David’s skilled hands make light work at Wentworth Woodhouse

11th April 2019

Former mechanic David Johnson has finally found his true forte – at the age of 73.

The Kimberworth grandad is the unofficial Mr Fix-it of Wentworth Woodhouse.

He became a valued volunteer at Rotherham’s Grade I listed gem in 2017 on his first-ever visit there. He happened to notice a stair-rod on the grand Georgian staircase had come loose and offered to come back and repair it.

His good deed turned into a mammoth labour of love, repairing all 84 pairs of the stair-rod brackets made by expert craftsmen 250 years ago. It took him over a year. But it seems there is no end to his talents or his dedication.

The Preservation Trust then asked if he would tackle another task – restoring the huge Victorian brass chandelier which once hung in the mansion’s private chapel.

Said David, of Kimberworth: “I was presented with a long wooden box containing around 40 pieces of brass-work wrapped in an old curtain. They were so badly tarnished they were almost black. It was hard to tell what they had been.”

The chandelier, believed to date from the 1840s, was originally candle-lit, then later wired for electricity. It had been taken down and dismantled years ago when it was feared the chapel ceiling was unsafe.

Undaunted, David stripped down the central brass body corroded to dark green by water staining, taking photos at each stage so he knew how to put it together again. Painstakingly, he made scores of tiny brass parts to replace damaged fittings on the central column and 15 ornate arms. Each piece had to be an exact replica of the original and was made on a lathe and milling machines.

The next task was to gently polish away over 170 years of grime on his buffing machine.

“I had no idea how it would come up. But it’s top quality brass and turned to a gorgeous shine again,” David explained. “Then I had to rebuild it, which was like doing a jigsaw; every piece had its place.”

His restoration work totalled some 400 hours and saw David at ‘The Big House’ up to six days a week. But he says it’s been an illuminating experience for him.

“I learned so much about how the chandelier was made and the skills of the people who crafted it,” explained David.

“Each lighting branch only fits in one place and the craftsmen numbered each one. Intriguingly though there is no number 9 – I guess it was so they didn’t get parts 6 and 9 mixed up.”

David has added his own mark. A small brass disc engraved with his name and the dates of his restoration work is there to be found by future restorers.

The chandelier is on display to visitors in the State Corridor until repairs to the chapel are completed.

David’s work is far from done, though. He intends to carry on working four days a week as the mansion’s unpaid Mr Fix-it.

“There’s too much to do for me to stop! My aim is to still be here, being useful, at 103 and I shall love every moment,” said David, who left school at 15 to become a motor mechanic.

“I feel this is the job I should have done all along. I’ve found my forte.The house is my passion and I feel it repays me for what I do for it.

He added: “I wish more people from the trades – engineers, mechanics, steelworkers – would come and join me at the house – their skills would be so useful.”

Sarah McLeod, CEO of Wentworth Woodhouse, said: “We owe so much to David’s time and expertise. He does a wonderful job of everything he turns his hand to. We have over 100 volunteers, each bringing their own unique skills to Wentworth Woodhouse and would love to hear from more.”