August 6, 2009

Northumberland traditions: Making a Geordie cracket (stool)

By Dr Clive Dalton

What's a cracket?

In Victorian times and into the 1950s, houses in the North East of England used to be littered with stools called crackets! Every house would have at least one, and many would have two (a large one for grownups and a small one for the bairns).

During the second world war, furniture was rationed and expensive. it was called the "Utility" brand and had the bare minimum of wood and nails in it. So many a cracket gave stalwart service during these times, supporting North East folk in their air-raid shelters, sheltering from Nazi bombs blasting the Tyneside shipyards .

You could find these simple stools by the kitchen fireside, by the back door steps to sit on to take your boots off, or to smoke a pipe of baccy, by the side of the bed to hold the alarm clock and candle, and of course in the nettie (toilet) to hold the candle, torch and magazine.

Grandaughter Imogene Dalton on her new
cracket - maybe texting Granda!

Imogen's Dad playing with his cracket 35 years previously
Seems to have a traffic problem under the bridge

Pitmen's crackets

The cracket evolved down the pit and then progressed to the miner's cottage. Crackets were an essential bit of gear below ground, especially when pitmen hewed coal in narrow seams. They sat on them if the seam was high enough, rested their heads and/or shoulders on them when lying down to work, and could put them below their thighs when crouched working 'on their hunkers'.

Try pretending to use a pick with a sideways action with you head bent low while kneeling down, or sitting flat on your backside. You soon realise how much easier it is on your back if you are sitting on a low stool (cracket). The interesting thing is that the cracket need not be very high to do the job.

When a pitman moved on, he carried his pick in one hand and his cracket in the other (with one or more fingers through the hole or slit in the seat). The cracket was also used to sit on when a pitman stopped to have his bait (snack), and have a bit 'crack' to his marras (mates) at the same time. It was a lot more comfortable than sitting on your backside on hard lumps of coal!

When a pitman got home from work, he sat on a cracket to remove his dirty pit clothes before getting into the bath set in front of the fire by his wife. He wasn't allowed to sit on a chair and cover it in coal dust.

The Geordie word 'crack' (conversation) and 'cracket' are clearly linked. In fact there's no better place to have a bit crack than sitting on a cracket! But 'crack' is a widely used Irish word for a chat, and plenty of Irish folk including my Dolan ancestors went to the Tyneside coal mines at Clara Vale from Ireland via Cumberland. So the origin of cracking and crackets maybe goes back to the Emerald Isle. Folk in the Durham and the northern end of the Yorkshire Dales also have a bit crack and have crackets too.

Miner's crackets were made from any old timber down the pit or lying around the pithead. There were boxes that held explosives, the flat bits of wood that sat on top of props to keep the roof up, and the sawn off ends of pit props. Nobody down a pit was concerned what their cracket looked like - so there was little point in adding decoration. The coal dust soon added a patina to the wood. With no woodworking skills and not time to waste, a small box without bottom and an hole in the top would do.

Simple structure
Crackets came in all sizes, but the majority were small. They were nearly always square or oblong, but some were round and clearly made from a slice off the top of a log or pit prop with three or four legs fitted into holes in the seat. The biggest crackets seen in houses would be 600 mm high but most were around 250mm high.

The only tools needed to make a cracket were a hammer, saw, nails and a brace and bit to bore the finger hole. A red hot poker could also be used to bore the finger hole or slot. Nail heads were punched down but the holes rarely filled. A decent finished cracket for the house would be given a coat of varnish, which over the years went from dark brown to black though heat from the fire which would also bubble the old varnish.

Everybody had a hammer, and if they didn’t own a saw (which cost a week’s wages), they borrowed a neighbour’s. New nails were never purchased as there were always plenty of bent ones from old timber that could be straightened. Over the years, nails used to work loose and the cracket would start to show a bit of 'lateral motion' and squeak if you jiggled on it which kids loved to do. So every now and again, the nails would be knocked in again using the nob on the end of the poker which always stood by the fire.

