My Ancestor Was A...Brushmaker
Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine|January 2018

Until the arrival of mass production, creating a brush required the hard work of a team of highly skilled craftsmen, says KA Doughty

KA Doughty

Brushes have been around for thousands of years – they were used by cave dwellers and ancient civilisations. Pictures were painted, floors were swept and tiles were scrubbed. But, like today, brushes were not particularly valued; and because they had a limited life, few ancient brushes survive. By the fourth century St Anthony’s followers were making a living from the brushes and baskets they produced from local materials, earning him the role of patron saint of brushmakers.

Over the centuries the process of brushmaking became more specialised. By the late 18th century brushmakers were making brushes and brooms in Britain similar to today’s.

The oldest form of broom is a besom (‘witch’s broom’). Although the final product looks very simple, making besoms properly requires seasoning and drying of both the sticks and handles, and a fair amount of skill to attach the birch twigs securely.

Besom-makers, or ‘broom squires’, were prevalent in the south-west of England, where they made besom brooms in the colder months and hawked them around the lanes and towns in warmer weather. They lived off the land, and were not averse to a bit of poaching. Some broom squire families moved on to newer brushmaking methods in the 19th century, and a few are still making traditional besoms in the 21st century.

Increased quality

The quality of British brushes increased significantly in the early 19th century, thanks to a growth in imports of bristles from Russia – the bristles of Russian wild boar were far superior to those of balder, domesticated British pigs. Industry was also in need of high-quality brushes for manufacturing processes and cleaning factories. Many brushmakers’ workshops could be found in Southwark, Bristol, Nottingham, Norwich, Birmingham and the other main brushmaking towns.

The traditional brushmaker’s workplace was far removed from the later factories. It was based around a small workshop, known just as a ‘shop’. Each shop usually employed four men, because this was as many workers as the square table around the pitch pan could accommodate. The group normally consisted of a master, a couple of journeymen and an apprentice. Each apprentice served seven years, after which he became a journeyman, whose skill and indenture qualified him for employment at other shops. By age 24 he was earning enough to marry.

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