My description of the carved gnomes on the dining-room table and chairs in Groves Dyke Holiday Cottage has led to many enquiries for more information about the local craftsman Tom Whittaker and his work.
Whittaker lived and worked in Littlebeck, about 2 miles from Sleights and 5 miles from Whitby. He used only English Oak and his trademark was to carve a little woodland gnome into each and every piece of furniture he made.
Legend has it that a gnome is born every time an acorn (Oak seed) sprouts and that gnome will guard that tree throughout its life.
I once met Mr Whittaker in his workshop near Littlebeck ford and chapel, probably in the 1980s while Anthea and I were researching for the BBC Doomsday Project. He marvelled at the ‘vast’ number of cars which passed his remote workshop window every day – as many as one per minute on summer weekends. He recalled that when he first came to Littlebeck it would have been as few as one car per hour or even one per day.
Tom Whittaker, the Gnome Man of Littlebeck, died in 1991. His business ended and his workshop was converted into a private house. The old sign on the gable nearest the road can still just be distinguished in 2004.
His furniture occasionally comes up for sale in the Whitby auction rooms and, as I have been learning form enquirers, in many other places as far away as Lincolnshire, Alabama and… who-knows-where-else?
The Whittaker Shop – to Buy or Sell work by Tom Whittaker, Gnome Man
A place to advertise any Whittaker item you wish to sell and for buyers to request any item they wish to own. Advertising here costs £1 / word / year (minimum £20) and your ad will stay on the site for up to 1 year from the date of posting, or until you ask me to remove it. This will help to pay for hosting this website, etc. Please click on ‘Contact’ at the top of this page and include all of the following details: Who you are, What exactly is for sale, Where in the world you (and it) are, When it is to be sold (if applicable) and How the interested readers can contact you. NB: Every email address will have a space added either side of the @ to avoid spam – please remember to remove both spaces before emailing them.
Special Notice: The Arts and Crafts Company have suffered a fire at Station Mill Antiques Centre (Chipping Norton), which is now closed. They sell ‘Yorkshire Oak’ items but are currently dealing ONLY by appointment. Please contact them via www.arts-and-crafts-company.com [End May 2011].
Wanted: Corner unit. Could be a cupboard or a bookcase or a dresser, full height or half height, just as long as it is a corner unit and it is currently somewhere within the UK. Please contact Niall Carson via the Contact button at the top of this page (or relax @ grovesdyke.co.uk ), with description, dimensions, location, price, etc. Posted 27 Dec 2006.
For Sale: Gnome fruit bowl and coffee table, roses carved around the outside. Collect from Co. Durham. £300. No offers. Tel: xxxxx xxxxxx. Posted 25 Feb 2010. Sold in March 2010 [within 3 weeks!].
2 Items For Sale: Small Gnomeman refectory style dining table seems to be early but needs TLC to the top. If anyone is interested and would like photos and prices contact me via email: xxx @ thingy.com (NB: please remove the spaces around the ‘@’). Many Thanks. Thomas. (Yorkshire). Posted 23 Sept 06. [NB: The circular coffee table with Adzed ring rose carved top on 4 square legs and carved with a gnome motif, previously advertised here, has now been sold]
Wanted: I am interested in purchasing any Gnome Man items, please email details to firstname.lastname@example.org Posted 23 Nov 2006.
For Sale: the former house of Tom Whittaker at Littlebeck, near Whitby. The Old Wood Carvers Cottage has 6 bedrooms. The master bedroom is en suite, with a further 2 bathrooms throughout the house. There are 3 reception rooms and very large kitchen-dining room. This house is full of character and boasts an original solid English oak panelled drawing room, solid oak doors throughout, 2 further reception rooms with carved ceiling bosses, oak wall lights and garden gate – all with his signature of the gnome. The house is in a magical location near to the Littlebeck stream. If interested in this rare opportunity to purchase a piece of history, the house is being marketed by Cundalls Ltd, Pickering, North Yorkshire Tel xxx Email email@example.com (NB: I would really appreciate it if you could put these details on your new Items For Sale web page, as we would love the house to go to someone with an appreciation for Tom Whittaker’s work). Posted 17 Oct 2006.
For Sale: Refectory table (4 feet 10 inches by 2 feet 6 inches) with 2 benches with backs. Georgian oak colour. In good condition. Buckinghamshire, England. E: firstname.lastname@example.org [Posted 27 Sept 07].
For Sale: Oak refectory type table, two unusual carver chairs and two benches, each with gnome man motif. Enquiries contact email@example.com. Posted 26 Sep 07. Then, on 12 Oct 07: ‘Many thanks for all your help with the advert for my table, benches and carvers. I sold them yesterday, so it did the trick very swiftly, thank you. Regards, ***.
26 Jun 2007: Sale of 18 items at Whitby salerooms: The smaller, un-marked items went for £10 or £20 each, but anything with a gnome carved on it was much more. An 8 inch diameter dish with a central gnome sold for more than £60 (my maximum bid!), but I did manage to buy a roughed-out (but unfinished) Gnome sleeping against a tree trunk for £40. Also in the sale was a 3-legged circular coffee table with a Yorkshire rose in the centre sold for £170 and a 6 foot x 2 foot 6 inch refectory table sold for £600 and 4 panel back dining chairs with studded leather seats went for £600 (ie £150 per chair). The best item was 4 foot 6 inch wide oak court cupboard which reached £1250. It was interesting that Whittaker’s assistant, Chris Checksfield also had an item in the sale. This was a glazed oak firescreen, but with Chris’s characteristic tall thin cat carved on it, and this fetched a very respectable £100.
