This article is about a remarkable man, Andrew Oliver, whose knowledge and technical expertise was vital in ensuring that the Mosquito aeroplane could keep operational during WW2 in all four corners of the globe.

The Mosquito, known as the ‘wooden wonder’, was recognised as ‘probably man’s highest engineering achievement in timber’. It was also said to be Wycombe’s furniture industry’s major contribution to the war effort. Descriptions of this contribution are usually confined to the manufacture of a wide range of wooden components by well-known firms such as Castle Bros, Gommes, William Birch, Parker Knoll, J B Heath, Dancer & Hearne, Joynson & Holland and Styles & Mealing. This story is about another technologically advanced activity at the firm of W F Baker and their Technical Director Andrew Oliver.

Early Life

Andrew Oliver was born in 1905 in Little Berkhamsted, a small village in the beautiful countryside near the town of Hertford. He was the youngest of thirteen children. His mother Sarah was already suffering from breast cancer and died 3 months after his birth. The family where then raised by the eldest daughter Eliza, but another tragedy was to follow. Their father died from tuberculosis in 1908, just three years later, leaving all the children as orphans.

The three youngest children, all boys including Andrew, were sent to Dr Barnardo’s children’s home. The two oldest boys were later sent to ‘start a new life’ in Canada. Andrew was suffering from rickets, a softening and weakening of the bones due to prolonged vitamin D deficiency, and was sent to the seaside to recuperate. He was then fostered with the Baker family in High Wycombe.

In Wycombe he attended Green Street school, then in c1916 obtained a scholarship to study at the Royal Grammar School, but he was not able to take this up. So in 1919, at the age of fourteen, he left school and went to work with his foster-brother Walter as a marqueterie cutter. Marqueterie (also spelt marquetery) is the art of inlaying pieces of veneer to a structure to form decorative patterns. An indentured apprenticeship in marquetery was then arranged for him.

The Baker family

This Baker family was that of Walter Frederick Baker, who was born in 1887 the son of Amos James and Thurza Baker, who had married in April 1880. Amos became a chair manufacturer with a factory in Baker Street, High Wycombe. He and his wife separated in 1900. At this time the family were living at 23 Oxford St, where Thurza was running a tobacconist shop.

She continued to do that until about 1908 before moving to Desborough Park Rd, when she seems to have begun to supplement the family income by ‘taking in’ orphaned children, effectively fostering them. In the 1911 census these were described as ‘boarders’, in addition to Andrew there were two other boys, Edward Hamley aged 10 and Christopher Kirkham aged 9, both of whom were born in Birmingham. All three boys were attending school at this time. Thurza also had two of her sons living with her, Frank aged 26 was an upholsterer and Walter 24 a ‘marqueterie cutter’

By1921 Walter had become the ‘Head’ of the family in the census return of that year and the family were living at 127 West Wycombe Rd. Walter was described as an ‘employer’. In the household were Thurza, now carrying out ‘home duties’, her mother Matilda Nash, Walter’s sister Elsie a confectioner, and Andrew, who was now following in the footsteps of his foster-father as a ‘marqueterie cutter’. Presumably Andrew was being employed by his foster-brother Walter, the first indication that the latter had decided to establish his own business.

In 1925 Walter married Dorothy Marge Tillion, but the couple did not have any children. His business must have been successful because by the national census taken in 1939 Walter had moved to live at The Beeches, Marlow Hill, High Wycombe, and gave his occupation as ‘manufacturer woodwork’. His wife Dorothy was a ‘manageress’ in the business and his mother Thurza, now aged 79, was still living with him. The household was completed by sixteen year old Florence Lilian Smith, working as a domestic servant.

Andrew Oliver’s early career

Circumstances having prevented Andrew from attending the Royal Grammar School, he was determined to continue his education, but at a more practical level. Continuing to live and work with Walter Baker, for seven years he attended evening classes at the Technical School, which initially was in Frogmoor before moving to the former Grammar School premises in Easton Street. There he studied practical cabinet-making, and scale and perspective drawing. He made a marquetry stationary cabinet which won first prize in the ‘decorated furniture’ open class in the local Art & Craft Exhibition in 1928. The following year he took second place in the Furnishing Trades Organiser open class with a seaweed marquetry table. Both of these items are held by members of the family.

As Walter Baker’s business thrived, so did Andrew’s career. He worked his way up to Foreman then Works Manager, in the 1939 census return he described himself ‘Works Manager, veneer and plywood’. This was followed by promotion to Technical Director and finally Managing Director. He was responsible for, and carried out himself, a high proportion of the decorative woodwork on the liners Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Coronia, and every Union Castle and Royal Mail passenger liner afloat at that time.

With another world war on the horizon he was fortunate to be able to visit Germany and acquire knowledge there in the new synthetic adhesives which they were developing. With his experience and this knowledge Andrew had become a leading authority in these adhesives. In addition, the firm of W F Baker was the acknowledged leader in the UK in the production of plywood and veneer products.

Early in the 1930s Andrew met the lady who was to become the love of his life, Doris Greenway, she had joined W F Baker to work in the office. They married at All Saints parish church in 1938 and went on to have two children, Andrew and Rosemary.

Andrew’s other interests

From an early age Andrew had an interest in mechanical devices, initially this was motorcycles. He would buy old motor bikes, renovate them, then sell them on for a small profit. He also enjoyed riding them and joined the Wycombe Motor Cycle Club. At that time motorcycling was a major interest of the wealthier young men, so membership of the club gave Andrew useful contacts which would be invaluable later in his life. In the late 1920s he was representing Bucks in national Time Trials, and became a member of the Bucks Motor Cycle Club in the 1930s. After WW2 he was instrumental in setting up a new club, the Wycombe & District Motorcycle Club.

Andrew bought his first car in c1930 and this, plus his experience in renovating old motor bikes, led him to develop an interest in vintage cars. Later in life he owned quite a number of these, including a Le Mans HRG sports car. This was the British car company HRG Engineering who manufactured sports cars from 1935 to 1956. One of these was reckoned to be among the best performing all-round 1½-litre sports cars of its day, as evidenced by class wins at Le Mans in 1939 and 1949. Other vintage cars he owned included a Frazer Nash, a Brooklands Riley, and a Riley Lynx. He used the Riley Lynx and an early Francis Barnett motor bike in the Time Trials in which he competed, and they are still retained by his family.

End of Part 1, in the second part we will be describing Andrew’s important contribution to the WW2 war effort.


I am grateful to Andrew Oliver’s daughter Rosemary Mortham for her assistance in preparing this article.