John Ford, aged about 16.
Photo courtesy: John Ford
“Better to know a knot and not need it, than need a knot and not know it.”
“You should talk to John over the road,” Mel Ambrose hinted to me some months ago, “He’s a Wood Turner and a really interesting man.” I weighed up this surrogate offer and was more than a little curious to find out about a craftsman in our midst. Thus it was, after some negotiation, I found myself walking up John Ford’s tidy garden path with camera in one hand and notebook in another. As we began to talk several strands emerged and one thread became spliced with another and another until I realised that I would not be able to do justice to John and his talents. Consequently, what follows is a just shadowy sketch of the whole man who declared he is never bored and is always occupied in doing something.
Trimley St. Martin is not John’s place of origin, although he has been a resident here for about the last forty years. He was born in 1946 in a Kesgrave Nissan Hut, where his family had temporarily taken up residence before later moving to Coronation Drive in Felixstowe via one or two other houses. During the Second World War, his mother Emily had been a Land Girl as had many of her sisters. John’s father had been in the Army but was eventually “invalided out”. He’d been sent to Ireland where he was a Medical Orderly but was later re-assigned to Suffolk, possibly due to illness. His work included transporting fuel for Spitfires around the air bases at Martlesham and Rendlesham. It was this driving expertise which was to be his ace card when it came to finding post-war work.
John was born into a family consisting of his parents and his two sisters. Marion was the younger sister, having been born who two or three years before and his oldest sister Dorothy was thirteen years older than John. On the day he was born Dorothy had set off for school early in the morning, only to be told upon arrival to turn around and go straight back home as her mother was having the baby. She was to prove a constant presence in his life and John was swift to point out Dorothy was more like a second mother to Marion and himself for she both cared and protected them as they grew up.
“We were poor” John emphasised, “and my Dad had to walk miles looking for work after the war. When we lived in Kesgrave he would set off for Ipswich and then on to Felixstowe searching for any possibility of a job. I guess it was a round trip of about 25 miles or so. After Dad found work in Felixstowe, we ended up living Ranelagh Road, Felixstowe, quite near to the sea. Dorothy told me later that when they lived there, she would often take Marion and myself to the Beach at lunchtime so we would forget we were hungry because there was nothing to eat.”
How did John’s father find work in Felixstowe? John recounted the story. One day, after the long walk from Kesgrave, he came to rest in Felixstowe Station Buffet. A man, Eric Davis, bought John’s Dad a beer and when they fell to chatting, Eric suggested he try approaching Dodson’s Taxis at the top of Bath Hill. This one simple direction may have shaped John’s life because his father was taken on and on the strength of this work, he and the family subsequently moved to Felixstowe. The two men became friends for life and later in a neat symmetrical move, John become a life-long friend of Eric’s son, Brian. The family moved first to Holland Road, then to Ranelagh Road and from there to Coronation Drive.
“Because my father was at work, my mother moved us to Coronation Drive. All are possessions were piled on top of a handcart. Mother pulled and I suppose the rest of us helped push it to the new house.”
After a time, his father moved to Bloomfield’s Taxis, who were then based at Undercliff Road East, near the old Ordnance Hotel. John has a photograph in his possession showing a small fleet of cars in a polished and ready condition. I can’t but help imagine it was John’s father who was party to their pristine nature.
Bloomfield’s Garage,with two Humbers and a Consul.
Courtesy: John Ford
It was while the family were living in Ranelagh Road it became time for John to start school. Many people can remember their first day at school and John is no exception. Academic life began at Felixstowe’s Central Junior School, now known as Fairfield Infants. As might be expected of a small boy, the inevitable need to use the washroom facilities arose. John asked one of the teachers if he could use the toilet.
“Do you know where it is?” asked the teacher.
“Yes.” replied John, because of course he knew where the toilet was to be found at home.
“Then you may go.” came the permissive reply.
