Monday, 31 August 2015

Vogel furniture

William Henry Mudge (1831-1920), Kauri chest of drawers, 1891.
Even today, chests-of-drawers make regular appearances at Auckland auctions. Among the earliest pieces of furniture imported into New Zealand by Pākehā settlers, chests-of-drawers were also the earliest furniture types produced in the colony, after chairs and tables. A key feature of the domestic landscape, particularly in the bedroom, chests-of-drawers feature regularly in the auction columns of the local press in the first years of settlement. In January 1841, Frank Losack advertised in the New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator the sale – from a tent – of a mahogany chest-of-drawers amongst a variety of other furnishings and impedimenta. Second-hand chests-of-drawers were a regular feature of the auction columns in the press well into the latter part of the century when expanded domestic production and the growing weight of fashionability displaced second hand furnishings, quite literally, to the back of the shop.

A recent auction in Auckland listed a plain Kauri chest-of-drawers of nineteenth century date. Unlike much of the furniture that turns up in auctions, this piece retained its original shellac finish. It was exceptionally well made and its design exhibited a sophisticated understanding of geometric proportion, from the square ratio of the whole to the reductive proportions of the five drawers. There were other subtle refinements, including the stepped vertical corners, the raised plinth and the cock-beading of the drawers. It was a handsome example of functional furniture and its timber and location attested a New Zealand origin.
Detail of inscription on the fielded dust slip of the upper left hand drawer. 
Dating such a piece seemed problematic. Its chaste lines, squared proportions, turned drawer pulls and an absence of ornament suggested both a maker with a provincial background and a date close to the middle of the century. Such speculation became moot when the drawers were removed from the chest revealing a pencilled inscription on the fielded dust slip of the upper left hand section. Written in an expansive long hand it read: 'Made at Christmas / 1891 W Mudge'. It's not common to find a signed and dated example of furniture from the nineteenth century anywhere, which suggests that this simple piece may have had a particular significance for its maker.

New Zealand electoral rolls for 1890 list three W Mudges in the country: one, a tailor, in Port Chalmers; another Otago resident, a carter, in Mount Ida; and the last and most likely identity, a carpenter residing at Marjoribanks Street, Wellington. William Mudge appears as a freeholder on the Wellington electoral rolls from 1878-79, initially at number 27, and remains on them until 1919, when he is still listed as a carpenter living at 41a Marjoribanks Street in Wellington East.
Excerpt from City of Wellington electoral roll 1890
William Mudge is not mentioned in New Zealand furniture histories; his identity as a carpenter, rather than a cabinetmaker or even a joiner would seem to suggest that he was more involved in the construction of buildings than the making of furniture. Newspaper reports provide a little more information as about his career and death, notably the fact that in 1890 he was president of the Wellington branch of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners, constituted in 1860 which, as part of the Building Trades Union, is now the oldest surviving union in the country. In 1878 the Wellington branch of this British-based union is recorded as comprising 32 members. Bert Roth in his history of the trade union movement in New Zealand notes that 'the carpenters too were the first union to combine on a countrywide basis: a New Zealand Council of their union still subordinate to headquarters in Britain was formed in 1876.' <H Roth, Trade unions in New Zealand: past and present (Wellington: Reed, 1973), p. 5>. The Evening Post of 16 July 1890 reported a meeting chaired by Mudge – for which he received a vote of thanks – where members received a 'short but pithy' explanation of the benefits of unionism. An item from 20 August reported the union 'arranging matters relative to Demonstration Day', now known as Labour Day, suggesting that, notwithstanding his status as freeholder of the property in Marjoribanks Street, Mudge was a key player in the first celebrations – held on 28 October 1890 – of the eight-hour day, an achievement won in Wellington in 1840 by the carpenter Samuel Parnell.
[Unidentified photographer, The eight-hour day committee, Wellington, (1890), re-photographed by Winifred Gladys Rainbow (1890-1960). Samuel Parnell is seated in the centre of the front row. It is possible that William Mudge, as president of the Wellington branch of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners was a member of the committee.
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington (PAColl-2324)
Further information on Mudge's life is provided by a brief report noting the death of his wife, Sarah, published in the Evening Post in November 1919. It records that they arrived in New Zealand on the SS Avalanche in 1875 and, somewhat inaccurately, observes they 'had resided ever since at 41a Marjoribanks Street.' William Mudge died in September 1920 'at the residence of his daughter, Mrs Gilchrist, in Island Bay'. A brief obituary in the Dominion noted he was born in Devonshire in 1831 and, most significantly, 'was a very old member of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners.'

