Do you have a carpenter in the family?

Barbara Elsmore describes how learning a new trade enabled her great-grandfather, George Collings, to improve his own life and that of his descendants. Many of his carpentry tools are still in the family and some are now on display in the SDFHS Family History Centre in Sherborne.

In 1862 fourteen year old George Collings signed an apprenticeship form and for the next four years he would learn how to become a carpenter. How could he possibly have known how this would change his life from that of his father, and his grandfather before him, and how it would change the lives of those yet to come? George’s father, Solomon, was a dairyman who had lived and worked in many villages across Somerset and Dorset as he sought work and accommodation for his family. But from the moment George put his signature on that ancient document his life took on a settled and steady pattern of improvement and the key to it all was the skills that he would learn from his new employer Henry Hull, carpenter, wheelwright and builder of Nether Compton.

Mr G Collings Smith, Builder wheelwright NC on backimproved

George Collings outside the Forge in Nether Compton. Photograph courtesy of Cath Adam.

Over the next twenty or so years George would marry and he and Fanny would have seven children the last of whom was born in a cottage in Nether Compton that George had renovated and rebuilt as during this intervening time Henry Hull, his old employer, had retired and George had taken his place.

G Collings on reverse

George is standing second to left, with his apron swept to one side.

There were many other craftsmen living and working in the village with around forty local men all employed on the renovating of the old cottages and farms together with building some splendid new additions to the village. There were other carpenters, masons, building labourers, blacksmiths and whitesmiths all working for Colonel Goodden, who lived in Compton House. George was the co-ordinator of the workforce and advertisements would regularly appear in the Western Gazette as he sought to hire carpenters and masons to enable Colonel Goodden’s vision for a better living environment for all his tenants to be achieved.

Sheriff's Lodge c1904 low

Sheriff’s lodge in 1904 reproduced here by kind permission of Michael Goodden.

One of the new houses, completed in 1890, was Sheriff’s Lodge, so named to mark the year Colonel Goodden was High Sheriff of Dorset. I am lucky enough to have the architects’ plans for this house as they remained rolled up in a cupboard in my family home long after the house was built. During this time George also became the sub-postmaster and his wife and daughters ran the post office while his two eldest sons trained and worked as carpenters.

Jack Collings apprentice carpenter

George’s eldest son, Jack, as an apprentice carpenter c.1890.


George signed up his youngest son, Arthur, to attend Foster’s School in Sherborne when the headmaster, Mr Irwin, visited the village and recruited boys to the school. I believe that this was as a direct result of George’s increased prosperity. So instead of leaving school at fourteen or even earlier Arthur received two years of secondary education which would have cost his father the not inconsiderable sum of £2 for each term making £12 the grand total for the two years. Arthur was my grandfather and I have a little shelf made by him in 1897 in the woodworking class at Foster’s School.



Now we fast forward and I am the custodian of some of the surviving tools that have passed literally through the hands of George to Arthur, then to my father, Ralph, and now to me. Can you imagine what a thrill it gives me to hold one of these tools in my hand knowing just who would have held them in the past?

G Collings stamped nameI have discovered George’s name on a couple of the handles, possibly put on in the 1860s, and his name appears several times as though he is getting used to using the stamp. I had no idea what was used to inscribe his name until I looked on eBay and found a similar metal stamp for sale – so now I know.

There is such an interest in old tools and much information to be found by searching the Internet. I am now enjoying gently cleaning up and examining the tools and finding out what they would have been used for. I have made a little display of them at the Society’s Family History Centre in Sherborne so do pop in and have a look at them if you are interested. I am at the Centre on Friday mornings and would like very much to hear from anyone else who may have family tools still in use or tucked away waiting to be rediscovered and perhaps with stories, like that of George, to share.

Clamp and box

One thing that I was really thrilled to find, when I last visited my brother who lives in America, is that he is still using the old vice that used to be in our grandfather’s workshop in Nether Compton and I photographed it together with a wooden box that had been made our grandfather, Arthur – how wonderful to know these old family tools are still very much in use and that simple wooden boxes, beautifully made, may hold a key to our past.

Barbara Elsmore


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7 Responses to Do you have a carpenter in the family?

  1. David Adkins says:

    Hello Barbara
    Yes I have carpenters in my family and Henry Best HULL was one of them. It is many years since I finished my research into the paternal side of my family and I was a member of the SDFHS in those days. Recently with my sister we have started to research the maternal side and have managed to get back to William HULL a dairyman born Yeovil about 1850 who like your Solomon COLLINGS travelled about plying his trade until he arrived in Nether Compton around the turn of the 19th century. Thomas his eldest son a carpenter and John the next son a blacksmith came with him. Thomas was the father of William the father of your Henry Best HULL who’s younger brother Thomas Read HULL went on to make a fortune dying in Ingatestone Essex in 1915. I would like to learn more about the dairymen of Somerset and Dorset if you can help me and the photo of the forge at Nether Compton looks very much like the building we were guided to by the publican who explained the old forge was out of the village.

    David Adkins

  2. Kerri Curtis says:

    Wonderful story Barbara. Those lovingly cared for tools are in good hands. Wish I could visit and see the display!

  3. Prevaricat says:

    Interesting stuff Barbara…. I do indeed understand how you must feel when you handle such lovely, worn carpentry tools, knowing that they had been held and used by successive generations of your family. I never understand how people can just throw such precious things away. Your article has sparked a memory….

    When my grandmother died and her home had to be cleared most of my family headed for the big pieces of furniture, silverware etc. When they’d all gone I looked at the little that was left and took a few small, more personal items – things that reminded me of my Nan and Pop. The oddest item, I suppose, was four whole nutmegs, which I still have. My grandmother regularly used to make my grandfather his favourite dessert (and mine) – junket – she poured it into those green glass dishes, which everyone remembers from the 1950s, and grated nutmeg over the top. I only have to smell that spice and I’m back in her kitchen, sitting at the big oak table in pleasant anticipation, nearly sixty years ago 🙂

    Thank you for sharing….

    • Barbara Elsmore says:

      I so agree with you and thank you for reminding us of junket! – a childhood staple as I remember. We didn’t have the real thing made with rennet and nutmeg like you as ours came out of a Little Miss Muffet bottle – which I guess was just flavoured rennet. I also remember being allowed to make it myself and the milk had to be heated to blood heat in order for it to set – and you tested for blood heat by allowing a small drop of the heated milk to hit the back of your hand!

      • Prevaricat says:

        You’re right Barbara – my grandmother made the real thing; I have no idea how she knew exactly when to drop in the rennet because she didn’t used a thermometer – I guess she did the back of the hand test too (although I never saw it). I want some junket now!!

  4. Carol. says:

    Great photos Barbara.

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