In the Museum of Cambridge (formerly the Folk Museum) not far from Murray Edwards College (formerly New Hall) but somewhat north of John Lewis (formerly Robert Sayle) there is a bizarre object donated in 1925 by Thomas Okey (1852–1935), first Serena Professor of Italian in the University of Cambridge but formerly a basket-maker of Spitalfields in the East End of London.
The object in question (which Okey had made himself) is a wickerwork bed-bug trap, presented by him in 1925. He states: ‘I believe that I, having as a young man, nearly 60 years ago, worked as a basket maker at Spitalfields, am the sole survivor of the journeyman basket makers who made for sale the bug-traps in wicker used by our grandfathers and grandmothers.’
The ODNB provides some details about the unlikely progress from thirteen-year-old apprentice to doyen of Italian studies in Britain. Okey was born at 16 Quaker Street, Spitalfields. Lying between Brick Lane and Great Eastern Street, it was described by Charles Booth in 1898 as ‘Rough, Irish. Brothels on the south side of the street past the Court called New Square. Also a Salvation Army “Lighthouse” which encourages the disreputable to come this way…’ (I owe this information to the Gentle Author: see more from him on Charles Booth here.)
Okey’s father, also Thomas, was a basket-maker, and young Thomas followed him into the trade, but he was a also a passionate autodidact, studying languages as he ate his breakfast before starting work at 6 a.m., and attending classes in the evening. Like so many in the late nineteenth-century East End, he benefited from the educational opportunities at Toynbee Hall.
He organised trips to Italy for adult language learners, and eventually the baskets gave way somewhat to teaching in adult education, and the publication of translations from Italian and books on Italy and France, including a contribution to Lord Acton’s Cambridge Modern History.
However, Okey did not abandon basketry: he was a member the Art Workers’ Guild (founded in 1884), and was made its Master in 1914 (William Morris had been Master in 1892, in spite of his ‘extreme’ politics). This striking portrait by Sir George Clausen marks his year of office. He was also a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Basket-Makers.
During the First World War, Okey worked for the Foreign Office, and in 1919 was apparently surprised to be offered the first Serena chair at Cambridge, and a fellowship at Gonville and Caius College. (Apart from his Cambridge posts, his only academic accolade was an honorary doctorate from the university of Padua in 1922.)
A childless widower when he took up the Cambridge chair, Okey seems to have fitted in happily, his lectures on Dante being especially well received. When he retired through ill-health, he started basket-making again, giving waste-paper baskets to friends, though lamenting his declining skill in his old age. (Incidentally, in his authoritative 1912 book, An Introduction to the Art of Basket-Making, he regards the art as appropriate to men only: women don’t have strong enough hands.) In 1930, he published an autobiography, A Basketful of Memories, which is clearly another book for the reading list.
But, returning from the man to his art, how does a wickerwork bed-bug trap function? Luckily, the online resource ‘Cornucopia’ lists it among the treasures of the museum, with the note: ‘This ingenious wicker-work trap was used to catch bed bugs which infested beds in the past. It would be placed behind the pillow, encouraging the bugs to crawl inside. Before you went to sleep, your maid [!!??] would remove the trap, take it outside and shake.’
Since bed-bugs are apparently on the rise again, perhaps this simple device should be revived, rather than developing elaborate chemical solutions to the problem – that is, of course, assuming that it works!
P.S. I’ve just found this drawing of the component parts of a basket in the entry on ‘Basket’ in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911): it was written, and the exemplary basket supplied, by Okey.