As you may know I am for ever searching for stories about my ancestors. My great-great-grandfather Charles Penney, born between 1818 and 1821 was the son of a school teacher. Charles appears in the 1861 census and his profession is as a basket maker. This census is also interesting because there is my great-grandmother Lois, for whom I was named, as an eight year old girl.

1861 census

When I first knew this I imagined Charles in his little cottage, a basket between his knees, weaving the withies in and out to make something someone would carry to market. He probably did start like this, but baskets were much more than shopping bags in the nineteenth century. This was an age before plastic, before artificial fibres and man-made material, and baskets would have been a vital part of every home, farm, business. Some of them would have been huge for commercial purposes, and basket work would have made other items too.

I’m delighted that the willow industry after years of decline is coming back into its own, mainly due to a fashion for household baskets – you can see them in IKEA and Dunelm and every sort of household and houseware shop. My adopted county of Somerset is famous for its willows; if you are ever visiting here, as well as Bath, Glastonbury, Wells, Cheddar and Weston-super-Mare, visit this place:

Log Baskets
Somerset Willow Company, furniture, hampers,and coffins, yes coffins!

Somewhere else to visit:

Somerset Levels - Basket & Craft Centre
The Somerset Levels Basket and Craft Centre Ltd., laundry baskets, linen baskets, bike baskets,dog baskets, cat baskets,storage baskets, log baskets, matting, children’s chairs, garden baskets, and willow withies.

My favourite place to take people is this place with a little museum attached. They have a visual display, and also specialise in producing charcoal for artists. So if you have ever drawn in charcoal  willow is where the best comes from!

Visitor Centre
Based in the Somerset Levels, the heart of the willow industry, PH Coate and Son has been growing ‘Withies’ and producing wicker baskets and willow products since 1819; ‘English Willow Baskets’

My great-great- grandfather Charles continued his trade, and his son George took it up too; by 1901 George was living in Mansfield Nottingham and had a shop selling his baskets. His own son, Charles named after his grandfather, was also a basket-maker. What happened after that to the basket-making and the Penney family, I don’t know; however, by 1911 Charles junior, Lois’s cousin, was a professional musician  married with two children, Phyllis and Frederick.

This wonderful huge willow basket was on display in the town centre; I couldn’t help but think of my great-grandmother Lois as a little girl, watching her father and brother making baskets.


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