OUR VERY SPECIAL FATHER
It is difficult to put the following anecdotes and incidents into any chronological order but they are remembered by members of the family.
At the outbreak of the First World War a number of Belgian refugees came to this country. Father decided to take one family and house them in an empty cottage in a street just off Lambeth Walk.
Mother looked after the provision of furniture, bedding and crockery. Muriel and Dick were despatched to clean the place out, they also gave a concert, the proceeds of which went to provide kitchen equipment.
The family consisted of a husband and wife and two children. No doubt Father had selected this family because the husband was a bricklayer and Father was therefore able to give him a job.
For headgear Father always wore a bowler hat. If one glanced in any of these hats one would see the legend printed, ‘NOT YOURS”.
One of the secrets of Father’s success as a Builder was his expertise in estimating the cost of building repairs. Dick remembers being asked by Father to drive him to a street near Waterloo Station belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall. He said “Now drive very slowly along this street”. As he went along in first gear Father was making notes. By the time they arrived at the other end of the street, Father had noted all the details he needed to prepare an estimate for the cost of external repairs and decorations to all the property.
Right from the earliest days of our family Father had a summer residence in the district of South East Essex. Because the Duchy of Cornwall was one of Father’s largest customers he named each of these residences in turn The Duchy.
From there we moved to a large house in Hadleigh, constructed of timber with a weatherboard exterior. This was painted white and during the first daylight air-raid which took place in July 1916, Father insisted that we all crouched down in the ditch around the garden whilst he did no such thing as he wanted to see what was going on. Whilst we were there this house was also known as The Duchy.
Uncle Howard Fey worked for Father in London for a time. He came home to Kennington one day said to Father “I was in the City today and I saw an auction of land in Benfleet taking place. Ten plots of land in Uplands Road were put up for sale. I was the only bidder and I bought them for £10 per plot”. Father said “I’ll take them off of you”.
Some years later, whilst Mother and Father were at the Thundersley Duchy, Mother said that she would like to try and find the plots that had been bought by auction. So they harnessed up the pony to the trap and set off to try and find Uplands Road. When they got there and found what a magnificent view there was of the River Thames and the surrounding countryside Mother said “I would like a house to be built here”. That was probably about 1920 or 1921. And that was the beginning of The Duchy in Uplands Road.
Mother and Father had cultivated a passion flower in the Conservatory on the side of The Duchy . This grew to huge proportions. When it was in bloom Father usually had one of these blossoms in his button hole.
Although Father smoked the odd cigarette it was really a good cigar that he enjoyed most. But not just any cigar, it had to come from his favourite tobacconist in Bruges.
This, of course, became the excuse for a trip to his beloved Bruges. On a number of occasions he would say to Mother on a Saturday morning, “Get your coat on, I want to go to Bruges for the weekend”. Within an hour, they would be off!! A welcome always awaited them at ‘Charlemagne’, a Boarding House in Bruges, run by a couple of ladies, who treated Father and Mother as though they were royalty.
Indeed, immediately the war was over, Father returned to Charlemagne. When the ladies opened the door after his knock they said “Oh, Mr Brittain” and they became choked with emotion at seeing him again. As it turned out this was Father’s last visit and one can imagine the joy that it gave him.
Whenever any of we children accompanied Father on a trip to Belgium we always had to bring back as many duty free items as possible. This, of course, included a box of cigars. On one occasion Muriel had to declare a duty free box of cigars. As these duty free items were really meant for the use of the person declaring them, a Customs Officer said to her “do you smoke cigars”. Muriel replied “of course I do”. The customs officer smiled and said “O.K. You’ll do”.
One of the features of Bruges is the Belfry in the Square with its carillon of 47 bells. One Sunday afternoon when the Carrilloneur was playing the bells we were watching him. He seemed to know that we were British and he said “I will play you something special”, and he played “The Blue Bells of Scotland” especially for us.
There was also a commercial side to Father’s visits to Belgium as he bought roof tiles and bricks by the barge load which were then shipped to Benfleet Wharf. These building materials were used in the considerable property development which Father undertook at Benfleet and Thundersley.
Auction sales had a great attraction for Father. He always had an eye for a bargain and he was well known to Auctioneers in South London and elsewhere. Not only did he buy building equipment and materials for his building business at auction but every now and then he bought garden materials including fruit trees. Indeed we had so many peach trees in The Duchy garden that we got sick of eating the fruit.
This abundance of fruit meant that we had far more fruit than we could use in the family. So Father put a clothes basket in the road outside The Duchy which he kept filled with fruit for any passer-by to help himself.
Every Sunday night was reserved for hymn singing at The Duchy. Family and friends would gather and each in turn would choose their favourite hymn which everyone would then sing. Evelyn played either the harmonium or piano. Don Meliar was a regular attender at these singing sessions and many times in later life he referred to them as one of the highlights in his life.
When Father asked Dick if he could drive the T Pattern Ford car, which he then had, Dick replied “Of course I can”, and promptly drove Father to his destination.
