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The Thurley Brothers build the ‘Brickopolis’ landmarks

The Thurleys

In last month’s blog we explored the life of Gertrude Thurley, teacher at Fletton Board school and daughter of John Cathles Hill’s house agent John Thurley. Intrigued by a few comments I received I was encouraged to explore Gertrude’s extended family. In so doing I have uncovered a fascinating family whose lives were firmly rooted in Fletton. Over the next few blogs, I shall share their stories with you.

According to the 1911 census Gertrude’s grandparents, William and Elizabeth Thurley, had 16 children, 13 of which survived into adulthood. I have been able to trace 12 of these children: Millicent Ann, William Samuel, John Thomas, James Hopkins, Walter Samuel, Reuben Charles, Ernest William, George Baker, Henry Frederick, Susannah, William Albert and Francis Joseph.

For this blog I shall concentrate on four of Gertrude’s uncles, George Baker, William Samuel, Francis Joseph, Walter Samuel, and her aunt Millicent Ann and her husband Charles Smith.

Coming from a large family, there was an age difference of some twenty three years between Millicent who was born in 1855 and Francis who was born on 31st December 1878. William was born in 1857, Walter in 1862 and George in 1868.

For a short while the brothers George and William operated as Thurley Bros and built what is surely two of Fletton’s most noticeable landmarks - the Coffee Palace, known today as Phorpres House, and the Methodist Chapel on Fletton Avenue.

It is unknown when George and William established the business, but on the 1901 census George’s occupation is recorded as builder contractor and employer and William as builder. Also recorded on the 1901 census is Millicent’s husband, Charles Smith, who was a builder, Francis a joiner carpenter and Walter a general accountant, whilst their father William was a bricklayer. Although not known for certain, it is entirely possible that the family business provided employment for all these family members.

The siblings were close in life and work. In 1901 the streets of Fletton were home to many Thurley families. William was living on Queens Road, Fletton, with his wife Fanny. Next door at Rowell Cottages was his brother Ernest, and next door to Ernest were parents William and Elizabeth. Just a short walk down Queens Road, at Chamberlain Cottages, lived Millicent and her husband Charles. George was living on Peterborough Road, near to the church, with his wife Annie, and Francis was living on Princes Road, with his wife Rebecca. Living next to Francis was Walter Samuel and his wife Julia, and John Thomas, and his wife Eliza, lived in St. Margaret’s Road, next door to the Coffee Palace.

The First Coffee Houses

The exact time that the drinking of coffee first began, is shrouded in myth and legend. The Muslims of the Middle East, in the ninth century, wanted a substitute for alcohol that was forbidden to them by the teachings of the Koran. The stimulant effect of the coffee bean was a perfect substitute. The first coffee house was opened in Oxford in 1650 and soon the Dons and their students were frequenting the popular establishment. Daniel Edwards, a merchant, brought back to England a quantity of beans from Smyrna. His Greek servant, Pasqua Rose, prepared and served the coffee. Edward’s friends enjoyed the coffee so much that in 1652 he helped Rose open London’s first real coffee house in St. Michael’s Alley. Although Rose’s coffee house did not remain open for long the coffee drinking habit had arrived. More establishments opened and before long coffee drinking was creating revenue for the treasury. In 1660 an Act of Parliament levied a duty of 4d on every gallon of coffee made and sold ‘to be paid by the maker’. Coffee was classed by the House of Commons with ‘other outlandish drinks’ and an Act of Parliament in 1663 required all coffee houses to be licensed. If they were not, then a fine of £5 for every month’s violation was charged.

Before long coffee houses were the place to be, the centres of cultural and political activity. Unfortunately, some were also hotbeds for scandal and in 1675 Charles II issued a proclamation for their suppression. There was such public outcry at this that eleven days later the proclamation was withdrawn. By 1683 there were, 2000 coffee houses in London alone. Each table in the coffee house had a cover charge of a penny and the coffee was generally sold at two pence a dish. Interestingly the word ‘tip’ is believed to have originated in the coffee houses. Boxes were nailed to the wall and if a patron required good or rapid service they would place money in the box. Each box bore the words ‘To insure promptness’ the initials spelling TIP.

Lloyds the underwriters began with a coffee house. Edward Lloyd started a coffee house in 1688 in Tower Street, London, later moving to Lombard Street. His coffee house was a modest place and offered refreshment to seafarers, merchants and underwriters. For their convenience he began to prepare ships lists. After his death in 1712 the coffee house moved again to Pope’s Head Alley and became known as New Lloyds Coffee House.

In 1706 the proprietor of Tom’s Coffee house, in Devereux Court, was Thomas Twining. In 1756, under Daniel Twining, the coffee house was absorbed into the tea business. By the end of the eighteenth century the Twinings family owned one side of Devereux Court in a complex labyrinth of buildings.

