Dyer, John (b.1927)

John Dyer was one of the last men to cut withies (willow) by hand.  He has worked for a number of willow-growers in the Burrowbridge area from the 1970s onwards.  He talks about cutting in detail using the hook, which is sharpened with a wet stone, as well as about sorting and stripping the withies.


In 2002 John Dyer planted a bed of five acres of Black Maul basket willows and he cut them, by hand, for the first time in 2003.

John Dyer cutting withies. John Dyer cutting withies.
Sound File
Listen to John Dyer - 2.35MB Duration 5:07 min.

AH: So what kind of work were you doing with the willows then?


JD: Sorting them and stacking them basically. I didn’t learn to cut until I was about fifteen, ah [pause] twenty.


AH: So this company, um, was growing... had its own...


JD: Yes, had its own, and had about ten blokes cutting withies and that in the winter. I basically stayed back in the yard, and there were two or three women there, sorting the willows, and I stayed there each day; someone had to be there to tie them up so that they could go sorting the next day.


AH: Yes. How were they cutting the withies then, those guys?


JD: Back then, most of them were cut by hand, hook or sickle.


AH: Mm! And then they tied?


JD: Tied with a rose-knot, a rose-knot.


AH: And how were they then brought back to the...


JD: Tractor and trailer.


AH: Was anything brought back by boat at all, you know, to the roadside?


JD:  No, no. It had all finished, times I started.


AH: Kind of... what  years are we talking about when you started, I imagine 1980?


JD: '78.


AH: Right. So when you were twenty you started.


JD: I learnt to cut withies.


AH: Right, now, who taught you?


JD: As far as I can remember, Frank Boobyer.


AH: Ah, I’ve met Frank.


JD: I told you, didn’t I?


AH: Yes, yes.


JD: I told you about him last November, I think, at Burrowbridge.


AH: Yes, yes. He’s a great guy, isn’t he?


JD: Yes.


AH: Yes. So how, how did he teach you? How do you... you know, what’s important about cutting withies? Because we’re talking about cutting by hand, aren’t we?


JD: Yes we are, yes.


AH: So let's think about the tools first.  What do you use, what are your tools?


JD: Hook. Hook. We call it a hook, some people call it a sickle. Should be nice, nice and sharp basically.


AH: How do you sharpen it?


JD: A whetstone, oilstone.


AH: And how often, when you're actually cutting withies, how often would you have to sharpen it?


JD: Three or four times a day. It all depends how good your hook is. If you've got a good old hook, about twice a day would be enough.


AH: Is your hook an old one, that you use?


JD: Yes, I've got an old one; I've got a couple of old ones.


AH: Do you know who made them?


JD: No, I don't.


AH: You haven't got any...?


JD: There is a stamp on one, but I couldn't tell you...


AH: Because I know that Fussell's...


JD: Fussell and Morris. Those were the old team.


AH: Yes, I know about the Fussells. I don't know about the Morris ones though.


JD: Don't you?


AH: No. Can you tell me anything about the Morris ones?


JD: Morris? They came from Devon. I think it was from down Devon [coughs].


AH: Mm. And so, besides your hook and your whetstone is there anything else you used?


JD: No.


AH: Do you have gloves on?


JD: No.


AH: What about your feet, clothes?


JD: Just Wellington boots, and ordinary clothes basically.


AH: Right. So throughout the winter you just... because sometimes it must be quite wet out there.


JD: It has been, you get hardened to it, you don't take much notice of it.


AH: Right. How do you actually cut, you know, 'cause it... I mean, am I right in thinking you've got this great sort of, what-do-you-call-it?


JD: Stump.


AH: All these willows.


JD: A twenty or thirty willow size stump.  If you've got a good hook you can basically cut 'em off in one swipe.


AH: Do you have to hold them when you cut them?


JD: Sort of bend them over, bend them over with your left hand, catch them on the bend, and they come off quite easily.


AH: How high are you  cutting them from the ground?


JD: Right down tight to the ground. You're bent over all day long [pause].


AH: Gosh! So your backs really... What does it feel like, going for years? ...I feel like sort of... so they must be quite strong then as you bend them over.


JD: Oh, I coped with them quite easily, a stump at a time, quite easily - bend over, reach for them - three or four stumps - and move on, and then we carry on two rows at a time, cut your armful, walk back to where you put your bonds down to tie them up, three armfuls and you’ve got your bundle basically [coughs]. So you take six [rank] all the way across the bed. Years ago they used to cut eight rows at a time, used to do four an armful [coughs].


AH: So as you cut them, then you hold them...?


JD: Sure; you hold them as well, you rest them on your left leg and carry them on. It’s quite a knack.


AH: I’m sure it is.


JD: They sort of balance, you’re balancing to get the weight right to cut, and you’ve got the withies resting on your left leg, under your arm, what you’re using under your arm, and you pulling the other one forward, and you’ve got the withies resting on your leg up under your arm as well.


AH: So how many stumps then do you cut, per bundle?


JD: It all depends how old the bed is. If it’s a quite young bed you could virtually lean forward and reach enough in the two rows for an armful pause quite easy, and you’ve got three armfuls. It would be quite good cutting, cut like sixty bundles a day easy, so well as they’re big that's how we go around [laughs].

Copyright Information
Copyright. This recording was made by Ann Heeley in April 2003. Photograph ©Ann Heeley Collection. For access to full interview please contact the Somerset Heritage Centre.