Stories about Industry, Memories

Boyhood in Chesham and Howard Brothers woodware factory

a biography of Joe Baker, born 1933.

Joe was brought up in George Street and attended Newtown Infants School, then White Hill Junior Boys, lastly Germain Street. While at Germain Street he remembers collecting rosehips. These were used to make rosehip syrup, an important source of Vitamin C, in the school’s kitchens. Here they cooked the meals for all the Chesham schools.

Joe left school at 14 and his father helped him secure a job at Howard Brothers’ woodware factory at the Avenue Works in Chilton Road. The factory had a very good reputation in the town. Here he learned all the processes involved in the manufacture of small domestic woodware items such as spoons, bowls, bread boards, cheese boards with a slot for the knife, butter prints and clothes hangers. The wood was beech from the local beechwoods which came to the factory from sawmills in large blocks. Firstly the bark would have to be removed and the blocks cut into smaller, more manageable chunks. Joe first learned how to use a band saw and then went on to learn sanding and smoothing. The first object he made was a spoon.

The spoon blanks were marked out from a template and sawn to shape. Then they went to the turners for the handle and the bowl shoulder to be turned on a lathe. There were 6 turners at Howards when Joe worked there but he never worked on a lathe himself. Similarly he never learned to carve. There were 2 skilled carvers at the factory, who carved the butter prints and the decorative edges of the bread boards.

Spoons came in 3 sizes – 8, 10 and 12 inches long. Fruit bowls were made in 2 sizes – 10 and 12 inches in diameter. Some bowls were made of elm but Joe didn’t care for the smell of the wood. Other items manufactured were sets of plumbers’ kits. These comprised of mallets in different sizes, made of lignum vitae, one of the hardest and heaviest of woods, also exceptionally moisture-resistant. They were baked in an oven to harden them even further. Woolworth’s were the main buyer of the wooden items.

Joe remembers the foreman, ‘Clocky’ Bruton, so named because he had to ‘clock’ the workers in and out morning and evening. The hours were from 7.30-12.30 and 1.30-5.30 and Joe earned 37 shillings per week (about £1.75) at the age of 14, with one week’s paid holiday per year. He walked to work and back and went home for his lunch-break. There was a bell to mark tea-breaks but no hooter as at other factories. Workers were encouraged to join the Transport & General Workers’ Union. Joe spent 20 years at the factory but finally left because he found the repetitive tasks very tedious and boring. However, he had very much enjoyed the comradeship of his colleagues. Other woodware factories in the town at this time were Thomas Wright and Bunkers. In addition there were also Reynolds, Deans and Leaches in Waterside. Howard’s closed in the late 1960s.

Like many other young people growing up at this time, Joe was expected to help contribute to the household by doing odd jobs. One of these was collecting disinfectant from the Urban District Council Depot in Berkhampstead Road. Both liquid and powder was available for disinfecting sinks, drains and dustbins. Another job he did was collecting washing for women who took in other people’s laundry. He remembers collecting from houses in Lowndes Avenue and Chartridge Lane. He also delivered wood for Thomas Wright.

In his free time he remembers how much he enjoyed running to Ashley Green and back with a group of up to twenty young boys and girls. He would be in his mid to late teens at this time and they did it ‘just for the fun of it’. Something he looked forward to at the end of the day was listening to ‘Dick Barton Special Agent’ on the radio. This was first broadcast in 1946, in 15-minute episodes every weekday evening at 6.45.
Each story lasted two to four weeks and broadcasting continued until 1951, by which time it was considered to be ‘a bad influence on children’.

He belonged to the Methodist Church youth club and its choir. They went every year to perform in London at the Westminster Hall. Later he was a Sunday school teacher for many years.


November 2006