The Darvel Magazine

passionately promoting and supporting our town, community and environment…

Sit down, relax and enjoy a Darvel Chair…

Author: Stephen A Hunter

Stephen was born in Darvel and lived there [West Main Street] until about 1966 when I sort of moved to Glasgow. I attended Darvel JS School {Elky Clark} and subsequently went to Kilmarnock Academy. My best memories of both these institutions was the woodwork depts with John Shaw in Darvel and Sonny Jim [George McInnes] in Kilmarnock. At Strathclyde University I studied for Architecture and after a few years I moved with my wife to Dunoon. We then moved to Ardrishaig in 1975 where we have stayed on the banks of the Crinan Canal ever since. My hobby always was woodwork and woodturning. In 2000 I received a grant to carry out research on the Darvel Chairs, one result of which is the article submitted to the Darvel Magazine.

Until David Jones’ [ of St Andrews University ] article in 95/96 neither I, nor I suspect most other people, knew of the Darvel Chair. I lived in Darvel for the first 25yrs of my life and there was in the kitchen a chair known as the Windsor Chair. As it turned out, it was not a Windsor but one of the chairs of which David Jones had written. It was one of a pair and had been there since the house was built. Also in the family was my great uncle John McNair – the “carrot king” who was born in 1870 and whose father, I subsequently discovered lived adjacent to one of the makers. Nonetheless he knew nothing of the chairs that I can recall. 70 years after it had been made , no one knew anything of its history

Darvel Chairs can be compared to the Windsor Chair in so far as it is constructed on a solid seat base with the turned parts socketed in to it, rather than rectangular sectioned pieces “Jointed” together, by mortice and tenon.

But there are differences which I find quite intriguing but whose significance will only be important to “chair geeks” like me.

Back ground

In the Valley there was a long tradition of flax growing much encouraged by legislation after the union of the parliaments in 1704. By the end of the century there were 13 water-powered mills for waulking the flax, grinding corn or sawing timber. Only one water driven mill still remains in the neighbouring village of Newmilns, although place names like Priestland Mill are evidence of other locations. Rankine’s saw mill, originally water powered, existed into 1970 but had long since been converted to electricity

In the 18c. the main industry was weaving which was carried out in a room in the individual weaver’s cottages.  As prosperity increased other industries and trades were established. Small communities had to be self – sufficient and skills

developed in order that local needs could be satisfied.  From the early 1800s whole families of tradesmen arose to form the basis of what was to become generations of skilled workers. Some of these families were still operating 200 years later.

As the population of Darvel and Newmilns was increasing and sustained by the local textile industry, wealth too increased.  It is recorded that there were almost 2000 handlooms in these towns. 50 years later the Industrial Revolution hit the area and the first Jacquard power looms were installed.

People were therefore able to afford a chair rather than a plain bench.     

MAKERS

Four makers have left autographed chairs, John McMath, JK Black, Hugh Shields, and R Mair  Very recently the name of D McKellar has been found stamped on a chair. There are obviously other makers and apprentices over the century but their names can only be guessed. 

John McMath  was born in Darvel in 1797.  His father was a cooper [ probably a white cooper making buckets and other ‘staved’ containers]  and his grandfather was a wright from the neighbouring village of Galston.  This is an old Scottish term for ‘a worker in wood’ or ‘maker’ which gradually went out of use toward the end of the 18C.  John McMath lived in West Main Street, and carrying on the family tradition of working in wood, produced chairs, and other pieces of furniture all his life. In the census returns in the later part of the century he calls himself a cabinet- maker. He married twice outliving both his wives. There is no record of him owning a workshop or business and workshop premises were recorded from about 1810.

He is buried in Darvel but confusingly a John McMath lived in Biggar and died a year after him.

J.K. Black does not feature in any of the returns in Darvel [from 1840] and as the only chair bearing his stamp is almost identical to an early McMath chair we can only assume he started work with McMath and died or left the area before 1840.

Hugh Shields was an Inn Keeper and Cabinet Maker in Newmilns, the neighbouring village. It was he who having trained with McMath was to be the main follower of the Victorian fashion for ornate mouldings and turnings. In the survey I carried out I came across a chair that was known as ‘Grandfathers Shiellie chair’. The owners did not know why it was so called but it gave me the most original provenance for the chair and the owners were delighted to learn about its maker. [as Hugh Shields made as many chairs as McMath,, if not more there is no real reason why the chairs are not Darvel & Newmilns chairs apart from history]

Hugh Shields has been the subject of some amazing research which I recently was made aware of by Kenny Parker – a descendant – I have suggested to the editor that he contacts him for a wee input.

