Early Days at Nicks Timber
William Nicks was the second son of a builder and contractor of Warwick who came to Gloucester in the early 1840s as a traveller for timber merchants Price & Co (1). There he met Robert Heane, and following a misunderstanding with their managing partner, the two young men broke away to set up their own business in 1849. Trading under the name of Heane & Nicks, they quickly built up a successful business importing timber for the railways being built in the Midlands. However, it seems that Heane was not very enthusiastic about business life, and in 1855 Nicks, then aged 35, took over the business in partnership with Thomas Wyatt Baxter, thus establishing the firm still known as Nicks & Co (2).
The 1850s was a difficult time for the timber trade in Gloucester as the war with Russia in the Crimea had the effect of blocking access to Russian controlled ports in the Baltic from where many imports had previously been received. So Nicks & Co’s early imports were mainly from Canada with less from Sweden. Each ship typically brought a few hundred baulks of oak or pine and several thousand sawn soft-wood deals and battens, often topped up with hundreds of barrel staves and/or lengths of lathwood. The firm also traded in slates for roofing, mainly in sizes known as duchesses and countesses, which smaller vessels brought from Portmadoc in North Wales (3).
Nicks & Co evidently supplied builders and contractors in Gloucester and the Midlands. An invoice dated 1858 has survived for 29 bundles of lathwood, totalling 5050 feet in length and costing £2 18s 1d, supplied to Messrs Jones & Son who were builders based at Worcester Parade, Gloucester. Remarkably, the same firm continued as a customer for at least ninety years and probably longer (4). It was normal to allow some credit to regular customers, but this led to a bad debt when contractor William Maxwell of Redditch and Banbury went bankrupt in 1860 and William Nicks acted as one of the trustees for his creditors (5).
Nicks & Co initially operated from premises on Bakers Quay with a 45 yards frontage on the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal immediately to the south of the Pillar Warehouse and straddling what is now called Merchants Road (6). (Grid Ref. 826180) A large storage area was necessary to keep at least four months stock of timber because the Baltic froze over around the end of November and first open water was at the beginning of April. Their office is shown in a photograph dated 1863, and standing by the door is William Nicks himself wearing a top hat (7). (Fig. 1) The firm did not have their own saw mill and so presumably employed hand-sawyers, although they may also have used a nearby saw mill owned by Samuel Moreland (who later became a celebrated match manufacturer) (8). Goods for customers in the Midlands could be forwarded by canal boat or via the Midland Railway which had a yard at the southern end of Bakers Quay.
In 1860, Nicks & Baxter were joined by Henry Morgan Hooper, who with his former partner Joseph Robert Sanders had traded from the neighbouring yards to the south. These had a canal frontage of 63 yards, and the enlarged firm took them over, thereby more than doubling the previous area (9). Benefiting also from the ending of the war with Russia, in 1860 Nicks & Co dealt with 13 ships from Baltic ports, 11 from Canada, 2 from Gothenburg and 2 from Savannah, Georgia. Most cargoes were primarily softwood deals and battens with some baulks, but those from Savannah comprised large pieces of pitch pine. There were also four smaller cargoes of slates from Portmadoc (10).
The prosperity of this period allowed William Nicks to build Greville House, a fine newresidence on the west side of the Tewkesbury Road (now the Gloucestershire Club) (11) Aswell as running his main business, Nicks was a leading promoter and director of the Gloucester Wagon Company established in 1860. He also took an active role in the public life of his adopted city, serving on the city council as a Conservative and being elected Mayor in 1859 and 1862. He helped to set up the Gloucester City Rifle Company and was an active organiser of the Grand Volunteer Review held in Gloucester in 1860. During his second term as Mayor, he helped to establish penny entertainments for working men and often assisted both as singer and reader (12).
The timber importing business must have suffered a set-back in 1865 when the two partners, Baxter and Hooper, both died when only in their late thirties (13). Somehow Nicks managed to keep the enterprise going, but then he became concerned about a wider issue. The size of doubt felt particularly proud that the first ship into the entrance, the barque Director, was carrying a cargo consigned to his firm – 1025 tons of deals from Canada (19).
Over the next few years, Nicks & Co dealt with 15 to 20 ships a year, bringing sawn deals, baulk timber and some railway sleepers from Canada, the Baltic ports and Archangel with occasional cargoes of pitch pine from the United States of America. The trade in slates continued but at a lower level than previously due to competition from the railways (20). To convert the wood to suit customers’ needs, the partners built their own sawing, planing and moulding mill at Canada Wharf, the steam engine being fuelled by waste wood and cooled by water from the canal. They also built a creosoting works for preserving wood, the creosote being supplied from William Butler’s tar distilling plant on the river bank at Sandhurst. There was a crane on the quayside for handling large pieces of wood, and in 1881 the partners erected an elevator nearby for landing railway sleepers which were becoming a significant part of their business. (Fig. 2) At the same time, they laid a pipe across the quay underneath the railway to convey creosote from a boat on the canal to the storage tank in the yard (21).
As these new premises were some way out of town, the firm also maintained an office at Ashley House (now 174 Southgate St) for several years (22). Death of William Nicks In the later years of his life, William Nicks sat regularly as a magistrate and was a trustee or governor of various local schools and charities. He no longer took much part in local politics, but he did establish the Conservative Club in 1883, having bought Constitution House for the purpose before selling it to the company set up to run it. Soon after this, however, his health deteriorated, and after a long illness he died in December 1885 (23). He had no sons to carry on the business, but he was no doubt happy to see it pass into the hands of his son-in-law Albert Buchanan in partnership with Joseph Francis Hooper, the son of Nicks’s former partner. By this time, Buchanan was also trading on his own account as a coal merchant in the docks (24).
During the 1890s, the new management of Nicks & Co continued the business much as before. Their imports increased from around 15,000 to 25,000 loads a year (a load being 50 cu ft), mostly deals and railway sleepers with occasional cargoes of pitch pine (25). A surviving contract from this period defines the quantities and prices of fourteen sizes of deals from 3in x 11in down to 2in x 6in being sold to Nicks & Co by the Korsnas sawmill in Finland, which was again supplying the firm a century later. The prices included delivery alongside a ship at Gefle (modern Gavle) across the water in Sweden, and the wood was to be ready for shipment at first open water in 1894 (after the ice had melted) (26). As the size of ships bringing timber continued to increase, Nicks & Co occasionally shared a ship-load with one of the neighbouring timber merchants. Also, more cargoes had to be discharged at Sharpness and carried on to Gloucester in barges or rafts. At busy times, Nicks & Co arranged for surplus rafts to be stored temporarily in a shallow pond adjoining the canal at Two Mile Bend (27). When landing wood at Canada Wharf, most pieces were carried on men’s shoulders into the yard and stored in piles until sold to a customer. Heavier pieces were lifted by crane on to trollies that ran on rails around the yard, although this arrangement was superceded in 1897 by a power-driven gantry that could move baulks direct from the waterside to the sawmill or to anywhere in between . Like his former partner, Albert Buchanan served on the city council as a Conservative, and in 1900 he was elected Mayor. However, he resigned after six months, following a High Court ruling against the election of a fellow councillor which put the Conservatives in a minority (29).
In the early years of the twentieth century, there were changes in Nicks & Co’s management arrangements. Long serving accountant John Barnett became a partner, as did Buchanan’s sons Albert Ernest and Wilfred Lawrence, and Joseph Francis Hooper left the firm (30).