Bryan Saunders: his life and work

Saunders Tool Collection

Delve into the working life of a local craftsman.

Bryan Evett Saunders was born in 1893 in Coggeshall.
His father, Harry Bryan Saunders had a furniture and hardware business on Market Hill. He was apprenticed to Samuel Marshall, a master carver of Bridge Street, Coggeshall at the age of 14 in 1907. He completed his apprenticeship in 1914, taking over the business with glowing references from both Mr Marshall and the vicar, Rev.M.B. Eardly Wilmott.
In 1914 Bryan tried to enlist in the army, but was turned down due to varicose veins, thought to have been developed while working on a mechanical lathe during his apprenticeship, which would have prohibited him from the long marches required of a soldier.
Later, in Bryan’s own workshop, no mechanical aids were allowed and the constant noise of sawing was a fond memory of his two daughters.

Growing reputation

Following the First World War he was trading in harsh economic times and accepted any work that would come his way. However, as his reputation grew, he took on an increasing number of private commissions, and a large amount of ecclesiastical work both locally and further afield. 

Expanding the business

In 1919, Bryan was married to Victoria Maude Norfolk and took the lease of a house on Market Hill, now 2 Stoneham Street.
Initially Bryan’s workshop was upstairs, while Mrs Saunders had a china shop downstairs, but as more work came in, the china shop closed and Bryan moved his workshop downstairs to more room and better light.
Bryan took on an assistant in 1929 named Ernest Prentice who had also served his apprenticeship with Mr Marshall, and the two worked together until after the Second World War.
Bryan’s work continued to build up and there are examples of his work throughout his native Essex and further afield.
His work was celebrated with a good deal of publicity during his lifetime; as early as the 30s he garnered an article on his work in the 'monthly pictorial', but it was in the 50s and 60s that his publicity was at its height, winning second prize for his table at the ‘Essex County Fayre and Social Services Exhibition’.
He was also featured in several glossy magazines including 'The Sphere', 1953, 'The Field', 1964, 'Essex Life', 1966, and 'The Essex Countryside', 1953, in which the author, in tribute to Bryan’s craft wrote:
" “ can stand enthralled for hours and watch Mr Saunders take an inanimate piece of wood and create a thing of beauty and skill that none can rival.”"
- The Essex Countryside Magazine

Nearing the end

Not many people outside of the immediate family were aware that Bryan was very ill for several years prior to his death, but he sent a letter explaining that he could only take on light pieces of work in 1953, which may account for the large number of picture frames he was commissioned to make together with workboxes.
As his health deteriorated, even large frames were too much, and his daughter Janet was always on hand to assist with the polishing and lifting. By this time, he had been diagnosed with cancer, and his suffering was apparent, but he continued to work up until a few weeks before his death.
By 1973 regular visits to the hospital were necessary. On his last visit he must have been in great pain and aware of his coming death.
He cried out that he wanted to be taken home, and a bed was set up downstairs in the sitting room behind the workshop where he spent the last three weeks of his life watching the comings and goings in the shop through an open door.
His end came peacefully, with his wife and daughters beside him where his life had begun; in his beloved Coggeshall.

Sharing his work

Bryan’s daughter Janet opened a small museum as a tribute to her father and later generously gave the entire contents including his tools to us in 2003, so that we could preserve it and make it available to the widest possible audience. 
Janet sadly passed away in June 2010 but was able to see her father’s workshop recreated in a temporary exhibition inside the barn. The exhibition was moved into a permanent space in a converted byre onsite at the barn. The rehomed exhibition was dedicated to the memory and generosity of Janet Saunders and opened in 2011.