Sold on 24 Nov 2006 at Malton, North Yorkshire: A large refectory table with 2 long benches and 2 end stools, all by Whittaker. Expected to fetch about £600 at auction, this set actually sold for £1900! Posted 13 Nov 2006.
17 Oct 2006: Sale of 32 carved figures by Tom Whittaker, at the request of his family. By auction on Tuesday 17 Oct 2006 at the Saleroom of Richardson and Smith Ltd, Silver Street, Whitby (incorporating Grey’s). Viewing on Sat 14th and Mon 16th Oct 2006. Sale includes 9 heraldic figures about 12 to 18 inches high, a 6-piece group of musicians, etc. Nearer the date you can visit www.richardsonandsmith.co.uk/index > Auctions for pictures, etc or Tel. 01947 602298. [The auction was well attended and all 25 lots were sold. Prices ranged from a high of £700 for the 6-piece band to a low of £20 for a carved head of a medieval lady, with most items fetching about £100. A 10 inch diameter fruit bowl with a rose in the centre and a gnome on the underside sold for £130].
The North York Moors National Park Information Board
The North York Moors National Park have placed an information board at Littlebeck ford, with details of the area and its history. It includes the following:
‘Thomas Whittaker – He worked only in English Oak, which explains why you’ll find a gnome lurking on all his carvings. The ‘Gnome Man’ chiselled away in his Littlebeck workshop for almost 50 years, building an international reputation for the craftsmanship of his work.
‘Thomas Whittaker’s old workshop – Built by Mr Whittaker himself, his old workshop still surveys the dale. Look carefully and you will find the original [painted] sign “The Gnome Woodcarver – Craftsman in Oak”. [Now a private house].
‘The Old Woodcarver’s Cottage (Formerly the Bay Horse Inn) – Thomas Whittaker lived here from 1944 until his death in 1991.’ North York Moors National Park.
If you can supply me with any more information about him or his furniture, I will be delighted to add it to this page. NB: Only your initials, nearest large town and county (or state and country) will be published. Click here for Contact form.
Your Feedback re Gnome Man furniture:
July 2009: AJ of ? writes: I met Tom Whittaker when I was a little girl. My parents used to drive out from Scarborough on days out and we came across his workshop in Littlebeck. I have a memory that he was carving two very large chairs as a wedding gift to Lord Howard (I think) which were to be a gift from Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. They were very large, very dark and very heavy. I also have a vague memory of his workshop on fire, caused by a firework. Jack Domanio on [BBC] Radio 4 at that time sent out a plea for some new woodcarver’s tools, which eventually came from another woodcarver’s widow in Austrailia. I may be telling you complete and utter rubbish, as it is such a long time ago, but Tom Whittaker’s workshop stayed in my mind.
[The fire is certainly true, see the newspaper cuttings below, as is the widow donating her late husband's wood carving tools. Sending them from Australia is a new angle to me, but why not? The Queen Mother's present of 2 large chairs reminds me that Tom Whittaker told somebody who complained about having to wait a very long time for their furniture to be made, that 'Even the Queen would have to wait!' NC].
Nov 08: DS of ? writes: My Aunt and Uncle holidayed near Runswick Bay in the 1950′s and came across some Whittaker furniture and after making enquiries made their way to Littlebeck. They fell in love with the beautiful oak and Whittaker style and over the next 20 years ordered a new piece of furniture whenever they could afford it. Even! tually their house was almost completely furnished by Whittaker and included two bedroom suites, sideboard, 7foot table and carver chairs, bureau and many other small pieces. They kept much of the correspondence with Mr Whittaker, including bills, which make interesting reading now. My uncle died in 1986 and my aunt last month and so sadly her beloved furniture is being sold. My brother and I have bought a piece each but can neither afford nor have room for more. We can only hope any new owners love and appreciate the furniture as much as we have. If you are interested, the sale is at Boulton and Cooper in Malton on Nov 26th.
DA of ? Writes: I lived in Littlebeck for 11 years, next door to Tom Whittaker. I spent my childhood at Falling Foss & used to go to the old woman who lived there for chicken eggs, and sit at the hermit’s cave [the Hermitage] on the wishing chairs. My father helped build the village hall at Littlebeck. When we were young we used to catch salmon at a place near Littlebeck, at the bottom of Old Bank. I have many happy memories of Littlebeck since at left aged 11. I was in the [ceremony there called] Crowning the Rose Queen every year and went to Sunday School at the chapel there. Went to Tom’s workshop but I was too young to remember much, apart from Chris [Checksfield?], his apprentice. My mother (now aged 84) may have more memories and photos…
Jun 08: AN of Oxfordshire writes: My husband and I spent our family holidays in Robin Hood’s Bay for 11 years, during which time we discovered Mr Whittaker’s magical workshop tucked away at the bottom of the little valley at Littlebeck. Over the years, 1974 to 1983, as we could afford it or inherited small sums from family members, we asked him to make us several pieces of furniture that I still have and treasure: a Yorkshire dresser with plate racks, a 6ft refectory table, four chairs and two carver chairs, and a nest of 3 rectangular tables. I also have a round fruit bowl with a Tudor rose in the centre, but he said that was an apprentice piece. It doesn’t carry a gnome signature, unlike all the other pieces.