Although Father had driving lessons he hated driving. Dick, however, had been present during these driving lessons and had watched points. When Father asked Dick if he could drive the T Pattern Ford car, which he then had, Dick replied “Of course I can”, and promptly drove Father to his destination. From then on Dick became his chauffeur until the family moved to Benfleet when Rebie took over.
Father bought an old 2 cylinder Unic London taxicab which was used to take him to his many engagements in London. After many years this old taxicab finished its life at Benfleet and the engine was used to drive the saw mill in the carpenter’s workshop at Tarpots.
Father wanted Dick to become an Architect and so after he left the City of London School he took up a course of studies at the Regent Street Polytechnic. This was followed by practical experience in Father’s carpenter’s shop under the tuition of Uncle Frank Brittain.
In the early 1920’s Father bought land in High Road, Benfleet near Tarpots Corner. On this he built about 12 bungalows and villas. This development was carried out under the supervision of Father’s great friend Albert Stibbards who was a Builder and Undertaker at Hadleigh.
Father’s next purchase was a very large field on the north side of London Road at Tarpots. He invited Dick to go down to Benfleet to take over the management of the firm of Geo. Brittain & Son, which Father had created.
The Duchy in Uplands Road was then being built and Dick lived in this, helping with the completion. Offices with a flat over were built at Tarpots Corner. In June 1924 Dick married Evelyn nee Hancock and they moved into the flat over the offices.
[Editor’s note: In 1953 Dick, R.B. Brittain, was Chairman of Benfleet Urban District Council]
The development of Tarpots Estate then took place by creating two roads – Lambeth Road and Kennington Avenue.
When the family moved from Kennington into The Duchy in Uplands Road, Benfleet, Father retired from his Building business in Kennington. Alec then took this over and carried on until his death. He was ably assisted by Ernie Bettison, a director, and W. Gray a director and secretary.
After Alec’s death his wife Joan carried on the business with the assistance of Mr. Bettison and Mr. Gray.
Father created a company for the benefit of the whole family which he named Tarpots Estate Ltd. Father was the Managing director, Dick was the Secretary and the rest of the family were all Directors. The Certificate of Incorporation of this Company dated 1st November, 1939 is still in existence.
Dick remembers what a wonderful staff we had. Mick McCormick an Irishman who was foreman bricklayer, his son Pat and Son-in-Law Pat Allan made a marvellous team. Dick Harvey was our Carpenter with a mate Alf Hart. Then there were the painters, labourers and plumbers. They all had to be kept busy.
Of course all this activity needed transport, and Dick well remembers going into Perry’s Ford Depot in Westcliff and proudly purchasing a new Ford one ton T Pattern lorry for £112/10/-. This he drove himself supplying the needs of the staff.
Father had a friendly business arrangement with Mr. Hayward, an Architect in Southend. Many properties were built for him including a house and factory in Hockley, a special cow shed at Sadlers Hall Farm and his own house in Benfleet Road.
Tarpots Hall and a number of shops were built on the main London Road at Tarpots together with Tarpots Service Station. Several bungalows and villas were built in Church Road, Lambeth Road and Kennington Avenue.
A Methodist Church was built in Kennington Avenue on land believed to have been donated by Father. Then a Church was built in Rushbottom Lane for the Church of England and one for the Baptists in Benfleet. Another Church was built for the Methodists at Wickford which had been designed by Dick.
It is believed that Father donated the land for a Methodist Church which was built on Canvey Island.
Progress was being made at the Methodist Church in Kennington Avenue and it was decided to build a Hall of Youth at the rear of the Church. The cost was £950 which seemed an enormous sum to be raised. However, all sorts of activities took place, such as Jumble Sales, Musical Tea’s and a Bazaar. Father and Bert Heckford, Muriel’s husband, sat tight in their clothes in case they were put in any of the sales.
Father had great sympathy for the poor and Muriel remembers one occasion when she accompanied Father to London to by a dozen pairs of wellingtons for children who had no winter footwear.
A highlight remembered by Muriel was when she accompanied Father to a Reception at the County Hall. The whole of the Royal Family passed near them. These included King George V and Queen Mary, all the Royal Dukes and Duchesses, Princess Mary and the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was an occasion Muriel will always remember.
In about 1929 there was a deep depression in the Country and in the Building Industry in particular. Father told Dick that he proposed to retire from Building and so he left him to carry on the Building business at Tarpots.
Father was Circuit Steward together with his friend Mr. A.T. Chamberlain for over 40 years at the South West London Mission, later to be called the “Ideal” when Rev. Thomas Tiplady turned it into a cinema.
Father and Mother were staunch teetotalers. In fact Mother founded White Ribbon branches at Vauxhall Methodist Church and also at Hadleigh Methodist Church. “Down Vauxhall Way” by B.J. Barker pays tribute to Mother’s fine work in also founding a Womens Own at Vauxhall.
