Building And Rebuilding Of Fenny (9 December 1974)
Last week I told of a man who was a partner in the former Bassett’s Bank for 66 years. Quite a record!
It is well beaten, however, by that of Mr. Frank Howard, of George Street, Fenny Stratford, who has been in the building business of Howard Brothers for no fewer than 69 years and still regularly employs two men.
Recently I was privileged to chat with 85-year-old Mr. Howard over a cup of tea at the home of his sister, 80-year-old Mrs. Mabel Smith, of “Howardville,” Church Street, Fenny. Both have lived in that small area all their lives. As their memories came flooding back, it was like being transported to another world – the small, pulsating world of friendly Fenny before I myself knew it.
The things they told me cannot possibly be contained in a single article. Furthermore, as I hope this is not to be my only visit, this piece can only be an introduction at best.
First I must say that in all my 50 years of reporting and interviewing I have rarely come across two related people of their age with memories as clear and sharp. Nor a man fitter at his age than Mr. Howard. He has never had an illness. “You must keep moving,” he says; “If you just sit back, you’re done for.” So today the clean-shaven broad shouldered Mr. Frank Howard ranks as Fenny’s Grand Old Man. “There’s nobody else left of my age who was born here,” he says.
In this Mr. Howard must be taking after his father, also named Frank, who was born in 1850 and died in 1940. Frank the elder was not Fenny-born. He came here from Southampton as a young bricklayer, married local girl Sarah Day and stayed for life. Thus just the two generations of Frank Howards have represented over 100 years of building work in the town.
Frank and Sarah had eight children – three boys and five girls. Young Frank and Mabel are the only ones left. Of the other six, only two did not live to be at least 80 and two of them died in their 90th years.
The first seven children were all born in one of two old cottages on Mount Pleasant – between High Street and Church Street, which have long since disappeared. Then the family moved to one of the two larger houses in Methodist Row, also now pulled down. I have taken these two facts from some “Memories of Fenny Stratford” written by one of the children, Mrs. Emily Fennemore, in 1949, when she was aged 76 (Mr. Howard and Mrs. Smith had the impression that all eight were born in the larger house).
While bringing up his large family Mr Howard’s father worked for a succession of local builders. At about that time much more land was becoming available for building than formerly. Most notable was the break-up of the Home Farm (Mare’s shop in Aylesbury Street now occupies the old farmhouse). A new farmhouse was built at the Yard’s End (at the bottom of Western Road) and the land between Aylesbury Street and Victoria Road became available to meet the big demand for housing.
Harley Gates was the local contractor. He built the now-vanished Woodbine Terrace for the proprietor of the Three Tuns in the inn’s back garden and Mr. Howard also worked for him on the building of two rows of houses in Victoria Road and several houses down Napier Street.
The next local contractor was Mr. Staniford, grandfather of Mr. Ron Staniford. Among his buildings were Rhondda House and Ropley House.
Next in succession came Alfred Taylor. He had the builder’s yard in George Street now occupied by Howard Brothers. He had a very good business, not only in Fenny but out in the villages as well. His buildings included the first of the two schools built in Queensway – the one next to St. Martin’s Hall.
All this happened before the turn of the century. “My father had a hand in most of it,” says Mr. Howard. “He also helped to re-build the Swan Hotel and to build the old Town Hall next door. He told me (the) while the Town Hall was being built a box containing the coins of the realm and current local newspapers was placed under the left-hand pier at the entrance.”
Meanwhile, the Howard boys were growing up. In due course Harry, the eldest, was apprenticed to bricklaying, and Samuel – who was only a year older than Frank – to carpentry.
“I myself passed what was called the ‘labour exam’ at school,” says Frank. “This meant that I could leave school at 12 instead of 13, so I left and was apprenticed to bricklaying, starting at two or three shillings a week.”
The turn of the century thus saw all four Howards – the father and three sons – in the building trade. Then, three or four years later, came the crunch. Alfred Taylor had his yard and workshop in George Street, but lived in Aylesbury Street, where Bletchley Motors are now. He overdrew – and was declared bankrupt.
This left Fenny without a resident builder. While the bankruptcy was being sorted out, the Howards began to do various building jobs on their own from Mount Pleasant. Eventually Taylor’s Yard came up for sale.
“We hadn’t any money, but we bought it,” says Mr. Howard, with a smile. And so began the business of Howard Brothers, “Established 1905.”
Father Howard was not in it. He came to be employed by his sons, who must have formed one of the youngest business partnerships ever, Samuel being only 17 and Frank only 16.
Harry was somewhat older.
So far I have not told the half of it. Howard Brothers came to build and rebuild much of the hinterland of Fenny, but space, like time, presses, and I shall have to leave that to another day.