Mrs. Underhill’s trees
and an apology to Coventry.
Written by Philip Warner
Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke set up his toy company in Northampton in 1898/9. They specialised in model railways, boats and construction sets. Their models were commissioned by the Royal Navy and notable museums across the world at a time before digital when 3D models offered a unique interactive view of things and places. To my mind theses models are ripe for a revival, the conversations and discussion prompted by a reaction to our newest item would testify to this.
Recently we have been loaned a fantastic scale model of one of Northampton’s most remarkable buildings, the W. Pearce & Co. factory, by 78 Derngate. The home of Mr Bassett-Lowke, 78 Derngate is bedecked with stunning interiors created by designer and Art Deco style pioneer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It is, in fact, the only Mackintosh interior to survive in the UK, making it a real must-visit if you are ever in Northampton.
The model was painstakingly hand crafted by Bassett-Lowke Ltd. of Northampton, sometime around 1938. It is the vision of architect Lawson Carter, who was preparing it for an eager board of directors.
W.Pearce & Co were renowned worldwide for the quality of their leather. Their new office and tannery was made a reality in 1939, at a time when there were 107,000 people employed in the shoe and leather industry in Northamptonshire. The grandness of the building, with its opulent, of-the-moment design, portrays just how prosperous the British leather industry was at the end of the last century. Sitting just outside of Northampton town centre, this Art-Deco factory set in spacious landscaped gardens was unique in the industry. The Power House had four large diesel generators which produced all the electricity for the plant. The water used for cooling the engines was sufficient to supply hot water for the tannery, and three large oil burning boilers provided the steam. At the time it was the epitome of self-sustainability and energy efficiency. Sadly, the building now stands desolate, partially demolished, with the remainder waiting to be turned into offices and flats.
Several times in the past few months warm conversations have broken out as guests have leaned on the glazed cabinet and mused on the scene that lay below them. Many have memories of relatives and friends who worked in the factory. Some even worked there themselves, until the doors closed for a final time in 2002.
I would like share two of these reminiscences with you; Mrs Underhill’s trees, and an apology to Coventry!
John visited recently and began to regale us with tales of his time with Bassett-Lowke. He pointed to the fluffy green trees that lined the model and stated:
‘those trees were all made by one lady, Mrs Underhill. She worked at the factory all her life, retiring when she was well in her 80s’. He continued: ‘they don’t do trees like that anymore’ … ‘she made them on a wire frame with wire wool for the branches. She then sprayed the whole thing with glue, and then sprayed them again with flock’.
He was right! From afar the effect is very real, but upon closer inspection the trees do look more like green candy-floss.
John also drew our attention to the case itself. He explained how meticulously crafted each wooden joint was, with invisible, precisely fitted, dovetail and dowel jointing locking the edges together to meet elegantly at the corner points.
It really did set me thinking afresh about the hidden details, the effort and love poured into such finely made things.
Thanks for sharing John; I hope you don’t me paying it forward like this.
Mrs Underhill’s trees
The W. Pearce & Co. model, as seen from above
A few weeks before John, another couple visited and shared an extraordinary tale.
Some of their relatives in Germany used to tell stories of how the Pearce factory played a role in the war years.
They recounted how the Luftwaffe were given instructions on how to locate Coventry for the series of bombing raids carried out in 1940 and 1941. They were told to head west across the UK mainland, and turn north west at the shiny new factory building in the landscaped park on the outskirts of Northampton; the next city they came to would be Coventry!
Michael Pearson is a very active patron and trustee of the National Leather Collection, and was the last owner/director of W. Pearce & Co.
I cheekily asked him if they ever sent an apology to Coventry? He did confirm that they had to camouflage the factory facade soon after its opening, to prevent it from being so visible from the air. So perhaps there is a grain of truth in this model-side tale!