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Rachael South, Chair Caner & Upholsterer

September 25, 2018
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.

One day 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’ve been caning chairs for over 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

10 Responses leave one →
  1. September 25, 2018

    What a wonderful article. Thank you.

  2. Stella Herbert permalink
    September 25, 2018

    How one thing does lead to another! Saw the name of the artist on the cigarette card, Julius M. Price. And there’s another fascinating story to tell!

  3. Ria permalink
    September 25, 2018

    Fascinating article, photos and drawings. It seems quite a few of the men liked to keep smart/respectable in their suits and ties whilst working and plying their trade as upholsterers.

    Thank you.

  4. Ria permalink
    September 25, 2018

    P.S. Nice to see Rachael is carrying on the family tradition. I’ll definitely keep note if my chairs
    need mending.

    I wonder if in the past the rushes were obtained from the Eyot in Chiswick for mending the
    chairs.

  5. Eva Radford permalink
    September 25, 2018

    Your blog never fails to entertain and inform! Thank you.

  6. Robin permalink
    September 25, 2018

    Wonderful to see such a fascinating tradition so beautifully carried on.

  7. Vancouver Barbara permalink
    September 25, 2018

    Love your blog. The photographs for this piece are wonderful, as is your writing. The grandfather looks rather like the clown/caner from another era.

  8. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 25, 2018

    Another great example of how the blog format with it’s facility to include so many photos and pictures can really bring a story to life. When I saw the title Chair Caner I wondered if the Cries of London illustrations of chair mending would be referenced and behold! there they were in abundance! Great stuff GA…

    PS Are those golf tees holding the canes in place?

  9. Barbara Fister-Liltz permalink
    September 26, 2018

    What a delight! And there collective of art/photos/engravings/etc. made this very special. Thank you!

  10. Angela Wigglesworth permalink
    September 27, 2018

    I was really interested to read your story about your chair caning and loved the photograohs. Last year I wrote a book called The Chair Man, the life story of Romany gypsy, John Lee. He caned chairs in the streets of Sussex and did have an extraordinary ylife. I would be glad to send you a copy of the book if you’d like to see it.
    With good wishes,
    Angela Wigglesworth

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