TitleFrom Little Acorns Great Oaks Grow - Centenary Chronicles 4
AbstractFrom Little Acorns Great Oaks Grow

Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History

Centenary Chronicles - No. 4.

Published in Parish News - August 1996

Most people in recalling their early years will talk about schooldays and what they felt about starting work. In earlier times opportunities were not as varied as they are today and, for most, it was easy to forecast their first jobs. Girls normally went into service and boys went onto the land. In this area, however, the response, from many of the men has been "going into the building trade". This usually meant Huttons.

The following article comes from such recollections and notes of the earlier days of the firm compiled by Mr Cyril Everett and Mr Ian Heddle. The Parish Magazines include many references, mainly triumphs such as building the Birch Memorial Hall or restoring Layer Marney Church but the firm also had it's share of tragedy in suffering two disastrous fires.

The 1851 Census records 9 carpenters in Birch 5 of whom were named Hutton! The oldest gave Copford as his place of birth but it is believed that the family originated from Suffolk and moved to this area in the late 1700s. They settled near Heckford Bridge area not so very far from where the works are today. It seems likely that they worked on the Round Estate from early in the last century.

John Hutton, who can be said to be the founder of the business, married Martha Polley in 1851. They lived in Copford, where their six children were born, until 1872 when John's mother died and they moved to the family home, Beehive Cottage, to look after his father. He built a small builder's yard at the family home and added a sawing pit, a small joiner's shop, a stable and a cart shed. In traditional country style John was not only the local carpenter but also the undertaker. A coffin took a day to make and his wife laid out the corpses. Martha was very deaf and one can well imagine the scene when she paid the workmen each week at the cottage door!

By this time Beehive Cottage lived up to its name as most jobs had to be done by hand. Logs were sawn vertically by hand with a man at the top of the pit (the top dog) and one at the bottom (the under dog!). Each piece of timber to make a door was cut from sawn timber and planed by hand. Floor boards were planed on one face and both edges and then depth gauged each side. They were laid onto the joists and adzed to the marks where the joists came. This saved one major planing to each board.

Two of John's sons, John and Fred, followed their father's trade but roamed in Essex and London to gain experience. By 1894 their father, then 70 years old, felt like giving up his building business and asked John to take over. London had however proved too attractive and so it was Fred, then aged 38, who bought his father out for £50! It is interesting to note that despite being a successful business man John could not sign his name on the deed of transfer.

With Fred in charge work still continued for the Round Estate and the tale is told of the making of a gate for the Hall. Fred was not about to risk the gate being damaged in transit and would not allow it to be put in the cart. As it weighed over 600 lbs it required the assistance of four men, in addition to Fred, to carry it from the yard to the Hall!

Just over 90 years ago the firm worked on a bank on the site of the present Barclay's Bank in Colchester so the business was clearly expanding although still, to some extent, tied to the Round family who had interests in the bank. The same year, 1905, Fred's daughter Ellen married at Birch. Her groom worked in London and this meant that a number of coaches were laid on to convey guests from Marks Tey Station. This show of apparent affluence was frowned on by James Round who felt that his Estate was possibly being over charged by Fred. Work started to dwindle as a result but in 1911 Huttons were responsible for restoration work at Layer Marney Tower and also the Church which was in a very bad state.

During the First World War there was plenty of work but just afterwards Fred found himself with severe financial problems. By this time Fred's only son, Frank had married and moved firstly to Australia before going on to New Zealand. His brother in law, Fred Wadley, realised that something was wrong and cabled Frank to come home. There was no hesitation despite the offer of a partnership with a firm in New Zealand but the scene which greeted him in Birch almost made him return down under! The clerical work had been left and although all the men had been paid their due no bills had been sent out! A stack of timesheets a foot high needed to be sorted and invoices sent out. Frank and his wife tackled the task and without exception, and only a few queries, all accounts were settled and £6000 was deposited in the Bank.

Frank now started to organise things and land opposite Beehive Cottage was leased and the funeral business wound up. A joiner's shop and mill were built and a secondhand paraffin engine acquired to drive machinery. Te-Whare and Fairholme, Maldon Road, were built although at the time Frank and his wife Ellen, lived in a converted Army hut just behind the house!

The firm became F Hutton & Son and land was purchased at Shrub End for sand and ballast. Birch Memorial Hall, Layer Breton Church, council houses in Birch, Tollesbury and Totham were built as well as larger works such as Telephone Exchanges at Southend and Seven Kings, a County Court at Lambeth and schools in Westcliffe. The work just rolled in and contracts got bigger and bigger.

Most of the local transport was by pony and cart usually driven by Alf "Wimpey" Mead, a real character who, for some reason, had great difficulty in getting the pony to pass a pub! The first lorry, bought in the early 1930s, was a Dennis, solid tyres and with a cloth windscreen. Soon there were three lorries which meant that jobs over a wider area could be tackled. They were also used for collecting bricks from the railway at Tiptree, Kelvedon, Marks Tey or St Botolphs. Huttons was by now the biggest employer in the area and most of the employees were local. Each year the firm took on two school leavers, one in the yard and the other in Mt Hutton's garden. This was for a year prior to becoming an apprentice.

Then DISASTER struck!

The old Crossley paraffin engine could be awkward to start in the mornings and there had been a few close shaves but in 1937 it went out of control and in next to no time the whole yard was ablaze. There was a shortage of water on site and when the firemen arrived they had to lay hoses from Birch Hall Lake as the river at Heckford Bridge was too low. The whole site was gutted and the staff were out of work. Frank thought very seriously about quitting but builder friends came along with offers of facilities and joinery was purchased from people who were normally competitors. The work was able to proceed as nearly all the records had been saved and when the insurance was settled plans for a new yard on the present premises were put into action. All was ready by mid 1938 when the firm became F Hutton & Son Ltd.

During the years between the wars men had a great fear of losing their jobs and Frank Hutton was much respected as a boss and viewed with awe by many of the employees. They were known as a firm who paid slightly less than the "going rate" but were, nevertheless, "a good firm to work for". It is said that many Hutton trained men went on to higher posts with other firms and that to have worked for the firm was taken as a good reference. The Parish Magazine notes that the firm was among the first to pay an annual bonus to employees and, in addition, references are made to Christmas Dinner provided for employees and their wives.

When war was declared all sorts of jobs were tackled - toilets for troops, blackout shelters by the thousand, concrete pill boxes (some still standng as they have proved indestructible!), and heavy gun emplacements ready to withstand any invasion.

In 1947 the name was changed to Hutton (Builders) Ltd and among jobs undertaken were refurbishments at HMS Ganges, William and Griffin's store, a major remodelling of Barclay's Bank plus schools in and around Colchester. One can trace changes in Colchester by comparing details of Hutton's jobs over the years! Kingsway, built after the war, replaced the Arcade built many years earlier by Huttons and during the demolition of the Arcade remains of Roman Colchester burnt down by Boadicea were revealed!

Similarly the Colchester Bank built in 1906 by Frederick Hutton was rebuilt 21 years later by his son, Frank and it was then further extended by Fred's grandson Ian Heddle. The firm has a tradition of employing local families and still has direct links with earlier generations of the Hutton family - what would John Hutton, the founder, think of the firm today which has an annual turnover of some £20 million?

PublishedAugust 1996
SourceMersea Museum / Breton Heath