Laddermaking did run(g) in the family! The Bugbrooke firm of J Ward and Son were undertakers and ladder makers and three generations of Humphreys worked there. Ernest Humphrey, Ron and Arthur’s father, was born in Bugbrooke and worked at Ward’s with his wife’s father. Ernest became a journeyman carpenter and for a while went to work in Loughborough with Moss Builders who built the Narborough mental hospital. He remained at the hospital where he was responsible for building maintenance and helped the patients in the workshops there. He married Alice who had been a children’s nurse in Northampton and they started their family, but he became unwell and had to leave his job as a result. The asylum, as it was then known, continued to pay him a small pension until his death in 1936.
How the business began
The family came back to live in Northamptonshire, only this time in Nether Heyford. Ernest returned to Ward’s. His eldest son Ron went to work there in 1920 when he left school at the age of thirteen, and perhaps it was their experience of working together that encouraged his father to start his own business in Nether Heyford. The asylum pension allowed him to buy the first lot of poles used in the business. Steve Ward, their previous employer was not very happy about this and threatened ‘to smash them’. He even took out a summons against them for not working out their notice, but it didn’t come to anything and in time relations once again became amicable.
At that time the family lived in the cottage on the south side of the Green, no 17, where Mrs Pearson now lives and near to the old folks bungalows. They used the house and garden to make ladders. The garden was turned into a work yard for boring holes in the poles which formed the ladder sides, and for assembling the ladders. The room which is now the living room but at that time was a wash house, was used to make the ladder rungs. The chips left over from making the ladder rungs provided a useful supply of fire lighting material and were sold to local people for sixpence a sack. The ladder sides were planed in a barn behind the Baptist Chapel Rooms, now gone, and at that time owned by Mr J.O.Adams. This space was also used for finishing the ladders off: painting, etc.
Their first venture into business was not a financial success. They were offered a big order from a firm out of the area, which they duly completed. Somewhat strangely they had been asked to deliver the ladders to Travis and Arnold in St James, Northampton from where the ladders would be collected. Having no transport, Mr Humphrey, Ron, Arthur and daughter May had to push the ladders into Northampton on a cart. They were delighted to have made a good sale and looked forward to settlement of the account as money was tied up in timber stock. This was not to be. The firm went bankrupt and not a penny was received.
The move to Church Street
Younger brother Arthur joined the business in July 1923 when he left school. Money was tight and it took time for the business to establish itself in the harsh economic climate of the years after the First World War, but in time it grew sufficiently for Mr Humphrey to buy a property in Church Street where there would be much more space for the family business and home.
The property in Church Street comprised a group of farm buildings complete with an orchard, still there, and a stream with watercress growing in it. The farm was bought on 8th August from Mrs Lookes, an elderly lady who lived in St Matthews Parade in Northampton. There were a number of sitting tenants who, one imagines, were rather disconcerted at the prospect of having to ﬁnd somewhere else to live. There was Mrs Dunkley who moved to another cottage in 1928, the Collins family who moved to the farm beside the canal bridge in Furnace Lane, the Barnes, the Clarke family and Mr H Gilke.
When Mr Collins was served notice to quit it seems that he didn’t take it lying down and Mr Humphreys noted in his records that he ‘used abusive language to me’. It was not until 1929 that the Humphreys ﬁnally moved in.
In the meantime there were rents to be collected and taxes to be paid and it is evident that Mr Humphrey was concerned that the rents were not really sufficient to pay his overheads. It seems that in 1929 ‘the property only brings in yearly £51-12s-6d’.
The large stone farmhouse was in a sorry state and barely habitable. There were also two Victorian cottages on the right hand side of the drive into the farmyard. It was decided to live ii the old farmhouse and to renovate one of the cottages. Eventually the family moved into the cottage, although by that time May was already living at Moulton. When Ron married he moved into the cottage next door where he spent the rest of his life. When Arthur married he moved into a house in Church Street and then to a house on The Green where he still lives.