I was lucky enough to find an early round coffee table with a ring of roses round the top in Chipping Norton recently, for sale with lots of other Yorkshire arts and crafts style furniture (Mouseman, Squirrelman and Acornman) in Station Mill Antiques. The seller had several bigger Whittaker items too for sale!
I remember Mr Whittaker once telling an American visitor to his showroom one day, in reply to her question about how long would his furniture last, that it would last over 500 years, long enough to see her through. He used to leave the oak planks outside for seven seasons then cut them roughly to size and bring them in for another 6 months before he began to make them up. He was proud of the fact he did not use kiln dried wood, unlike many other wood carvers.
He always had a roll-up in his hand, and hated the selling part of his job; he was very reticent. It was Joyce who used to write the invoices and letters, often having to explain the years of delay between an order being placed and delivery. If Tom felt like making tables when you ordered your table, lucky you. If he felt like making chests, you’d have to wait! But one day the postcard would arrive saying that Pickfords would be delivering the piece you had waited and longed for, and it would arrive carefully shrouded in blankets and smelling wonderfully of freshly cut oak and wax, magically evoking his wonderful workshop.
I would never part with a single piece, and have also chosen where I live with a view to them fitting in each house. It is a pity no one has written a book and collected information about all the items he made over his working life. I would love to do this, if anyone is interested!
Oct 07: MH emails: I remember as a child visiting Mr Whittaker’s workshop with my family, probably late 19602 or early 70s. My parents loved his carvings and admired a pair of heads, a king and a queen. My parents couldn’t afford the pair so Mr Whittaker sold them the king, which has always been treasured in the family. It was a real pleasure to read your information. MH. [Many thanks for that. Any more snippets to add, anyone?]
Sept 2007: AM (NZ) emails: Hello. We live in New Zealand and we have inherited a table and bench seats made by the Gnome Man. So now you know that there is some of his work down south here. AM.
[Many thanks for your email and the confirmation that the work of Tom Whittaker has reached all around the world! I see that ebay currently has a Gnome Man table and bench set on offer. Just search ebay for table + Whittaker, or table + gnome, or table + Whitby, or anything similar. It will be interesting to watch what the final price will be... Niall]. Update: Ended 16 Sep 07 and sold for £2500!! Click for the ebay page…
May 2007: Thomas (UK) emails:
Hello again I contacted you last year to put an advert for some Gnome Man items on your website. Success on one of them but sadly I had no interest shown in the large table.. but the coffee table sold within about 3 weeks from going on – much appreciated. The other reason I’m contacting you today is to show you a website I have found of North Yorkshire craftsmen at work, which has 8-10 photos of Littlebeck and Mr Whittaker, working and standing outside his home. Hope you like them: http://www2.northyorks.gov.uk/unnetie/home.cfm (then click on Search and put in Littlebeck or Whittaker) Thanks again.
January 2007: GW (UK) emails:
I was delighted to find your site. We first met Mr Whittaker shortly after discussing RAF careers with his granddaughter. I was a recruiter in the mid 1980s but spent more time discussing furniture with her than RAF. We visited his workshop and there was no way we would leave without ordering. Yes, we did have to wait some 18 month to get our first items. First was the table and chairs but at the same time we ordered the cadenza (sideboard), Mr Whittaker promised we would be able to pay by the time he had made it. We also have a coffee table and tea trolley. We had always admired his lamps but he never got round to making one for us. After his wife died he was less inclined to carve such items. We lived in nearby Guisborough at the time and we were surprised when his son in law turned up at our door. He had with him Mr Whittaker’s own Gnome lamp. We were amazed to be offered the lamp for £30. Apparently Mr Whittaker had decided we should have it and tasked his son in law with finding us and delivering it.
On visits to his workshop he would tell tales of his many visitors. He spoke of the man from the Ministry who offered to allow him to put the kite mark of approval on his furniture. On seeing the standards required to be awarded the kite mark he apparently told his visitor that when British standards reached his standards, he would consider allowing them to put the kite mark on his furniture. I hope I have not bored you too much but my wife and I found him one of life’s true characters.
As you will see the furniture has always taken pride of place in our home and it is true to say has influenced where we live. We either had to have a house big enough to take it, or redesign the place.
December 2006: DL (UK) emails: We have what I am sure is an early gnome man oak bench (will send photo later). It has ‘rest and be thankful’ carved on the seat. When living in Whitby in the late ’80′s we took it to Tom’s nephew? [Perhaps his son-in-law, who ran the business for a while after Tom Whittaker died?] who eradicated an ink stain and asked permission to take it apart as he had not seen the particular bench before (he did put it back together again!). I think it was a early one. My father purchased it in probably late 1950′s / early 60′s.
December 2006: SG (UK) emails: Having seen a Mouseman bowl on ‘Bargain Hunt’ on TV, I decided to try and track down the maker of a pair of wooden figures which we bought about 15 years ago. They have a craved gnome (I first tried to look for ‘pixie’) on the bases. I came across your website and was fascinated. The figures are quite crudely carved, in oak. They are obviously Mary (with Jesus) and Joseph and are 20 inches high. I have attached some photos in the hope that you may be able to say if you think they were actually made by Tom Whittaker. [Yes, they certainly look like his work and the gnomes look just like his. Niall].
