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Monday, 26 September 2016

In search of an extraordinary man, J Munro, Cabinetmaker & Minister

I recently acquired a beautifully proportioned Scottish pattern infill smoothing plane at a David Stanley auction. I wasn't intending to buy it, but when the lot came up my hand seemed to develop a life of its own, at one stage I even tried to bid against myself - much to the amusement of the auctioneer and my fellow bidders. This one chose me - not the other way around.

The body is gunmetal with a steel sole sweated on, overstuffed with mahogany, and stamped on both infills with the name J Munro. Planes of this type would originally have been sold as a body and the infills completed by the craftsman. The pleasing proportions and elegant curves of the infills on this one are perfect to my eye, full and well balanced it just looks 'right'.

The stamps on the rear infill are unusual, tight against the sides of the tote such that they would have been very difficult to strike squarely after the tote (handle) was fitted. This and the fact that there are no other names on it, suggest that this is the mark of the man who originally stuffed the plane.

Out of interest I googled 'J Munro cabinetmaker' and scrolling past the references for J Munro-Bell (who wrote the book on Thomas Sheraton) came across a John Munro junior in the records of cases decided by the Scottish Supreme Court 7th July 1837. The date is about right for this type of plane, so we may be on the right track, but how the blue blazes did a simple dispute over an indenture of apprenticeship end up getting all the way to the supreme court?

19th century Scottish legalese is far from easy reading, but from what I can ascertain, our man was apprenticed to John Clark of Inverness. Munro left before his apprenticeship was complete and set up on his own and both he and his father were duly sued by Clark for 'horning' or reneiging on the terms of his indenture. The Munro's countered that Mr Clark had "deserted his work without leaving any one to teach his apprentices their trade, as he was bound to do" furthermore they asserted that that Clark "repeatedly assaulted and ill used" Munro Jnr and that he did not provide his apprentices with proper board.

Clark pursued the Munro's all the way to the supreme court, whose four judges unanimously upheld the decision of the Lord Ordinary in favour of the Munro's, that they had caution (pronounced Kayshun, meaning protection) in the terms of the original indenture of apprenticeship.
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I also found a later reference to a Scottish cabinetmaker named John Munro in a history of Clan MacIvor, who having trained as a cabinetmaker in Scotland, emigrated to New York and continued his trade there. On a visit back to Scotland he found God and was encouraged by friends to join the ministry, he struggled with the decision but...

"He went back to New York intending to work at his trade; but, as he told it himself, he never unpacked his tools, but returned to Scotland, entered college and began preparing for the ministry."

After a spell in Edinburgh where he met his wife to be, a homeopath, Munro emigrated to Nova Scotia in 1848, was instrumental in the construction of no less than four churches, Rev John Munro and his wife lie alongside each other beside one of the churches that he founded and ministered in for 28 years before his death in 1877.

Whether these two tales are of the same man, and whether it is the same man who made such a beautiful job of stuffing this infill plane I will probably never know. But the thought that it might have been made and owned by a gentle and principled man who wasn't afraid to stand up for his beliefs makes it that bit more special to me.

If anyone has any further information about John Munro I would be very glad to receive it.
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  1. The Munro clan is big, and known for being warriors and clergy, so the haystack is going to be large.

    Derek Long, of the American Munros thanks to Charles II.

  2. Thanks Derek,

    It is indeed, and fair peppered with cabinetmakers too as I am discovering. However, I could only find these two references to 18th century cabinetmakers by the name of J Munro, they may even be one and the same person - the dates fit together rather well.

    I doubt I'll ever find out out if the man is linked to the plane, but if I can find anything to link Rev Munro with John Clark I'll be delighted.