I started at Messenger’s in 1957 when I was 15; you had to do a year’s probation before you could become an apprentice; it was a lovely Company to work for.
The firm made one of the finest houses you could buy; we’re talking of houses 120ft. long by 20ft. wide. The secret was that they cast all their own metalwork; all the boilers, staging, etc. They would make everything in the factory; it would be fabricated in sections and assembled in the factory, dismantled and shipped to site ready for installation. You had two options, either a winding gear or a handle that opened the complete roof or front lights. On every rafter there was a tension bar, so you put tension on every rafter; on every other rafter there was a tie bar that kept it in. There was a bit of a camber on it to allow for a bit of sag. I used to walk down the roof ridge, which was about 4¾ in., wide. You could adjust them and I would stand at the end and tell them which to tighten and you could get the ridge dead straight; once the ridge starts to go out, the eaves go out and its starts to collapse. A Messenger greenhouse never moved.
The structures were made out of best red Canadian Cedar you could get and you couldn’t really find a knot in it. I bought some Red Canadian Cedar from the firm and built my brother a car port; it was probably one of the nicest you’ve ever seen.
Pilkington’s used to cut some of the shaped glass; they became well known for it, instead of having a square cut end, they had a curved end, which allowed the water to run down the middle rather than down the glazing bars. We used copper strips to hold the glass, all sherardized with brass nails; wedges were used to stop the glass sliding and were held with brass nails, with the copper along the bottom. We used to get crates of standard 24in. x 24in. or 24in x 18in., all 24oz. and take out whatever we needed for a job. We used to cut the glass in a little store close to the mill as well as on site, once we knew exactly what size was required. We used to have 56lbs of cedar putty in red drums; it was a tan colour, really lovely stuff, better than the putty you get today.
We also produced of 8ft. or 10ft. x 6ft. amateur greenhouses, garden sheds, summer houses, which eventually went into mass production. They used to put a little plate above the door, with the firm’s name on it.
The firm went downhill; I could see the decline taking place. They brought a new guy in, from a firm that made sheds, etc.; I believe that the firm is still there. He was a very nice guy and was supposed to be just what the firm needed, but his ideas didn’t work. He introduced bonus schemes and the new methods were impractical, you’d end up wasting more time in having to move the finished items out of the way before you could start the next.
We used to use the best Red Canadian Cedar that you could buy but they started cutting down and down and down. They started buying inferior timber, which was OK to a certain extent because with experience staff in the mill, they could identify which pieces of timber would be suitable for each component. They then decided to send the timber out to a third party for them to make the components. They’d sent a couple of standards of timber out on a lorry and just mark it up to be made into rafters. Of course, when it came back, there were knots all over it and half of it had to be thrown away because it couldn’t be used. It was false economy, the quality declined and the wastage escalated.
When I started there was old Mr. Burder and Derek his son, who eventually took-over, when Mr. Burder died. Mr. Derek Burder was a very nice person, although he appeared to be a little shy. He would let things go over his head and just let things drift. He probably didn’t have the same interest as his father and it sadly went downhill after he took-over.
I left the firm when I came out of my apprenticeship in 1962 as I thought that I had learnt all I could. I subsequently worked for a number of firms including G.C. Smith, coach builders, at Long Whatton; Moseley’s at Shepshed; I spent several years at Jaguar in Coventry before joining Derby-based builders Ford and Weston.
Messenger’s had a paint shop; a beautiful mill, where they would collect all the wood from the store and cut the timber depending upon what was required such as rafters, glazing bars, ridges, sills, etc.; they turned out all the structure. It would then go into the joiner’s shop, where Bill Harriman would set-out it all out and splice them all together; the main ridge would have a nice scarf splice. We used to use 5½ No. 18 screws; we used to have to put them in with a brace and once they were in with the juice from the Cedar, it was almost impossible to get them out.
There used to be a railway line, that came in from the Derby Road end and you can still see the track in places. All the little units up towards Epinal Way were originally timber storage sheds. I used to spend a lot of time up there; originally they used to back the railways wagons up there; later it was delivered by lorry. We used to offload the timber and place it on proper seaning timber; we also used a little bit of oak, although it was mainly Cedar and Deal. Deal was always a good quality, red leaded and properly painted. The timber sheds had shutters at the front and a honeycombed wall at the back. I don’t know who they bought the timber from; it used to come in what is known as standards and so many standards were delivered each week. I spent many an hour up in the timber sheds, stripping the timber and turning it.
Tom Wesson, the foundry foreman lived in one of the houses and Walter Cunningham, lived in the other, he used to work in the foundry and was responsible for locking and unlocking the site.