Our family have always been very closely knit. Mother and Father used to telephone Muriel at Newcastle and Morpeth every Sunday evening. Father got Dick to drive him up to Newcastle in the family car two or three times every year.
An incident occurred in 1940. Nellie, who was looking after Father at The Duchy, decided to go away for a period. Father did not want to be left alone at The Duchy so he decided to go up to London to stay at the National Liberal Club where he was a Member. When he arrived, however, he found it was fully booked so he sent a telegram to Muriel at Morpeth saying that he was coming up by train and advised her of the time of arrival.
Muriel sent her son Geoffery to meet Father and to take him for a meal before taking the bus to Morpeth. It was a good job that she told Geoffery to do this, because all Father had had to eat since he left home in the morning was an apple. Furthermore, he had had to stand in the train for the whole of the journey.
Muriel thought that Father had in mind to defend The Duchy against the whole of the German Army if necessary!
During the weekend they heard the grave news that the German invasion was expected immediately. Muriel begged Father to stay with them, but no, he wanted to go straight back to Benfleet. If anything was about to happen he wanted to be there to see it! Muriel thought that Father had in mind to defend The Duchy against the whole of the German Army if necessary!
Dick helped Father bury the Doulton Ware and other valuables in the greenhouse.
Our home was always ‘Open House’ to relatives and friends, to members of Parliament, Politicians of all parties and those whom Father met through his business and social life. Anyone in distress or trouble could always be assured of a sympathetic hearing, for Father and Mother each had that rare quality of being able to listen. Such practical help, according to the need, was always given, if it were humanly possible.
Such was the affinity between Father and Mother that on several occasions, when Father had been abroad or at least away from home for a few days, with no previous arrangement as to the time of his return, Mother would say to Rebie seemingly ‘out of the blue’, “I want you to meet the 5.15 p.m. train, I think Father will be on it”. Sure enough he was.
Christmas time was one of the highlights of the year at The Duchy. The whole family gathered together for Christmas dinner. Sometimes, if it were a nice day Dick would arrange a car treasure hunt. No Christmas was complete without playing all sorts of games such as ‘Murder’, ‘Sardines’, and ‘Up Jenkins’.
Father loved playing billiards and snooker, so he built a billiard room at The Duchy in which he installed a full-sized billiard table. On most evenings Uncle Frank would come up and play several games with Father. Any of the family or friends were always welcome to join in.
Mother became seriously ill during 1939 and at the age of 69 years she passed away peacefully at 9 p.m. on March 3rd. With quiet conviction, as we all stood round her bed, Father said “She is in Higher Hands than ours now”. After 39 years of happy marriage, Father was devastated, as we all were. As always he lived by faith and showed us, his children, how to be the same. He would have no mourning at Mother’s funeral and no suggestion of black attire, only an abundance of flowers of which she was always so fond and which were so much more in keeping with her personality.
With hardly a break, Father continued his local preaching and his work on various Committees connected with the Churches of the London Mission and with the Lambeth Mission in particular. His long association with the political life of Lambeth accounted for many visits to the County Hall, Westminster.
Father was undoubtedly lonely. He knew of Auntie Nell Barton at Dunstable, Mother’s Sister-in-Law, who had been a widow for many years and was equally lonely and unhappy. At the age of eighty-five he asked her to marry him and they gave each other much happiness in the closing years of their lives, until Auntie Nell became seriously ill and she passed on. Once again Father was on his own, but he was becoming seriously ill. However, after a major operation in London he took on a new lease of life and in the eighteen months that remained to him, his buoyant spirits revived and he bought himself a new suit and new dentures. He also wrote his booklet “The Musings of an Octogenarian”.
Gradually he became more ill and his life was slowly ebbing away. When too ill to speak, he turned to Nellie, who was standing by his bed and whispered the number ‘473’. She knew to what he was referring and found the number in the Methodist Hymn Book. Quietly and no doubt with some emotion, she read the words of the hymn he had indicated:-
“My heart is resting, O my God,
I will give thanks and sing:
My heart is at the secret source,
Of every previous thing….
My heart is resting, O my God,
My heart is in Thy care,
I hear the voice of joy and health,
Thou are my portion! saith my soul,
Then thousand voices say,
And the music of their glad Amen,
Will never die away”.
We miss our Father greatly. Although it is now many years since he passed on, we still wish we had the opportunity to pop up to The Duchy to share with Father some pleasurable happening or to tell him the latest joke or on the other hand to say “Now look what’s happened. What would you do Father”.
Thank you for being such a loving Father.
After Father’s death in 1951 in his 90th year, it was decided that as no member of the family wished to live at The Duchy, it should be sold by auction.
George, Alec’s son, who was a Chartered Surveyor, arranged with Mr. Newton, a Leigh Auctioneer, to conduct an auction. It was decided that there should be a reserve price, but in the event there was only one serious bidder and his bid did not reach the reserve price. However, a deal was struck with this bidder in the sum of £3,800.
The material for this page was kindly made available to the BCA by Bob Barber.