(Transcribed and adapted by John Ruffell from a recording by Mrs Lilian Greig and Mr Leslie Francis Clark whose father started the business)
Mr Leslie Francis Clark: I was born in Arrow in 1907. My father was a Coach Builder, and he started his training at Buckinghams, a leading Birmingham Coach Builder, before starting his own business in 1906.
The Coach Building business included blacksmithing and wheelwrighting. My father used to buy standing timber, not hedgerow timber because that was generally subject to nails. It was oak, elm and ash that he bought.
There was a previous small business when he came, but it was on the verge of going out. The two previous owners could not make a go of it and he came to Arrow with his brother.
To start with he borrowed £25 from two uncles at Ebrington to start the business. lie bought in timber and contracted out for haulage. The trees were sawn by hand, one man over a saw pit, one man down below. The timber was sawn into planks of the required thickness. The planks were then stacked and stripped and they were turned every year until they were matured. He liked Wych Elm very much for the hubs of wheels, especially when it had been in water, because it meant that it was so much harder. lie (lid his own wheelwrighting, and the hubs were turned from the tree trunks. The (iron) tyres were made by three blacksmiths and they used to put on about twenty-six tyres at a go. they were stacked, packed in between with wood and put in a roaring fire one on top of another. In the beginning the bars of iron would go through the forge on rollers by hand to get them to the right diameter. They went round them with a little wheel and measured them exactly to make sure they were the right size There was a platform of iron about two inches thick and beside the platform there was a well, where the wheels were dropped into as soon as the tyre was put on to shrink onto the wheel. The tyres were anything from three-eighths of an inch to an inch and a quarter smaller than the wheel when they were cold. A lot of tyres came slack in the summer, when it was a hot summer, and the tyres were taken off, a piece was taken out of them, and then what was called "shut together' and refitted to the wheel. It was a very hot job and the men had to hammer the tyres on all the way round. and quickly pour water over them to prevent burning the wood too much.
They made everything from tradesmen's vehicles such as milk carts, bakers carts, delivery vehicles, (which ran around the countryside selling paraffin, cups and saucers etc), butchers carts, wagonettes, traps farm wagons, farm carts, and practically every vehicle that was in being in those days.
My father made up the designs himself. and it was common practice in those (lays for each coachbuilder to have their own individual styles. lie would be quite different from the makers of Evesham or those of Stratford. They were individually made, they did not have drawings. They would either make a lorry eleven foot six long or twelve foot six long, depending on the requirements of the person buying it. Some liked them a little longer, some a little wider and they were just made to suit.
The workmen in those days started at 6am in the morning in the summer, and 7am in the winter. One man walked two miles to and from work, morning and evening. - lie was never late, and he always worked in a black ha rd hat and white apron. the only artificial light was a gas flame, not a mantle, and candles were used as a portable light. The men would finish work at 6pm. They had breakfast from 8am to 8.30am and often cooked bacon and eggs on the blacksmiths fire, and it used to smell very good! in one case the painter was cooking his bacon, turning round to make his tea. and a hen came along and stole his bacon! In the early days the wages of the skilled men were about 4d to 6d per hour. That would differ according to the skill that they had. The starters would get very much less than that! Just before the war it was about one shilling an hour.
Varnish took 24 to 48 hours to dry, and in the summer the doors were sheeted up to keel) out the flies and moths from settling on the varnish. Most of the painters could 'line' and some of them could 'write'. In the dull weather they had a palette to hold the paint for lining and writing. The palette held a candle which went along with them so they could see what they were doing. But all vehicles, even the early cars were lined, and if they weren't well lined and colourful the customers did not think they were getting value for money. My father's favourite colours were red and gold for the lines. It was all done free-hand. To line the wheels, the spindle was up off the ground, and the wheel was spun round to do the lines, like a potter lines a pot. Even though every precaution was taken against dust and flies, quite often just as the writing or lines were being finished a fly would walk down the varnish and it all had to be done again. An outside upholsterer came to do the backrests and cushions of the vehicles, and it always used to interest us that he used to fill his mouth with nails or tacks, which he pulled out one at a time!. The materials used to come mainly by train from Birmingham. It was an excellent service. They would ring up from Birmingham and say that they were putting things on such and such a train, and in about an hours time, one could pick it up at Alcester station. Most of the specialized timber came from Gloucester and Bristol. The accounts were sent every six months and later every three months, and suppliers generally gave twelve months credit.
Later solid rubber tyres were fitted into channels. In the early days the hubs were turned on a wooden lathe.
I started in the motor business in 1927, and he still carried on with his painting and coachbuilding in a small way. Pneumatic tyres came in commercially and he still made up carts and lorries. When motor vehicles first came in the 1920's he used to put cabs on the chassis and back of vehicles as required whether a covered in vehicle or a truck body, but he did make them complete.
Carts would sell for about £25 each. Drays, Lorries were about £46. After the war they were considerably higher. After the first world war when we were putting rubber tyres on they were about £90.
Autumn 1994 Index