Withy Stripping

Edmund Boobyer, Jonathan Coate’s Great Grandfather, was not only a chair & basket maker, and willow grower. He was also a major withy dealer. His ledgers from 1926 show that he bought over 26,000 bundles of willow from other local growers. What may not be realised is that every single rod was stripped by hand. Although experiments had taken place in the US and Europe, the machines did too much damage to the rods, and it was not until a competition held in 1929 that an efficient stripping machine was invented. For a long time after that, however, much willow was still stripped by hand. Some Stoke residents remember having to strip a certain amount between coming home from school and having their tea.

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Mr & Mrs Hembrow Stripping Willow for White in Curload, 1930s

At one time, most families would have had a stripping brake fixed to a fence or a post in the garden, and the censuses contain many references to the occupation of women as ‘Withy Stripper’, or’ Withy Whitener’. This must have given a sense of cohesion in the village, without the feeling that everyone was under the thumb of the ‘Mill Owner’ or ‘Lord of the Manor’, as happened so often in other English villages. Nearly all families had some part in the willow growing and basket making industries, but it was often an extra income. Apart from processing the willow, many farm labourers and their wives might make a few baskets, and withy cutting would often be done on a self employed basis, rather than by a crew of ‘estate workers’.

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Two of various types of Stripping Brake

When Howard Coate was in charge of the family willow growing business, he introduced a system of payment by tokens for stripping bundles of withies. These tokens could be exchanged at the local shop in Stathe for groceries and household goods, after which the shopkeeper would be refunded by the firm. It was stipulated, though, that the tokens could not be used to buy cider or other alcohol. This ensured that the whole family benefited from the work carried out, mostly by the women and children.

In some years the withy stripping went on over a long period, as the school log book shows. At one point the school holidays were changed to incorporate the activities of the children within the industry, as many children were just not turning up for school when there was stripping to be done. The Headmaster recorded in the school log book on 13th March 1878: “This week there is a great diminution of numbers through the commencement of withy whitening,” although, on the 12th of April he reported: “The withy whitening, contrary to expectations, is very late this season. Consequently the attendance is high for the time of year. Average this week is 67 against 36 for the corresponding week last year.” By May he is getting somewhat frustrated: “The school, as it is, is impossible of being worked properly. There is no encouragement for a teacher because he knows that everything new he undertakes will have to be gone through again when the absentees arrive.”

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