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Elliotts of Newbury and Reading

‘Elliotts’ is a name associated with furniture making, moulding and joinery in Newbury and in Reading, Berkshire. While they were expert carpenters their activities also extended in to some other unexpected areas of industry.  Much of this article is based on a previous one in BIAG New No 28 (2012) and much thanks to the authors who worked without the benefits of internet searching.

The Newbury Elliotts

From articles published in the Newbury Weekly News in 1885, 1895 and 1897 and company records we see that Samuel Elliott began managing a building company in Newbury in the late 1850s.  He built the company in to a well-established joinery and moulding manufacture.

Samuel Elliott - courtesy of Newbury Today

Samuel Elliott (Newbury Today)

He took over the original operation from his grandfather when the latter died.  He is listed in Dutton Allen’s Directory 1863 as a builder in West Street and six years later the Post Office Directory 1869 has him operating in Northbrook Street as ‘Albert Steam Joinery Works’. Ordnance Survey maps show the site located to the rear of the Wesleyan Chapel in Albert Road.

1898 OS Map - reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Elliotts (Albert Steam Joinery) - OS Map 1898

In the 1870s the business was making high quality wood carving, moulding and joinery work for fitting out churches, banks, country houses (e.g. Greenham Lodge) and many other important buildings.

Original Oak Panelling in Greenham Lodge courtesy of West Berkshire Museum

Elliotts of Newbury - Greenham Lodge West Berkshire Museum

Newbury architect and historian Walter Money, writing in his book ‘A Popular History of Newbury’ states that “two firms employ a sufficiently large number of hands to give the town a ‘manufacturing air’ at certain times of the day”.  One of these was the well-known engineering works of Messrs Plenty and Co; the other was the Albert Moulding and Joinery works, “which possesses machinery of the most perfected description, whilst its productions are of such high repute that the business transactions extend to all parts of the Globe, and among their patrons are some of the most distinguished architects of the day, both at home and abroad.”  These patrons included Alfred Waterhouse, architect of the Natural History Museum whose Berkshire country estate was at Yattendon Court, as well as Norman Shaw, George Gilbert Scott, CFA Voysey and Edwin Lutyens.  Elliiotts provided doors and joinery for some of the foremost public buildings of the Victorian age, including Manchester Town Hall. In Berkshire Elliotts worked on Speenhamland Church, Greenham Church and vicarage, and was responsible for the fantastic oak woodwork in Mill Hall, now Mary Hare Primary school for deaf children in Pigeons Farm Road.

The site off of Northbrook Street burned down in early 1885 thankfully with no loss of life, but putting 50 men out of work. The cost of the material loss was put at £30,000 (around £3.5m today) and included much of the company’s records. The Newbury Weekly News reporting the fire note that Elliotts was one of the largest employers in Newbury and had provided much benefit to the town through both employment and the erection of much-needed speculative housing. The development of West Fields as a residential suburb was largely due to Elliott’s speculative enterprise as a builder. The firm was only partially insured and the workers, many of whom lost their tools as well as their livelihoods, had to rely on a ‘Mayor’s Fund’ set up fund for community subscriptions to help re-build their lives and livelihoods.

The joinery works were rebuilt on the same site although there is little information on exactly when or how. We see adverts for joiners being placed in the papers in May 1885 so the rebuild would have been fairly quick. However, although re-established the fire seems to have introduced longstanding problems for the business.

As well as being a joiner Samuel Elliott was also something of an inventor – during the 1890s his “Elliott’s Smoke Annihilator” was often mentioned in the columns of the Newbury Weekly News and wider publications. The aim of the apparatus was to wash the furnace gases issuing from a chimney or flue.

Elliotts Smoke Annihilator courtesy of Industries Magazine

Elliotts Smoke Annhilator

While this was not a new concept Elliott hoped that his design would be more successful than those previously available. However, it failed to gain backing in the commercial world, despite being demonstrated successfully before a gathering of scientists in Newbury. Ultimately losses sustained from the development of the smoke annihilator, combined with the financial effects of a serious factory fire, led to Elliott’s bankruptcy in 1895.

As a result of the bankruptcy a new company, Elliott’s Moulding and Joinery Company Ltd, was formed by a group of local businessmen. Samuel Elliott was kept on as works manager, but as we shall see he soon left and started another company in Reading. When he left in September 1902 he was presented with a ‘massive gold signet ring’ and an illuminated address signed by the company’s 121 employees as reported in the Newbury Weekly News.

