between Claytons and the Cavendish and that connection is knowledge and skill. Few people can underestimate the impact of that early work on particle physics and none would have known the that the skills and knowledge of how to manipulate hot glass would be necessary for those discoveries.
We are often asked
Why preserve old craft skills? Why support moribund industries? if society still values them they would continue.
The thing is that knowledge and skill that has been passed down through the generations is part of our inheritance, we can choose to throw it away or nurture it and pass it on. The problem is it’s impossible to tell which bits of knowledge and skill may become useful down the line, much as it’s impossible to tell which plant in the rainforest may hold a cure for some disease, but once they are gone they are gone.
Next Wednesday I will spend the day in London with colleagues from the Heritage Crafts Association arguing that the UK should sign the 2003 convention on intangible cultural heritage. This would simply declare that we value and will care for the knowledge that has been passed down in the same way we care for the physical things we have inherited buildings, monuments and natural features. It seems like a no brainer yet we are one of few countries in the world that have so far chosen not to sign up.