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Rachael South, Chair Caner & Upholsterer

May 4, 2014
by the gentle author

Rachael South at her workshop in Dalston

It never fails to inspire me when I meet someone who finds joy in the work they do – and Rachael South, third-generation chair caner, is a prime example. The chain of events that led to making contact with Rachael was extraordinary and the resultant visit to her workshop proved a rewarding outcome.

A couple of weeks ago, I published a picture of an unknown man in a suit sitting on the kerb mending a cane chair, which came from David Sweetland’s A London Inheritance, where he writes a weekly commentary upon his father’s photographs of London in the fifties and sixties. The picture fascinated me because of its similarity to the age-old images of chair menders to be found in the Cries of London series of prints published in these pages. Imagine my surprise when his granddaughter, Rachael, got in touch, naming him as Michael South and explaining that she carries on the trade to this day which was taught to her by her father, who had in turn been taught by her grandfather.

My quest led me to an old workshop in Shacklewell Lane where Rachael spends her days caning and upholstering chairs by the light of a large window. “The family lived in Ladbroke Grove but was Irish in origin, I believe there were a lot of Irish immigrants there at one time,” she revealed to  me, talking as she worked at her caning, “Michael, my grandfather, was a prizefighter and bare-knuckle boxer, but over time the chair caning took over as his boxing career waned. He had a pedlar’s licence and  walked up the hill from Ladbroke Grove to work around Kensington and Knightsbridge. They may have been travelling people once, because I was told it was called ‘Gypsy Caning.’ You can do it in the street because you don’t need any tools, just a knife and a block of wood or hammer to knock out the pegs.”

Certainly, chair caning has been carried out upon the streets of London for centuries and Rachael delights in the notion of being the inheritor of this artisan tradition, which suits her independent nature very well and guarantees a constant income as long as she chooses to do it.

“Terry, my dad, wanted to stay on at school and train as a draughtsman but at fourteen my granddad said, ‘You’ve got to get a job,’” Rachael admitted to me. “He had been brought up doing chair caning and he managed to get an apprenticeship with Mrs Shield, who was a celebrity decorator of the time – before setting up his own upholstery workshop in Harrow where he trained six apprentices”

My dad taught me caning when I was fourteen. I used to go along to his workshop and I liked it, because I’m quite a patient person and the upholsterers were a good laugh,” Rachael recalled fondly, “and when I went to Art College, it was what I did to make money – I lived in Hammersmith and went round all the antiques dealers and they supplied me with enough caning to see me through.”

Employed as a textile designer, Rachael soon felt the need for freedom and set up her own workshop as upholsterer and chair caner. “I’ve never been without work and I have three people working with me. I’m forty-four now and I’ve been caning chairs for thirty years,” she confided to me proudly, “I can’t turn work away because I know I can do it and  people are always so delighted when I give it back to them. I say, ‘That’s it done for another generation.’”

Rachael’s grandfather Michael South (1905-1964) at work in Kensington, sitting on his tool box

Michael worked with a pedlar’s licence in West London -“He had many brothers and sisters. One called Samson used to ride a motorbike on the wall of death and another called Danny had only one ear.”

Rachael’s father Terry South at work in his workshop in Harrow in the seventies

Rachael South at work today in Dalston

Terry South and Rachael at his workshop in 1978

Rachael sets to work with cane soaked in water for flexibility

Michael always went to work dressed in a suit and leather shoes

Rachael with a bundle of reeds

“Israel Potter, one of the oldest menders of chairs still living” - as portrayed by John Thomas Smith in Vagabondiana, 1819

Photo by John Thomson from Street Life in London, 1876: Caney the Clown -  ”thousands remember how he delighted them with his string of sausages at the yearly pantomime, but Caney has cut his last caper since his exertions to please at Stepney Fair caused the bursting of a varicose vein in his leg and, although his careworn face fails to reflect his natural joviality, the mending of chairs brings him constant employment.”

“Old Chairs to mend!” by Thomas Wheatley, seventeen-nineties

“Any Old Chairs To Mend! & Green and Young Hastings!” by Sam Syntax

“Old Chairs to mend, Old Chairs to Mend!” by J. Kendrew

“Chairs to Mend!” from The New Cries Of London, 1803

The kerbside mender of chairs, who ‘if he had more money to spend would not be crying – “Chairs to mend!’ is one of the neatest-fingered of street traders. Watch how deftly he weaves his strips of cane in and out – how neatly he finishes off each chair, returning it to the owner, ‘good as new.’” from London Characters, 1934

William Marshall Craig’s Itinerant Traders in their Ordinary Costune, 1804 : “Chairs to mend. The business of mending chairs is generally conducted by a family or a partnership. One carries the bundle of rush and collects old chairs, while the workman seating himself in some convenient corner on the pavement, exercises his trade. For small repairs they charge from fourpence to one shilling, and for newly covering a chair from eighteen pence to half a crown, according to the fineness of the rush required and the neatness of the workmanship. It is necessary to bargain for price prior to the delivery of the chairs, or the chair mender will not fail to demand an exorbitant compensation for his time and labour.”

Chairmender  at corner of Prince Orange Lane, Greenwich from Charles Spurgeon’s Londoners

From Julius Mendes Price’s London Types, 1919

From The Cries of London, early nineteenth century

Archive photos of Michael South © A London Inheritance

Cries of London courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

Contact Rachael South for chair caning and upholstery

8 Responses leave one →
  1. May 4, 2014

    Good luck to Rachel, lovely to see that she is carrying out one of the old trades. When I was a child in Stepney we often watched the chair mender at the corner of Harrad’s place / Welclose Square, and he always got work to do. The other illustrations round off the theme very well. Valerie

  2. May 4, 2014

    Most interesting is the historical context!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  3. Chris McGrath permalink
    May 4, 2014

    Lovely post. Thank you.

  4. May 4, 2014

    What a wonderful story this is! I love the way that the internet brings people together in a way that would not have been possible even twenty years ago.

  5. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 4, 2014

    Fascinating, and well done Rachael, it must be wonderful to still be able to earn a living from an age old craft like that!

  6. Judith Haxton permalink
    May 4, 2014

    What a wonderful article to wake up to in my inbox! I recently found a pair of old bistro style chairs with badly damaged cane seats in the GARBAGE. I would love for Rachael to fix them. Too bad I’m an ocean away in Montreal. I was of course thrilled by the Montreal Quebec reference in the Types of London.

  7. virginia wright permalink
    May 5, 2014

    Thanks for your terrific website. About 40 years ago, I was taught to weave cane by a blind man who was so good he could do a regular dining chair seat during a night of television listening. I was ill at the time and the work was helpfully therapeutic and – as the quality improved – incredibly enjoyable. I would recommend it to anyone – although not professionally in your area of course. Your Montreal reader will be happy to hear that cane-seat chairs were manufactured in Canada, in distinctive models as well as Austrian and American designs. The Canadian chairs were used throughout the country in homes, schools, hospitals, cafes, hotels, town halls, etc., from the most modest to the most luxurious. They are usually misidentified in museums and shops as ‘American’ or ‘Austrian’, and can be found in English antiques auction sales, as they were exported to Britain from the 1880s to the 1930s. Book out soon (I hope).

  8. Bunty Ball permalink
    May 5, 2014

    A super article on Chair caning with some very interesting old pictures. Good to see Rachel is doing well. I also cane chairs and am a member of the Basketmakers’ Association, Rachel might be interested in joining some like minded people. http://www.basketassoc.org

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