September 2006: Mr R Smith of Whitby saleroom Richardson and Smith Ltd (formerly Grey’s) phoned to tell me about their forthcoming sale of Whittaker carved figures. See the new Whittaker Shop section, above.
August 2006: My name is Nicola S., maiden name Long. I am the eldest granddaughter of Tom Whittaker. I now live in Melbourne, Australia. Thank you for your web site. It is sad that his carvings and furniture are so loved and yet there is very little information available about his work except, it appears, your site. Would that be correct? I must tell my mother (the youngest daughter) about your site. It is nice to see that in re-modelling his home they have kept the oak features. It used to be called St Hilda’s Cottage. Do you know why? Given that my fondest memories were spent at Littlebeck with my Nana & Granddad it is so nice to see that people remember his work. They were both very special people. Thank you again for taking the time and the interest to write about him. Regards, Nicola S.
[As far as I know, this web page (and the Whitby Gazette articles quoted herein) are the only written details of Tom Whittaker, the Gnome Man of Littlebeck. I am delighted to publish the information here - and to add as many more snippets of information about him as anyone cares to send me. NB: Saint Hilda founded the original Whitby Abbey in the 7th Century and she is remembered in many local place names. Niall Carson].
August 2006: PD (location unknown) emails: Tom Whittaker was my uncle, my mum’s brother. I remember visiting him and Aunty Joyce at their cottage at Littlebeck. He used to meet us at Whitby station and I wanted him to go very fast down the hills to Littlebeck. My Mum was terrified! I used to love looking round his workshop and all the pieces he was carving. He often had orders for America. He used to hate it when people asked him how long each one took. When his nephews and nieces got married he always carved them something. My sister has a lamp and I have a coffee table. When my Mum and Dad celebrated their silver wedding he made them a circular stool with the white rose of York in the centre. He was an apprentice to Mousey Thompson at Kilburn.
August 2006: KH (unknown location) emails: Did you know that the former home (was also the Bay Horse Inn until 1945) of Tom Whitaker the Gnome man was bought in 1993, by a family who loving restored it. They have since put the house up for sale with Cundalls estate agents who are based in Pickering North Yorkshire. The house now called “The Old Wood Carvers Cottage” boasts many fine examples of his work, including an oak panelled room, solid oak doors throughout, carved ceiling bosses and wall lights, garden gates all with his signature of the gnome. Such a rare opportunity to purchase a house which is not only unique but also in such a pretty location, beside the stream in a quiet hamlet. Indeed Wainwright author of the published book ‘Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk’ describes Littlebeck in great detail: “Then follows a descent to this tiny hamlet, set in a secluded and sheltered valley amid scenery of bewitching beauty; a heaven on earth in exquisite miniature. Here a path is taken amongst the trees, with sparkling stream as companion to the higher reaches of the valley” Anyone interested in buying into this little piece of heaven on earth should make their move quickly. I’m sure this property will not be on the market for long, given the location and its history. [KH did not mention if there was any personal interest in this particular sale..!]
June 2006: LC (unknown location) emails: My parents have a coffee table and a table lamp made by Mr Whittaker, probably in the late 1960′s or early 1970′s. It’s sad that his workshop is closed now. The table lamp has a much larger gnome than the coffee table!
March 2006: At a sale of three Gnome Man items in Whitby this month, the circular pedestal coffee table went for over £300, a fruit bowl for £130 and a cheese board for £130. Sadly, I didn’t get any of them! [Niall Carson].
January 2006: GH (nee B) of New Zealand emails: I found your website about Tom. I have a spinning chair complete with gnome and two oak bowls with the Rose of York carved in the centre. My sister has a matching chair and a coffee table. Our family connection is that my sister and I were boarders at a French convent in Easingwold (near York) during the war and one of Tom’s daughters was a friend. I remember going to Littlebeck and staying at the fantastic old house, which was full of carved oak panelling. I am lucky enough to have known Littlebeck when only the odd car passed the door. Our family always visited Goathland and Whitby for our holidays after the [2nd World] war and always called on Tom and his family.
January 2006: J & S W of Texas emails: ‘I discovered through your website that the table that I have had for about 15 years was made by Mr Whittaker. I picked it up in an antique shop in Houston, Texas. Photos attached. Thanks so much for creating this resource.’
NB: When the US Air Force had a base at RAF Fylingdales (NATO’s early warning station on top of the North York Moors near Whitby) their personnel often took the opportunity to buy English made furniture for their temporary UK homes, and then have the US Air Force ship all their belongings, including the furniture, free of charge back to the USA when their tour of duty was over. Smart move! Niall.
March 2005: J&B T says that his father-in-law took Tom and Robert [?] around the country in search of the right oak for his work. Tom later made a wardrobe as their wedding present. He also carved 2 gnomes to sit on top of the newel posts at their new home. Tom went on to outlive his wife, Joyce, who looked after him all his life.