And off John went. He crossed two main roads and several minor ones, walking until he arrived back in Ranelagh Road. His mild-mannered and kindly mother was suitably horrified and marched John back to the school. Did fierce words follow? History doesn’t record what happened next. After this adventure John settled down to his school days and told me he always remembered the words of the Headmistress, Miss Wise, who lived up to her name. She described him as,
“… a slow but thorough learner. She was wise, because that is what I am.”
His school boy life appeared otherwise uneventful. Throughout his school days, he was the smallest boy in the year until the age of 15. Suddenly, the growth spurt kicked in and he shot up to an airy 6 feet 4 inches and became the lofty man he now is.
The normal misdemeanours of childhood were not sufficiently outrageous to be recalled. He did comment that his father never physically disciplined his children and any retribution, such as a smack, was administered by his mother. John put this down to his father knowing his own personal strength. If he had delivered the standard smacks of the period, they may have been too strong. Given that his father was a Boxing Champion and once sparred with someone who went on to be a World Heavyweight Champion, this makes sense. John reminded me of the difference in old style Fifties and Sixties unofficial fighting, such as might have been found in bars or pubs. It was all fisticuffs and no knives; once a man was down, the fight ended.
“There was no kicking a man when he was down,” he said, “and no stabbing people in the back or front.”
Talk of knives nudged me to comment how it was standard for boys to carry penknives in the mid-twentieth century. They were never used for aggressive acts but their presence in a pocket gave countless opportunities for whittling, cutting string or any of the many other practical uses a child could find during the course of the day. It maybe they helped to foster some of John’s talents which were to emerge in adulthood.
There are several strands to John’s life and the first one was work. John left school wanting to join the Navy but his father wouldn’t permit this to happen. It didn’t mean the call to the sea was stifled, it simply took a different direction, which will shortly become apparent. He had to work and sampled a number of opportunities. He initially trained to be a trainee Projectionist at the Ritz Cinema, now known as The Palace, where he earned the princely sum of £2.7p per week. In today’s terms this translates into about £340 per week. He then moved on to Best’s Products as a polisher working on percolators and kettles. This was rapidly followed by an apprenticeship as a Panel Beater at the Pioneer Garage, next to Felixstowe Bus Station, and then he held another job as a white line painter. He held out with the painting until the day after he had painted a five mile long line which was five inches wide and was administered through the medium of a four inch paint brush. When he reported for duty the day after completion, he was told to give it a second coat. Not unnaturally, he stated his preference with his feet and left.
By now it was about 1965 and John started working at Felixstowe Docks where he was to stay for about ten years, acquiring different skills including fork lift truck driving. This particular ability was to prove useful. He was reaching the point when he wanted amass enough money to buy a house and in about 1975, the opportunity arose to move to Saudi Arabia. His task was to teach the local workforce how to drive fork lift trucks and the money was excellent. He made an unexpected discovery about himself: he was a good teacher who was only let down by some indifferent students. He was there for a year and said there was absolutely nothing to do and no socialising opportunities. Unlike today, when laptops and tablets provide access to information and entertainment, there was a complete absence of any form of relaxation. For a man such as John, who likes to keep himself busy, this must have been difficult. After a year, he came home, bought a house and began another career as an H.G.V. driver but by 1978 he had returned to the Docks where he was to remain for another thirty years. The teaching skills he had discovered in Saudi Arabia were put to use teaching others to drive crane and other similar mechanical work. His days were varied and as he learnt a range of mechanical techniques, so his skills advanced. Eventually, work finished when he had a heart attack in 2008 and he moved into the next stage of his life, retirement.
Some people find it difficult to adjust to a slower pace of life but John was and is, well equipped to face such a challenge. Despite not joining the Navy, he did manage to find his way on to the sea. I suppose it may have been shortly after he started work that he managed to acquire a Ski boat, using it on the Rivers Orwell and Deben and also offshore pulling water skiers. He’s been a sailor for most of his adult life and as such found himself aboard the Training Ship, T.S. Royalist. His presence was a ‘thank-you’ for donating the engine of his ski Boat. But it wasn’t a passive gift: he was expected to work for his passage and for the duration of the voyage was the Watch Officer on the Fore Quarter Point.