There were two people in the pattern shop; Ken Dalby was the foreman and Tony Dann who loved his motor bikes; they used to produce some lovely patterns, not only for Messenger’s but for other firms.
The timekeeper, I can’t remember his name, he was a nice old gent; we had to clock in and off each day. The black sands (used in castings) and the car park is where K. C. Johns is now.
In what was known as the yard, down by the covered area near the pattern shop, there were three people working there – Harold Sharpe, he lived in (No. 27) Cumberland Road; Bill Cotton, who lived at No. 12 Rosebery Street; I can’t remember the third person. They used to parcel everything up and send it off to site. They firm was into engineering when I was there they used to do work for Edwards of London. They had a weekly run, with a long low-loader and load up guillotines and take them away. The yard people would bring the guillotines out on cranes and lift them onto the lorry, parked in the roofed area, which is still there. At least part of the covered area is still there; someone came down in a dumper truck and demolished part of it.
The firm even had a blacksmith, Reg Fetcher, he used to wear a little waist coat; there was an electrician, Jim Harvey and a maintenance team. The boiler shop was next to the electricians. There was Mr. George Bradshaw, I think he lived in Fearon Street and Ted, the brother-in-law of my foreman, Ted Jones. He used to go out and erect the boilers and George used to clean and paint all the pipework.
I passed my driving test when I was 17 and bought my first car, a Ford Zephyr, from Gillet’s in Greenclose Lane, before they moved to Derby Road. There was a garage near the entrance gates, where Mr. Bell used to put his Mercedes. Mr. Burder also used the garage but most of the time he left his car in the open, with the keys in it and the windows down.
As an apprentice it was my responsibility to get two pence off everybody and go to the canteen with a big jug, get it filled up with tea and bring back the cheese cobs or whatever.
When I was there we did work for what I term as real gentlemen. I was always treated very well by the owners. I was probably one of the first to go out when I was 19; you weren’t really allowed to go on site until you served your time. The first occasion I went out on site, in my own car, I took a young lad with me; it was near Bishop Stortford. The greenhouse was a 75ft. long lean-to attached to really uneven brick wall; anyway we managed it. When we came back Mr. Burder had us in his office and told us that the owner had told him how good a job we had done. He gave us a couple pounds each, that was a lot of money as I was probably only on about £4-10s., a week.
On another occasion, we did work for a Mr. Critchley at Patmore Lodge, Albury. When we arrived, there was this gent at the bottom of a hedge row, in his plus-fours. We stopped and explained who we were and what we were doing and that we were looking for a Mr. Critchley. He was a tall man, who replied in a deep voice saying that he was Mr. Critchely. He gave us directions and we set to work. His daughter had just got married and he came across later with large pieces of wedding cake. He used to go down the drive in Rolls-Royce and wave to us.
One of the biggest jobs were ever did was at Bristol Zoo, I was there for ages. I remember an 80ft. long potting shed opposite the entrance to the Zoo. It had thick rubberoid tiles on the back and I think that there were four or five greenhouses going off the shed; two about 80ft. and another two about 100ft. At the side were rows and rows of cold frames.
For those not having their own transport, it could be a real nightmare getting to site; they had to take a taxi from Cumberland Road to the railway station; another taxi to the digs and then find the site. You had to carry all your own tools and cases. You could be at some sites for as long as three weeks. When I used to go out with the lad, I could do the job in a week. I would string at set of lights up and work until about 8 in the evening. I had one of two people who wrote to Mr. Burder, saying how nice it was that someone has obviously been trained professionally and how nice it was that they could send two young lads out to do such a professional job and how pleased they were.
I used to have an argument with my manager about the length of time I took erecting the greenhouses. He wasn’t keen on my doing it so quickly and wanted me to take longer. He was looking to drop my money, because I completed the work so quickly. I argued that I still had feed my family; I had to take my car with the lad; I worked late into the evenings. I told him that he was saving on all the expenses of train fares, taxis and accommodation over three weeks. I told him that I’d rather stop at home, do a few hours overtime in the shop each evening and sleep in my own bed; in the he agreed and I carried on.
The nicest place, I remember was Bruntwood Hall park in Cheadle Hulme; we had to rebuild an octagonal portion of a conservatory; it was falling down a little bit; it tapered up to about 6ft.on the top. I remember it was a bad winter; I was still an apprentice and one of my first jobs was turning the planks over to get the frost off.
I recollect that on one job for Jack Frye at Buntingford, getting back on site in the morning, when there was 13 degrees of frost and when I picked up the metalwork it stuck to my fingers, it was so cold.