Ron, Sheila and Arthur in the 1930s
Photo lent by the Humphrey family
On the farm there was plenty of space to erect two good workshops fitted up with gas lamps. One of the Workshops (where Ladder Cottage now stands) was assembled from an ex-army sectional building. It had a beautiful wooden lining and good windows, and was large enough to take the assembly of a sixty rung ladder. When the business was closed the building was dismantled and sold to a scout group east of Northampton. The other workshop, still standing, was lined with First World War munitions boxes and the pillars for the building were built by Mr Denny.
The ladders were made by hand until 1946 when a universal machine was bought from Birmingham. This was purchased with the proceeds of selling the family’s dairy cows and Arthur attributes the success of the company to the fact that from that early date they made a point of investing in new machinery. Other machines came from Fells of Windermere, a firm which is still in business. These machines made the work much easier and enabled production to be increased.
The Humphrey’s ﬁrst and last lorry
Photo lent by the Humphrey family
The ladders were made from two very different timbers. The sides were made from ‘poles’ imported from Norway and were of Christiana pine and spruce. A special trip would be made to Great Yarmouth or Hull to inspect them. They were then brought by train to Weedon from where they had to be delivered to the workshops, sometimes by the local carrier, Tarrys. Timber was also bought from the London timber docks, south of the River Thames at Surrey Docks. The poles were brought in ‘green’ and were seasoned on the farm. Oak was used for the ladder rungs, and for this it was necessary to go to Leicester where they could be relied upon to supply good quality timber. They must have liked the Humphreys ladders because they would buy their ladders to sell on. Mabbutts of Brixworth supplied first class oak which was knot free. Oak was also bought from Badby and from between Everdon and Stowe. When the oak became scarce and too expensive and the Humphreys had bought the last oak from Earl Spencer’s estate, they turned to ash of which supplies were plentiful. During the war all timber was rationed and it was necessary to have a licence to buy the poles from local merchants.
Many different types of ladder
Over the many years different kinds of ladders were made. They were of different lengths and were measured by the number of rungs they had. A thirty rung ladder was twenty-two feet long. When a pole was split to make the sides of the ladder it produced a round side and a ﬂat side. Builders liked to have the round edge on the outside. perhaps to make it easier on the hands when climbing up it. Others such as farmers and thatchers wanted the round side to the centre, perhaps so that it would not hurt their knees if they leant against the ladder, but also because the thatchers would use the outside face of the ladder as a straight edge to help them lay the thatch.
Thatching hay ricks using Humphreys ladders
Photo lent by John Smith
There were extension ladders too. The longest was a triple extension ladder of ninety-three rungs for a hotel in Bournemouth. There were also window cleaners ladders and decorators ladders. Some of the ladders were painted, others simply stained. Load ladders were made of willow and were used by farmers when loading the hay wagons. The willow for these was cut from along the Nene Valley and they were not straight. In fact they were deliberately irregular so that if they were knocked over when the hay wagon was loaded they would fall to the ground and rock but not break. Load ladders were also used for thatching hay ricks or ‘thaking’ as it was called locally. The ricks were thatched to keep the hay dry over winter.
In 1930 a forty-five rung ladder for the Northampton Electric Light & Power Co. cost £5-6s-8d. This company were for some years the Humphreys’ best customer with an insatiable need for ladders, and in that same year bought at least ﬁfty of various different lengths. Electricity was still relatively new and presumably the company were busy putting up poles to serve the new customers. I wonder how many of the poles which still exist in Hey-ford were put up using a Humphrey ladder.
Nearly all the customers were local at the beginning but over time it became necessary to look to a wider market and it was then that the ladders began to be exhibited at the annual agricultural shows. Each summer the Humphreys triangular ladder display was loaded up on to the lorry and taken to such shows as the Royal Show at Stoneleigh, and the East of England Show at Peterborough. In time Humphreys ladders were delivered within a seventy-five mile radius which included Worcester and Coventry. But it was the local firm Travis and Arnold which became their best customer.