Later that year, NWN reported that a new company, Elliott’s Joinery and Moulding Company Ltd, was to take over the Albert Joinery Works. Samuel was not a director, but he and his eldest son Albert were appointed manager and assistant manager.  Relations between the Elliotts and the new company directors became strained over the next few years and in 1904 Edward de Vere Buckingham succeeded Samuel Elliott as manager of the company. Samuel and his family left in the early 1900s and went on to form another company in Reading, as detailed below. The Buckingham family went on to run Elliotts as a successful Newbury business until 1974, ceasing joinery manufacture in 1919 in favour of furniture, and making a major contribution to the war effort in both world wars.

During WW1 the Newbury Elliotts produced over 200,000 ammunition cases using their workforce of 90% women. After the war the company went back to serving its usual market, which consisted of manufacturing a range of furniture particularly bedroom and dining suites.

Elliotts Newbury Furniture Works in early 20th Century courtesy of West Berkshire Museum

Elliotts of Newbury - Furniture Works (early 20C) West Berkshire Museum

When war returns in 1939 Elliotts, again with a largely female workforce, produced components for aircraft including the Supermarine Spitfire, Tiger Moths, De Havilland Mosquito, the Airspeed Oxford and the Airspeed Horsa Glider. Elliotts built one third of the total Horsa production and built a high proportion of the large troop carrying gliders that were used during the D-Day landings. Initially, the parts for aircraft that the company manufactured were made of wood but as the war developed they extended their activities into using aluminium alloy. Elliotts was so successful that it was used in several official films showing how aircraft parts were made with the Caversham factory even witnessed a visit by the Minister of Aircraft Production, Stafford Cripps. The importance of the company in the Newbury economy can be gauged from the fact that during the war years there were 600 on the payroll, twenty years later this figure had only declined to 500.

When the war finishes Elliotts are employed in the manufacture of complete rooms for the prefabricated homes that are installed throughout the country. In 1945 despite the fact that the business had hoped to resume furniture making they were not allowed to by the Board of Trade. The company therefore, largely through the interest of the managing director, Horace Buckingham, began to make a series of sports gliders, including the `Olympia’. These prove to be very successful in competitions and many of them are made for export. Elliotts also designed and made a light aircraft, the `Newbury Eon’, but this did not go into production.

Eon Olympia 463 courtesy of RAF Museum

Elliotts of Newbury Olympia 463 (181) in flight

In 1948 the manufacture of furniture resumes and due to the quality of the workmanship Elliotts of Newbury is chosen to exhibit in the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition on London’s South Bank.  In the summer of 1965 Horace Buckingham died and a review of the business decided that glider production is no longer profitable. Slingsby Sailplanes Ltd. agreed to take over the production of Eon Sailplanes in 1966, but it seems that no Elliott-designed glider was ever built by them.

Elliotts of Newbury - Teak Credenza Dining Set from 1950s

Elliotts of Newbury - Furniture - Teak Credenza Dining Set (1950s)

In 1970 P.M. Holdings Ltd. who already operated other furniture factories, including one in Wallingford, acquire an interest in Elliotts. By this point Elliotts had been making a loss and this continued to be the case.  Reports in the Newbury Weekly News of 28 December 1974 tell of 60 staff redundancies early the previous year in an effort to make the company more viable followed by a further 60 in April and another 45 in November. In November 1974 it was announced that the firm would merged with Lupton Morton, a furniture manufacturer in Wallingford. By this time only 50 people were employed on the Newbury site. The announcement of closure was followed by the Newbury site being vacated in Easter 1975.

The Reading Elliotts

Having been made bankrupt and moving from owning to being the managing director to the works manager in Elliotts of Newbury (see above) in 1902 Samuel Elliott was offered the opportunity to run his own company again. Mr J C Fidler, a local businessman, gave him both money and land on Gosbrook Road, Caversham to set up the company. Mr Fidler then became the first chairman of the board of directors of Samuel Elliott and Sons (Reading) Ltd, joiners and moulders etc. Elliott’s two sons, Albert and Cecil, joined the business venture. At this point Samuel Elliott ended his involvement with the Newbury concern, which continues on as Elliott’s of Newbury as we have seen. The business quickly got a reputation for first class work and many contracts came in for shop fitting and for high class commercial premises.

1912 OS Map Reproduced with the permission of the National LIbrary of Scotland

Elliotts Reading - OS Map 1912

Samuel Elliott moved with his family to Caversham. Mr Fidler died in 1903, but by now the company has become sufficiently established to survive. Records from this period until 1914 have been lost, but in 1914 the company is restructured with Mr E Dunham becoming the new owner.  During this missing period Samuel disappears from the board of directors. Despite being almost blind for the last two years of his life, the aged Samuel Elliott maintained his characteristic vitality almost to the end. He died peacefully at home on 13 December 1915, aged 77 having lived a full and active life. His obituary in The Reading Observer notes his many achievements including having built the Old County Court Offices in Reading (by them pulled down) and the Congregational Church in Friar Street, Reading (by then a theatre). His obituary in the Newbury Weekly News described him as “a remarkable man, with wonderful energy, untiring perseverance and considerable inventive genius”.

