A long-lost wheel found

Not long ago Shan received an enquiry through the NZ Spinning Wheels Info website from Ann Knight in the South Island, about a wheel she had just bought. The only history that came with it was that the seller’s mother-in-law had bought it over 40 years ago. None of the members of Ann’s spinning group had any idea of its identity.

After looking at some photographs, including this one, Shan searched for a maker with the initials GM which are on it in two places. (This and the other photographs can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

She found just one GM in our lists: George William (Bill) Madigan. This wheel isn’t like his usual little wheels, but could it be the ‘aluminium wheel which we have not located’? There were some metal parts.

Just look at those graceful curves!

We started looking for more clues. Madigan’s lovely little folding wheels are very different. They have a tension system like Philip Poore’s Wendy and Ivan McGreevy’s Fleur, with a metal rod that screws to tilt the attachment of the flyer, thus making the driveband tension tighter or looser.

But there is a certain love of curves visible in these wheels – most makers streamline their production by making the parts of the wheel straight where possible. Not Bill Madigan! Here is a back view of a different example –

A more specific similarity is the join between the treadle and the conrod/footman:

We already know of one Madigan wheel made with some metal. When Lyndsay Fenwick (whom we have to thank for much of the original content of the nzspinningwheelsinfo website) visited him and his daughter in Auckland in 2007, she saw and photographed another of his wheels which looks as though it could be transitional between our new-found wheel and the little folding Madigans we are accustomed to.

It’s a bit bigger than his regular wheels, with a similar rod to adjust tension, though it doesn’t fold. But look at the metal flyer and ’maidens’ (‘flyer frame’ will be a better term):

Compare the new-found wheel (now spinning – more about that in a minute) –

Like all Madigan’s wheels, it’s double drive. The tension is adjusted by a knob (green arrow in the back view below) which screws to tighten or loosen a rather solid spring (blue arrow). This can pivot the flyer frame on a rod (one end of it is marked with a pink arrow) adjusting the distance of the flyer from the drivewheel.

The wheel isn’t particularly heavy, unlike most wheels with a lot of metal unless the metal is aluminium. Ann and her husband Paul investigated the drive wheel, and identified it as definitely aluminium, under its three coats of paint (first a light mustard/yellow, then black and now the beige colour).

We are comfortable with the identification of this spinning wheel as the missing ‘aluminium wheel’.

Like so many of the best spinning wheel makers, Madigan had an engineering background, and he was also (like his wife) a spinner. On retirement from his career working on milking machines, he started with wheels by following a plan called ‘The Wheel that Won the West’ – it was probably the same plan that Ron Shearman began with, from Popular Mechanics March 1966. Here is Ron’s first wheel.

(I find it hard to imagine that such a fancy, fiddly little thing would have survived a bumpy trip across the wilds of North America  in a covered wagon!)

Madigan’s ‘aluminium wheel’ was probably the first one he designed himself. It’s a very original design, solidly constructed but graceful, drawing on his experience with metal machinery. When Ann acquired it, it needed quite a lot of work, but she and Paul were able to figure out what was required. The heavy tension spring, for example, was very stiff, but responded to spraying and soaking with CRC. Now Ann and her new old wheel are doing some very nice spinning.

Bill Madigan would have been delighted. Lyndsay recalls her visit to him – ‘He was so proud of his wheels and he was really keen to tell me his story … He was also very fussy about the way I took his photo!’

We hope he would be happy with this. Sadly, he died shortly after Lyndsay’s visit, but his wheels live on and are still much loved.

3 thoughts on “A long-lost wheel found

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