NICKS & CO, LONG ESTABLISHED TIMBER MERCHANTS OF GLOUCESTER
The firm of Nicks & Co has been importing timber through Gloucester for more than 150 years and can claim to be Gloucester’s longest established independent business. Founded by William Nicks, it has remained essentially a family concern through five generations.
Change of Management
By this time, accountant John Barnett had become the moving spirit of the firm and had been president of the Bristol Channel Timber Importer’s Association in 1912 (36). He was assisted by Albert Buchanan’s two sons, Ernest and Lawrence, at what was a very critical time. The outbreak of the First World War had a serious effect on the timber trade because much of the traffic from the Baltic was cut off. The partners were soon in financial difficulties, but the firm survived thanks to help from Frank Croxford, managing director of Price Walker & Co, the principal timber merchants in Gloucester. It seems that Croxford was happy for Nicks & Co to continue to supply smaller customers while Price Walkers concentrated on the larger businesses. To strengthen the management of Nicks & Co, Croxford introduced a new partner in the person of Thomas Lawrence Drury , who had been works manager of timber merchants Thomas Adams & Sons prior to its closure, and Croxford lent enough money to keep Nicks & Co going. Drury brought with him substantial business, including the supply of wood for packing cases to firms like Guest Keen & Nettlefolds of Birmingham. Croxford also arranged for Price Walker’s to take over responsibility for the lease of Canada Wharf. Lawrence Buchanan remained as a partner, but Ernest Buchanan and John Barnett departed (37). The Buchanan coal business evidently went through similar difficulties and eventually passed out of the family’s control, although the name was retained (38).
Thanks to the loan from Frank Croxford, in 1916 the new management were able to build a large new shed adjoining the south side of the mill building for storing the better classes of timber under cover (39). (Fig. 4)
However, even after the war was over, trading conditions remained difficult, and Nicks & Co’s imports were only around one third of the level before the war, mainly coming from the Baltic and Scandanavian countries (40). A surviving agreement between the employers and the Dock Wharf Riverside and General Workers Union shows that the working hours in the timber yard on weekdays were 6 am to 5 pm in summer (7 am start in winter), and 12 noon finish on Saturdays. There were breaks of 90 minutes for breakfast, 60 minutes for lunch, and 30 minutes for bait each morning and afternoon. Piecework pay rates were agreed for men discharging lighters and carrying deals to piles in the yard, with additional money for carrying more than 80 yards, and day-work rates were agreed for taking wood from pile for dispatch. The height of the piles was not to exceed 80 three-inch deals or equivalent (20 ft) in order to limit the height of the lines of planks supported by trestles along which the men ran when carrying the wood to pile (41).
By the end of the 1920s, some ships used in the timber trade were too big to enter Sharpness, and Nicks & Co received some imports as part-cargoes discharged at larger ports such as Avonmouth and sent on by barge (42). Another timber shed was built to the north of the mill in 1927 (43), but before much benefit could be derived from this, Lawrence Buchanan died in January 1929. He had not played a major role in public life, but he was one of the senior members of the Gloucester Freemen’s Committee and he was a trustee of the Municipal Charities (44). Following his death, Buchanan’s family wanted to withdraw their financial interest in Nicks & Co, and Tom Drury managed to find sufficient finance to pay them off, leaving him as the sole proprietor until his son Thomas Robert Drury joined him a few years later.
Business in the 1930s
A number of surviving documents indicate how timber imports were arranged. London agents issued schedules of prices for timber that would be available at supply ports in the coming months. When needing more stock, Nicks & Co sent in an offer to buy so many standards of a range of specific sizes, a standard being 165 cubic feet, and the agent usually sent back a counter offer quoting slightly different quantities to suit better what he had available. Once both parties were satisfied, the agent sent a formal contract recording the names of the seller and buyer, the place and date of shipment and the agreed quantities and prices for all of the sizes ordered. Some contracts included the cost of freight and insurance while for others the buyer arranged the shipment separately. In either case, transport was arranged in accordance with a standard form of charter party appropriate to ports in the Bristol Channel, although it was common for specific clauses to be amended to suit each particular shipment. Before the ship departed, a bill of lading was prepared specifying the quantities that had been loaded – which could differ from what was ordered depending on practicalities at the time. When the ship was discharged, the numbers of each size received were checked by a tally man, and then a clerk had to enter the information into a ledger and calculate the total quantity for comparison with the bill of lading. As the dimensions were in feet and inches and the quantities shipped were in standards, the calculations were tedious and prone to error (45).