March 2005: DH emails that: ‘The Everley Hotel in Hackness near Scarborough has a magnificent Whittaker fireplace and several tables, also an oak frieze depicting a hunting scene. Well worth a visit.’ He was also able to add that: ‘Mr Whittaker’s son-in-law [he only had two daughters] moved the business to Whitby after Mr Whittaker died. The son-in-law’s signature was a very thin cat and any of these pieces will be extremely rare. I too am intrigued as to Mr Whittaker’s final resting place, hopefully beneath an oak tree or two. ‘
NB: I can remember seeing a thin cat on several tables in the bar at one of the Goathland hotels – either in the Mallyan Hotel or the Inn on the Moor (previously the Hydro) – several years ago. Has anyone got any more recent information? Niall.
DH adds: ‘I have a bookcase and a corner unit, with monk’s heads carved on them. I also have a gnome lamp which Mr Whittaker carved for me in 1983. He was very frail at the time and could not remember when he carved the monk’s heads. His records were, as you know, lost in the fire – if indeed there were many. I missed a pair of monk’s head bookends at Tenants recently.’
January 2005: GH informs me that her grandmother used to live near Mr Whittaker in the 1960s and 70s and remembers visiting his workshop on numerous occasions. ‘He used to make people wait for any commissioned pieces, sometimes 18 months or more, he even said the Queen Mother had to wait! I remember the remoteness and peacefulness of the village. I had a piece of [his] furniture (now auctioned) – a lovely three-legged occasional table with the gnome carved on one of the legs.’
September 2004: JW of Lancashire emailed photos of a bowl she had bought (see More Photos, below). She says it is: ‘…a 9¾ inch diameter bowl… all hand crafted in oak with a gnome carved right in the centre. I bought it last week at a car boot sale in Yorkshire for [wait for it!] £4.’
NB: I have compared the gnome with those on my furniture and it certainly looks very similar, if shortened to better suit a circular piece. Have a look at the photos and let me know if you agree. Incidentally, a slightly larger wooden bowl from the House of the Mouse currently costs about £150 – and they are still in production! Niall.
August 2004: Mr and Mrs CB of Montgomery, Alabama rang to say that they were in Whitby on holiday. We met in Sleights and exchanged memories of Tom Whittaker. They recalled asking him about the gnomes’ facial expressions and he explained that ‘If they were carved on a Monday then they would be frowning, but if they were carved on a Friday, they would be smiling!’ Mr & Mrs CB were unsure if he was joking or not, but it is a lovely idea… They also remembered him saying that he was in bare feet when he learned how to use an adze, but found this hard to believe.
NB: I have, however, read of a Windsor chair maker from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire in the 18th or 19th century, who was nicknamed ‘Johnny No Toes.’ So perhaps bare feet were used to hold the work piece steady on the floor as the sharp metal adze was swung between the feet to take off a shaving just a few millimetres thick from the flat surface – or even a beginner’s toe or two!
I showed them one of my chairs and they noted that ‘my’ gnome had a much longer beard than those on any of their several pieces of furniture. Niall.
July 2004: KB of Cheshire – I have one of the Gnome Man’s refectory 3 plank oak tables. I rescued it from an old barn in Sandbach, Cheshire. It was about to be burned. I have had it professionally restored and use it as an everyday kitchen table. It has the trademark gnome on one end and the Cheshire wheat sheaf on the other. [Photos supplied and will be added here (soon-ish)...].
June 2004: CB of Montgomery, Alabama writes: During my tour of duty at RAF Fylingdales (1961-1964) we were lucky enough to obtain several pieces of furniture from Mr Tom Whittaker, who we considered our very good friend. Those who own any furniture / carvings by Mr Whittaker will very much understand the high regard in which we hold the builder. In addition to the pieces we ordered, we purchased a settle that he made for a person on the continent who offended Tom by saying that he could obtain one like it anywhere. Lucky for us, Tom refused to sell it to him. Pleasant and vivid memories of Tom and of Littlebeck and of all the people that we met in the Whitby area often return to us. [NB: Apologies if additional information was sent, but I think my recent computer virus (late June / early July) may have eaten it. Please resend. Thanks. Niall.
April 2004: BE of Whitby (North Yorkshire) has a front door with a gnome carved in the bottom left hand corner. The door appears to be 1920s/30s style and may pre-date the 1960's bungalow. [Photos supplied, see below].
March 2004: I am delighted to have been contacted by Tom Whittaker’s grand-daughter, who found this website when investigating his work. She has been able to supply me with lots of additional material, including the fact that she spent many childhood holidays staying with her grand-parents in Littlebeck. Her father [Tom Whittaker's son-in-law] worked for her grandfather at Littlebeck and took over the business when Tom Whittaker died, but had to give up the business when he suffered a heart attack. She adds: ‘Granddad was a very intelligent man who had a great love for many things – chess and classical music particularly. The house was constantly filled with music played full blast! I am very proud of the furniture Granddad and Dad made and have many pieces myself.’
February 2004: MK of Lincolnshire recently bought two Gnome Man tables and traced them to Whitby. She and EW have kindly supplied me with details of the Press Cuttings which she obtained from the Whitby Gazette (see below).
Whittaker the Gnomeman of Littlebeck should not be confused with any other furniture maker, eg: Thompson the Mouseman of Kilburn (near Helmsley, North Yorkshire). Thompson’s trademark was a carved mouse chosen, it is said, because he reckoned that the rate of pay for carving church furniture made him ‘as poor as a church mouse.’
Incidentally, the ‘House of the Mouse’ is now a flourishing furniture workshop employing several craftsmen and has a showroom with a visitor centre. Some previous ‘Mousey Thompson’ craftsmen have continued within his business, while a few others have set up independently, so now there are several furniture workshops in the Helmsley area, each with a different trademark.