The Humphreys did not only make ladders. A 1930 order came from ].Y.Castell of Gold Street in Northampton for four milking stools at 4/ – each (less 10% discount), and in the same year a ‘navvy’ barrow was made for W.G.Denny of Nether Heyford for 35/-. They also did repairs such as ﬁxing a gate for the Parish Council, sharpening saws or repairing the handle of a billhook or mallet for Mr J.O.Adams. There seems to have been a delay in settling this bill which eventually involved the exchange of 1.5 cwt of potatoes.
In time a number of local ‘youths’ came to work in the ladder workshops including Bill Kingston, Cliff Gilkes and Ted and Maurice Sargent.
Other family activities
While the men of the family were busy making an selling ladders the women were also active. May Humphrey, the second child, was the post mistress at Moulton for many years before coming back to Nether Heyford to work in Mrs Blaney’s post office. May and Sheila, the youngest daughter, lived in the family home with their mother. For a while they moved into Northampton where it was easier to look after Alice but she died shortly afterwards in 1974.
Arthur and his sister Sheila were well loved members of the Bugbrooke Choir. May was known for her Albert the Lion monologue of which Stanley Holloway also gave a good rendition, and with a bit of encouragement May can be persuaded to do it even today ! The family were stalwart supporters of the Baptist Chapel, May having been Church Secretary and Shelia playing the organ for many years.
Arthur was also a keen gardener and for sixty years gardened the allotment next to the Church Street jitty. This once was a ﬁne garden with flowers and vegetables and the food grown was enjoyed by the whole family.
In order to help with the family finances Ernest had started a milking herd of about nine cows. They had names like Buttercup and Daisy and would respond to their names when called. On Ernest’s death Arthur took over responsibility for the cows which most days would be driven up to fields on Weedon Road. To the dismay of Alice and Arthur, Sheila’s pet lamb, Betty, did not like to be left behind and used to try to go out with them, walking beneath one the cows where it was hard to detect her. There were also hens and many fruit trees. Because of these farming activities Arthur was exempted from the war and the Humphreys continued to deliver milk to local people throughout the war years. When they sold their herd Sheila continued to deliver John Smith’s milk for a while before getting a ‘proper job’.
During the war many people were expected to accommodate evacuees and the Humphreys were no exception. Mrs Humphrey was asked to accommodate a Mrs Buck and her children, and she did what she could to make the old cottage next to the farmhouse habitable, although by now it was in a very sorry state. Mrs Buck’s husband would come up from London at the weekends and in time he got an allotment. He knew nothing about growing vegetables but learned quickly, and to the amazement of the other men in the village was soon producing some of the best. One of the Buck boys was so impressed with Nether Heyford that at the end of the war he decided to stay and in time moved to a house in Furnace Lane. His son Jeff still lives in the village. I always thought he had streak of the Londoner in him. Now I know why !
The later years
The Introduction of baling machines meant that hay as no long loaded onto the wagons and the demand for farming ladders dropped almost overnight. Arthur can remember the first baler in the village at what is now New Creation Farm. The demand for wooden ladders continued to decline after the war. New, lighter metal ladders began to appear. The lack of demand, together with the lack of younger members of the family wanting to go into the business led them finally to close in May 1975. Ron was then 68 and read to retire. He died in 1994. Brother Arthur took retirement and with his wife Nora gave much of their time to the Hospital Guild in Northampton. Nora sadly died but Arthur Humphrey can still be seen walking round the village and gardening in spite of his very bent back, probably brought on by the heavy work of lifting wooden ladders.
Mr Ernest Humphrey and Kit the cow in the orchard in the early 1930s
Photo lent by the Humphrey family
In 1985 a house was built on the site of the assembly shop and Sheila and her husband Albert Beharrell moved into it. It is aptly named ‘Ladder Cottage’. The old farmhouse has now been largely demolished, although part of it has been incorporated into house built in 1995 by John Connolly for Albert’s daughter and her family. May still lives in the house that the family renovated for themselves ,and Ron’s daughter Jean lives in her old family home next door to May.
Eiluned Morgan (1996)
Extract from “The Story of Heyford” – Local book series published in the late 1990’s
Volume 1 of 4 | Chapter 8 of 13 | Pages 16 to 21