This article was published in Woodturning magazine some years ago.

Which woodturner has been the most prolific writer? Perhaps one of the Holtzappfels, or more recently Frank Pain, Gordon Stokes, Dale Nish, or Richard Raffan? I suggest that the outputs of none of these scribes come close to that of Nehemiah Wallington.

I hadn’t heard of Nehemiah until I chanced upon a reference to him in The English Civil War by Diane Purkiss, HarperCollins 2006, which lead to Wallington’s World by Paul S. Seaver, Methuen & Co Ltd, London, 1985, ISBN 0-46-40530-4 (figure 1). The information in this article is largely extracted from Professor Seaver’s book

Writings on Woodturning

Wallington is perhaps the earliest of that rare breed, professional woodturners who write. However, Nehemiah wrote little about his livelihood. The first extant writing about woodturning was by Joseph Moxon, but wasn’t published until about 1680, 22 years after Wallington’s death. Moxon was primarily an author, printer and publisher, and therefore the 70 pages of woodturning instruction in Mechanick Exercises, the world’s first do-it-yourself manual for the building trades, was largely gleaned by Moxon’s listening and observation. Not until another twenty years later, in 1701, was the first woodturning text written by a woodturner published. L’Abbe Plumier’s L’Art de Tourner is a massive, wonderfully-illustrated book which concentrates on ornamental turning. The amount and quality of the book’s information suggests that his clerical duties were few. Because ornamental turners were usually wealthy and educated amateurs, subsequent woodturning textbooks continued to concentrate on that specialty until the second half of the nineteenth century. In contrast, professional hand-turning was low status, and instruction was passed on through the apprenticeship system so textbooks weren’t needed.

Nehemiah’s times

Nehemiah’s sixty-year lifespan (1598—1658) was long for the times. Born late in the reign of Elizabeth I, he lived through the reigns of James 1 of England (1603-1625) and Charles I (1625–1649), and through the English Interregnum which had three phases: the Commonwealth of England 1649 – 1653, the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell 1653 to 1658, and a Protectorate under Oliver’s son Richard Cromwell  from 3 Sept 1658 to 25 May 1659.

The two main political events during Nehemiah’s life were the English Civil War which raged intermittently between 1642 and 1651, and the beheading of Charles I on 30 January 1649.

Nehemiah died in1658, just eight years before the Great Fire which started on Sunday 2 September 1666 at Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane (figures 2, 3 and 4). On that Sunday the Fire destroyed the house his father had occupied and the two premises in which Nehemiah and his family had lived. By Wednesday 5 September, 87 parish churches and 13,200 houses occupied by about 70,000 of the 80,000 City population, in short the whole of Caroline London except Westminster, had been consumed. Figure 5 shows Great East Cheap, and timber houses similar to those that the Wallingtons lived and worked in.

Nehemiah’s London

Nehemiah Wallington lived the whole of his life just to the north and east of London Bridge. The London bridge of Nehemiah’s time was the medieval stone bridge with twenty arches built between 1176 and 1209, and was London’s only bridge over the Thames. The bridge survived the Great Fire, although houses on it were burnt. The medieval bridge was replaced between 1824 and 1831 with a granite bridge with five arches designed by two John Rennies (father and son). This bridge was sold in 1968 for US$2,460,000 and rebuilt in Arizona. The present bridge was completed in 1973.

Nehemiah’s writings

The Wallingtons were Puritans, members of the Church of England who wished to purify that church by expelling its remaining remnants of popery. The movement arose in about 1566, in opposition to Queen Elizabeth I’s demand for uniformity in clerical dress. Those who opposed this dictate came to be called “Precisians” or “Puritans”.

The fervency of some Puritans was such that they emigrated rather than live under the prescriptions of the Church of England. The Wallington’s were evidently able to reconcile their beliefs within the established church (as did the movement itself so that it petered out by the end of the seventeenth century).

Wallington’s adolescence featured petty theft, depression, drunkenness, attempted suicides, and running away from home. Today we would probably regard Nehemiah as having a mild mental illness. Nehemiah seemed to recognise this himself, and his embarkation on his notebooks when aged 21 was vital to his regaining and retaining his self-control.

In his 1654 notebook Wallington listed notebooks numbered 1 (started in 1618) to 50. Only numbers 3, 5, 16, 18, 39 and 47 (2,600 of more than 20,000 pages) survive. The content of the notebooks is personal and religious, and consists of quotations, psalms, sermons, copies of letters, together with his own reflections and advice. Nehemiah saw in human events a continuous revelation of God’s will and purpose—Nehemiah’s God didn’t become passive after the creation. Hence Nehemiah’s writings seek to analyse events in order to determine God’s reasoning and involvement. There is, alas, little content on his own activity as a woodturner, which suggests that woodturning was Nehemiah’s livelihood rather than a passion.

How early he decided that his writings should be handed down to his children to assist them to live as Christians is unknown. Nehemiah was dead by 9 Sept 1658, when his widow handed his writings to the husband of Nehemiah’s only surviving child, Sarah.

Woodturning in Nehemiah’s time

Nehemiah’s’s father, John Wallington, was a financially-successful and notable woodturner. He’d come to London in the early 1570’s to start a turning apprenticeship. He was master of the Turners’ Company when it was incorporated in 1604, and was involved in the erection of new guild hall for the Company which commenced in 1605 on land owned by the Company in Philpot Lane.

To prevent the establishment of large turning manufacturies which would adversely affect the viability of the typical freeman’s small woodturning enterprise, new Turners’ Company ordinances were published in 1608 which limited:

  • ordinary freemen to one apprentice at a time
  • liverymen to two apprentices upon a payment to the Company of five pounds
  • the master ,wardens and assistants to three apprentices, with a fine of two pounds.
  • Another ordinance prohibited a master from hiring more than one journeyman at a time.

In a guild, the Court of Assistants was the deliberative body, and was composed of those who had been the master or a warden. Its members held office for life and coopted new members as required. The master, wardens, and assistants determined who could be freemen. The wardens were responsible for ensuring that guild ordinances were obeyed, collecting fees and fines, and upholding the standards of workmanship.

Figure 1   The front cover of professor Seaver’s book

Figure 2   A map of Cheapside at the time of Wallington

Figure 3   The Cheapside area today

Figure 4   Pudding Lane