The oldest steeple jack in Britain?

Peter Harknett is a steeple jack of great renown working in the counties of Sussex Hampshire and Surrey. An active Octogenarian, he has spent half his life sitting in a Bosun’s chair dangling repairing and restoring churches.

Until the lockdown in 2020 , Peter could be found assailing heights, far and wide. 

Simon Smith of W L West and Sons Ltd shares with us just a few snippets of the life of Peter, probably Britain’s oldest steeplejack, and the joy he gets from working on some of the tallest steeples in the land.

Masters of their trade

Steeple jacking really came into being  in the 16th century where travelling acrobats with their poles and ropes with no fear for heights started to carry out the work. To advertise how brave they were,  they would swing off a church spire for the amusement of local people and found there was more money in repair work than in performing. 

Steeple jacks are a fearless bunch of highly skilled workers who are masters in lead , copper, iron and timber  and masters in using ropes, levers and cantilevers and use their own specialised jargon.  

Scaling tall buildings using ladders and ropes using the Bosun Chair rather than erecting expensive scaffolding can save a huge amount of money on church spire repairs.

Perils of the job

Peter joined Bertram Mills Circus as a rigger after his National Service.  One of his first  jobs after leaving the circus to become self-employed was fixing a Gothic school tower in Surrey  which needed re-slating.  

He recalls working on the top corner bobbing in the wind when a gust caught him and the safety ‘Fall Rope’ he tied wrapped round his leg because it was getting in the way!

The gust of wind knocked him against he building and he fell over eighteen feet and the manilla rope rubbed across his shin and rubbed into the bone.  His first aid kit was a bit of old rag and insulation tape! Then back up the ladder and back to work on the Bosun Chair.

Peter’s red ladder, as shown, was an impressive sight indeed!

Oak shakes can last over 80 years

Timber roofing tiles have been around since pre Roman times and they are still very common in parts of Europe for roofs in Austria and Germany.

Peter is a leading authority on oak shakes for church spires. A shake is cleft from a roundel cross cut from a log into a disc.  They are cleaned flat so they sit well on the spire.   Using a three layer tile constructions they are nailed to a sarking board.  

Oak is very durable and can last well over 80 years if laid up correctly.  It is also very hard and off-putting to woodpeckers, birds that can easily destroy a wooden shingle spire.

Peter used to cleft his own shakes from roundels we cut in our yard but now he works with a family firm called Rapold GmbH and Co  based in Bad Reichenhall in Bavaria.  We now distribute these hand cleft oak shakes for all manner of church and building cladding.

Peter, a pipe smoker, is a great raconteur, with a wicked sense of humour to this day – ask him the off items of ladies’ underwear he has retrieved off weathervanes!

Until recently he used to cycle round the square steeple at the very top of Guilford Cathedral – no safety nets. 

“Every day is a school day,” Peter often remarks and he loves sharing his knowledge with others. What a boon to all of us involved  in conservation and restoration.

This lovely insight into Peter’s work has been provided to us by Simon Smith of W L West and Sons Ltd, timber merchants who specialise in church steeple repair and restoration. They are also a member of our Professional Trades Directory which contains over 200 companies, all experts in their own field of work. More details can be found on our website.

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