During WW1 Elliott’s in Reading undertook work for the wooden frames of Bristol and De Havilland aircraft. They also did work for the Admiralty making equipment for minesweepers.

The firm was well respected for its high quality carpentry and woodwork and fitted out many prestigious buildings including working on ocean liners such as the Queen Mary. The Reading factory supplied high quality fittings to many stately houses in England and in Europe as well as providing shop fitting.  They made the front of the Gaumont Cinema in Friar Street, Reading (no longer in existence).

Gaumont Cinema Reading - courtesy of BIAG

Elliotts of Reading - Gaumont Cinema (BIAG)

This company went on to fit out many prestigious buildings at home and abroad. In 1924 they patented a revolving door and example of which was installed in Bush House in Aldwych, London, for many years the home of the BBC World Service. They also supplied doors for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.

Revolving Doors at Bush House on The Strand, London

Elliotts of Reading -Revolving Door Patent (1924)

Revolving Doors at Bush House on The Strand, London

Elliotts of Reading -Bush House Doors (BIAG)

As war approached in 1939 Elliotts becomes a public company with shares sold on the Stock Exchange. While Samuel Elliott is no longer involved in the concern one of his sons, Albert, remains on the board and became managing director, resigning in 1946; another son, Cecil, serves as a director until he retires in 1954. Albert’s son, Lionel, is the last Elliott to be involved with the firm being managing director until he dies in 1959 while on company business in Baghdad, Iraq. He leaves no children, and his widow sells his shares in the company.

During WWII they transferred their woodworking skills to the war effort; this included making landing craft and Horsa gliders. The photograph below shows Elliott-made Landing Craft Assault vehicles being handed to the Royal Navy in autumn of 1944.  At the time the Elliott premises stretched to the River Thames and the handover took place just before Reading Bridge.

Landing Craft Assault Vehicles 1944 courtesy of Combined Operations

Elliotts Reading - LCAs (1944)

After the war Elliott’s returned to their old business of producing high quality wood work and continued doing this until 1969. A threatened takeover resulted in Elliott’s becoming part of Development Securities Ltd a subsidiary of Robert McAlpine and Sons and it is merged with another joinery firm known as John P White (Bedford) Ltd. For five subsequent years Elliott’s is known as ‘Samuel Elliott and John P White (Reading) Ltd’ but when Mr White resigned from the board the company reverted to its original name. As with so many companies in this era they are traded amongst bigger concerns. In 1977 McAlpine sells the company to EMI, who the same year sells it to Trafalgar House Ltd. In the 1980s Elliott’s is incorporated into Trollope and Colls Joinery Ltd, a firm with origins in Camberwell, London, and in the 1990s they moved to a new site in Lyon House, Craddock Road, Reading, under the restyled name of ‘Trollope Colls Elliott’. Trafalgar House Estates sell the Caversham site for redevelopment for £2 million and by late 2002 the lights were turned off on the Gosbrook Street site for the last time. The site is now housing with the road being called Elliott Way by way of a memorial.

Bibliography and Sources:

  • BIAG News No 28, Autumn 2012 – Elliotts of Newbury: A Treasured & Cherished Memory by Bernard Eggleton (originally in Newbury Society Newsletter)
  • BIAG News No 28, Autumn 2012 – Elliotts of Reading – A Short Resume by Dennis Johnson
  • Combined Operations: Secret Handover of New Landing Craft
  • Industries Vol IX (4 July 1890)
  • Money, Walter – A Popular History of Newbury. In The County Of Berks, From Early To Modern Times, With An Account Of The Ecclesiastical, Municipal And Other Institutions (1905)
  • Newbury Today: Samuel Elliott – A Centenary of his Death by Jackie Markham (4 Jan 2016)
  • Newbury Weekly News: Destructive Fire at Newbury (26 Feb 1885)
  • Newbury Weekly News: The Affairs of Mr S Elliott, Albert Joinery Works Newbury (25 Apr 1895)
  • Newbury Weekly News: The Bankruptcy of Mr Samuel Elliott (4 Nov 1897)
  • Newbury Weekly News: A Pleasing Presentation (11 Sep 1902)
  • Patent US43522421A Samuel Elliott and Sons Reading – Revolving Door
  • Reading Observer – Death of Samuel Elliott (18 Dec 1915)
  • Records of Samuel Elliott and Sons (Reading) Ltd D/EX 1263 – Berkshire Record Office
  • Samuel Elliott & Sons (Reading) Ltd: Elliotts of Reading – Joinery, Shop Fitting, Metalwork, Interiors (!986)
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