Gin Palaces and the Temperance Movement

By the end of the eighteenth century coffee houses were in decline but the ‘gin craze’ was growing. Establishments called ‘gin palaces’ were opened. John Hill was himself part of this craze, building and gaining licenses for notable public houses and hotels in London, including ‘The Queens’ in Crouch End and ‘The Salisbury’ in Haringay. This was against the formidable opposition of the Temperance Movement.

The Temperance Movement was driven by the middle and upper classes, the Church and their desire to regain control. They were increasingly critical of the widespread drunkenness amongst the lower classes. In Leeds the Band of Hope was formed, led by the Reverend Jabez Tunnicliff. The aim was to save working class children from their drunken parents, teaching them the importance of sobriety and teetotalism. Meetings were held in churches throughout the country and the group also campaigned for the reduction of the influence of pubs and brewers. In 1874 the Bishop of Peterborough stated that it was the Churches ‘duty and her place’ to be at the ‘front of the battle against intemperance’. A difficult task when these establishments brought revenue to the country.

For many years there had been a particular concern that those who worked in the brickyards were particularly susceptible to the evils of drink.The Graphic of June 1871 wrote of the drunkenness in brickyard children under ten years old and Charles Dickens, in 1853, made his most brutish character in Bleak House a brickmaker.

The Wesleyan and Primitive Methodists championed the cause of temperance and the Salvation Army, founded in 1864, focused on abstinence from alcohol and ministering to the working class. In Fletton several of John Hill’s managers and workers, such as Adam Adams, Edward Dickinson and Herbert Wootton were staunch Chapel men.

In 1908 Prime Minister H. H. Asquith promised to close a third of England and Wales’ 100,000 pubs, with the owners compensated by higher taxes on those that remained.

It was against this backdrop that coffee houses once more found popularity as an alternative place to meet after a hard days work and the Coffee Palace in Fletton was built.

John Cathles Hill’s Coffee Palace

At a meeting of the Norman Cross District Council on Saturday 1st October 1898 the plans, put forward by John Hill, were passed to build a Coffee House in Fletton for the London Brick Company. John Hill’s intention was to provide an amenity for both the residents of Fletton and the London Brick Company employees.

The Thurley brothers won the contract. The plans reveal what an undertaking it was. The building was of imposing dimensions. Including the basement there were four floors. In addition to the usual rooms, the basement would be fitted with lavatories and hot water furnaces. On the ground floor there was provision for a dining hall 63 feet long. On the first floor a concert hall would be fitted with a platform and the top floor would be furnished with a kitchen, sitting rooms and bedrooms.

It was of course John Hill’s intention to obtain a license for the premises. However, the Temperance Movement in Peterborough was evidently more rigid amongst the local council members than it was in London, where Hill’s previous license applications were granted. In 1899, despite offers to donate all proceeds to the District Nursing Association for the next 10 years, the license application for the Coffee Palace was refused.

John Hill was resolute. He had now provided an establishment for the teetotallers, and he was determined to provide the equivalent for those men who wanted to drink. In August 1900 he once again applied for a license for a brickworker’s hotel. It would be situated on the road he intended to build, which would join London Road with Oundle Road. Whether this hotel was ever built is unknown.

In the area, at this time, there were 47 fully licensed houses, six beer houses, nine beer off-licenses and two grocer’s wine licenses. In the preceding year there had been 24 cases of drunkenness and all had been convicted.

The application prior to John Hill’s was made by Mr. Wright, grocer and baker on High Street. Mr. W. Alton, of the Peterborough and District Temperance Association, along with Mr. Hartley of the Peterborough Free Church Council, gave a sound argument against the license being granted. But Mr. Wright, with support from Mr. Gaches and John Hill, persevered and he was granted the license.

When his case was heard, John Hill argued that in the area there were 2,500 brickyard workers, 700 employed by himself. It was beyond doubt that these men enjoyed drinking and the decision to make was how would it be best to supply this need? In the local pub of a lunchtime? By having drink smuggled into them? or in an establishment controlled by himself? At his previous hearing, for the Coffee Palace, a petition against the license had been circulated and signed. This seemed to indicate that there was much opposition against his request. To enable all views to be considered, he had himself circulated a petition, both for and against the granting of the proposed license. The results were 138 for and 8 against.

The case against granting the license was brought by Mr. Hartley and Mr. Alton, together with Mr. T. Spencer, acting on behalf of the Peterborough and District Temperance Association and Mr. Allitt, landlord of the Coalheaver’s Arms. The evidence against John Hill was damning and revealed his determination.

