By Barry M Jones
Village life in Beckley may never be the same again as one of its last, and oldest, businesses closes on 2nd April, 2015 turning Beckley into yet another Sussex dormitory village.
Although Beckley Motors, as we know it, began in 1947, its origins are directly traced back to around 1908 when John Dengate of The Pines, Beckley, began a taxi service. Since the 1890s, John had been running a small bakery at 49, Mount Street, Battle; his uncles and brothers, Charles and William, had long run the bakery (and with Charlie Banister, the windmill) at Mill Corner, Northiam. John duly had a pair of weather boarded cottages built opposite The Pines and moved into Pine Bank, below which was built a single garage, with office, for his Darracq taxi. Within its gabled roof was a dog kennel, with access from the steep drive behind, for ‘Bruce’ their Labrador guard dog!
The taxi business grew rapidly, primarily serving the railways at Northiam and Rye and then, during the Great War, the local military hospitals and convalescent homes at Church House, Beckley, Brickwall and Great Dixter, Northiam, later necessitating a garage extension to the east. On demobilisation from the Royal Sussex Regiment, in which John’s son, Johnny, had driven ambulances, young Johnny joined the business and persuaded his father and uncles to expand the taxi service by running a local bus-cum-carrier service to Hastings, via Staplecross, in friendly competition with local carriers, such as Harry Ovenden of Northiam. Thus was born Dengate Brother’s bus service to Hastings and then, having sold their carrier service to Ovenden, came a second charabanc bus service to Rye which continued through Udimore to Hastings. By modifying the extension roof they were able to squeeze both buses in the small garage. But desperate for larger premises, they acquired in 1923 Joseph Pierce’s yard and stable opposite (where now stands ‘Dengates’) for their bus garage and duly installed the modern miracle of a hand-cranked, half-gallon lift, Pratt-Bowser petrol pump which saved the back breaking work of filling cars from 2-gallon cans of petrol, stored in the back of the taxi garage.
By the-mid 1920s Dengate & Son, Motor Engineers, as they had become, was a thriving taxi, bus and village garage supplying tyres, cars and bicycles. Having electricity supplied on private subscription from Banis ter’s corn mill in Northiam, they were able to recharge accumulators for villagers’ radio batteries. Mains electricity came in 1929, then soon after Beckley gained its own telephone exchange and the garage changed from Northiam 28 to Beckley 228, but mains water did not arrive until 1962 – they meanwhile relied on a spring-fed well. Their petrol pumps were sited at the road-side, opposite, from which were dispensed a variety of brands: Pratts and BP-Power and then National Benzol along with MobilOil; Dengate’s buses had their own hand-cranked pump standing sentinel, along with a later TVO tractor-fuel pump, until the 1970s when the old bus garage site was cleared.
With the bus business ever more profitable, the taxi business was sold in 1928 to local coal-man, David Padgham, and then in 1937 the garage business went to Len Godden, who had driven Bennett’s ‘The Times’ bus between Tenterden and Rye. The garage retained Beckley 228 for their telephone number while Dengate’s buses changed to Beckley 337. But no sooner had Len settled in, than war was declared. He dutifully dug an air-raid shelter into the bank at the back of the garage (next to the old petrol store!) but with petrol now strictly rationed (even Dengate’s buses had to carry coupons and fill up at Farleys in Peasmarsh, or Hartnells at Brede), and with little prospects of getting spare parts for cars, Len was soon forced to close the business for the duration and set to work as a farm contractor with a tractor under Ministry of Food orders. He pulled many acres of flax in the village for the war-effort. With petrol rationing easing in 1946, Len reopened the garage and employed Sam Hoad as his mechanic. Sam had worked at Edward’s Stores, nearby, before the war; his elder brother Don had driven for Dengates since 1923. Their cousin Joyce would later become a very familiar figure driving Jempson’s van, delivering bread and groceries to villagers, well into the 1970s!
Len, however, had decided to concentrate on his busy farm contractor work; he was by then employing Alf Jarman and had four tractors. Len later drove part-time for Dengates on their new schools’ runs, safely protected from the kids in his double decker’s cab, leaving Sam to run the garage. But in 1947, Len sold the garage to local builder, Arthur ‘Nip’ Brown, who duly leased the workshop from the Dengate family. Of farming stock, Nip had briefly worked as a cowboy in Calgary, Canada, before setting up in partnership in 1930 with Mr E Comport of Northiam as local builders, until Nip bought him out. Though they built many houses locally, his trade also suffered during and immediately after the war. His son, Cyril, had gone straight from Beckley School, at the age of 15-years, to Farley’s Garage at Peasmarsh but after almost a year, moved to Beckley Motors after his father’s unexpected purchase of the garage business. Cyril now worked alongside Sam before being called up, at the age of 18-years, for National Service into the REME; which he enjoyed. He returned to Beckley in 1954 and married June Bryant in 1958; Cyril was made a partner with Nip in 1961.
Having taken out a contract with The Regent Oil Company, the two trusty hand-cranked Pratt-Bowser petrol pumps were replaced in 1957 by modern electric-powered pumps as Regent began a programme of modernising garage forecourts. The garage also had a superb, but ancient, ‘Michelin man’ air compressor, mounted on two wheels, with the air-line coming out of its mouth to inflate tyres! The older half of the garage had the original pit; to the west was a small office with store behind. Into the extension, on the Rye side, was now squeezed a new hydraulic car lift… and as the cars rose, so too did business, including some agricultural tractor repairs. They had a ‘sand’ coloured Land Rover Series 1, 109″ truck with a car-recovery crane built by Cyril; this was later replaced by a blue and white Land Rover Series 2A, 2.6ltr 1-ton truck with a (professionally-built!) Harvey-Frost crane.
