Brettells Handrail and moulding manufacturers


Brettells history dates back to around 1830. It started in a small workshop in Regents Row, Haggerston, East London. The workshop was situated in the corner of a saw mills yard. As a young boy Henry Brettell helped his father produce turnings and tool handles for local traders. Henry's father was descended from a line of French cabinet makers.


The tool handles they produced were from timber off-cuts discarded by the saw mill. Power for the lathe and saw bench was via a leather belt which ran through a hole in the wall and was linked to the saw mills line shaft, consequently their working hours revolved around the saw mills.


In 1912 the workshop moved from Haggerston to a bakers shop at 121 Teesdale Street Hackney which Henry bought for £200.


In 1914 "& Sons", was added to the name and war work began making ammunition boxes and other wooden items for the Ministry of Defence.


The second generation Henry Brettell had four sons. First son Henry James Brettell took over the business at the age of 14. The other sons Will, George and John joined later.


Second generation Henry died in 1921. Third generation Henry now with the help of his younger brothers continued to build up the business until 1930 when the depression hit. They decided to close the workshop and wait for the economy to pick up. Six months later they opened up and carried on. In 1939 at the outset of WW11 and still producing a number of articles for the MOD, the business was declared a “reserved occupation”.


On 7th September 1940 Hitler ordered the bombing of the city of London. The east end of London being close to the docks bore the brunt of the bombing and was devastated in the blitz. Henry's three children were moved to Northampton. The workshop in Teesdale Street, suffering minor damage, was patched up and work never stopped. Henry's second son James Lawrence Brettell returning from Northampton joined the firm in 1942 at the age of 16. Six months later his father Henry collapsed at work and was taken to hospital. The firm was now taken over by George Brettell.


The shop, as it was known, had a line shaft with wooden pulleys and leather belts which supplied power to the hand turning lathes saw bench and tumbler situated down stairs. A thick leather belt ran up through a hole in the floor to another line shaft upstairs which ran more hand turning lathes. The line shaft with its pulleys and bearings was supported on a timber frame work and the whole set up was powered by one 2hp DC electric motor.


During the day the belts would stretch so at night they were taken off and soaked in castor oil. This job was given to the young James. The next morning the belts were put back on. They would stand outside while the motor was switched on and the whole building would start to shake but soon settled down so that the family could start work. The hand turners would sometimes have to stop work to a shout of "EASE UP" if a heavy piece of wood was being cut downstairs.


The old bread oven served a useful purpose to burn the waste wood and chips which kept the place warm in winter. The cast iron door was used to toast their cheese sandwiches.


Log sawn timbers were stacked on the roof of the office with sticks between them to air dry the planks. When the turners wanted some more timber the youngest member of the family was sent up onto the roof with a hand saw to cut off what was needed. When the supply of wood ran out, work stopped, but there was usually a timber lorry delivering somewhere in the area. In those days the east end of London was a hot bed of wood turning and cabinet making and the odd plank of timber could be acquired with the help of a rolled-up cigarette.


The office was very small. In the corner was a big dusty roll top desk littered with papers and a high stool. In amongst the papers was a candlestick phone. The telephone number was “Clissold 3865” but Uncle George took great delight in answering the phone 'Piss’ole 3865'.


On Saturday morning James would push a hand cart around the tool shops of Shoreditch selling file handles, chisel handles and bradawls. James's younger brother Henry George Brettell also took turns on the handcart. When the boys returned to the shop, the money that had been collected would be shared out amongst the family and that was their week's wages. The company now specialised in Lignum Vitea mallets and Butchers Blocks.


Lignum was a particularly nasty timber to hand turn. Henry George recalls stripping down to his under pants and boots and donning a leather apron to hand turn mallet heads. By the end of the day he was completely yellow from head to foot.


March 1944 James, now 18, was called up for active service, so on 17th April he joined the RAF and later the Army and was sent to India.


