Retired motor mechanic finds his stairway to heaven at Wentworth Woodhouse
All his life, David Johnson has loved fixing things. The more difficult the task the better, as far as the Kimberworth grandad is concerned.
And now former mechanic David has found his stairway to heaven… Renovating the grand Georgian staircase at Rotherham’s Grade I listed gem, Wentworth Woodhouse.
For the last year, 72-year-old volunteer David has been engrossed in the task of restoring brass fittings and fixtures on the Imperial staircase, which was designed by John Carr in Adam style, and built in 1801-1802.
He started over a year ago, after noticing a stair rod had come loose while on a visit to the stately home, now owned by Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust, with his wife Rosemary. Since then he has repaired all 84 pairs of the brass brackets, which had been expertly made by expert craftsmen 250 years ago to hold the stair carpet in place with decorative stair rods.
It’s taken him over 420 hours and it’s all been done for love – of the grand house.
He’s now on a mission to restore to their former glory over 800 brass floral pieces adorning the banisters.
It all started when David and Rosemary went to a ‘gift and grub’ fair in the marble saloon last May – and noticed a stair rod was loose as they descended the stairs at the end of the evening.
“I realised all the stair rod brackets leaded into each step were in a terrible state, with pieces either missing or broken, and offered to repair them,” says David.
“I knew it would be tricky. It has involved designing and making a new brass locking mechanism for every bracket and it’s taken me many hours, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
Ecclesall-born, David never found his forte at Silverdale School. He left at 15 to become a motor mechanic, went into engineering at 23 with Sheffield firm Dormer Drills (also known as the Sheffield Twist Drill and Steel Co) then worked an a mechanic at Eccles Aizlewood Haulage in Rotherham.
If he had his time again he would have studied engineering at university. Said wife Rosemary, 75: “David can make or fix anything he puts his mind to and relishes a challenge. He works it all out in exacting detail. I’m very proud of him, though I do call myself a Garage Widow!”
Her handy husband is enjoying finding his forte at The Big House.
“I love to feel I’m doing something useful that helps the Preservation Trust save their funds,” he says. “It would have had to hire in a specialist engineering company to do the repairs.”
Since I started work on the staircase I’ve discovered more and more about the workmanship and attention to detail that went it it and it has amazed me.
“My next task is to polish up over 800 brass floral pieces that fit under the handrail. They had been painted over, as have all the decorative brass features on the balustrades. It would look even more magnificent if it was fully restored.”
David plans to engrave his name and the date on a hidden part of one of the brackets so it can be found in the future, during the next restoration – just as craftsmen have done for centuries at Wentworth Woodhouse.
During an examination of the roof in preparation for the current rapid project, the names of roofers from 200 years ago were found etched onto timbers and slates. The ancient form of graffiti led to the current Make Your Mark in History campaign, which allows the public to support the trust’s work by have their names etched onto a new roof slate for a minimum donation of £50.
Said David: “It grabs you that house. It becomes a passion. I’d love to keep coming back to do more work for the trust. But Rosemary says I’ve got to do our new bathroom first!”
Sarah McLeod, CEO of Wentworth Woodhouse, said; “We are so grateful to David for his time, his expertise and enthusiasm. He is doing a wonderful job of repairs to our show-stopping staircase. We have over 100 volunteers bringing a huge range of very valuable skills to Wentworth Woodhouse. We would love to hear from many more.”