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, published by HarperCollins in 2006. This 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 early 20th 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 from 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 in 1658, 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 the 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 17th 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, and

the master, wardens and assistants to three apprentices.

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.

A freeman was a man not tied by some form of economic servitude. The title was then extended to mean one who enjoyed the full privileges of guild membership. A craftsman could not be eligible to be a freeman until he’d completed his apprenticeship (typically of 7 years duration), and worked as a journeyman for a further two years. There could be different grades of freemen: liverymen, for example, paid higher guild fees and were entitled to wear the guild livery (uniform). The sons of freemen could shorten the process to by which they become freemen through patrimony.

The Turners’ Company was given the power of self-regulation in the early 14th century. However the Company was never either prosperous or prestigious because wood was a commonplace material, the equipment required was relatively inexpensive, and because the ability of the turners to expand into allied areas of work was restricted the more powerful Joiners and Carpenters guilds

In the early 17th century wood was still the pre-eminent working material, with cheap metals three centuries in the future, and plastics another century later. Turners then produced humble household woodware, turned furniture and building components, and other turned-wood industrial goods. Because of the wide variety of turnings in demand, both John and Nehemiah produced turnings themselves and sold goods made by other specialist turners.

Nehemiah the woodturner

Nehemiah was born and always lived in the parish of St Leonards and in the parish immediately to the east, St Andrew’s Hubbard (figure 2).

Born in 1552, John Wallington was 46 when his fourth son and tenth child, Nehemiah was born on 12 May, 1598 in the tiny parish of St Leonard’s Eastcheap. Nehemiah’s mother, Elizabeth Hall, died in November 1603. Within a year John remarried, to a widow, Joan Hinde, whose son from her previous marriage, Philip, was until his death in 1609 Nehemiah’s best companion. John, who lived to 86, outlived three wives, the two who followed Elizabeth Hall were widows with children from earlier marriages.

Nehemiah was apprenticed to his father. At that time the Turners’ Company recorded about 24 new apprentices per year. John, being a master of the Turners’ Company was able to ensure his son’s progress, so that Nehemiah became a freeman of the Turners’ Company on May 18, 1620, by patrimony on his father’s payment of a silver spoon. Nehemiah was thus able to avoid the two-year journeyman stage, and become a freeman two years earlier than permitted.

Very shortly after becoming a freeman Nehemiah rented premises on the corner of Philpot Lane (figure 6) and Little East Cheap in the parish of St Andrew’s Hubbard, hired his first journeyman, and bound his first apprentice. Nehemiah then married early for the times when just 23 to Grace Rampaigne.

These events in rapid succession suggest that John believed that loading his son with a wife and the responsibility of running his own workshop would bring stability. It seems that they did because the marriage and the business lasted until Nehemiah’s death.

They had five children, but only one, Sarah survived past three. She married woodturner John Houghton in 1647.

Nehemiah and his family and business relocated to St Leonards in mid-1626, to premises possibly on Fish Street Hill, and may have stayed there at least until Nehemiah’s death.

Nehemiah started work by 6 am, and worked through to between 7 and 9 pm. He, like other masters, lived on the premises, with workshop and shop on the ground floor, immediate family living on the first floor, apprentices and journeymen on the second, and storage on the top floor. He was not anywhere near as financially successful as his father John had been. Fortunately, John lived close by until he died when Nehemiah was forty, and was ready to intervene when necessary. Nehemiah also had the support of an elder brother who was a master turner who worked nearby.


Today’s woodturners would be delighted had Nehemiah written at greater length about his business, and about contemporary woodturning. Nehemiah was well-placed to do this, working in an area which was then perhaps the centre of English woodturning, and having a father and brother who both became masters of the Turners’ Company. However let’s be thankful that even some of Nehemiah’s notebooks have survived through four centuries, and that professor Seaver has made them accessible to us.

Figure 1   The front cover of professor Seaver’s book on Nehemiah Wallington. The woodturner on the dust jacket is taken from a wood engraving by Thomas Bewick or one of his pupils made around the end of the 18th century.

Figure 2   The area immediately to the north of London Bridge in the seventeenth century. Nehemiah’s parish church, St Leonard’s, is on the corner of Fish Street Hill and Little East Cheap.

Figure 3   A current street map of the same area, scanned from page 20 of Collins London Street Atlas, 2008. The street layout and names have changed little, except that Great East Cheap has become Cannon Street, and has lost both its generous width and its ability to host markets and major public events. Because the present London Bridge is a little to the west of the medieval bridge, the bridge is accessed now from King William Street, not Fish Street Hill. The northern continuation of King William Street/Fish Street Hill has been renamed from Church Street to Gracechurch Street.

Figure 4   Looking east along Eastcheap at its junction with Pudding Lane, the source of the Great Fire.

Figure 5   Great East Cheap (cheap is Teutonic in origin, and came to mean a market) in 1639, showing the livery companies’ stands at the reception of Mary de Medici. The timber houses shown were all destroyed in the 1666 Great Fire, and were replaced by fire-resistant brick buildings.

Figure 6   Looking east along Eastcheap at the junction of Philpot Lane. Nehemiah rented his first workshop/shop/house here, but whether it was on the eastern or western corner isn’t known.