The Mudge's move to New Zealand was made possible by the provisions of Julius Vogel's Immigration and Public Works Act, a piece of legislation designed not only the bolster settler presence in New Zealand but also to diversify its political economy. In reporting the arrival of the Avalanche in Wellington, the Evening Post noted that it carried 225 immigrants comprising 180 adults and 45 children. Beyond increasing settler numbers, Vogel's immigration programme sought to expand and diversify the colony's skills base. Mudge's skills as a carpenter and joiner were highly sought after by New Zealand immigration agents in Europe: migrants required housing and houses in New Zealand were, more often than not, constructed of timber.
Excerpt from the 1841 census return for the Borough of Devonport
William Henry Mudge was born in Christow, a small village in the western part of Devon, in 1831. By the time of the 1841 Census, the Mudge family was recorded as living at Newport Street, East Stonehouse, Plymouth, where William's father John was employed as a screw cutter, possibly in the Royal Navy's Devonport Dockyard which was massively expanded during the 1840s. By 1851 William had moved across the Tamar to Gunnislake in Cornwall, approximately 16 kilometres north of Plymouth, where he was apprenticed to a James Mudge, a carpenter employing five men. Like William, the 32 year old James Mudge had been born in Christow, so most likely was closely related.
Except for the 1851 census return for the village of Gunnislake
Between 1851 and 1856, when he married Sarah House Jackson (1830-1919), at St Mary's church, Bryanston Square in Marylebone, William Mudge, like many of his fellow countrymen, made his first significant migration from Cornwall to London. The 1861 census shows Mudge – now described as William H Mudge – listed as a joiner and, with his wife and three children, sharing a house on Southampton Street in Camden Town, an overcrowded London district best known for its sooty proximity to the mainline stations of Euston, St Pancras and King's Cross. By 1871 the Mudge family which now comprised six children had moved to 42 Mornington Crescent, still in Camden Town, which they shared with a lodger, another family and their lodger.
Excerpt of the 1871 census return for the Civil Parish of Pancras
42 Mornington Crescent, Camden Town, London in 2012.
Google Maps
It is difficult to discern from the scant official records what persuaded William Mudge to apply for assisted passage to New Zealand. While unemployment doubled in Britain between 1870 and 1880, a skilled and experienced manual worker such as Mudge should not have had difficulty finding employment, particularly in London. Skilled joiners were in constant demand as the city expanded at an unprecedented rate and Mudge's New Zealand chest-of-drawers attests to the quality of his work. It's possible that Mudge's activities as a unionist – and the Evening Post comment suggests that he was probably an active member prior to his removal to New Zealand – may have led him to believe that his life and that of his family would be better spent working in what James Belich describes as 'the progress industries' of  'Better Britain' than the smutty purlieus of the metropolis.
41a Marjoribanks Street, Wellington in 2015.
Google Maps
Official records don't indicate how or by whom William Mudge was employed from the time he arrived in Wellington up to the time he died, but, as an active unionist, it's unlikely that he was self-employed. Notwithstanding the admonition in his death notice that there be 'no mourning (by request)' his eldest daughter Priscilla inserted an in memoriam notice on the anniversary of his death. The Mudge name survives in Wellington in a small cul-de-sac, Mudges Terrace in Newtown, developed in the early 20th century by William's youngest son Alfred John (1869-1947), also a carpenter by trade.

William Mudge made his chest-of-drawers in his sixtieth year, at the end of what appears to have been a highly successful presidency of his union. While it's a design he could have made as an apprentice in Cornwall forty years earlier, its construction demonstrates that he was a craftsman of considerable talent and skill. But more than anything, the chest-of-drawers is a physical manifestation of Julius Vogel's attempts to bolster settler society by providing opportunities for 'decent working people' to enhance and improve their life in the Britain of the South.