IN THE sleepy village of Bangor-on-Dee you will find one of the region’s oldest businesses, producing traditional wares in the same fashion it did five generations ago.

The Johnson family have been making baskets since the 19th century.

Brothers James and Charlie Johnson earned their living by coracle fishing on the Dee but, when the catch was poor, they would supplement their income by cutting bundles of willows from the riverside and taking them home to make baskets to sell.

Fishing permits became difficult to obtain so the brothers began to rely on basket weaving as their main source of income.

Today, James’ great grandson Robert Johnson can be found in a workshop behind J. Johnson & Son’s workshop engaged in this very same practice, alongside Ken Griffiths, 67, who has been with the company since he was a boy.

“It was James and Charlie Johnson that started it all off,” Ken explained as he continued to weave the willow. “But it was Robert’s grandfather James who expanded the business.

“He was badly injured in the First World War and was taken to hospital in Leeds.
One of the forms of physiotherapy then was basket making which he did to help strengthen his arm.

“He met and married one of the nurses there (Mabel Marion Arnold) and, when they came back here, they improved the business.”

On leaving hospital, James had undertaken a two-year apprenticeship with a firm of basket makers in Leeds and, on his return to Bangor-on-Dee, planted a willow bed which until recently was still harvested by the family.

“When I first started, basket weaving was about half the business, the rest came from selling the willow,“ Ken recalled. “We used to grow our own stuff and send it off to places like Manchester.

“It was big business in those days but, as the demand from elsewhere dried up, we started doing more and more basket weaving.

“The beds needed money spending on them and harvesting them was a very labour intensive process – you’d have to cut it and sort it and then the women would come along and put them through individually.

“We gave up the beds about eight or nine years ago, now the willow is brought up from Somerset.”

While they no longer have to toil on the riverbank, basket weaving remains a very time-consuming process.

The tools and equipment involved are the same as would have been used hundreds of years ago and there is no automation or machine tools involved.

But the name of J. Johnson & Son and the quality of their products is recognised far and wide.

Ken and Robert will often be called upon to demonstrate their skills to community groups and visitors from as far afield as Australia and the USA have visited especially to see them at work.

As well as the hand-crafted items on display in the showroom, much of what they do is bespoke items, made to order for customers.

The Duke of Westminster has a J. Johnson & Sons log basket and their wares can also be seen in the National Trust properties of Chirk Castle and Erddig Hall.

They have made some more unusual items – a ‘bath chair’ for a local antiques dealer and a huge basket, big enough for three men to disappear into, which was used in a stage production at Theatre Clwyd in Mold.

Basket weaving is very much an integral part of the business but they have also expanded further to offer cane furniture, repairs and even replacement cushions so that tired wicker chairs and settees can be revamped and recycled.

Whereas customers would have had to seek out James and Charlie to get hold of their wares, in the 21st century they can now buy them at the click of the mouse.

They may have moved with the times to some extent but J. Johnson & Son is very much a family enterprise.

James and Mabel had a son, Cyril, who left school at 15 to work with his father.

Cyril married Jane and the couple had five children – two sons and three daughters - all of whom have had basket making experience.

Sadly, Cyril passed away in 1997, so the business is now run by Jane together with her family Julie, Robert, Carol and their brother Paul also helps out at busy times.

Jane now has eight grandchildren, all of whom have shown a great interest in basket making.

So it seems that one of Wrexham’s oldest family businesses will be in good hands for generations to come.

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