One of the earliest references to this Company was in about 1881, it states that ‘the timber yards and sawmills of John Bland & Co Ltd are considerable’; previously Cuthbert Ritson who is referred to as early as 1872 had operated the yards.
John Bland & Co Ltd who had previously been trading in Cardiff, where they had their registered office, took over the old Cuthbert Ritson premises that were situated within the Highbridge Wharf; the buildings and area being an ideal site for their business. The River Brue and the Highbridge Wharf were navigable for ships of 150 to 200 tons burthen; these were carrying cargos of Coal, Salt, Cake, Bricks and Tiles.
John Bland & Co Ltd being importers of timber and slates found the Highbridge Wharf perfect for their business and over ninety years of trading in the area a work force totalling seventy was built up. It had a good reputation for its quality and service. Employees of Blands still remember and talk about the past, of the ships that came to Highbridge and how hard the men who unloaded the timber worked until their hands bled.
The site housed quite a large business, comprising: – weighing machine, stable block, assorted sheds of brickwork and wood, an office block and engine house. Additional buildings housed a variety tanks, tubs, pits, a smithy, a Cabon Engine and a boiler house. There was over 1000 yards of railway sidings complete with cranes –one fixed and one mobile.
Large sailing ships were arriving from Finland, Sweden and Russia with their cargoes of timber that was then carried by the workmen over the adjoining sidings, railway trucks and into the workshops.
John Bland & Co Ltd was a Sawing, Planing and Moulding Mills. Timber was imported and then dealt with as necessary, supplied to the building trade or was moulded by Blands for such items as skirting boards etc; their designs could be supplied in Deal, Oak, Mahogany or any kind of wood desired.
There were discussions early in 1923 concerning some of the ‘old sheds’ at the Highbridge wharf; John Bland & Co. Ltd., apparently wished to replace some old sheds on the wharf, as they were not suitable for their use. Having paid rent on the sheds for between forty to fifty years, John Bland felt that the owners (the Railway Board in Derby) should foot the bill. Due to the passage of time the buildings were in a sorry state and proposals were put forward to effect their replacement with a new building at the cost then of approximately £ 258.8.4. The cost today (2003/4) has been estimated at being about £19.365.24.
The London and South Western Railway and the Midland Railway Company had previously owned the original buildings and wharf area however, following successful negotiations a contract was eventually signed and J.Blands & Co Ltd moved in. Later, in 1928 the Company leased additional buildings from the Southern Railway and the London and Scottish Railways (the old S.R. and L.M.S. Railways). The buildings were needed to house the new equipment and business was booming.
Also during the war the wharf and the timber yards were constantly under pressure to meet the urgent needs of the nation and to show its appreciation the Ministry of Supply-Timber Control Department wrote to John Bland’s in June 1942 praising them for their war effort, the letter reads:-
“ I am not without pride in the way the Timber Control has been able to “deliver the goods” after Saturday nights raids, but neither do I lose sight of the fact that the speed and efficiency which our organisation can be brought into existence on Sunday mornings depends on the co-operation of the Wharf mongers within whose districts raids occur.
I want therefore, to thank Mr Tindall and those members of the staff who so promptly responded to the call which we made upon you yesterday morning and to pass to you the credit which was to the Timber Control for the immediate deliveries of supplies for first-aid repairs.”
During World War II, in 1942 the Defence Department (Southern Command) requisitioned part of the timber yard, but in 1945 the same Command transferred its rights to the Ministry of Works. In June 1948 John Bland’s got the yards back when they were ‘De-requisitioned’
The Company was doing well into the 1960’s when planning approval was given to allow for alterations and extensions to the site in order to provide showrooms, offices and toilets.
In 1962 with the Nationalisation of the Railways, their landlord changed again, namely the British Railways Board. Unfortunately, this also saw the end of John Bland & Co Ltd, because in 1972 their lease on the wharf passed to Shepherd Bros (Lancs). In August of that year a Jeff Plant of Shepherd Bros. was transferred to as Branch Manager and major changes took place. A Builders Merchants department was opened and stocked items for the building trade. In 1975 Shepherds was sold to International Timber, over the years many more changes took place and eventually all the various companies within the Group became JEWSONS. This latter company was also involved with the local firm of John Tyler Ltd.; details of that exercise are covered in the history of Tylers later in the book.
A Highbridge man who worked for John Bland & Co. Ltd. recalled the following: -Timber used to arrive at the wharf on ships from Sweden and Russia. The men would carry the wood across the planks from the boat straight into Blands yard on the high trestles. They were paid by the cargo, and would need to go to the “George Hotel” to get paid off, it was good money. You might have to work long hours, to eight, nine or ten o’clock at night. You had to empty the hold so that the ship could get out on the next tide. A lot of men did not take much money home because they would spend it on cider when they were unloading the cargo. There was a pub by the Blands entrance “The Somerset Vaults” and old Mrs Baker would come in three or four times a day with a wicker basket, full of bottles of cider. That’s why some men did not have much money; they owed it for the drink they had consumed
In 2004 there are still a few ex-employees of John Bland & Co Ltd around and they have fond memories of their working days on the Highbridge wharf.
(Information supplied by Fred Faulks)