When Houses Sold For £250 Each (20 December 1974)
Last week I told how the 69-year-old Fenny Stratford building business of Howard Brothers came to be founded. This week from the lips of 85-year-old founder-member, Mr Frank Howard, I tell something of the story of the firm.
First of all, however, I must mention one of the most interesting developments to take place in Fenny.
Where the Salvation Army citadel and adjacent houses in Church Street now stand there was a large pond and also a number of farm buildings. All had been part of the Home Farm ”complex,” as the jargon of modern planners would put it.
“It was called the Old Cop Pond and was a regular playground for us children,” says Mr Howard. “Then a man named Charles Wodhams, who was a coal merchant, bought the site and had three houses built on it. I first started work there and I worked for him for some time.”
An ancient feature of Fenny thus disappeared and the way was open for further development. But the name of the pond is intriguing. Was it a pond at the head of something? Or was it a catch pond? More like the latter, I think.
From their adventurous beginning Howard Bros eventually came to do some kind of work in every street in old Fenny, excepting only Denmark Street. In so doing they transformed some prominent features and also added considerably to the area. At first they were the town’s only resident builders, but despite this advantage, the going was not easy.
“We actually lost on some of our houses,” says Mr Howard. And, incredible though it may seem, “If we made £12 a house we thought we were doing well.”
Present house prices seem “dreadful” to him – and no wonder.
In 1912 Howard Bros built and sold the four substantial houses next to their George Street yard for only £250 each. The plasterer got only £3 a house for his actual labour,” he says – and he still has all the firm’s books to prove these things.
But they took pride in their work – even if some of it was only for a labourer’s income – and also took pride in the fact that they were so much a family firm.
Mr Howard’s sister, Mrs Mabel Smith, treasures a photograph from the early days which shows Mr Frank Howard senior, his three sons and also his carpenter son-in-law, Mr Fennemore, all standing on the topmost scaffolding of one of their houses.
After a few years, however, the eldest brother, Harry – who had never been really reconciled to building – left the firm to go farming down Denbigh Road. Samuel and Frank, however, remained partners right up to Samuel’s death, three years ago at the age of 83.
In the 1914-18 war, Frank served with the Royal Engineers in France and Belgium, but Samuel carried on the business and during those years, helped by some older men, he re-drained the 1860 Fenny Cemetery for the council.
I do not yet know how many houses the brothers built altogether, but the number must have been very considerable, as it included much of the infilling of Church Street and George Street as well as in Napier Street, Western Road and Tavistock Street.
Among their bigger building jobs were M.A. Cook’s brush factory in Victoria Road and the re-building of Valentin, Ord and Nagle’s factory beside the canal. They also built the town’s first motor garage and repair shop – in High Street, for Mr Fred Grover – and converted the 1813 High Street Wesleyan Chapel into the town’s first cinema (now demolished).
To make the chapel large enough for a cinema they had to build over the old Wesleyan burial ground at the rear. This ground was the last resting place of local Wesleyans during the early part of the 19th century, but had long been out of use and untended.
I have read somewhere that most of the graves had been marked by wooden crosses which had rotted away; that there were only three gravestones; and that these were used in the foundations of the cinema.
This, however, is emphatically refuted both by Mr Howard and Mrs Smith, who chased about there as (a child). They say there were quite a number of gravestones – certainly more than three. And Mr Howard says: “It was all done properly, including a special de-consecration ceremony. No gravestones were used for the new building. They were removed and they wouldn’t have been suitable from the practical point of view, anyway.”
Another interesting change occurred when St Martin’s Church decided to sell two old thatched cottages and land in Aylesbury Street – whose rents had been used to defray the cost of the annual celebration of St Martin’s day – and to invest the money for that purpose instead.
Howard Bros were the purchasers. They pulled down the cottages – which had formerly been one house – and then sold the ground to Mr Manyweathers, the wheelwright, who many Fenny people will remember (the property is now occupied by the Renstoke motor sales business). But on the fascia wall of the cottages was a commemorative plaque dated 1752 and this the Howard Bros placed in the church tower, for the information of future generations.
Another enterprise of Howard Bros was the purchase of the gravel pit that used to exist behind Western Road. There had been two previous owners when they bought it. The enterprise was not a success, however. The water was pumped by a windmill. One night this was blown down in a storm. “It would have cost over £100 to repair it, so we got out,” says Mr Howard ruefully.
Space and time now press again. There is still a long way to go with the Howard memories, including how he was captain of the old Fenny Fire Brigade in its horse-drawn days. But of all that, more anon.