He returned from India in 1947 and rejoined the firm but insisted his father invest in a new rotary knife lathe and a car. The new Fells BH 12” rotary knife lathe was purchased on 23rd October 1947 at the cost of £170/02s. Brettells oldest machine is a Fells GA bought brand new on 20th September 1916. The GA was the princely sum of £40/15s.


Henry George Brettell joined the Army to do his national service in the tank regiment and was in Germany when he heard news of his father’s death in 1950. Will died shortly after Henry. This left George, John, James and younger brother Henry in the firm. Henry later left the firm to pursue a career in civil engineering.


James persuaded his uncles to convert the partnership into a limited company. The business was incorporated in 1955 and in 1956 the council put a compulsory purchase order on the shop in Teesdale Street and the firm moved their 7 machines to a 10,000 sq ft factory in 4 Railway arches at 350 Winchelsea Road Forest Gate. James clearly had plans on expansion. A small line shaft driven hand turning shop was set up in one corner and this remained in use, right up to 1980. The whole factory was heated by 4 chip burners. The cheese sandwiches were now toasted on the side of the chip burners.


George retired in 1967 and James took over. James’s first son James Richard Brettell had a brief spell at the firm before leaving to attend teacher training college.


In 1970 James's second son Rob Brettell officially joined the firm aged 15. The company introduced more rotary knife lathes and installed an oil fired heater. The work force expanded to 20. John with his wife Daisy continued working until 1971.


Winchelsea Road during the 70’s was surrounded by a fascinating mix of interesting characters with a variety of occupations with, it seemed, the woodturning factory at its heart. There was the car mechanic; the blacksmith; the women bottle washers; the sprayer; the seed merchant; the tinsmith and the stone masons. We all got sandwiches from Alec’s corner café with a juke box, Bev coffee and a pin ball machine jacked up on wooden blocks to make the ball run faster. There was the corner shop; the brush makers; the clothing factory and the printers. The street seemed to be full of cars all tied together with string.


When a free coffee machine was installed outside the office this often became a focal point and an excuse for people to visit and of course at some point everyone needed a piece of wood or some wood chips. The company supplied the whole road with wood chips for their chip burners. Every so often they would bring back some charred spanners that had been swept up and bagged with the chips. A lot of trading went on within this small community under the barter system and it became known as “The Mill”.


This was a time when James was actively embracing new manufacturing technology and he developed a long and happy relationship with Fells of Windermere. He helped to design new machines and in turn was often the first to test them in production. He discovered the benefits of compressed air and took great delight in fitting pneumatic rams to just about any machine of whatever age, with a view to automating them. He was always at his happiest finding ways of making things out of wood and adapting a machine for the purpose. Any trip to the shops would include close examination of anything made of wood and discussion of how it had been made.


This was a period just before the use of plastic had become widespread; there hardly seemed an area of British life that did not use a product made by the firm. Jeweler’s used beech handled engraving tools, sat on traditional three legged stools and filed rings on wooden bench pegs. Glass merchants cut glass with diamond tipped cutters in rosewood handles; Brewers used Rattan long handled floggers; the Royal Navy platted rope with Lignum Vitea fids; the Post Office used box wood date stamps; pubs had beech lemon boards and rosewood beer engine handles; judges had wig stands; morticians used mallets; Wilkinson’s had sword scabbards and Ronson had lighter bases. The list is endless and all this was in addition to stock items such as file handles, mallets, knobs and spindles. James was hugely proud, not only of the vast range of products the company made, but also the sheer amount and versatility of the machinery he had accumulated and adapted in order to make all those products.


The business flourished and in 1980 moved into an 8,500 sq ft factory at its present site in Chestnut Avenue, Forest Gate. In 1995 after a brief spell in hospital James retired and Rob took control.


H Brettell & Sons Ltd is constantly striving to adapt and improve and during the period between 2000 and 2008, invested in yet more machinery and technology to meet the demands of today's market. In 2008 the company re-branded with a new logo and is now known simply as Brettells. Brettells is today making a name for itself producing wreathed handrail and bespoke timber staircases.


James Brettell died on the 5th January 2009. The company is still in the family and is run by its 5th generation owner and managing director Rob Brettell.