The website for Robert Thompson’s Craftsmen Limited, the Mouseman of Kilburn, is www.robertthompsons.co.uk
I am grateful to the Whitby Gazette newspaper for sending the following ‘Gnome Man’ press cuttings to MK of Lincolnshire, who kindly forwarded copies to me for this website:
Evening Gazette, 24 July 1957:
The Woodcarver of Littlebeck
If a man write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbour, wrote Emerson, tho’ he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door. Tom Whittaker, the Littlebeck woodcarver, hates writing even a single letter, prefers anecdotes to sermons, and never manufactures mousetraps. He is, nevertheless, a living example of the American philosopher’s words. At his workshop in this remote moorland village near Whitby, a recent week’s callers included an American, a Dutchman and a German.
When I called he was working on a statue replica for a Spanish monastery, a credence cupboard for a church in Massachusetts, and a crucifix for a French grave. Time is unimportant to 47-year old Tom [thus born 1910?], fifth generation of the woodcarving Whittaker family. He began the Spanish statue, now ready for shipment to Valladolid, three years ago. He uses the hand tools of his predecessors, the ecclesiastical craftsmen of the Middle Ages, and, like theirs, his work is primarily a labour of love.
A wealthy American once offered to build him a factory in Seattle, and told him to name his own price. Many other attractive financial propositions have been put to him. They are always refused, for Tom is not interested in money. Talk of it and he will wave a hand at the pile of seasoned oak logs in front of the workshop that he built himself stone by stone in two years. ‘There is my bank’ he says, ‘a woodpile worth £1,100.’
As one might expect, Tom is choosy about wood. He travels all over the country to obtain his raw material, to the Lake District for fine flowered grains, to Norfolk and the Midlands for what he calls ‘the straight stuff.’ It is not unusual for him to inspect hundreds of trees and buy only one log.
For although the woodcarver’s house and workshop are within a stone’s throw of the thousands of oaks in the beautiful wooded valley, none are of value to him. He explains: ‘Where heather grows there is no lime in the soil. Oaks like lime and clay subsoil. The wood I use has to be seasoned for at least seven years. Local timber would rot before it was ready.’
All craftsmen have their sign-manual, and Tom’s is the gnome, a quaint, almost Disney-like figure carved over the entrance to his workshop. It comes from Teutonic folklore, according to which a gnome is born every time an acorn begins to sprout. The gnome grows up with the tree and guards it throughout its life.
From many lands
Under the wooden gnome pass travellers from many lands. Travellers like Father James the English emissary of the Spanish monks of Valladolid, bringing with him the story of the Vulnerata or wounded Virgin. Originally a statue of the Virgin and Child, it is said to have been hacked and mutilated by the cutlasses of Drake’s sailors when they raided the port of Cadiz in 1587. The nose is gone, the arms are truncated like those of the Venus de Milo, and of the Child, only a portion of one foot is left. The statue is bizarre rather than artistic.
Packed by the Rural Industries Bureau, the replica will be on its way to Vallapolid, yet another example of the skill of a 20th century North Yorkshire craftsman.
By Tom Ashworth, Whitby Gazette, 28 February 1964:
MUSKET BALLS IN OAK
Mr Tom Whittaker, the Littlebeck wood carver, has a quantity of oak which contains musket balls fired during the War of the Roses at Marston Moor. There has been reference to this in daily newspapers recently and the news has also appeared in the American Press.
In the New York Times of February 9th the following paragraph appeared: Littlebeck, England. Tom Whittaker a wood carver in this Cheshire [sic] village has found seven lead musket balls embedded in in the centre of six oak trees he bought from Marston Moor, scene of the British Civil War battle of 1644. He has dated the entry of the musket balls by counting, in a cross section, the number of rings put on annually by the trees.
Mr Whittaker received the copy of the cutting from Mr T A Mullett, of 1044 Highland Avenue, Abington, Pennsylvania, who writes: ‘We thought you might be interested in know that news of your activities has been printed in the USA in the New York Times. The clipping and the title block from the issue in which it appeared are enclosed for your scrap book (if you keep one).
‘My wife and I were temporary of Yorkshire during the work at [RAF] Fylingdales and had the pleasure of visiting you on a couple of occasions when we purchased some of your work. The last time we were there we were unable to see you because you were that very day returning your wife from the hospital. We hope you are both well and that those cannon balls didn’t spoil the wood.’
[No author named].
Whitby Gazette, 29 October 1965:
FIRE DESTROYS WORKSHOP – Morning Blaze at Littlebeck
Fire destroyed the workshop belonging to Mr T E Whittaker, the woodcarver, of Littlebeck, early on Monday morning. Mr Whittaker said he was awakened about 1.30 am by a heat explosion in the workshop, and looked from his cottage on the other side of the beck to see the windows of the workshop all aglow. It was a mass of flames in a few minutes. He called Whitby Fire Brigade, who responded promptly, and they were on the scene for nearly five hours.
The roof of the workshop collapsed, the interior was extensively damaged, but firemen saved a small quantity of furniture from a storeroom below the workshop. Mr Whittaker said the shop was completely gutted. ‘We have lost everything in the top storey,’ he said, ‘and not a single tool is left. Everything has completely disappeared.’