During the 1930s, Nicks & Co continued to import timber from the Baltic and Scandanavian countries with some shipments from Archangel, Canada and the United States. In 1933, the firm stopped using G T Beard’s lighters to bring the timber from Sharpness to Gloucester, and changed over to Mousell Chadborn & Co instead. Most of their timber was sent away by rail, but lorries were coming into use and some wood was still carried up country in canal boats (46). One of the railway sidings in Nicks’s yard became known as Hellfire Pass because it sloped down towards the canal and wagons sometimes got out of control. If the man on the brake missed his footing, the wagon could continue on its own, rushing down to join the line alongside the canal and crashing through any planks across the line being used in discharging a lighter. It was also known for a free-running wagon to hit an obstacle and tip into the canal (47). A more serious accident occurred in May 1932 when four boys employed by Nicks & Co were playing hide-and-seek in the timber yard after having their mid-day meal. One boy climbed the back of a stack of timber, and as he was coming down the front by means of the projecting arms, he lost his balance and fell 10ft to the ground. He was taken to the Infirmary but did not regain consciousness and died the same evening due to laceration of the brain. An inquest jury returned a verdict of accidental death. As the accident did not occur during hours of duty, Nicks & Co did not consider they were formally responsible, but they did make a contribution towards the boy’s funeral expenses (48).
Second World War
In July 1939, Nicks & Co agreed to take half of a cargo of 600 standards of spruce being shipped from Digby and St Johns in Canada, with neighbours Griggs & Co taking the other half. To aid discharge, Nicks & Co asked for their half to be put up one end of the vessel and their neighbour’s half at the other end as the two firms used different lighterage firms on the canal between Sharpness and Gloucester. However, while the steamer Rimfakse was in transit, Britain declared war on Germany, and the government of Norway (where the ship was registered) ordered the ship to dock at Queenstown, Ireland, rather than sail to any country at war. After urgent communications between the various parties, Nicks and Griggs agreed to pay the extra war insurance, and the ship arrived at Sharpness on 15 September (49). With Britain at war, the Ministry of Supply took control of the timber trade, arranging all imports and issuing licences to recognised timber merchants to sell from the national stock. Nicks & Co then took on the role of wharfingers, receiving and storing timber and selling toapproved customers. In November 1940, the coaster Ngatia brought a cargo of timber to Nicks’s yard from a big ship that had discharged at Milford Haven, and for many years this was thought to be the last coaster to discharge at the yard (but later events proved this fear wrong). In 1941, concern grew that the concentration of timber yards beside the canal at Gloucester was vulnerable to enemy action, and arrangements were made to disperse much of the local stock to sites further down the canal and to other places further inland The controls continued for a few years after the war and were relaxed in stages (50).
Private Limited Company
As Nicks & Co was readjusting to the role of timber merchant again, senior partner Thomas Drury died in August 1955, leaving the business to be carried on by his sons Tom, John and Kenneth. In January 1960, the three brothers converted the business into a private limited company, and a year later they purchased the freehold of Canada Wharf. This paved the way for them to upgrade the mill, including replacing their steam engine by electric power in 1963 (51).
The 1960s was a time of great change in the timber trade, particularly due to the new practice of packaging timber in the country of origin and the use of machines for handling timber in the yard. Tom Drury and his son Chris toured the Baltic ports to persuade suppliers to package their timber, and they arranged for this to be shipped in coasters that could deliver direct to Canada Wharf. This saved the expense of transhipment into lighters at Sharpness, but the Gloucester dockers claimed it was their work to unload a coaster and insisted on the employment of a much larger gang than was really needed. This method of importing continued until July 1986, when MV Eos arrived from Oskarshamn, Sweden, with 1062 cu m for Nicks & Co and Romans & Co. (Fig. 5) After that, all supplies arrived by lorry from east coast ports and from forests in Scotland (52).
By this time, the management of Nicks & Co had passed to Chris Drury and his cousin Tony Drury. Their world was dramatically disrupted in June 1987 when history repeated itself and their saw mill was gutted by a spectacular fire. The blaze started at about 8.20 pm, and it took more than 60 firemen using nine pumps and an hydraulic platform to bring it under control. Although the mill was completely destroyed, the cousins were determined to remain in business. Most of their stock survived, and initially they got the machining done by other local firms. At the same time, they cleared out the timber shed to the north of the mill and within ten days had installed two new shaping machines and two second-hand saws. They already had plans for a new retail store to the south of their site, and these were modified to include a new mill, both being completed in 1989 (Fig. 6) This development allowed Nicks & Co not only to supply timber to businesses but also to develop retail sales of timber and related products to the general public (53).
After much hard work, the business was beginning to prosper again until trading conditions became difficult due to the recession in the 1990s. To reduce their borrowings, the Drury cousins decided to sell off the northern half of Canada Wharf as by that time they did not need so much storage area because the atomic-powered ice breakers kept the Baltic open throughout the winter and most of the timber was kiln dried in the country of origin. Recognising also the need to introduce new ideas, in 1998 the cousins recruited a new managing director, Phil McCormick, who had formerly been sales director of timber merchants Williams & Farmer’s and had later traded under the name Gloucester Timber Co, selling timber expertise to builders merchants (54).
With this strengthened management and their modern buildings, Nicks & Co are well placed to continue importing and distributing timber as they have done for the past 150 years. .