Sometimes an idea evolves that is so brilliantly simple but worthwhile, you hope it spreads everywhere for everyone. Such an idea is the men’s shed movement, where men are encouraged gather together in ‘sheds’ to make things and socialise. The movement is now international, but the seed was sown in Australia in the 1980s by a nurse called Maxine Chaseling. When young she had several experiences that led her to realise that there was a need for a place for men to be together and work on projects.
Noticing a need
Born in 1955 near Adelaide, Maxine grew up in a world where men did not really talk. Her grandad was a good example. After his death she was shocked to learn that he’d been shot four times while serving in the first World War, each time being quickly returned to the trenches. Maxine guessed he’d been in pain from his injuries, but also that he likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He’d witnessed dreadful scenes, but never talked about it to the day he died. He was expected to get on with life.
Maxine was struck by this. She also saw how her own father became quiet and depressed when, following a heart attack, he was unable to work again; he only seemed happy working in his shed.
It wasn’t just her own family. After qualifying as a nurse, Maxine worked with older people in the community and noticed how people’s physical health suffered if they were isolated or lacked purpose. It prompted her to start a social club whose members – all women – thrived in the sessions, while the husbands who’d brought them sat alone in cars outside. Later, when she had to set up a taxi service for women because their husbands were dying, she realised the men weren’t living as long as their wives.
She was also aware that every time the local automotive factory closed for a month or two, the crime rate increased; and when the local milk factory closed down permanently, many dairy farmers became depressed.
She joined all these dots and realised that if men lost their purpose, they lost much more. This idea is echoed by comedian Billy Connolly in the video below, of a visit to a Scottish men’s shed. He noted that the shipyard workers often only lived for about 18 months after retirement.
The first shed
Maxine wanted to help the men in her community, and knew that if ‘you increase wealth, you improve health’, but she couldn’t create jobs or eradicate poverty. She needed to be creative.
Her solution to encourage men to come in the door, was to set up a shed for them. Its aims were to give them a purpose, to mentor younger men, to socialise and crucially, to improve mental health outcomes. She didn’t know exactly what it should involve at first, but knew it had to get men to be with others and do something they felt was useful. It had be run by them, using their own ideas for fundraising to buy tools and deciding what to make.
She found premises and put an old ex-carpenter in charge. He encouraged others in: soon dozens of retired men came regularly to learn to craft. Members passed on skills they’d built up over a lifetime of work. Those who had worries began talking to others, and started to access health services nearby. She noticed improvements not only in mental, but also physical health.
Sheds come to the UK
A good idea usually spreads and in the early years of this century sheds started to spring up in Britain. When the Men’s Shed Association was founded in 2013 there were just 30; now there are over 600, with hundreds more planned. There are dozens in East Anglia; Essex alone already has over 30.
In Essex, Sarah Troop of Maldon & District Voluntary Services and Clive Emmet of Uttlesford Community Action Network oversaw the Essex Shed Network’s development in 2016. They received a grant from the National Lottery Community Fund to support people setting up sheds, and to help existing ones thrive.
Searching for premises
It’s impressive how successful it’s been already. I asked Gary Nicholas, the network’s communications and support officer, about how new groups get going. He says more towns want to start one but finding premises can be challenging. In rural areas it’s easier – some sheds are unused farm buildings, like Audley End and Boxted. Great Yeldham’s is two containers bolted together. Some towns have supportive councils or local charities that help. Places vary greatly in type and size, but it’s important that the members kit them out according to their own wishes.
Most groups are productive. Dedham Vale shed has made bird boxes for swifts, and another has helped local allotment holders to erect their new shed. Many make items to sell so they can be self-sufficient.
I had the opportunity to visit Billlericay Shed, and the feeling of goodwill was palpable as soon as I walked in. The group operates in a large room attached to a pavilion in the town’s Lake Meadows park. There were about eight regulars there, some chatting over coffee, others working on some beautiful wood that had been donated from a house refurbishment. The thing about the main activity of most groups – carpentry – is that wood is so rewarding to work with, and responds well to individual carpenters.
One of the trustees, Kim Barford, started a dementia-friendly group in a village hall in 2019. They stopped during lockdown, but there was a jump forward in 2021 when Basildon Council agreed they could use the pavilion storeroom. Barry Howe, the leader, says they’ve had great support from the council who see the benefits for older men. They are also grateful for help from the Rotary Club in insulating it and fitting it out, and grants from Essex Mind, the Lions Club and the Bowls Club.
In 2021 the club launched. They’ve now grown to 35 members, holding three sessions a week: coffee and chat, practical woodworking and a dementia-friendly group. There’s talk of a women’s group. With all this, they’re hoping for larger premises in the future.
Their work has end-products: Christmas trees and wooden animals were crafted to sell at fundraising fairs, and they’ve made bird boxes and a bug hotel for a school. By the door is a homemade peg rack with prosecco corks to hang your coat on. Those with woodworking expertise like Chris and Barry generously train others to use tools like the lathe, which was donated by the Essex Shed Network.
Retirements are getting longer as men now live to 84 on average. Many people look forward to retirement as a time to explore their creative talents, possibly in their own shed. However, as one ‘shedder’ explains in this excellent video (right), after a couple of months of working at the bottom of his garden, he felt lonely, having lost his workplace camaraderie.
There is research showing the extraordinary benefits of sheds. Some 99.5% of men say they feel better about themselves, 97% that they have a place where they belong and can give back to the community. Nearly 80% say they can access men’s health information. However, the anecdotal stories in the video (right) are the real proof of the pudding, showing genuine enjoyment and fulfilment.
Older men who’ve led busy working lives are a huge, untapped reservoir of skills. They want to remain productive and valued members of their communities, and men’s sheds seem an ideal way they can achieve this.