Houghton's Basket Works just before WWI
Houghton's Basket Works
St Andrews Street North

The family story

Houghton's basket making business began in 1867 and lasted more or less on the same site until the 1950s.

Esau Houghton (1846-1924) was born in Newmarket and married Sudbury born Mary-Ann Elliot (1845-1935) in 1867, the year Esau set up his basket making business. At various times he advertised himself as a cooper, sieve maker and coal and firewood merchant trading from 4, St Johns Street, the premises of Edis of Ely, pork butchers, today.

He also had a manufacturing works in St Andrews Street North somewhere between Bishops Road and Blomfield Street. This was not too far away from their Osier willow beds in the Tayfen Road meadows much prized in the making of baskets which were still used in recent times by delivery tradesmen such as bakers.

In January, 1868, Mary-Ann gave birth to a son, George Esau. He was christened at St Johns Church, with which he had a long association with, first as a chorister, onto being married by the Rev Dr Stantial and latterly as a churchwarden. His Diamond Wedding to Ellen Louise Brinkley was celebrated in 1941. Sadly, he died on Christmas Day 1951, his wife following him twelve days later.

George Esau had taken over the Basket making business in the first decade of the 20th century. He employed George Henry Ridgeon, who was born in 1896. With the coming of WWI, Mr Ridgeon joined the 7th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment but was tragically killed in action at the battle of the Somme in 1916 and was buried in Ovillers military cemetery in France. The photograph showing the Basket Works has George Ridgeon on the right.

It is currently unclear if this works had been in existence in Esau's time, but it was certainly closer to the osier beds at Tayfen than was the shop. The shop and works were also recorded in Kelly's Directory for 1925/26 and for 1937. In 1946 the business passed to George Hayter, son-in-law of George Esau Houghton.

Ethel, the daughter of George and Ellen had married George Hayter and it was he who carried on the business from 1946.

In 1952 a new gasholder had been erected on Tayfen Road. (This was the gas holder demolished in 2016). Just next door to the new gasholder there still remained a remnant of former times. In January, 1952, osier beds were still being cropped to make willow baskets. One basket maker, Sidney Craggs, had been working on the osier beds in Tayfen Meadows, when he was fatally run down by a tractor as he returned to his home in Blomfield Street.

On a wall at the rear of the Edis shop is a stone plaque with G E H 1927 on and strangely enough on a wall the bottom of St Andrews St North /Tayfen Road is another plaque with G E H 1889. The basket works may well have extended down to as far as this.

In the 1960’s British Rail purchased some of the osier meadows, levelling it with waste soil from the Sugar Beet factory to create a sports ground for their employees. Only the name Osier Road, just off Tayfen Road, remains to tell of this once important industry.

Willow Cottages - OS 1884

Willow factory Mill Lane, Bury St Edmunds

There was another willow factory in Bury St Edmunds long before Houghton's enterprise. This was in Mill Lane, which today is called Mill Road. The willow factory was not shown on Paynes map of 1833, although it was included as plot 96 in his written survey. It is also mentioned in the August 1839 rate book as Willow Factory, House, Ground, and valued at £8.10.0. The ratepayer was J B Burland. In addition, he was building housing for the workers on the site. These were built piecemeal throughout the 1840s, and the earlier ones seemed to have been let at a lower rent than those built a few years later. The cottages around the factory appear to have been known as Mill Yard or Mill Place at first, but by 1851 they are known as Willow Cottages.

By the 1851 census Burland was listed as a willow manufacturer, employing 13 persons. Ten of these willow weavers lived in the Willow Cottages, and 9 of them were females.

By 1861 Burland appears to have moved to Islington and remarried. As far as we know, the willow factory closed down at this time.

Willow Cottages were a row of 14 properties running off Mill Road. These houses had outside privies at this time, and in 1955 a plumbers mate, employed by plumber Percy Cook, fell 15 metres down a cavity that opened up when he pulled the chain. Luckily he was recovered and the cavity was filled, but the story lived on. This illustrated the fact that there was a web of underground tunnels which had arisen from 19th century chalk workings to feed Lime Kilns in Mill Road. Lime Kiln Cottages still survive in Mill Road, although half the Willow Cottages survived into the late 1960s they had all been demolished by 1972.

Click on the map thumbnail for a wider view of the area, including the site where Jacqueline Close would be built on the opposite side of Mill Road.

Willow harvesting at West Stow 2018
West Stow sewage farm

In 1887 a new sewage works was established by Bury St Edmunds Borough Council on 112 acres at West Stow, to replace the overloaded and failing works on Fornham Road.

The expression sewage 'farm' came about because 20 acres of the site were to be used to grow crops such as tomatoes and black currents to be irrigated from the outfall. Osier willows for sale to basket makers were also grown along the damper banks of the River Lark.

Copies of the Borough Council's Accounts for 1937-1938 indicate that the irrigation of crops at West Stow was still under way. It had always been the intention for the sewage farm to make money by re-cycling waste water for irrigation. The sale of blackcurrents made £25.12.4, drastically down on the previous year's total of £79. Also sold were £4 worth of Osiers and £14.18.9 was received for the sale of fodder. Willow sales for the previous year had made £200, but no willow was sold in 1937-1938.

In 1962 the West Stow works were decommissioned. Today, occasional osier production is still carried out here, although on a very small scale, by volunteers from the Friends of West Stow.

Typical oval willow basket
Notes on basket willows

Commercial osier willows are still grown today in the Somerset Levels, and various specialist strains of willows have been developed or selected over the years. Varieties that are suitable for basketmaking range from fine willow that grows to around 4 feet tall that were used in the Nottingham area for lace baskets to the more robust Salix viminalis that was traditionally used to make crabpots.

Most willow grown for basketry is the product of a single year’s growth. The whole plant is cut to the ground or sometimes grown as a pollard (on a short trunk) so that each year many rods spring from the same place. Willow is cut during the dormant season when the sap is down and once the leaves have fallen. This is usually between November and March depending on the weather. Traditionally willow was cut by hand by pulling a curved cutting knife that resembles a sickle through a bunch of rods at a time.

Rothampstead Research holds the National Willow collection, one of the largest collections of willow, and is the longest running acricultural research station in the world.

Today, Willow is an important energy crop because it grows quickly and will re-grow annually after being cut (coppiced). It is attractive to wildlife and helps to capture carbon in the soil, which could reduce greenhouse gasses and help combat climate change.

Parts of a willow basket
Example of a Stake and strand basket

Stake and strand is a traditional European basketry technique for working with willow.

It describes the way in which the basket has been constructed; the weave consists of strong sticks (in the base) and uprights (in the sides) over which thinner rods are woven. It is a fairly fast way technique. This was the main method used in the basketry workshops that sprang up to service the rural industries. Most baskets that were made in quantity were woven in this way because it was efficient and cost-effective.

The parts of the basket

Stake and strand baskets are made from the base up with the border made last. Handles, lids and latches are worked at the end.

The base is made first and separately. The base dictates the eventual size of the basket and the weight of willow used dictates the strength.

Each of the different base shapes are woven in a specific way.

The article on Houghton's Family Story is by Martyn Taylor

The research on the Mill Road willow factory is by A D Atienza

Notes on basket making come from the website "Basketry and Beyond" http://www.basketryandbeyond.org.uk

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Last updated 4th June 2018
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