THE Mouseman of Kilburn was a master craftsman who made furniture out

of oak and every piece bore his personal signature -- a tiny carved

mouse. His name was Robert Thompson and he was born in 1876, a member of

a family of carpenters and wheelwrights in the Yorkshire village of

Kilburn, that stands beneath a hill on which a huge white horse is


Though initially apprenticed as an engineer, he returned home in his

twenties to work with his father making wheels and gates, but he was

greatly admiring of the Ripon School of Medieval Woodcarvers, whose

carvings can still be seen in Ripon Cathedral, and wanted to produce

work of equal quality. He read about the old craftsmen's methods and

started experimenting with an obsolete tool, the adze, which they had


After the First World War he was commissioned to make war memorials

and one of them, a massive carved oak cross, caught the eye of a

visiting cleric from Ampleforth College, who became Thompson's first

patron for the carved furniture which was to make his name. He made many

pieces for Ampleforth, including refurbishing the school library, and

that brought his work to the notice of connoisseurs throughout the


It was at this time that he started carving a mouse on his handiwork,

and the story goes that a fellow carpenter remarked they were as poor as

church mice, whereupon Thompson carved the mouse that became his

signature and that of the men who worked with him. It is still used

today on furniture and ornaments made at his old workshoprun by his two

great grandsons. A visit to the Mouseman Centre is a trip back into the

past. The main workshop smells of freshly cut oak and beeswax and the

men work in traditional methods, using chisels and the adze, eschewing

things like nails and adhesives. They work only in English oak .

Every piece of furniture produced by Robert Thompson's Craftsmen Ltd,

as they are now known, is completely handmade . Chairs are seated and

covered with real cowhide; handles and hinges are still forged by a

local blacksmith; and every piece has a mouse carved on it somewhere.

Today there are about 18 craftsmen employed in the workshop, and each

of them has his individual way of making a mouse, so that specialists

are able to tell them apart. There is no fixed period of apprenticeship,

but by tradition a man is reckoned to have served his time when his

mouse is judged good enough to satisfy his employers.

Mouseman carvings and furniture can be found in churches and private

homes through this country and abroad.

In the Roman Catholic Church of St Edward on Canna, there is an

adze-carved oak communion table; in Crichton Church, Pathhead, near

Edinburgh, a Mouseman font; in Fort Augustus Abbey a screen; in the

Church of St John the Evangelist in Moffat an altar, and in St Ninian's

Church, Troon, there are two Mouseman pieces -- a bishop's chair and a

cupboard -- both showing bold adzed work.

Usually the pieces are cherished for their quality and rarity but in

the Church of St Mary in Wharfedale, a mouse carved on an altar rail was

removed after a lady parishioner who knelt near it complained it

frightened her. The mark of where it once was, however, still shows.

By the time Robert Thompson died in 1955, the style of his pieces was

well-established, and has not changed . There is still a huge demand and

it is made for a wide circle of patrons, ranging from specialist

collectors to members of the royal family. Because it is so

painstakingly made, it is not cheap -- a four-foot-wide wardrobe can

cost around #2700; a dressing table about #2500 and its stool just under


Tourists who visit Kilburn in the summer to see the workshops can buy

lesser priced items like a nut bowl or a cheeseboard (with mouse, of

course) for about #30.

Robert Thompson's Mouseman Centre is worth a visit because the old

man's original workshop has been lovingly restored. It still smells of

woodchips, his tools lie on the bench, and his collection of medieval

carvings is propped along the beams.

Opening hours are 10am till 5pm daily, Easter to October, and there is

a small charge for admission. Kilburn lies just off the A170 Thirsk to

Scarborough Road and the Mouseman Visitor Centre is in the middle of the

village. The telephone number is 01347 868222.

* SOMETHING to look forward to is the sale, on June 15, by Phillips in

London, of a selection of cookery books belonging to the late Fanny

Craddock. The auctioneers will have high hopes for the books because

last year they sold the fairly unremarkable contents of the kitchen of

another famous cook, Elizabeth David, for astonishing prices -- wooden

spoons fetching sums normally paid for silver ones.

Though not held in the same reverence and respect as Elizabeth David,

Fanny Craddock's books will attract buyers because she was in the habit

of scrawling caustic comments like ''fiddle faddle'' in their margins.

American interest is not expected because of an American book she wrote:

''Not America -- the master ruiners of food.''