A considerable quantity of timber was stored in the workshop. Mr Whittaker said he had been working only about a month following a severe injury to his hand, and he and and his two assistants had been working hard to catch up. Furniture destroyed included a carved lectern for a church in the Midlands, and a statue of the Madonna for a church in Sheffield. Still standing after the blaze was a gnome, Mr Whittaker’s trade sign manual.
[No author named. The accompanying photo of the fire damaged stone walls, with the gnome still on the gable wall, is by Tindale].
Whitby Gazette [?], 27th December 1967
Triumphs of a Master Craftsman – a chiselled beauty at the heart of the oak.
After two years of make do and mend, one of Yorkshire’s master craftsmen is back in business. Tom Whittaker, 57, is once again carving and chiselling well-seasoned English oak at Littlebeck, near Whitby, as secluded a village as you will find anywhere in England.
Soon the Pickford’s van that transports all Mr Whittaker’s work will spiral down the steep hill to take away some of the first pieces made by Mr Whittaker since he returned to his bench – a carved eagle lecture for Canada [photo] and a magnificent court cupboard to go on a national touring exhibition by the Yorkshire Guild of Craftsmen. The making of these pieces represents a tremendous recovery by Mr Whittaker. Two years ago his workshop was burned down, caused, it is believed, by a firework pushed under the door. Mr Whittaker lost all his completed work, all his tools, all his books of design – many of them first editions – and all his scale drawings.
The fight back has been hard. Financial help came from the Rural Industries Bureau and a number of individual well-wishers. A friend at Whitby provided a workbench, still in use. Mr Whittaker obtained new books from dealers in Europe. The replacing of Mr Whittaker’s tools provided the biggest problem. Modern tools are not tempered for continual work on hard oak. The Rural Industries Bureau made nationwide inquiries and eventually found the widow of a master craftsman at Barnstaple who was willing to sell all her husband’s tools in one lot. All 500 of them are now on neatly arrayed in Mr Whittaker’s new workshop.
This was not the first time that Mr Whittaker had been forced to adjust to difficult circumstances. Earlier, he had lost one finger, part of another, and damaged his thumb in a planing machine. Mr Whittaker learned to hold tools with the palm of his hand through the bandages – and now, as you watch him shape the stubborn wood it is hard to realise he has a damaged hand. The first piece he made after coming out of hospital was a carved fruit bowl for the surgeon who operated on his hand.
Mr Whittaker works solely in English Oak to traditional English designs. Most of his work is for schools and churches. A good deal of it goes abroad, a fair proportion to America. He was specially commissioned to make English furniture for a display in Rome during the Olympic games of 1960. The last Bishop of Whitby is among the people who own examples of Mr Whittaker’s work.
Every piece that leaves the workshop carries Mr Whittaker’s personal sign, a gnome – chosen because the gnome is the traditional spirit of the oak tree. Often the gnome is inset and has to be looked for to be seen. The boldest is on a [refectory?] table in Mr Whittaker’s own home. He sheltered under this table with his wife and family during the war. ‘I am certain it would have stood the strain if the house had fallen on it,’ he says with pride.
Mr Whittaker has two men to help him, but he refuses to start a larger operation turning out dozens of virtually identical pieces. About five weeks work goes into almost every one of his pieces. He always has at lease two jobs on his bench at any one time because he does not like to take too much wood off in one go. ‘I like to let the wood settle,’ he says, stroking the tough oak.
Mr Whittaker gets his oak from widely-scattered English counties and from Wales. He says southern trees, which tend to be long and slender, are more suitable for work requiring length and delicacy – like a church screen. Northern oak is best for strength – but not the oak of the North Riding, where the make-up of the soil causes the heart of of many oaks to rot before the tree reaches maturity.
Mr Whittaker is pessimistic about the future of his craft. He foresees the time when English oak will go out of commercial production and the few craftsmen who are left will either have to pack up or use foreign hardwoods – ‘no substitute’ in Mr Whittaker’s view.
Me Whittaker has been at Littlebeck 22 years – arriving from Lancashire after the doctor has advised him to live near the sea for a lung complaint. He has two daughters but no son to hand the business on to. He has offered the business to nephews but they do not want it. ‘I’m afraid a life of rural seclusion spent bashing hard oak just not appeal to today’s generation,’ says Mr Whittaker sadly.
By Harry Mead.
Whitby Gazette [?], 6th February 1970
Vestry Table for New Zealand – ‘Gnome Man’s’ busy days at Littlebeck
Wood carver, Mr Tom Whittaker, of Littlebeck, is visited by tourists from all parts of the world, particularly in the summer months. They admire his work, much of it of an ecclesiastical nature and, from time to time, orders arrive at his workshop from a wide range of foreign countries. A tiny gnome carved on all the pieces he makes is his sign manual.
When a Whitby Gazette reported called on Mr Whittaker on Monday he was assembling a vestry table he has made for a church in Auckland, New Zealand. It was ordered by a New Zealand lady who visited Mr Whittaker’s hillside workshop above the stream running through the tiny hamlet two years ago. It is being shipped to New Zealand in the next few weeks.
Another recent work by Mr Whittaker was a lectern for a church at Pelton, in Durham, the gift of a Canadian. Now Mr Whittaker is seeking the necessary wood for choir stalls in the church for the same Canadian benefactor.
