A BRIEF HISTORY OF RECTORY COTTAGE AND THE GARDEN ORNAMENT BUSINESS IN ESSEX, IF YOU CAME ON THIS BY ACCIDENT YOU MAY WANT TO SKIP THIS SO CLICK BELOW.
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Before my mother and father moved into Rectory Cottage in the early 60`s, it had been owned by Arthur and Celia Smith, Arthur was the station master at Rochford train station, apparently he kept the garden immaculate and we assumed it had been a small holding at some time because of the various outbuildings and a large greenhouse, a relative of the couple kindly brought in some old photographs, one shown above of Arthur.
We moved in during the winter of 1962, my mum and dad, Ken and Gladys had a small firm making baskets, prior to that he had been in scrap metal and demolition, the main business though was supplying the farms in Linconshire with potato picking baskets made from cane, potatoes were all picked by hand then, alongside that they made baskets for home delivery men, dog and cat baskets, hampers, skeps etc. in willow and cane, the potato baskets they made had a plastic bottom in that didn`t bruise or cut the potatoes, Dad had designed it and it made them a great seller, plastic was in it`s infancy then, all the others had galvanised mesh bottoms.
During the late 60`s they couldn`t get any cane, the type they used was imported from Indonesia, potato picking machines also came along and ruined that side of the business so they concentrated on the willow items, in those days garden centres were unheard of but nurseries and hardware shops stocked small planters for indoor plants so they made those plus the animal baskets etc.
The front garden of Rectory Cottage was full of Dahalia plants when we moved in and Dad cut and sold them out the front from tin buckets of water and people used to put the coins in the water to buy them.
The delivery vehicles they used in those days were mainly Vauxhall
Victor Estates and borrowed lorries from Keith and Margaret Clarke at the foam factory in Southend until he bought his first Toyota Crown Custom Estate about 1975. We still use Toyota`s today.
Dad soon realised he could carry the baskets on the top of the garden ornaments that his friend made and fibreglass ponds on the roof rack from another friend, the sight of his laden estate car was a sight to see and i don`t think it would be allowed today.
Nurseries were starting to become very popular and were turning into Garden Centres, my parents really worked hard to keep up with demand for all of these items especially the ornaments, so much so his friend had enough of it and dad bought the moulds from him, by this time imports of baskets from the far east had more or less finished that side of the business so from then on they were concrete ornament makers.
Balustrade and screen walling became very popular, people were going to Italy, Greece and Spain on package holidays and wanted to recreate the mediteranian styles over here.
I had turned 16 and left school as soon as i could with no qualifications, i hated it, instead of joining the firm i started to work for Costins of Westcliff, the local Honda motorcycle dealer, i had been working for them in my school holidays for ages and had a passion for motorcycles, we sold Honda bikes, Daf cars and Reliants, these were boom years for them too and at 17 i came second as Honda mechanic of the year, the youngest ever, some of the best days of my life were had, i was being paid to ride the latest bikes, i never told them...i`d have done it for nothing.
I still enjoy motorcycles and still own a couple.
Margaret was a machinist, working for a local clothing firm.
By the time i turned 21 Margaret and i had been together for several years and we had been helping with the garden ornaments in our spare time.
Motorcycle sales were starting to wain so we joined mum and dad full time, as employees.
Margaret, my dad Ken and "the boys" must have made hundreds of miles of dry mix Balustrade walling and tubs between them, all hand rammed into moulds with various sticks and thumpers.
I was on the poured wet mix side making the statues, tubs, fountains, etc etc.
In all this i can`t forget to mention mum, Gladys, she worked hard in the yard in the early days, once things took off she did all of the admin, and we still use the same good accountants, it`s the kind of thing that gets forgotten but is very important to run a successfull business, she was very much in the background during the latter years, but never stopped running the place.
In the late 80`s K & GA Hedley were using around 15 tons of sand and 6 tons of white cement a week during the summer, on Fridays they would have builders merchants, market people and garden centre vans and lorries queueing to come in for loading, they didn`t have to deliver anything, people found them, they often ran out of stock on Saturday mornings and having to turn traders away.
