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British Industrial History

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De Vere (Kensington): Memories

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Note: This is a sub-section of De Vere (Kensington)


Recollections.[1]

I worked for De Vere from 1984 to 1992..

At the start of this period, Arthur Sparks, one of the co-founders was still alive and based in the factory on the Pottington Industrial Estate in Barnstaple. His wife, Ivy, was Company Secretary and his son, John, was the director running the factory. Arthur Sparks died in the late-80s or early 90s, before the company started to decline.

Personnel in the Beckenham offices included:

Sales and technical support

  • John Boyce, sales director. John left a few months before the collapse of De Vere and founded Odyssey Sales to supply new (by then built in China) and refurbished De Vere enlargers.
  • George Brian ('Dick') Hamblin, sales manager
  • Tony Baker, sales. He later moved to California to set up the west coast office of De Vere Inc. (the latter being based in Maryland)
  • John Joyce, technical sales (film- and paper processors), arrived after Tony Baker's departure
  • Richard Bradford, technical sales / support and darkroom manager, later assistant export manager (succeeded Frank Owen)
  • Mike Grotowski, darkroom and technical support manager (succeeded Richard Bradford from c. 1985)
  • Frank Owen, photographer and darkroom manager
  • David Tomlinson, darkroom and technical support manager (succeeded Mike Grotowski)

Service and spares

  • Michael ('Red') Thurlow, who managed the spares and repairs. He later left, with Peter Glen, to form Advena Sales and Service Ltd. The company designed and produced a photographic enlarger which had some similar features to those produced by De Vere. Unsurprisingly, this somewhat annoyed the latter but could do nothing to prevent this as De Vere.
  • Kim Burns, field service engineer
  • David Clinch, field service engineer
  • Richard ('Rick') Crisp, field service engineer
  • David Godfrey, field service engineer
  • Jim Tooley, workshop engineer
  • Jim Willis, field service engineer
  • Robert ('Bob') Willis, stores and field service engineer (son of Jim)
  • Tony ?, field service engineer
  • John ?, workshop engineer

Administration

  • David Brown, export administration
  • Marian Clark, secretary to John Boyce
  • Sheila Puddephat, receptionist
  • Gordon Stein, stock control
  • Leonard ('Carl') Sutton, stock control for and repair of lenses. Carl had been a photographer with Picture Post and then worked in the Fleet Street, London, office (see below).
  • Peter Markam, USA stock control and order processing
  • Joan ?, typist
  • Lynn ?, typist
  • Roger ?, payroll
  • Pat ?, computer input / output
  • Iris ?, computer input / output

In 1988, De Vere moved its Beckenham offices, workshop, and stores to a small industrial estate in Vulcan Way, New Addington (not 'Addington' as shown on the webpage, which is a few miles away). The Vulcan Way site allowed the offices, workshops, and stores to be under one roof and also had more space than the cramped Beckenham operation. All staff with the exception of Lynn ?, and Roger ? moved, with the company. De Vere provided transport for staff who needed it from their homes near Beckenham. Several new staff, some local, were also recruited to work in the offices, stores, and as a truck driver.

  • Alfred ('Alf') Harris, office manager. He had previously worked in the MoD offices in London, became office manager
  • Lesley Boyce (wife of John Boyce), administration and events
  • Jeremy Roy, export manager. Arrived in mid-1992 only a short while before closure.

De Vere also had an offices in London. Originally this was in Fleet Street (for the newspaper industry) then later in Frith Street, Soho, London. The Frith Street office was run by Paul Sparks, another director and John Sparks' cousin, assisted by Jane Cooper. Jane later moved to De Vere's main office in New Addington to be in charge of spares and organising repairs following Michael Thurlow's departure.

De Vere's decline set in in the early 1990s, unfortunately coincident with the move to New Addington. There were signs that the days of large-scale darkrooms using traditional film and paper processing were numbered (De Vere were UK agents for processors from Sitte GmbH in Germany). For example, in the late 1980s, the newspaper industry began to move to colour imaging produced by high-end scanners, and camera manufacturers were starting to introduce cameras producing digital images (albeit the digital imaging processing was expensive and limited by modern standards, and computer networks were in their infancy). Sales of De Vere's enlargers, the mainstay of the factory in Barnstaple, declined dramatically. I was made redundant at the end of August 1992, and the company was finally liquidated a month or two later.

Size of the company and interesting orders

In the period I was there, De Vere's turnover was in the region of £7m or £8m and it employed about 200, the majority of whom were in Barnstaple.

The largest single order, with a value of £520,000, came in the late-1980s from the Indian government. This was for film-processing and enlarging equipment of images taken by aerial photography. Another notable order came from the Toulouse headquarters of SPOT Image, the French organisation operating Earth-reconnaissance satellites. As this was in the era before a fully-integrated digital imaging chain, a hybrid system was used whereby the downloaded digital images were printed on the ground using a conventional photographic materials.

The first factory in Barnstaple, mentioned on the main page, was built thanks to a government grant to boost manufacturing in the town, I presume to diversify the local economy. However, it was built on a former landfill site and subsequently suffered from subsidence, and the move to Pottington was the result.

The second factory was in Riverside Road on the Pottington Industrial Estate, next to the hotel (currently 'The Barnstaple') adjacent to the Braunton Road.

The opening of the current A361 'link road' between Barnstaple and the M5 motorway near Tiverton reduced the number of twists and and turns the old road along the 45-mile route. This greatly reduced the journey time and did much to open up north Devon. (The new route closely followed the former railway which had closed by 1970. Nowadays, rail passengers to Barnstaple now have to travel via Exeter.)

From time to time I used to take the more important overseas visitors down there for a factory tour, a fascinating process seeing the aluminium ingots being melted and cast into the basic shapes, followed by fettling, machining, finishing, and assembly into the finished product. On days when casting was scheduled, an eye had to be kept on the wind direction since the fumes from the bonding agent used for the sand in the casting moulds caused rather a stink(!) with the local inhabitants.

For the opening of the additional factory at Mullacott Cross, the company invited the celebrity photographer (Lord) Patrick Lichfield to do the honours - his 'fee' was rumoured to be a 5108 enlarger. The factory was equipped with CNC machines which could combine several individual machining steps into a sequence of operations, and were quite advanced, especially for the time. However, Mullacott Cross was nearly 11 miles from the Barnstaple factory, two-thirds of the way to Ilfracombe, and so there was a continual of movement of components between the 2 sites, the truck taking nearly half an hour each way. The location was also on top of the moors where the weather could be quite different to sea-level Barnstaple.

The whole operation at Barnstaple was quite separate from the sales and warehousing in London. To promote collaboration, the company hosted an annual Christmas Dinner in Barnstaple for all staff and spouses, giving a chance to meet those whom otherwise only had contact on the telephone or fax.

When the company finally closed, I felt particularly sorry for the Barnstaple staff. In principle, their skills could have been applied to many kinds of non-ferrous industrial products. De Vere introduced more automation and control in their enlargers (which necessitated a redesign and importation of the electronic technology) but this did not change the nature of the product and the company remained reliant on a market which was rapidly moving away from them.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 20210130 Richard Bradford