Last September, a further order came from a German visitor to the workshop, a master printer on the staff of Heidelberg University, for the statue of a carved eagle with a reading desk on top. It is required for the University library and the eagle is among the unfinished work now in Mr Whittaker’s studio.
More recently, in fact only a fortnight ago, Mr Whittaker was visited by two Israelis who ordered a seated figure of a gnome 18 inches high resting against an oak tree.
Furniture of varying types, including tables, seats, chairs and dressing tables, are either on display or under construction at the moment in ‘The Gnome Man’s’ workshop. Carvings on their way to completion are the life size eagle for Heidelberg University and a tableau of The Last Supper.
Wood carving is a craft where time counts for little. For instance 150 painstaking hours of work are required to carve the figure of a life-size eagle to Mr Whittaker’s satisfaction.
None of the oak he uses is less than 300 years old, and he has just replenished his stocks by buying 16 oak trees from the Duke of Rutland’s estate at Beauvais Castle.
Cut into planks for him on the estate they are now stacked with many others on the grassy slopes outside his Austrian chalet style workshop in the valley. Years will pass before they are mature and seasoned well enough to feel the keen blades of Mr Whittaker’s chisels.
[No author named].
Whitby Gazette [?], no date.
North Riding scene carved for American university professor
A plaque depicting the rural scene in the North Riding has been made by Littlebeck woodcarver Mr Tom Whittaker for an American professor who visited his workshop when he was in this country some time ago. It is in oak 300 years old which has stood seasoning outside Mr Whittaker’s Alpine style workshops overlooking the stream flowing through the hamlet for the last eight years.
The plaque, for Professor D Tesar, of Florida, will go in one of the campus buildings at his university. Mr Whittaker said this week: ‘When he visited the Whitby district Professor Tesar was very impressed by its beauty. He described the Littlebeck area as more like a glorious park than mere countryside.’
Hills and Moors
Five feet long, the plaque’s carving depicts the traditional architecture of the North Riding, its hills and moors. Sheep rearing is shown, a stream winds down the centre, the dry stone walls of the hill farms are clearly etched, as is the local forestry, and the church in the village scene has been based by Mr Whittaker on Goathland Parish Church. A farm cart is one of the many other features.
‘Professor Tesar asked me to illustrate our local countryside to the best of my ability in this carving,’ said Mr Whittaker. At Professor Tesar’s request Mr Whittaker has also carved a head of Sir Thomas More for him, and this will soon be packed and dispatched along with the plaque.
The plaque and head of Sir Thomas More represent only a fraction of the work in which Mr Whittaker is at present engaged. Standing in his workshop is a finished eagle with a three feet wing span which will form a lectern in some church. A similar carving by Mr Whittaker is already in the library of Heidelberg University in West Germany.
A partly finished carving is of The Last Supper in heavy bas relief and this eventually may find its way into some church. Mr Whittaker is also working on a Madonna and Child in Italian style. He will also be starting soon on an effigy of St Luke, the Physician, which will go in a church at Morley, near Leeds, in memory of a doctor.
Some time ago a television unit spent two days at Littlebeck making a colour film of Mr Whittaker’s life and work. They shot a thousand feet of film but a date for showing the feature has still to be announced.
Mr Whittaker, who has created a basement exhibition room to show off some of his finest work to visitors, particularly statuettes illuminated in glass cases let into the walls, does not ignore the wild life which finds a haven in the winter peace of Littlebeck.
A heron can often be seen fishing for fingerling trout in the stream which runs through the hamlet, a stone’s throw from the workshops, and Mr Whittaker has captured its statuesqueness in an exquisite lifelike carving. It is only one of many fine studies into which hours of work, following an equal number of patient hours of observation, have gone.
[No author named].
Whitby Gazette [?], 6th July 1979
Ballet of Beasts – Dancer inspired by Littlebeck woodcarvings
A set of 10 Queen’s Beasts, carved in English oak by Mr Tom Whittaker, the ‘Gnome Man of Littlebeck’, impressed dancer and choreographer Miss Judy Gridley so much that she has chosen them as the subject of a ballet.
Miss Gridley, whose family own the Raven Hall Hotel [at Ravenscar, North Yorkshire], was among the first people to see the carvings, the originals of which were placed by Cardinal Wolsey on the main entrance to Hampton Court.
Having obtained an Arts Council grant and being commissioned to produce a ballet on a subject of her own choice Miss Gridley, who is 33, gained inspiration from Mr Whittaker’s carvings and chose as her subject ‘The Queen’s Beasts.’
Each beast represents one of the great dynasties – the Yale of Beaufort, the Bull of Clarence, the Unicorn of Scotland, the Dragon of Wales, the Royal Lion of England, the Griffin of Edward III, the Greyhound of Richmond, the White Horse of Hanover, the Falcon of the Plantagenets and the White Lion of Mortimer.
The ballet will be executed by the Dance and Drama Theatre Group, mainly for schools and colleges. It will be in several instalments, the first being ‘The Lion and the Unicorn.’
Miss Gridley played Judy Turner in ‘Chorus Line’ at Drury Lane for more than two years but continued with her television work, appearing on children’s programmes and educational programmes.
[No author named. The two photographs are captioned: 'The carvings at the workshop in Littlebeck' and 'Judy Gridley as she appeared in 'Chorus Line' at Drury Lane.' No photographer named].