Mike Rowland and Son Wheelwrights: Greg Rowland

Mike Rowland and Son Wheelwrights: Greg Rowland

With some Apprenticeships, the talent comes along before the business even knows it wants an apprentice. The scheme is then put into place around the individual. That’s what happened when George Richards came from school to do work experience at Mike Rowland and Son Wheelwrights in Collerton, East Devon.

Greg Rowland is a wheelwright who, along with his father Mike, runs this successful business. The business is so successful, in fact, that it produces coaches, carriages and wheels themselves for the Queen. Greg told us about the business’s heritage:

“Our family history of wheelwrighting dates back to 1331. We skipped a couple of generations during the war years. The family moved to Collerton in 1950 and before that it was in a village called Upottery.

Very much a family business, before George’s arrival, Greg and his parents were the entire workforce. Although there had been apprentices in the business many years ago, George was Mike’s first apprentice and his arrival was unexpected, as Greg explains:

“I didn’t recruit George – he recruited me! He came to do work experience from the secondary school nearby and then started working Saturdays. While he was doing his work experience I got him to turn a wooden mallet, which is a simple task but when you’re straight from school and you’ve never touched a machine or a wood lathe before it’s a challenge. I could see right away that he could do it.”

Before long, George had taken it into his own hands to secure a place on Exeter College’s Joinery Apprenticeship. However, he didn’t stop there. George is actually doing two Apprenticeships simultaneously. His second

Apprenticeship is administered by the Livery Companies of the City of London and is a pilot scheme. George is the first person to undertake this scheme, which will see him become a Wheelwright Journeyman and secure a City & Guilds qualification over three years.

Together, these Apprenticeships will afford George an incredibly diverse set of skills. Greg says:

“He’s getting the best of all worlds really. The Liveries Company scheme means he’s getting to be a welder, do metal work and blacksmithing, even down to coach lining where you paint the lines on. Once, wheelwrights made the wheels, the coachbuilder made the coach and the wainwrights made the wagons. Well, those people are all in the churchyard! So George has had a go at everything to get him qualified as a joiner and a wheelwright. I think it gives him a much broader range of knowledge as well. We focus a lot on being able to get over a problem.”

Like Greg, George himself has a family history of carpentry and joinery. Both the apprentice’s father and his grandfather before him worked with wood. Greg believes that innate skill is essential to becoming a professional wheelwright:

“In this trade you need someone with an aptitude, which you can’t learn. You can teach an awful lot of things but it’s very difficult to be able to give them that inbuilt feel for things, so we’ve been lucky to find George.”

In a microbusiness like Greg’s where ancient skills are being used, Apprenticeships have to be flexible. The process is more fluid and more difficult to plan too far in advance, with George moving quickly from one task to another:

“In a large joinery shop, someone would be on windows for two or three weeks and then they would be on doors for a month. We can’t do that because we’re dictated to by what we have in the workshop at the time.”

Since George became part of his business, Greg has received the AGE Grant, which is a sum of £1500 to help businesses create Apprenticeships. Additionally, he has had a small amount of funding from the Livery Companies Apprenticeship Scheme, which is in its infancy.

Greg describes Exeter College as ‘very helpful’ and has even gone so far as to join the Livery Companies Apprenticeship Scheme’s Craft Committee. This means that he was involved in writing the structure of George’s Wheelwright Journeyman Apprenticeship. So enthused is Greg about Apprenticeships that when the second Wheelwright Journeyman Apprenticeship begins later this year, he will act as mentor to another employer following in his footsteps.

Read more about Mike Rowland and Son Wheelwrights in The Centenary Apprenticeship Prorgamme blog.

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