George Herbert (1814–1902)

The memoirs of George Herbert portray with unusual clarity the way of life of an urban craftsman, who happened to be English, but who might have lived in any country in Europe.

Herbert was born and spent most of his life in Banbury, the archetypal English market town, 35 km north of Oxford and 43 miles south of Coventry. Both his paternal and maternal ancestors were weavers. His father was a man of particular skill, able to switch between the two local specialisms, weaving plush and horse cloth, as well as understanding the manufacture of felt hats. After visiting relations in Coventry where he observed some of the first Jacquard looms to be used in the city’s ribbon trade, he returned to Banbury and adapted one of his own looms to work on Jacquard principles, although it was of limited use in the manufacture of plush.

George Herbert had a sound elementary education at a Unitarian school, after which he was apprenticed to a shoemaker. About 1832 he left home, ‘on what was called the tramp’, seeking experience in his trade in other towns. He travelled to London by stage coach, then to Margate by steamer, and spent most of that spell of his life at Dover. He returned to Banbury about 1837, when his father helped him to set up a shoemaking business. He married a wife from Dover, and his writing shows how a craftman’s wife might be involved in his trade, even though her role might not be recorded in a census.

Herbert was a highly-skilled craftsman, able to undertake any aspect of shoemaking with distinction. Many of his customers were wealthy men who, in a time when it was customary for market town traders to offer as much as a year’s credit, were reluctant to settle their accounts, and about 1855 he was forced to sell up by his leather supplier, who was himself financially embarrassed. Herbert had a long-established interest in chemistry, which had led him to experiment, with the aid of wealthier friends, in the new science of photography. While continuing to do some shoemaking for a few years, he made most of his living until his retirement in 1887 as a photographer.

He was a violinist, and in middle age played in a small ensemble of Banburians who took particular delight in the music of Arcangelo Corelli. From time to time in the 1890s he reminisced with two old friends in the White Lion at Banbury, and on their prompting, in 1898-1900 wrote them a series of letters about his early life, which survived to be published in 1948, and have re-appeared in several subsequent editions.

In most respects Herbert was an unremarkable individual, but his unpretentious memoirs provide insights into many aspects of the life of an urban craftsmen, into apprenticeship, the practice of going on the tramp, the role of women, and the precarious nature of craft businesses in an age of long credit. Herbert’s spell of absence from Banbury while on the tramp endowed him with vivid memories of the town at the time of his apprenticeship, and at a local level his book is valuable for the information it provides on topography.