These items really put K & GA Hedley on the map, the demand was so high you would have needed an army of men to keep up, mum and dad employed several people and were keen supporters of the YTS scheme, we all worked 7 day weeks rain or shine, lots of people jumped on the bandwagon making concrete in garden sheds and selling on markets, boot fairs etc.
It was all hand made, by this time they were all on a high, we were taking holidays abroad and to the USA with Laker airlines, most of the small nursery men now had booming Garden Centres and properties abroad, several of them owned Rolls Royce`s ( my dad included ) , Daimlers and top German cars, these were boom years for all of them, mould makers, mixes and finishes were closely kept secrets, it seemed like everyone wanted a go, copying, jealousy and back stabbing was rife, a bit like the gold rush, people from all walks of life were making serious money, it didn`t matter how clever you were, anyone could do it by hard graft.
A friend of ours who was also in the business said to me the other day....
"It`s hard to imagine the amounts of money that went over the threshold of these businesses..... when we are gone it will all be forgotten about".
Right through the 70`s and into the late 90`s, the money seemed to pour in, lots frittered the money away or listened to dodgy "financial advisors", some were astute and sold out to the big garden centre groups for loads of money, lots thought it would never end, we stayed here with no big ideas, in our accountants words "small is beautiful", getting and keeping staff was a nightmare, a few of the K & GA Hedley staff now work for large companies doing other things and hopefully they learnt good work ethics from the time that they spent here.
I could count on the back of my hand now how many are left in the business from those days.
Around the year 2000 onwards the trade has declined massively, it`s been like trying to sell Artex ceilings, maybe it went out of fashion, gardens became more "trendy", people, especially youngsters have other things to spend money on.....who knows ?
Not long after that K & GA Hedley ceased trading.
Margaret and I had already got fed up with working for Mum and Dad and set up Period Stone around 1999.
We manufactured from home in our garage and outbuildings, we had a wholesale round of our own supplying Garden And Antique Centres, an acquaintance approached us to resell our products to his already thriving trade customers.
With his sales knowledge, customer base etc. we did pretty well.
We had a great relationship with Gallerie Antiques in Hainault, we used this as "our" retail base, selling our garden products and repro antique fancy goods until Havering Council made them close.
After a really good few years our sales friend retired, Mum had passed away and Dad drifted into dementia, rather than putting him into a home we wound our wholesale business down and moved Period Stone into these premises to keep a full time eye on him, Margaret deserves a medal for what she did to look after him.
Whether our fortunes were luck, fate or being in the right place at the right time we will never know.
Fortunately we are still here, bear in mind, we have items for sale now at prices not much more than they were in the 80`s and we buy them in......Labour and material rates etc are far higher than then, as they say, "every dog has his day" and we all had ours, we`re very happy with what we do now with none of the pressure, it`s more a lifestyle business that you can only grow into, lots don`t last a year at it, how many couples work 7 days a week together for over 30 years, i wonder, most have to in this trade.
Many garden ornament business`s fail within a few years, many are struggling right now if they told the truth, it beats me why they carry on, you can easily see limited company accounts on the Companies House website.
Our kids ? Both work for good companies on much higher wages than you would ever earn doing this nowadays.....but....you never know....
We moved into Rectory Cottage in 2011 having spent around 18 months supervising, working and project managing the renovation of Rectory Cottage, it`s now a superb Grade 2 Listed Building that we are very proud of, we had good advice from Rochford and Essex Council and Dr. Joe Bispham one of the few masters of timber framed buildings, according to Joe it`s built the "American" way, people from this area sailed on the Mayflower to America and probably took the skills with them.
We used local craftsmen plus Joe`s highly skilled carpenters for things we couldn`t do ourselves, Margaret and I have both done a lot of work on 2 other brick built properties that we have owned since the 80`s that were built in the 1800`s so we felt we had enough skills to take this project on.
Margaret and i have learnt many "new" old labouring skills like mixing lime mortar and simple carpentry etc. and have thoroughly enjoyed doing it, we are currently working on the garden areas.
We have some good old and new friends in the trade that supply us at low prices plus we still manufacture a few items, so that we can give you a good deal.....would we do it all again ? ....... not sure, but we think it still beats a 9 to 5 job.
TO BE CONTINUED
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