D McKellar as far as I can find out was from Galston , but the similarities to McMath’s chair are such as to convince me that he too was an apprentice.

The last maker yet discovered was R Mair.

This is for me quite fascinating as R Mair and Sons were established Joiners from 1810 and functioned up to 2004. Coming from Darvel I new 3 generations of the family. The one nearest my age was a giant of a man with a voice like Paul Robson [ Big John Mair ] .  “Mairs” was a joiner / general contractor who built houses, repaired structures installed windows and all the bits and pieces that a local joiner would be expected to do. I do recall when discussing the chairs with John Mair that he had a distant vague memory of having been told that they [ the firm ] had been involved in making them. I was only able to confirm this when I got an e-mail from Georgia from a lady who had a couple of chairs stamped R Mair. Unfortunately Big John Mair died before I could tell him of my find. He would have been so proud.

The significance of Robert Mair and Son being involved is that it provides the premises where McMath worked and the chairs were made. McMath and others would have worked there and made the chairs and other articles of furniture as demand required. It is quite probable that Shields and McKellar travelled up to Darvel on the train as it is only a short journey and walked down Jamieson Road from the station to Robert Mair’s workshop

Before this I was always puzzled as to where McMath worked. There was no evidence of a workshop nor any folk memory regarding him. I discovered he must have been far from wealthy so I would suggest that he was an employee albeit a valued and skillful one, rather than an employer or even self employed.

Finish

I am no expert on Victorian finishes and can only guess that the original finish was a kind of varnish, which has now deteriorated to an extremely dark broken surface. However as the use of ‘shellac’ became more common the Makers obviously saw the advantages of this ‘new’ material which was fairly forgiving to the conditions found in a village workshop        . Almost all the mid and late Victorian chairs have been finished in ‘button shellac’ on top of a Brazilwood stain [ in a background of the Victorian love of Mahogany this was an attempt to meet fashion’s demands] the chairs getting a distinctive orange colour. Again I was told by John Mair that his Great Aunt was a “French polisher”

Features

The differentiating features of the Darvel Chairs highlight the difference in technology available between their makers and their counterparts in England.

  1. The arm –bow is made from a naturally curved branch, which is halved, opened out and joined at the back in an excellent scarf joint. Many still retain a little bark. This is similar to boat building technology where curved branches are used to make ‘knees’ and ‘ribs’ Some of the later chairs, mainly by Shields, have arm-bows cut from the solid plank usually of Birch clearly as an attempt to give a uniformity of finish..

2          The headrest is always sawn out of the solid. This and the way in which the arm-bow was formed suggest that the Makers were not comfortable with steam bending, unlike the Windsor Chair Makers.

3        The finish at the ends of the arm bow is always the same. From 1786 to 1910 this little finial is used to terminate the arm bow. If you come across a chair with these ends to the arm bow – it is likely to be a Darvel chair.

4          It is also an interesting feature that the back spindles or spars are the same diameter and I would claim were made with the same rounding plane. The odd size of 9/16 is far from standard and of course a drill bit of a corresponding size would be needed.  I have made several of these rounding planes and can vouch for their temperamental ‘attitude’. It is not impossible that this valuable tool was McMath’s father’s or even grandfather and handed down through the generations and was even handed over to Shields on McMath’s death.

5          The obvious distinctive feature is of course the rake of the whole chair.  The seat is sloped down towards the back and the back comb has this very steep slope.

The Windsor chairs of England are much more upright and as a result appear more formal. The Darvel chair is a very ergonomically successful piece of furniture.

The curious fact remains that despite the importance of this industry, the names of the wrights are not common knowledge, no mill remains, no memory exists in the villages of them or their work. Nothing is written of them, and they made small impact even though their output must have been considerable. I can only speculate on the reason for this.

It was as if the community had dismissed the significance of these men and their work in the typical Scottish way of   ‘oh him, I kent his faither’ and so failed to appreciate what they had done. Instead of taking a pride in their achievement -they were forgotten.

 The only evidence that can be found are the chairs themselves.

The number of chairs made over the years is open to conjecture, but a survey I carried out showed more than one hundred chairs still remain. Many must have been destroyed in the intervening hundred years. It is not unreasonable to guess that several hundred were made. The community supported the makers and the chairs were bought by mill owners and farmers, ministers and the common populace, often in pairs. Those that remain are jealously guarded family heirlooms. I have traced them all over the UK, Massachusetts, Georgia, Canada and New Zealand.

If you have a chair or know of one I will be pleased to hear from you.

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