The other hazard of old crackets that had felt a lot of fireside heat, was that the wood on the edges of the seat would start to splinter, and you'd get 'spelks' in your backside or legs. These splinters required regular surgery from a pocket knife. The women folk were the first to complain about spelks, especially when their precious stockings got caught!

You never heard anyone in the street criticise other folks' crackets, which happened often with other furniture, or the blackleading on the fire grate and oven door. The cracket didn’t have enough status for snobs to get their noses in the air over. Crackets were crackets, and not items of furniture in most folks' eyes!

You could always add a bit of fancy woodwork to your cracket to personalise it, and this was mainly done by adding some some fancy shapes to the sides of the seat. In the old days you needed a bow saw for this, as there were no bandsaws or routers at that time. It's these sides that give the cracket it's strength, and especially if they are set into the legs and not just nailed on.

The purpose of the arch or 'V' cut in the solid ends of the cracket is to make feet, which allow it to stand easier on uneven ground. You can stand a bit of 'rock and roll' when seated on your cracket but not too much.

Most crackets didn't have angled legs. They were made with legs at right angles to to the seat which made the joinery much easier. Putting the legs in at an angle, made the cracket much more stable with less risk of 'cowping off'.

When does a 'cracket' become a bench-seat or form?
A traditional cracket was always a 'one-seater' and if you were ever tempted to make a 'two-seater' or longer, then you were into a different kind of construction because it became a 'form' or bench seat and the legs needed wide feet and extra bracing between them. So after about 18 inches long, you were in the bench seat business.

The womenfolk's burned legs
You could always tell women who had spent time (probably too much) sitting on their crackets close up to the fire, legs apart getting warmed, because the skin on their legs and knees (and possibly higher up!) over time was burned into dark brown blotches. It was not a becoming feature but we young lads didn't dare look too intently! Men never exposed their bare legs to the fire so it was not a male issue!

A retired medical friend who worked in Cockermouth as a young doctor said he saw the condition often, mainly in old ladies. The medical term for it he tells me is 'Erythema ab igne'. Any non-Latin Geordie could guess at this as the fancy name for 'burned skin' or 'cracket overexposure'.

On cold winter nights (before central heating), the trick was to pull your cracket up as near to the fire as possible, with legs apart gathering in as much heat as possible, to counteract the chill on your back from the freezing draught whistling along the floor from below the kitchen door.

I was always convinced that this chill started in the Ural mountains of central Russia, then cooled even more coming across Europe and the the North sea, till it finally entered our kitchen and hit the back of my crouched body snuggling up to the fire to keep warm. So you ended up burning on your front and freezing on your back. We often took our overcoats off when we came home and laid them at the bottom of the back door to stop the chill.

The only solution was to move the cat and pull the cracket up even closer to the fire, especially if the last bit of coal or log was in its dying phase. The cat had an advantage as it could hop on to the top of the 'set pot' (if the lid was firmly in place), or the shelf in front of the oven door to get extra heat.

Uses for a cracket
I have made hundreds of crackets over the years for the children of family and friends (see Ella below), and it's been fascinating visiting their houses long after the kids have grown up and left home (if they haven't taken their crackets with them). You find the crackets bruised, bashed, dinted, stained, the varnish long gone, the legs a bit loose but rarely broken after many years of stalwart service.

I even feel a pang of pride in seeing and 'old friend' again, and how long this simple bit of furniture has lasted. It's a great thrill to hear someone (whose name you have forgotten) tell you - "I've still got the cracket you made me when I was little". You just have to front up and ask them who they are!

Ella busy on the cracket I made her.

