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Beach Bros - St Thomas

Page updated 3 March 2009

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The early days in Dover

It was not until 1940 that Beach Bros was based in Exeter. The business was founded in Dover, during 1868 by John Beach. The popularity for patent medicines and other products during the Victorian period led to a huge market for bottles of different sizes, all of which required a stopper of some sort. John Beach had noticed this, and started to import cork for the manufacture of stoppers, bungs and corks for beer bottles, barrels and of course, medicine. At first the bungs were manufactured by hand but gradually machinery was introduced to fabricate all manner of stoppers, using wood as well as cork. In fact, many new products were introduced including lifebelts, floats for fishing nets and sheet cork which would have been used for insulation, especially in military vessels. From about 1900, cork increasingly became a popular material for flooring. During the First World War demand grew, but once hostilities had ceased, trade fell for cork products. As a consequence, the company extended its specialist timber products to compensate for this lost business.

War and invasion

When war was declared, apart from the occasional air raid siren, Beach Bros traded as normal, albeit with some important Government orders on their books. In December, the roof of the main timber store was damaged by a shell - unfortunately, it was a British shell that had been accidentally fired from Dover harbour. In early 1940 the firm installed an air raid shelter for its employees and the rising number of daily warnings meant that at least half the work time was spent in the shelter and not in production.

Go west

The threat of invasion in May, during Dunkirk led to the Government, on 27th May 1940, ordering Beach Brothers to evacuate their factory to a safer location within 48 hours. Exeter was selected for the new location and premises were found through an Exeter estate agent in Longbrook Street and New North Road. The Dover factory closed on 31st May and the removal of machinery, stock and personnel commenced. Four cars and a Ford lorry were used in the journey to ferry 17 employees and some basic equipment to Exeter. The rest of the machinery and stock would be brought down by a haulage contractor and rail.

Lloyds Bank in Exeter supplied a temporary office, and the Chamber of Commerce put the firm in contact with builders and estate agents. The first of the equipment was moved into premises in Longbrook Terrace belonging to Wessex Garage (later Reid and Lee) and a garage in Blackboy Road. Within a fortnight, 26 Dover employees had moved down to Exeter. Materials continued to arrive by truck from Dover for the next two and a half years. Additional stock and equipment was transported by rail into Central Station. Within a few weeks 33 were employed at the Longbrook Terrace premises and 24 at Blackboy Road. The firm were soon producing items for army water bottles, cork seals for aircraft fire-extinguishers and of course, essential plugs for beer barrels.

Even Exeter gets bombed

Expansion into other premises took place in 1941, especially for storing materials. At one point Beach Bros had seventeen stores dotted around the city. On 15th January 1942 a new workshop in Summerland Street was opened, but its days were numbered. The blitz of the 4th May 1942 saw much of central Exeter destroyed, including the Summerland Street premises of Beach Bros, and some of their other stores around the city hit. After the initial shock, the Exe Valley Joinery Works in Western Road, St Thomas were taken over and the firm moved in.

Peace breaks out

At the end of the war, three directors returned to Dover with a view to the firm returning to the town. On inspection, it was decided that the old premises in Dover had deteriorated in the intervening years and that the firm would stay in Exeter - only one employee decided to return to Dover. Gradually, the various rented properties in Exeter were closed, and all manufacturing and storage moved to Western Road. In 1949 the directors decided to diversify and the floor laying department was opened. A new timber store was partly complete, when on 3rd August 1951, it unexpectedly collapsed, luckily, without any casualties.

The 1960 flood

In October 1960, the floods that hit St Thomas, were especially deep and fast in Okehampton Street and Western Road. Employees were trapped in the upper floor of the building for nine hours, during the height of the flood, before they were rescued by army DUKWs. The Express and Echo reported the event and Mrs Ethel Williams said to a soldier "Thank goodness you've come. We all thought we were trapped for the night." She told a reporter "We were singing to pass the time, but I think we were all frightened." Three workers swam 25 yards across Western Way to reach the railway embankment, from where one walked to St David's Station and two walked to Albion Street where they were rescued by ladder.

Mr W P Beach said "We estimate that more than £10,000 worth of damage has been done. It will take perhaps four weeks to get back to full production." The two floods of St Thomas in 1960, caused thousands of pounds of damage to stock and equipment, and some stock was found floating out in the English Channel.

Over the intervening years, Beach Bros have expanded into roofing, contract flooring, curtain fitting and manufacturing butchers blocks. Nowadays, they still supply cork products including tiles for floors and walls. They are also a noted supplier of 30 different exotic hardwoods, bamboo and English timber. Their workshops manufacture hardwood flooring and kitchen worktops. Beach Bros can now well be considered an Exeter company, after 65 years.

Source: Express and Echo, The History of Beach Bros. Ltd by W P Beach - with thanks to Beach Bros for the use of photographs and the book. © 2005 David Cornforth not to be used without permission.

The Beach Brothers factory in the 1960'sBedford vans lined up outside the factory in the 1960's Beach Brothers from the air The factory from the air at Western Road. Beach Brothers workers Workers in the cork department at the Western Road factory after the war.Beach brothers flooded shop floor Sodden goods and materials after the 1960 floods.

If you have a photo relating to Beach Brothers, and would like to share it, please contact me on the email address at the foot of the page.

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