Maurice Franklin, Wood Turner
If you were to rise before dawn on Christmas Eve, and walk down the empty Hackney Rd past the dark shopfronts in the early morning, you would very likely see a mysterious glow emanating from the workshop at the rear of number forty-five where spindles for staircases are made. If you were to stop and press your face against the glass, peering further into the depths of the gloom, you would see a shower of wood chips flying magically into the air, illuminated by a single light, and falling like snow into the shadowy interior of the workshop where wood turner Maurice Franklin, who was born upstairs above the shop in 1920, has been working at his lathe since 1933 when he began his apprenticeship.
In the days when Maurice started out, Shoreditch was the centre of the furniture industry and every premises there was devoted to the trade. But it has all gone long ago – except for Maurice who has carried on regardless, working at his lathe. Now at ninety-one years old, being in semi-retirement, Maurice comes in a few days each week, driving down from North Finchley in the early hours to work from four or five, until eight or nine in the morning, whenever he fancies exercising his remarkable talent at wood turning.
Make no mistake, Maurice is a virtuoso. When rooms at Windsor Castle burnt out a few years ago, the Queen asked Maurice to make a new set of spindles for her staircase and invited him to tea to thank him for it too. “Did you grow up in the East End?” she enquired politely, and when Maurice nodded in modest confirmation of this, she extended her sympathy to him. “That must have been hard?” she responded with a empathetic smile, although with characteristic frankness Maurice disagreed. “I had a loving family,” he told her plainly, “That’s all you need for a happy childhood, you don’t need palaces for that.”
Ofer Moses who runs The Spindle Shop – in the former premises of Franklin & Sons – usually leaves a list for Maurice detailing the work that is required and when he returns next morning, he finds the completed wood turning awaiting him, every piece perfectly achieved. But by then Maurice will already be gone, vanished like a shade of the night. So, in order to snatch a conversation with such an elusive character, a certain strategy was necessary which required Ofer’s collaboration. Early one frosty morning recently, he waited outside the shop in his car until I arrived, and then, once we had checked that there was a light glimmering inside the shop, he unlocked the door and we went in together to discover the source of the illumination. Sure enough, the wood chips were flying, accompanied by the purr of the motor that powered the lathe, and hunched over it was a figure in a blue jacket and black cap, liberally scattered with chips and sawdust. This was Maurice.
Unaware of our presence, he continued with his all-engaging task, and we stood mesmerised by the sight of the master at work, recognising that we were just in time to catch him as he finished off the last spindles to complete a pristine set. And then, as he placed the final spindle on the stack, Maurice looked up in surprise to see us standing there and a transformation came upon him, as with a twirl he removed his overall and cap, sending a shower of wood chips fluttering. The wood turner that we saw hunched over the lathe a moment before was no more and Maurice stood at his full height with his arms outstretched, assuming a relaxed posture with easy grace, as he greeted us with a placid smile.
“This firm was the wood turning champion of Britain in 1928,” announced Maurice with a swagger. “Samuel, my father, had been apprenticed in Romania and was in the Romanian army for two years before he came here at the beginning of the twentieth century, and then he served in the British Army in the 14/18 war before he opened this place in 1920. He had been taught by the village wood worker in Romania, they made everything from cradles to coffins. All the boys used to sleep on a shelf under the bench then.”
Maurice told me he was one of a family of twelve – six boys and six girls – and he indicated the mark in the floor where the staircase once ascended to the quarters where they all lived. “I started when I was thirteen, I’ve still got my indenture papers” he informed me conscientiously, just in case I wanted to check the veracity of his claim, “I took to it from the start. It’s creative and at the end of the day you see what you’ve made. I’m proud of everything I do or I wouldn’t do it.”
In spite of his remarkable age, Maurice’s childhood world remains vivid to him. “Here in Shoreditch, ninety per cent were Jewish and the ones that weren’t were Jewish in their own way. Over in Hoxton, they’d take your tie off you when you arrived and sell it back to you when you left – but now you couldn’t afford to go there. In 1925, you could buy a house in Boundary St for £200, or you could put down a pound deposit and pay the rest off at three shillings a week. I was born here in 1920 and I went to Rochelle School – They won’t remember me.”
The only time Maurice left his lathe was to go and fight in World War II, when although he was offered war work making stretcher poles, he chose instead to enlist for Special Operations. Afterwards, Franklin & Sons expanded through acquiring the first automatic lathe from America, and opening a factory in Hackney Wick to mass-produce table legs. “Eventually we closed it up because everyone was getting older, except me.” quipped Maurice with a tinge of melancholy, as the last of his generation now, carrying the stories of a world known directly only to a dwindling few.
Yet Maurice still enjoys a busy social calendar, giving frequent lectures about classical music – the other passion in his life. “I especially like Verdi, Puccini and Rossini,” he declared, twinkling with bright-eyed enthusiasm, because having made chairs for the Royal Opera House he is a frequent visitor there. “I like all music except Wagner. You’ll never hear me listening to Wagner, because he was Hitler’s favourite composer.” he added, changing tone and catching my eye to make a point. A comment which led me to enquire if Maurice had ever gone back to Romania in search of his roots. “I’ve got no family there, they were all wiped out in the war. My father brought his close relatives over, but those that stayed ended up in Auschwitz.” he confided to me, with a sombre grimace, “Now you know why I wanted to go to war.”
And then, after we had shared a contemplative silence, Maurice’s energy lifted again, pursuing a different thought, “I remember the great yo-yo craze of the nineteen thirties,” he said, his eyes meeting mine in excitement, “We worked twenty-four hours a day.”
“What’s the secret?” I asked Maurice, curious of his astonishing vitality, and causing him to break into a smile of wonderment at my question. “All you’ve got to do is keep on living, and then you can do it. It isn’t very difficult.” he said, spreading his arms demonstratively and shaking his head in disbelief at my obtuseness. “Are you happy?” I queried, provocative in my eagerness to seize this opportunity of learning something about being a nonagenarian. “I’ll tell you why I am happy.” said Maurice, with a grin of unqualified delight and raising one hand to count off his blessings, “I’ve got a wonderful family and wonderful children. I’ve been successful and I’ve got an appetite for life, and I’ve eaten every day and slept every night.” Maurice was on a roll now. “I was going to write a book once,” he continued, “but there’s no time in this life. By the time you know how to live, it’s over. This life is like a dress rehearsal, you just make it up as you go along. One life is not enough, everyone should live twice.”
There was only one obvious question left to ask Maurice Franklin, so I asked it, and his response was automatic and immediate, with absolute certainty. “Yes, I’d be a wood turner again.” he said.
“I wake up every day and I stretch out my arms and if I don’t feel any wood on either side, then I know I can get up.”
Ofer Moses, proprietor of the The Spindle Shop
Maurice’s service book from World War II.
Maurice as a young soldier, 1941
Maurice as a child in the nineteen twenties, in the pose he adopts leaning against his lathe today.
The figure on the left is Maurice’s father Samuel in the Romanian army in the eighteen nineties.
Samuel Franklin as proprietor of Franklin & Sons, Shoreditch.
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
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