List of uses from my years of observation:
More suggestions are welcome
  1. A child’s first seat at small table.
  2. For small children when out if nappies to reach and climb on to toilet.
  3. For small children to carry around and reach things they shouldn't!
  4. To chew on to help teething. 
  5. To play dropping the ball through the hole or putting a soft toy animal down there.
  6. Turned upside down, a  sledge to push a doll or Teddy around on the carpet.
  7. Used upside down as dodgem car or tank to attack another cracket.
  8. Bridge for toy train to go under and drop bombs through the hole.
  9. On its side as a fort or defence barrier to hide behind and fire through the hole.
  10. Stool for short grownups to stand on and reach things.
  11. Step to stand on when painting, paperhanging or cleaning widows.
  12. To stand beside armchair for coffee cup and scone.
  13. For nursing mum to put one foot on to baby support baby's head at the breast.
  14. To put foot on when playing the guitar
  15. Footstool for general use, especially for under the computer desk.
  16. Spare seat in kitchen by the fire, to squeeze in between armchairs.
  17. To sit close up to the fire as fire dies down.  Risks skin burns over time in crutch.
  18. Seat at backdoor for lacing up or unlacing boots.
  19. To stand close to fire to dry small things e.g. wet gloves or newspaper.
  20. Rest over one or both knees as small table or writing desk for laptop.
  21. Seat outside the garden shed or pigeon to watch the world or pigeons go by.
  22. Milking stool for small cow.
  23. To stand on in the stable to help reach up and  get the bridle over the horse's ears.
  24. Stand for a pot plant (especially an Aspidistras).
  25. Playing dare with toddler to put their finger in the hole to see if Granda's nasty is at home!
Twin sisters Scarlett & Isobella busy on their crackets

The girls sharing a cracket to make hand washing - and mischief easier 

Jessica who has just learned to shuffle on to her cracket

Plan for cracket

The finished job using this plan is shown at the end of the blog
1. Cut the wood to size and sand it.

2. Bore the 40mm finger hole in centre of the seat so you can get at it easily. Choose the better side of the wood for the top. An oblong slot for 2-3 fingers is also a good idea.

3. The seat needs to be about 350mm long and each leg about 90mm high.

4. Cut the ends of the side rails at an angle (45 degrees). It needs to be at least 40mm deep.

5. Glue and nail the rails on the underside of the seat. Mark on the base where the legs will sit. Make a cardboard template to measure the bits to be cut out of the legs to fit inside the side rails.

6. Mark and cut the angles on the top and bottom of the legs. Take care to get this right. 60 degrees is about right.

7. Bore small holes in legs, 80mm from base for the apex of the archway.

8. Mark the archway in legs leaving 50mm for the feet when cut out.

9. The tricky bit
. Cut the side notches out of top of the legs so they fit tightly inside the side rails at the correct angle.
: Use the template described above to get the same depth and angle of the notches right on the legs.

10. Be careful when cutting out these notches. A good rule is to leave the pencil mark on the wood.

11. Take a bit of time to make sure the legs fit well, so there are no gaps on the sides or where they fit the seat. 12. Make sure legs don’t extend too far beyond the end of the seat.

13. Glue the legs in place, but only put a few nails in until you see everything fits well. Don't knock the initial nails right in as you may need to pull them out again when fitting the legs.

14. Pencil a line across the seat to get the nails in right place. Hold the legs in the vice to make sure you put the nails in at the right angle.

15. Don't finish off the nailing until the glue is all dry.

16. Punch in the nail heads. Fill holes if desired. I think the nail heads add character!

17. Sand off all rough edges and varnish.

18. Carve or burn the new owner's name and the date of manufacture on the cracket. Your handiwork may become an heirloom!

Warning for modern times
When you make a cracket for a child these days, remember they grow up fast, and you have no control over what the cracket will be used for after that. It's scary to find crackets being used by large, overweight folk to stand on to reach up for all sorts of things. So in today's world of obsession with 'Health and Safety' , make sure you use a good wood glue and the correct length nails. A good screw in the leg along with two nails is a good idea.

