Documentary shines spotlight on city’s forgotten crafts

Brian Walker examines one of his hand made compasses.  (C) BBC - Photographer: Glen Milner
Brian Walker examines one of his hand made compasses. (C) BBC - Photographer: Glen Milner
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An exhibition called The Tool Appreciation Society sounds like one of the least likely highlights of the Hull UK City of Culture programme. However, inside Hull Central Library, artist and unashamed tool fan Linda Brothwell has created a poignant tribute to the small army of Hull craftsmen whose work often goes unseen.

Having spoken to among others, a net maker, a heraldic artist, a potter, a wood carver and a boat maker, Linda set about making each of them a tool which would help them with their work. The result was the The Tool Appreciation Society exhibition and a documentary, Handmade in Hull, is due to be broadcast on the BBC this week, casting a spotlight on some of the city’s forgotten industries.

Potter Gabriel Nichols - (C) BBC - Photographer: Glen Milner

Potter Gabriel Nichols - (C) BBC - Photographer: Glen Milner

“If you spend enough time in Hull and it starts to trust you, the city begins to reveal all these gems,” says Linda, who did a degree in jewellery and metalwork at Sheffield Hallam University. “It has a really interesting history of working with tools, but what really makes it special is the people who use them.

“When people work with tools they become active participants in the society that they live in rather than just consumers and what they produce tells a story about the place in which it is made.”

As well as looking at Linda’s work, the documentary also includes interviews with those behind the crafts, many of whom fear that the skills they learned over long apprenticeships are in danger of passing into history.

“I’m not an artist,” says potter Gabriel Nichols, who can turn out up to 500 flowerpots in a single day. “There is art in what I do, but I am making things that other people want. However, if yards like this one cease to exist then we will be losing a lot of skills. There aren’t many people with my level of skill left and there are not many younger ones coming up behind.”

Linda Brothwell in her studio  - (C) BBC - Photographer: Glen Milner

Linda Brothwell in her studio - (C) BBC - Photographer: Glen Milner

It is a familiar refrain from those who appear in the documentary, many of whom having been working in the same job since the day they left school.

“In our heyday I was probably making 80 a year,” says Brian Walker, a compass maker at B Cooke & Son. “When I left school in 1968 I had a choice of three or four jobs, but this was the only one were I could make an instrument from start to finish.

“It was a five year apprenticeship and by the time I was 21 I was expected to be able to make one from scratch. It took a long time, but that was a good thing because along the way you also learnt character and respect from the older chaps.

“You can get lost in what you are going and everything else no longer matters. There are a lot of pressures in life and this becomes therapy.”

Linda also began to fear that she was part of a dying breed and The Tool Appreciation Society project was part of a lifelong mission to raise awareness of the importance of the craft industries.

“I did begin to wonder whether I was the last generation able to identify the uses of many of these tools,” she says. “There is a danger that they become just relics of the past, but if we do stop making things then I really do think we will lose something as a society. Having met some wonderful people in Hull I decided that I wanted to make a tool for each of them, something that was useful not just beautiful.”

In her own workshop, Linda crafted everything from a rib for Gabriel to help shape his pots to some vessels for Brian for the liquid he uses to fill his compasses.

“There is an incredible spirit of nonsense and resourcefulness in Hull,” she adds. “Hull is a really knotty ball, it takes a little while to get through that first layer, but as soon as you do it rewards you.”

The Tool Appreciation Society exhibition is at Hull Central Library to February 10. Handmade in Hull will be screened on BBC4 on Thursday at 11pm.