Photographs: Charles Francis
May 2012: When spring sun and rain bring lush, rampant growth back to hibernating gardens, many a novice gardener is tempted to splash out on a set of shiny new tools. But old hands know that old tools are better. After a bit of a spring clean, a rusty rake and a shabby pair of shears can be as good as they ever were. “Tried by time, but not worn out,” is how Katie Penna describes these survivors of springtimes of the past.
Katie has collected horticultural implements since she bought her first house, more than 10 years ago, and found herself with a garden to tame, but no tools and very little money. “It started with a fork and spade I bought from a car boot sale, and it snowballed from there,” she says. She soon discovered that tools from other times have character in spades — something which their modern counterparts often sadly lack — and were made with much more care and skill.
Katie was a single girl working as a Penwith District Council conservation officer when she started her collection. Her life has changed since then: she now lives with her husband Charlie at South Tresamble, his family farm at Gwennap, near Redruth, and is mother to two-year-old Thomas.
Searching for work she could combine with caring for Thomas, she thought about her garden tools — by now filling a garage — and decided to find out if anyone else shared her interest in them. “I did a couple of flea markets, and then had a stall at Liskeard Show,” she says. “I got such good feedback that I decided to turn it into a business.”
She set up Tresamble Trading a year ago, and now sells online and at events around Cornwall. “I get the tools anywhere I can find them — mostly at auctions, house clearances, and junk shops. It’s whatever catches my eye,” she explains.
“Often, they’re very rusty. Very rarely are they in a condition where you can sell them. Sometimes a handle needs repairing. If it has to be replaced, I find another tool where the head is no good, but the handle is. If tools don’t require repair, I just clean and polish them lightly, so I don’t clean off the character.”
Most of the tools are at least 40 years old, but many are much older, says Katie. “I did have a few from the late 18th century, but they go really quickly. More often, I find Victorian ones, when the first big boom in gardening came.
“By the early 60s, it had become cheaper to mass produce things abroad. Everything is now exactly the same: people love small forks with twisted tines, because you can’t find those anymore. When people buy an old fork or spade from me, they sometimes say they’ve got a modern one, and it just doesn’t have the same quality. It’s the same with secateurs — but I get the old ones sharpened, and they’re ready to go.
“The hand tools — small forks, trowels — go down best, but I also sell a lot of rakes, hoes, cultivators and shears. Watering cans sell well, particularly if they’ve got the original rose. People also buy chimney pots and old tin baths, and plant them up. It’s great that the things I sell are going to be used again.”
When Katie cannot identify a tool, she often looks it up in a catalogue produced in the 1870s by Edward Elwell Ltd, a West Midlands manufacturing company. “It always fascinates me to see the variety of styles of the same tool which Elwells sold,” she says. “It’s one of the names I look out for when I’m buying tools, because I know it will be good quality.
”As well as the catalogue, I’ve also picked up a few old gardening books. I try and focus on the garden things, but I do sell traditional other traditional craft and country tools. I also offer fixtures and fittings, like door handles, hooks and brackets.”
There are other antique garden tool traders around, but most are considerably older than Katie – and most are male, and don’t dress up each tool with decorative bows and pictorial price labels. “I use old pieces of ribbon, and raid the family supply of birthday cards,” she says. “So everything is recycled — not just the tools.”