In previous articles we have seen how the furniture factories in the town converted to manufacturing munitions during the Great War.
At that time there were only a few purely engineering companies in the town, and they too played their part for the war effort. One such company was Dexter & Co and this week we will examine the history of that business.
Dexter’s was founded in Bourne End in 1880 and initially was involved in general light engineering and boat building.
A few years later they moved to High Wycombe, occupying what had been an ironmonger’s shop in the High Street, but soon moved to larger premises in Queens Road, just outside the town centre.
At that time the mechanization of the town’s furniture industry was gathering pace and Dexter’s inventive skills flourished. Band-saws and fret-saws were initially the main-stay of the company, followed by the development of machines for cutting the seats of Windsor chairs.
With the advent of WWI the company added two more buildings to their Queens Road premises, and cast and bored shell-cases were manufactured by the tens of thousands.
Normal production resumed after the war and in 1922 a young engineer joined the company whose invention was to transform the business and make it into an internationally renowned company.
George McVey adapted one of the furniture industry’s most basic machines in a revolutionary way. This was the ‘slideways machine’, which moved back-and-forth to cut wood to the different lengths and widths required.
Traditionally this machine was operated manually, by the workers with their foot, or by air-power. The manual version meant that the operators stood all their working day on one foot, with the other operating the treadle, resulting in repetitive strain injuries.
Those powered pneumatically were notoriously unreliable, with the work-table jamming, so that the operator was forced to clear the machine by hand. This sometimes resulted in horrendous industrial accidents.
McVey came up with a simple but revolutionary idea - to support the work-table on an array of small bearings. The linear bearing was born.
This meant that the table moved as though it was floating on air, and so became much more reliable. The industrial accidents all but stopped. Linear tables were then applied to all sorts of cutting and milling machines.
Dexter’s also worked closely with Murrays, the iconic Wycombe department store in White Hart Street. Together with Reginald Rivett, the founder of Murrays, they developed the self-service pick-and-mix confectionery display unit.
This consisted of an array of wire baskets suspended on a rotating frame. The customer would stand in front of the machine with a paper-bag (these were made in brown paper in those days !) and select different sweets from the wire baskets.
A great marketing ploy. If as a child you had been given permission to select a quarter-pound of sweets, there was absolutely nothing that could be done if you ‘accidentally’ selected sweets amounting to half-a-pound, or even more! Your mother or father just had to pay the cost!
Murrays and Dexters applied the same principle to fireworks, offering them for sale on a pick-and-mix basis.
Such machines obviously had greater safety requirements than sweets, and were designed such that if a problem occurred all the fireworks would immediately drop into a large tray of water at the base of the machine.
For several years this safety arrangement satisfied the authorities, but eventually Murrays had to remove the firework machine from service on Health & Safety grounds.
Many of the Dexter’s innovations were subjected to patent protection but unfortunately with the decline of the furniture industry in Wycombe, which remained Dexter’s core market, the company slowly slid downhill. It finally closed its doors in December 1982, after 102 years.
SOLDIERS BILLETED IN THE TOWN DURING WWI
Training elements of the Royal Field Artillery were based in High Wycombe during WWI, and therefore soldiers were billeted in the town throughout the war.
The appreciation which these soldiers had for their time in Wycombe is shown by the following letter which was published in the Bucks Free Press on February 7th 1919 under the heading ‘Wycombe Billets Appreciated’.
“Miss D. Sutton (daughter of Mr T.C.Sutton of High Wycombe), who is a staff nurse at one of the Military hospitals at Salonika, in a letter written to her parents, says – It would please the inhabitants of the town very much indeed to hear the Salonika Force speak of their generosity to them while they were there for training.
“Men who have not known that I knew anything about the town have told me how much they are looking forward to being in Wycombe again, and to meeting some of the many friends they made there.
“It is indeed a record for any town to be proud of and I wish that all the townspeople could know about it. The boys will talk for hours about the days they spent there, and the manner in which they were welcomed at their billets.”
Miss Dorothy Sutton was the daughter of Mr Tom Corby Sutton, a chair manufacturer who lived with his wife Mary and children at Hillside 13 Conegra Road, High Wycombe.
The family had two sons who both served during the war. Their eldest Vere, who attended the Royal Grammar School, was a Gunner in the Royal Engineers, and Noel served in the RAF. Both seem to have survived the war. Tom Sutton’s factory in Union Street, Newlands, High Wycombe suffered a destructive fire in June 1912, which despite being attended by the Volunteer Fire Brigade spread to the adjoining premises of E. Mealing.
In the article on women on the home front in the Nostalgia page on February 14th 2014 it was stated that local entrepreneur Aleck Stacey built ‘a large factory for the assembly of complete aircraft in Hughenden Avenue.’
As pointed out by reader Dave Scott this was incorrect. Dave writes ‘’The factory was actually built for "Wycombe Aircraft Constructors" and instigated by George Holt Thomas (of North Dean) and Walter Henry Healey (Chairman of the Wycombe Federation of Furniture Manufacturers) and supported by other of the town`s furniture manufacturers who were already making aeroplane parts.’’
Aleck Stacey’s involvement came few years later when he bought the factory in the early 1920s, after orders for the assembly of complete aircraft did not materialise following the end of the Great War.
Dave and his colleague Ian Simmons have written a book giving a comprehensive account of the history of aviation in the Wycombe area, and are now working on a second specifically on the achievements of George Holt Thomas.
WORLD WAR I TALK
The Flackwell Heath & Loudwater Local History Group in conjunction with the Flackwell Heath Royal British Legion has arranged a series of short talks which look at the impact of WWI on the two villages.
The first talk describes the villages as they were in the early 1910s, and this is followed by talks considering those servicemen who are remembered on the two War Memorials.
The final talk tells the stories of several of the many men from the villages who fought and survived the war. The event is being held at the RBL in Flackwell Heath starting at 7.30pm and tickets are available from there, or from Flackwell Heath Community Library.
For further information contact Mike Dewey on 01628 525207 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.