I remember Mr. George Gutteridge, the London Manager; he was a lovely old guy, small with round glasses. I remember him coming on one job in his pin-striped suit and bowler hat. He was tramping round in all the muck in his nice shoes, anyway before he went I got a cloth and cleaned his shoes for him.
We did a job in Scarborough, at a large school. We stayed with a lovely couple, a farmer and his wife. When we got on site and having assembled all the frames and sills, etc., this person turned up with no introduction and started muttering away about things not being right. I eventually asked him, who he was and he replied that he was the Clerk of Works. Anyway I told him that I’d like get it erected, sort out any problems that may have arisen during transit and complete it to my satisfaction, then for him to come and inspect it. He agreed and wandered off. When it was all complete he inspected and accepted it.
Progress often appeared deceptive. Assuming that the foundations and/or the low brick was in place, we could get the wooden frame up in about a day, dependent upon the size of the structure. This often gave the owners a false impression of progress, thinking that we were more advanced that we were; we still had all the ironwork, winding gear, glazing bars and glazing to complete which could easily take another four days.
We had a surprisingly small number of instances of turning up on site where the foundations or low brick walls were inadequate. I remember going to do a job down near Bletchley, an old castle; it had 400 years-old walls and you can imagine the problems we encountered with those not being straight or vertical, but we managed.
We used to use teak for small lean-tos and I remember one in Nottingham. The wall was about 2½in. out of square against an outbuilding; we had to recut some of the wood and the glass to match it. When we levelled it through and followed it all round, it was a course and a half of bricks out of level. They’d covered it over with render over the door. Although it could only be seen from down the garden, we knew what the owner was going to say; anyway we pointed out where the problems were and asked him to check all the levels.
There used to be a lot of greenhouses up Ashby Road, but most of them have gone, especially those now used for student accommodation; they wanted to use the gardens for further accommodation, so they demolished the greenhouses.
I was involved in doing all the fitting out, when the firm went into boat building. There was a Mr. Bell who worked for the firm; he came from Leicester and was keen on boats. They only built two boats, the whole process proved too expensive. The first boat was a 36ft. long metal hull that was sent out without any fitting out, which was going to be completed by the owner. The second boat, the one I was involved in, was for a friend of Mr. Bell, a Mr. Hurst, an office furniture dealer from Leicester. It was a 36ft. boat and I was essentially left on my own to fit it out. I spent months on it and by the end I felt as though I’d built three boats; he would come along at night, after I’d gone home and make changes to the design. There was no plan to work to; it was sort of made up as we went along. It had a sliding roof and I made the screen such that it hinged down, so as to allow it to go under bridges. We tried to get a camber on the roof and we were using Parana Pine, a lovely hard timber, really solid. I was wondering how I could obtain the camber; in the end I got some stout timber of Parana Pine and I put ¼in. plate metal bars screwed all the way through on both sides and put it through the rollers. I bolted it all in place and put all the boarded Parana Pine on top, then removed the metal bars and hoped – it worked a treat. When it was time to launch the boat, at the wharf in Bridge Street, I was out on site elsewhere so I missed out on all the celebrations.
I came back to the site a few years after the firm went bust, after it had started being converted into industrial units and I took a couple of units. It’s OK, it functions for what it is and it’s cheap. The whole site is just being run down, nothing gets repaired. This could have been a very nice site, but the current owners, the Magon family, won’t spend any money on it. They also own a place on Knighthorpe Road, the bungalow is now all boarded up. I wanted to purchase the units behind as my business premises, but they wouldn’t sell it.
I also went to Chelsea with the firm once in the early 1960s. Around 2010 or 2011 I was approached by a firm called Alitex, who wanted to build greenhouses in the style of Messenger’s. They wanted me to go to Chelsea and open their stand. They also wanted to know if there was anyone else around who worked for the firm; I knew that Mrs. Burder was still alive, then put them in contact with her. However, they were not sure whether they could produce the greenhouse in the time remaining and in the end it fell through because they ran out of time.
All the structures were removed in the 19xxx. ↑
40ft. x 20ft. ¾ Span Peach House & Vinery; 25ft. x 18ft. Centre Span Greenhouse; 45ft. x 14ft. ¾ Span Greenhouse; wood slatted & metal staging; lean-to frames; all in treated Cedar ↑
Alswick Hall Farm. ↑
14ft. 9in. x 11ft. 6in. special span glasshouse in treated Cedar; 2ft. wide double tier side & end staging in treated Cedar; aluminium gutters ↑
George Pindar County Modern School. ↑