A cracket gallery
Thanks to friends who have sent photos and specifications of their crackets.
Go 'cracket hunting' and send me pictures and details!

Clive Dalton's cracket
Origin: Made in 1980s for family.
Wood: New Zealand Rimu.
Size: Seat 350mm x 200mm (same as in plan above)
Height: 100mm
Finish: Varnish
Current use: Stands by armchair to hold coffee cup and scones. Used by small visitors for their afternoon tea sitting at a small table.

Helen Brown's cracket
Origin: Possibly from Aunt's old house or in a job lot from Rothbury mart. Age unknown.
Wood: Pine ?
Size:Top is 14 inches x 8 1/2 inches
Height: 11 inches high
Finish: Paint
Current use: A general purpose seat, especially to sit on with back to fire with laptop resting on settee.

Nancy McLauchlan's cracket
A three-legged stool - still called a cracket in the Borders. Could be called a traditional milking stool to stand easily on uneven ground.
Made by Nancy's uncle - Alex F. Miller when apprenticed to the family firm of Joiners and Undertakers in Stow, Scotland 1906-1908. They are still in business after 130 years.
Wood: Oak. Relief carving on top.
Size: Top diameter 9.5 inches. Height 8.5 inches.
Finish: Originally varnished but now has the patina of age.

Ernest Kirkby's crackets
Origins. Ernest has had these crackets for many years in his cottage in Weardale.
Wood: One is oak and the other stained pine.
Size: Round one 7 ins diameter. Square one is 9 inches x 6 inches
Height: Round one is 7 inches high. Square one is 6 inches high.
Finish: Original unknown. Now the patina of age.
Current use: Foot stools.

Don Clegg's Granny's cracket

(Comments by Don)
Origin: I think the whole stool was made by my Granda for Granny when she was about 20. As to its age, I reckon it must be over 120 years old. Granny used it as a footstool and little bairns were allowed to sit on it, if they were good!

Wood: The wood is oak and the legs were fixed by an unusual method. Each leg had a square tenon on top, which fitted into a square mortise on the underside of the stool. In addition, a square hole was cut through each leg just below the tenon, going right through the leg from side to side. A square peg was inserted through this hole so that it stuck out each side about 1 1/4ins, which was then screwed up to the stool with fat screws. No glue as far as I can discover. The legs were hand made and every one is different.

Size: 12in x 8in
Height: 6in
Finish: Probably started with varnish but now has the patina of age !
Current use: Now used as plant stand.


  1. As a kid in the 50's,any cracket with a hole in the seat was always called a "farty" cracket for obvious reasons,to differentiate been numerous crackets in the house. and it was the tallest one in our house.

  2. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

  3. Brilliant thanks! I was beginning to believe the word was made up by my Grandmother!! Had it in my head but couldn't find it dictionarywise.

  4. Found this while looking for meaning of Cracket - an item which I remembered from my youth in the 50s. Generally we called any small stool a cracket but I especially remember the one my granny had which had three legs. More like a milking stool I guess. Nice write up here though.

    David Newton

  5. Good to know I had remembered the cracket properly, some of my extended family worked down the pit. I also remember the clippy mats my Gran made.

  6. This is fab, still have my cracket made by my grandad xx

  7. I've really enjoyed reading this - I've bookmarked the page so I can enjoy it again and share with friends of my age and background - born 1940 in a village near Blaydon with coke works in sight, drift mine half a mile away, cracket [made by dad] by the fire.

  8. bill newton here -- my kids were the only ones in the north eastern suburbs of Melbourne to have crackets -- as far as I know! -- and they used to plodge in the clarts as well!!

  9. thoroughly good nostalgic read.I just made a cracket for my bathroom so i could put my socks on! I left Jesmond for Aus in 1972. My wife is the daughter of a miner in Washington.She used to sit on her Grandma's cracket in front of the coal fired range.We live in Hobart Tas now.