Crafts: Carpenters

After the blacksmiths the carpenters are one of the most significant and essential of the historic building crafts due to their role as both builders of the frames around which construction takes place and because (historically) they were responsible for the erection of scaffolding. Carpentry has a long and complex history, with disputes over demarcation between the various woodworking trades common in the medieval, early modern Victorian and 20th century periods. The various trades associated with woodworking, besides carpentry itself, include wrights (notably shipwrights), joiners, turners, foresters, lumberjacks, carvers and engravers. As timber has (at least until the 20th century) been plentiful and it is much easier to fell trees and shape wood than to quarry and carve stone, carpentry probably has greater antiquity as a building material than stone, although this is disputable. Certainly carpentry has assumed an importance in culture and the cultures of construction for millennia. As the Bible shows two thousand years ago Jesus was of course a carpenter and so was Joseph, and in 1066 William of Normandy ('William the Conqueror') brought a ready-to-assemble fort with him, along with skilled Norman carpenters (whose work can be seen in the Bayeux Tapestry) when invading Britain.

Prehistoric examples of wooden construction are evident in the 'woodhenges' such as about two miles from the more famous (and robust) Stonehenge in Wiltshire, and the emergent 'Seahenge' (as the press dubbed it) which was revealed at low tide on mud flats at Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. Anglo-Saxon building methods were heavily reliant on wood, and there is one surviving (partially) wooden church from the period at Greensted, near to Chipping Ongar in Essex.

The Carpenters Company is one of London's historic building guilds, or 'Liveries' (in reference to their right to wear a designated set of clothes, usually a cloak, sashes, cap and so on - the livery). The first document related to the company occurs with the 'Boke of Ordinances' from 1333 although there is mention of a 'Master' of carpentry in the City of London's records from 1271. [1] The company gained the right to regulate and control the trade within London's city walls, and, at times, for some distance outside of them as well. Along with the Masons' Company the carpenters supplied one of the two City of London 'viewers' who decided upon boundary disputes between adjacent buildings, as well as problems related to overhanging eaves, guttering, collapsed chimneys, access to light, land drainage and so forth, and, in a sense, were therefore a forerunner of the development control teams within contemporary town planning departments.

After the Great Fire of London the role of the Carpenters Company diminished due to regulation that stated that all buildings in the City must be built of stone or brick, although these were not the first fire prevention regulations as there is evidence of restrictions on thatch roofs, 'treens', that is chimneys made from hollowed out tree trunks and designation of safe zones, such as south of the river Thames, for industries which were considered a fire risk. However even with the adoption of fire-proof building methods carpentry was still important as frames, roof supports and scaffolding were built in wood. In the 19th century the expansion of Empire, and the trade that went with it, saw the development of iron-framed buildings for the dockside warehouses in places like Plymouth and Liverpool. However wooden frames were still used for most buildings and continue to be so.