THE ancient craft of wheel building has flourished deep in the Banks countryside thanks to the dedication and skill of one family.
Phill Gregson, 28, is the youngest member of the Crowhurst family to work as a full-time wheelwright at the family’s workshop off Bolton’s Cop in Banks.
The Crowhursts build gypsy wagon wheels, carriage wheels, cannon wheels, bandstands and gun stocks by hand.
The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights recently invited Phill to a Jubilee banquet at Westminster Palace in, which was attended by 650 guests credited with providing valuable services to industry, commerce, academia and craft.
The family’s story began with Phill’s great grandfather Albert Lancelot Crowhurst. He survived the Great War unscathed, only to severe a finger in a French saw mill after the fighting had stopped. The decorated war hero was sent to convalesce at the Promenade hospital in Southport. When he had recovered from his injury he went to work on the Scarisbrick estate where he met his future wife, and the couple had two children named Edward and James.
Edward left school during World War II and followed in his father’s footsteps as a foreman on the Scarisbrick estate.
Edward, who later worked as a cabinet maker in Southport, married and had children named Albert, Alan and Susan.
The Crowhurst family established a wheelwright and carpentry business in Churchtown during the 1970s, and moved to their current home in Banks around ten years ago.
Phill’s parents Paul and Susan, and uncles Albert and Alan are all skilled wheelwrights.
During the last ten years, Phill has flourished as wheelwright under the tutelage of his grandfather, Edward.
Phill said: “My mum Susan was a wheelwright up to my birth.
“It was then up to my father, Paul, to learn the trade and carry on the family tradition, which he continued to do up until I was in my late teens.
“As a child, being in the workshop always interested me and it wasn't long before I was helping out and learning the trade for myself.
“After leaving school, I worked for a company which restores metalwork in parks and recreates Victorian furniture. It was there that I built up my knowledge of blacksmithing and metalwork. I then went on to a few different jobs, including working in a nightclub, until I realised a wheelwright was the right job for me.”
A trip to the Crowhurst’s yard at the bottom of a muddy lane where a fire burns and family members wander around with hammers and saws surrounded by dogs, carriages and cannon wheels is to take a quantum leap back in time.
Phill said: “A traditional wheel is constructed from three different timbers, elm for the nave (the centre of the wheel) oak for the spokes and ash for the felloes (the outer curved sections).
“Each timber is chosen for its different properties. Elm does not split, oak is strong under compression and ash is springy so absorbs shock on the road.”
Despite the craft’s proud history, technology decimated Britain’s wheelwrights during the 20th century.
According to the 1911 census, there were 23,785 wheelwrights across the country, with 1,200 apprentices.
By 1950 this number had fallen to fewer than 1,000, as Britain’s farmers shifted away from using horse drawn vehicles.
The two million horse-drawn vehicles on British farms had fallen to just 50,000 in 1962.
In 2002, a Countryside Agency survey found there were between 50 and 60 wheelwrights in Britian, and today Phill is probably the country’s youngest exponent of the craft.
Although Britain’s farmers have largely abandoned the horse drawn car, Phill’s family have a skill that is in demand. Private vehicle owners, museums and military re-enactment clubs all need wheels building and repairing, and the Crowhursts have been demonstrating skills at country shows for nearly 20 years.
Phill is keen to pass his skills on. He has taken on Michael Hart as a trainee, and holds regular workshop at the yard to teach visitors the basics.
Phill hopes to develop a more professional training programme in association with the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights.
He added: “I am keen to pass my skills on. My fiancé Emily Donley trained with me and was a runner up in the Balvenie Whiskey artisan of the year competition. My son Aaron is eight and has developed an interest in country crafts.”
Edward, 85, said: “I have been working as a wheelwright for sixty odd years or more and I still don’t know it all.”