The workshop in Froxfield, Hampshire is also turning out new generations of skilled furniture makers with the help of Ernest Cook Trust grants. Since 1988 ECT has donated £147,000 to the workshop’s apprenticeship programme.
“The Ernest Cook Trust has been one of our major funders,” says Stephen Rock, the workshop’s craftsman-tutor. “Since our first training grant from ECT, we have trained 34 apprentices – without this funding over the years, that number would have been significantly smaller.”
Stephen himself was among those first apprentices supported by the Ernest Cook Trust. And today, he and the craft training he oversees remain part of a great tradition, one whose line of continuum stretches right back to the workshop’s founding and beyond.
Edward Barnsley was among the most important British furniture makers of the last century. Developing Arts and Crafts traditions established in the Cotswolds by his father Sidney in the late 19th century, he created over 7,000 pieces of furniture. He established his workshop in 1923 and took on his first apprentice the following year.
“When I first came to the workshop in 1988, Edward Barnsley had died the year before,” says Stephen. “I got to meet Bert Upton, the first apprentice he had taken on in 1924, who was retired by then but still around.
“I also met George Taylor, another apprentice and craftsman who had worked here his whole working life. And I found myself working alongside people who had worked with these very first apprentices.
“So there’s this great link and knowledge that’s been passed down, that can be traced even further back to the Cotswolds, to Edward Barnsley’s father and to the Arts and Crafts movement.”
New recruits start with a foundation apprenticeship, an intensive one-year course working alongside experienced furniture makers. At the end of that year some are invited to stay on to train further and work at the Barnsley workshop.
Many Edward Barnsley apprentices have gone on to set up their own furniture-making businesses, and some recently represented the UK in cabinet making at the WorldSkills finals. The workshop’s manager and furniture designer James Ryan is himself a former apprentice.
Stephen Rock says while the Edward Barnsley Workshop is rooted in the past, it is also forward looking. “We’re not producing the same furniture that was made in 1923. Our furniture has some similarity but it’s moved on with the times.
“When I started, there was no expectation of taking apprentices on every year. It just depended on how much funding the trust had. Today all that has changed and the support we get is absolutely key. It just wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for the funding from organisations like the Ernest Cook Trust.”