It was through these aquatic pursuits he became acquainted with splicing and this resulted in John becoming a Knotter for the last fifty years. When John casually mentioned his knotting capacity, my note taking and narrative became completely de-railed. The ability to think three dimensionally and then transfer that thinking to strands of rope takes a certain mindset and when John started to describe his knotting it simply had to be viewed. Bosun’s starters, Turks’- Heads, Six-pointed Star Knots; these names conjure up the days of wind and sail, exploration and global voyages. John pulled down the Knotter’s Bible from his shelves, otherwise known as “The Ashley Book of Knots”. A hempen world opened before me. The knots emerged as he continued to speak and rope whipped itself into becoming art. I will inadequately attempt to describe the examples placed in front of me from the notes I made, for no other reason than to deploy the esoteric, archaic and beautiful language of the Knot.
The first work on the left, which is also the largest, is a Bosun’s Starter. The starting point is in the middle and a Turks’-Head covers and disguises the ends. It terminates at the bottom with an eight pointed Star Knot. The second grey piece of knotting resembling an Ancient Egyptian Ankh, is in free form made without reference to a pattern and it completes itself with a five pointed star knot. The third, smaller red and white piece is another solo Turks’-Head knot. The final white item with a key ring attached is another free form creation including a Turks’-Head and terminating in a six pointed star.
John also demonstrated how to start making a four strand round Sinnet, known by the French as a Tresse Anglaise.
John demonstrating a Four Strand round Sinnet (1)
Four strand round Sinnet (2)
Four strand round Sinnet (3)
The knotted strands lay before me as exquisite as the finest piece of knitting or crochet, two other skills John has followed, although knotting is his principle passion. He will sit in the evening twisting and turning the ropes until the finished item suddenly appears before him. His copy of ‘The Ashley Book of Knots’ has soft edged pages as a result of innumerable consultations. This is a book whose value has scarcely altered since it was first published in 1948, such is its arcane understanding of the Knotters’ World. The author Clifford W. Ashley was an American whose family had been involved in the Whaling Trade in the 19th century and who began knotting at the age of three. It is possible to view this book online and if you wish to try and emulate John, I cannot recommend it too highly. Even if you don’t wish to emulate him, I would urge you to view it as an extraordinary example of one man’s knowledge. The illustrations are idiosyncratic, the expertise incontestable and the anecdotes contained within make one yearn for the days of square rigged ships and the Roaring Forties.
John’s copy of ‘The Ashley Book of Knots”.
It caters for all knotty eventualities, from Granny Knots to Lark’s Heads to the Bell Ringer’s Knot and the Balloonists’ Knots.
However, time was pushing on and before I went I was anxious to see another of John’s talents, his wood turning. After all, it was John’s original selling feature which Mel had first mentioned. I didn’t have to look far for his work surrounded us. The mantle surrounding the fire place was made by him as was the clock perched on top. There were Bowls, goblets and platters neatly displayed that would have made a medieval monarch feel well endowed. As he took them down and placed them on the table, I was alive to not only his craftsmanship but also to his aesthetic sensibilities. His sensitivity marries with his aptitude to anticipate and reveal complex and exquisite grains and patterns.
Wooden goblet with a captive ring
A rectangular wooden platter whose grain emerges as if it were a fluid equator on red planet.
Exquisite grain is revealed on this varnished bowl.
I arrived knowing little about the man Mel advised me to meet. I departed conscious of having encountered a modest, talented and gifted man, although I was very aware I had only scraped the surface of his abilities and experiences. (I haven’t touched upon his photographical capabilities.) Here is a man composed of many different and complex strands and whose manifest abilities do indeed reveal him to be the thorough learner Miss Wise identified nearly seventy years ago.
If you are interested in finding out more about knots and knotting you may like to follow the link to Ipswich Knot Museum: https://despawson.com
“The Ashley Book of Knots” may be viewed in its entirety online at: https://www.liendoanaulac.org/space/references/training/Ashley_Book_Knots.pdf
I used the Bank of England Inflation calculator to calculate John’s first wage. https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/monetary-policy/inflation/inflation-calculator
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