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Rachael South, Chair Caner

May 7, 2021
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 me to 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. 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 fifty-two now and I’ve been caning chairs for thirty-eight 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. May 7, 2021

    The Chair Mender — what fine craftsmanship! Good to know that there are people like Rachael South who know what to do in a pinch!

    Love & Peace

  2. Ann V permalink
    May 7, 2021

    Thank you for your article on Rachael South. I have enjoyed watching her on The Repair Shop and what a talented lady she is. Thank goodness for people like Rachael who are carrying on these old crafts.

  3. Rachel F permalink
    May 7, 2021

    I so enjoyed reading about Rachael South’s work & family history in the craft.
    Lovely photos and historical info, fascinating stuff.

  4. Kelly Holman permalink
    May 7, 2021

    What a wonderful heritage. Such fantastic skills and a tradition to be proud of.

  5. Linda Granfield permalink
    May 7, 2021

    A wonderful story of a beautiful craft. Perhaps Ms. South is teaching a fourth family generation?

    Because she could find no one to mend my grandmother’s Victorian lady’s chair, my mother learned the craft in the 1970s, at a night school class. Only caning she did and it was amazing to watch the cane pattern grow.

    I wonder how Grandfather South (and the other street caners) kept the cane damp while he worked in the street?

  6. May 7, 2021

    So glad trades like this survive. I remember caners in London well, maybe one of them was even Michael South

  7. May 7, 2021

    A heartwarming story of a wonderful skill passing down through the generations. I wish I had an old cane chair for Rachael to repair !

  8. May 7, 2021

    Absolutely fascinating- thanks!

  9. May 7, 2021

    What a wonderful inheritance, and long may these skills continue.

  10. Catherine permalink
    May 7, 2021

    What a wonderful story, and the images are fantastic! It’s nice to hear that someone is carrying on this trade–better to mend than toss, I say.

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