‘Longest running shop on Shambles’ closes down after 67 years

It was the year British Railways were formed, Warner Brothers showed the first colour newsreel and the National Health Service began.

But for two men in York, 1948 was special for a different reason. This was the year they opened a furniture workshop at number 2 Shambles: Greenwood And Freeborn.

It has been trading ever since, for most of its life as EJ Freeborn & Son. But the shop and furniture workshop closed its doors for the final time on Tuesday (July 14).

John Freeborn at work in the Shambles' workshop, in a picture from the company website
John Freeborn at work in the Shambles’ workshop, in a picture from the company website

John Freeborn, son of the original owner Ernest, was apprenticed into the business in 1969.

He believes the shop was the longest continuous business still operating on Shambles.

John said:

I am very proud of what I do. I’ve always enjoyed it and I’m very sad to leave.

While he made the furniture and wooden gifts in the wood workshop at the back of the medieval building, his wife sold them in the street-facing shop.

The craftsmanship is clear in this cherry storage unit made by John
The craftsmanship is clear in this cherry storage unit made by John
Cats on a sofa
EJ Freeborn – miniature guitar

They also sold wooden souvenirs in the shop like this guitar and the cats on the sofa. Click to see a bigger image

One of his most memorable moments was making a wooden box of chocolates for the Queen on one of her York visits.

The company thrived for a long time when “access was no problem, and everyone bought lovely, homemade furniture,” said John.

But then “along came imports, and subsequently brown furniture started to become less and less popular”.

The good news is, it’s not the end of the road. John, 62, whose children have not followed him into the business, said:

We will be opening a workshop just outside of the city, where we will continue to do the aspect of the business we love most – making and repairing high quality wood work.

He is still searching for the ideal premises. Meanwhile you can still get in touch via the website.

Fudge shop to follow

John told YorkMix that the shop is being taken over by Roly’s Fudge.

Launched in Devon in 1987, Roly’s Fudge now has more than 20 shops across Britain.

The shops use traditional recipes to make fudge every day, handmade in full view for customers to see.

The history of EJ Freeborn & Son

Greenwood And Freeborn, before John Greenwood left in 1951
Greenwood And Freeborn, before John Greenwood left in 1951

As a young man Ernest Freeborn was apprenticed to renowned Worcestershire furniture maker Gordon Russell.

Ernest joined the RAF in 1935 as a ground technician on Oxfords and Mosquitoes.

After the war he joined with another furniture maker John Greenwood to open the business on Shambles, York.

Those early years were challenging as the Board Of Trade limited the amount of timber that could be used by craftsmen.

John Greenwood emigrated to Australia in 1951, and Ernest – known to most as Fred – become sole proprietor.

John Freeborn joined the business as an apprentice in 1969.

In Van Wilson’s book Butchers, Bakers And Candlestick Makers: The Shambles And Colliergate (published by York Archaeological Trust in 2014), he said:

From then on it was a family business. We were established by the time the ban was lifted.

We made furniture to customers’ requirements, modern or repro in the workshop behind the front shop.

Also carving, including panels in the Minster.

The shop, with its distinctive ‘Craftsmen In Wood’ sign, in 1957. Photograph: Explore York Library & Archives
The shop, with its distinctive ‘Craftsmen In Wood’ sign, in 1957. Photograph: Explore York Library & Archives

An old advert featuring the trademark squirrel
An old advert featuring the trademark squirrel
They restored antiques, made memorials for West Yorkshire regiments and did a lot of work for churches. Everything hand made has their squirrel trademark carved into the wood.

The business even created a scale model of Big Ben for a Polish watchmaker in King’s Square.

Customers came from all over the world. In the book John recalled the glory business days when the staff of six were kept very busy.

There was plenty of work to do and no competition… The stairwell at the back of the shop led to a pub beneath.

The council did the place up with nothing but joists and cats and cobwebs at first.

Ernest Freeborn, who was a leading figure in the York Scouting movement as well as a master cabinet maker, died in 2010 aged 97.