In those distant, trustworthy days, The Westminster Bank’s van (sometimes a taxi!) would call in to collect the takings from both Dengates and Beckley Motors before heading off to deposit them (hopefully) at Northiam: Cyril hardly ever saw his Bank Manager!
But by the mid-1960s it was clear that Beckley Motors needed much larger premises, and so they brought a nearby field off Albert Golding. Standing on this land, next to Pines Cottage, was Edgar Dunster’s wooden shed which had remained in use into the early 1950s as a cobbler’s (and illicit village bookmakers!); it was later used as a private garage. The shed had come from Church House, Beckley (having been erected there in the Great War for the “Beckley Motors in December 2000, with ‘The Pines’ and ‘Dengates’ in the distance, opposite which was the original garage” “The Village Bus Remembered” Page Twenty-Seven convalescent home) and duly replaced Edgar’s smaller cobbler’s hut opposite but, despite long deserving a Preservation Order, it succumbed to a very stormy night in November 2009.
The new garage was opened in 1968 with its spacious 4-pump forecourt, showrooms and, below, workshops and spray-shop into which went their faithful hydraulic lift, and another. A three bedroom flat was built above for Cyril and June. When Albert Golding’s widow was no longer able to afford to maintain her house, Cyril bought her house and land and built for her a new bungalow, next door, and a pair of houses for his principal staff, Steve Ide and Trevor Ovenden (the Northiam carrier’s grandson), both of whom have worked at Beckley Motors since leaving Northiam school in 1971 and 1972, respectively.
They opened with an ESSO petrol franchise, but when ESSO began offering petrol to other local garages at more advantageous rates, Beckley Motors moved over to JET petrol in 1983. In local competition for petrol sales was C N Crouch & Son, Ironmongers, of Beckley Four Oaks who had been selling BP petrol from a roadside Pratt-Bowser pump in the 1920s, but new legislation on the siting of roadside petrol pumps brought about their removal in the mid-1970s. Both they and Beckley Motors had lost much passing trade when the main A268 Rye to Hawkhurst and London road was diverted away from Beckley along Whitebread Lane in 1964, but worse was to come in the 1970s as supermarkets began to sell cut-price petrol and the big petrol companies lost interest in supplying small rural garages with their uneconomic 500 gallon tanks.
In 1972 Beckley Motors became an important dealer for Austin – Morris (and their up-market Wolseley and Riley marques); their range of cars best met local needs with the later British Leyland Austin Metro selling particularly well. Indeed, Beckley Motors gained many awards for meeting and exceeding British Leyland’s sales targets. In fact Beckley Motors would supply any new car – in those days dealer’s discounts were better than today – along with some second hand cars which Nip, who had a very good eye for a business deal, would carefully select from those at the Maidstone car auctions.
While June managed the forecourt – and between fill-ups, maintained a spectacular and much admired forecourt garden – she also sold cars, dealt with customers and kept the books. Cyril was usually to be found in the workshop wearing his hallmark cloth cap. In keeping with most garages, a broadly smiling plastic Michelin-man model, Mr Bibbendum, was mounted on the cab roof of their small Mini-van but it wasn’t too long before Mr Bibbendum now sported a cloth cap – and a scarf in the winter! – mimicking a much loved and respected boss! The garage also often opened at mid-night in the 1960s by special request from the Hastings’ 1066 Car Club for their regular rallies!
In 1986, Trevor married Cyril and June’s daughter, Ann; Nip retired and June became a partner. Then in 1989 Cyril retired; he had long been a Fellow of the Institute of the Motor Industry. The Leyland dealership also ended in 1989 as Beckley Motors was let to another.
Meanwhile, the original, but now redundant, garage had been bought off the Dengate family and was let for private use – at one time housing a Formula racing-car – but after standing empty for some years, still with the old illuminated ‘Regent’ globe intact, it had become derelict and was rebuilt in 1998 as a double lock-up garage, with side forecourt.
In August 1993 Cyril regained control of Beckley Motors and with Trevor, Steve Ide (and now Steve’s brother Pat) as their highly regarded mechanics, restored the business to its former glory now with Cyril and June in partnership with Trevor and Ann. They moved over to a MURCO fuel agency, now adding diesel to meet increasing demand. But times were a-changing; they now abandoned car-body repairs and car-recovery as car insurance companies now required special low-loaders. In 1995 they became a sub-dealer for the local Ford agents, Hollingsworth of Hastings… until Hollingsworth’s sudden and unexpected demise in 1999. Then as village shop after village shop closed – Beckley’s Post Office Stores in December 1998 and Crouch’s in April 2000 – the car showroom was converted into a useful corner shop selling everything from bread, milk and spuds to Calor Gas, coal and paraffin. As modern car components are no longer repairable by mechanics ‘at the roadside’, as of old, and facing ever-changing, evermore restrictive and more costly legislation and compliance regulations forced upon small businesses everywhere, the inevitable closure of yet another long established family – and village – business has come about.
They will be greatly missed.
With thanks to Cyril and June Brown, Trevor and Ann Ovenden Barry M Jones author of The Village Bus Remembered – John Dengate & Son Ltd “The original garage, 1920s” “The Village Bus Remembered”.
“Rye’s Own” March 2015
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