Matriarch of the Chairmakers

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Matriarch of the Chairmakers

Sometime in 1822 John Gabbitas who lived at Gammston, loaded his belongings and the tools of his trade onto a cart and, with his wife Elizabeth, moved the few miles to Worksop where he settled on the Common, the present day Eastgate. Not only did he bring with him all his worldly possessions, but he also introduced a new trade into the town, for he was a chairmaker. Soon he, his younger brother Henry and a handful of local men and one or two appentices were producing Windsor Chairs, a type of furniture which was to be made in Worksop for the next hundred years.

Four years before he moved to Worksop, John Gabbitas had married Elizabeth, a young eighteen year old girl. She was a farmers daughter and came from Owston in The Isle of Axholme.  One who knew her described her as possessing “a fine well knit frame, a sound constitution, and a large amount of Yorkshire shrewdness of character.” These qualities were to serve her well as, from its early days, she was the guiding hand behind the business. No doubt her husband could make good chairs, but he appears to be an easy going an, competent in the workshop but less so in his dealings with customers. It was fortunate that he had such a wife behind him who, it was stated “was from the start the ‘better man’ in the business.”

From August 1839 what had been generally understood became a recognised fact for on the 26th of that month John Gabbitas died and Elizabeth became head of the firm. John was but forty two years old. Her brother-in-law Henry looked after the Worksop in place of John but otherwise things continued very much as before. However one little change was introduced. Instead of chairs being marked I. Gabbitas on the bottom of the seat they were now stamped E. Gabbitas on the back edge. Very few of the former are known to have survived while examples of the latter are quite numerous. This was rather puzzling as, until recently it was thought that Elizabeth too died within a few years of her husband, perhaps around 1843. Elizabeth travelled to Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Lancashire selling Windsor chairs.  This was in pre-railway days in Worksop and had to be loaded onto wagons ready for their journey.

Death however wasn’t the only cause of a womans seeming disappearance from her known surroundings. Elizabeth chose a far happier way of baffling future historians: she remarried and thereafter became Mrs Elizabeth Thorpe. Her second husband, Henry, was a mason and six years her junior. Evidence, scanty as it is, suggests that she continued to manage the family business for several more years though by 1851 she had clearly handed over to her brother-in-law. In the census returns of that year, he is recorded as a master chairman employing nine me, three boys and three apprentices. This was the largest establishment of its kind in Worksop.


This chair was made shortly after Elizabeth Gabbitas had taken over the management of the family firm, following the death of her husband in 1839. Made around 1840, it was solidly constructed and was meant to last, and it is still in regular use today.