John Hill’s manager, Adam Adams, was a member of the Peterborough Free Church Council, and a teetotaller. He held the opinion that ‘no house nor any license is necessary in any district’. John had given him a free reign to oppose or support his application as he saw fit. However, perhaps in warning, his son-in-law Herbert Wootton, ‘a rabid teetotaller’ who was actively canvassing amongst the men to oppose the application, was given a months’ notice to quit John’s employment.

In an angry exchange John told Herbert: ‘I want an independent opinion from the men and I am not going to have you, a manager of one of my yards, using your influence with the men-probably using the threat of the sack if support were given to my application’.

Herbert responded: ‘I have a right to my independent opinion and I can do without the London Brick Co’.

John’s answer was simple: ‘Very well Mr. Wootton and the London Brick Co can do without you’.

At the time of the hearing Herbert’s notice had not been withdrawn, although it was stated that ‘he expressed his contrition and said he did not wish to do anything against the interests of the London Brick Company’.

Despite these assertions both Adam Adams and Herbert Wootton signed the petition against the license.

In the event John’s license was refused.

Also declined at the hearing was a full spirit license applied for by Mr Chas Edward Binckes of the Cross Keys, Oundle Road and an application for a beer off-license for Mrs Sarah Brewster of St. Margaret’s Road.

What Next for the Coffee Palace?

The Thurley Brothers created a truly impressive building in The Coffee Palace, and it became the amenity for Fletton that John Hill wanted, not the white elephant that everyone feared. Throughout its varied history it bore witness to meetings, celebrations, swimming and sporting events.

With the outbreak of the Great War, in 1914, it became the depot for the Hunts Cyclists Battalion and the place where their drills were carried out.

With John Hill’s death in 1915, there was much re-organisation at the London Brick Company. In 1917 the Coffee Palace was purchased by Peerless Foods and became their offices and depot.

By 1926 the Coffee Palace had gained the license, that John fought so hard for, when it became the tavern for McAlpines Ltd.

In 1928 it was purchased back by the London Brick Company and was used as offices. It was with this acquisition that it gained the name that we are most familiar with today, ‘Phorpres House’. This is derived from the process of brickmaking, where the brick is pressed twice in each direction hence ‘four press’. It was also potentially at this time that Phorpres House gained its entranceway, at the top of a steep staircase, which messenger boys would ascend many times throughout the course of the day.

Today, of course, the impressive Phorpres House has been converted into flats.

The Methodist Chapel

In addition to Phorpres House, the other unique Fletton landmark the Thurley Brothers built, was the Methodist Chapel on Fletton Avenue. This venture was of great personal interest to the Thurley family as they were Methodists themselves.

The architect was Mr Alan W. Ruddle and the design was a simple one. The main hall, which would provide seating for 300 worshippers, measured 41 feet by 37 feet and contained a vestibule. The internal roof and seats were of pitch pine. The front elevation boasted Suffolk red facing bricks with stone dressing. There were also elegant balustrades on the vestibule roof and the front elevation of the main roof. These have since been removed. The future had also been considered. There was room within the building for a school, and sufficient land at the rear to extend the chapel to 60 feet should it be required.

The ceremonial stone laying took place on the 8th September 1900, and was led by the Rev W. H. S. Snow from the Boroughby Chapel. Amongst those who laid stones were the Honourable A. R. Fellowes MP, Miss. Hill on behalf of her father John C Hill Esq, A. J. Keeble Esq by proxy, Jon Emerton and Mrs G. Collins, T. Harrison and H. Ground.

The Reverend Dowman, whose own church was undergoing enlargement, welcomed the Free Methodists saying that the brickopolis of Fletton was ‘still growing rapidly’ and there ‘should be a manifestation of Christian enterprise’. He was glad to see that that enterprise was being witnessed that day.

The land on which the chapel was being built had already been paid for with the aid of generous donations, including one from John Hill.

After the stone laying there was a public tea served in a marquee. Ladies from Fletton were on hand to assist and the cost of the ticket price would continue the building work.

The Thurley Brothers

Unfortunately, the partnership of the Thurley Brothers was not long lived. For whatever reason the brothers decided to cease trading and in 1906 the premises they once occupied was available for rent.

After the Thurley Brothers partnership was dissolved George moved to London and took up the position of general works foreman. He was in charge of several important schemes including extensions at Haileybury College, Hertfordshire and a new school in March, Cambridgeshire. It was this last work, in March, that he considered his best. George was committed to Fletton and was once the Captain of the Fletton Fire Brigade. The most famous fire that he attended was when Stanground Manor burnt down. He died on December 5th 1934 and his funeral service took place at St. Margaret’s Fletton.

William twice journeyed to America. On one occasion, on the 8th October 1919, he went to Ohio, via Canada. He sailed from Liverpool on the SS Canada. His occupation was listed as an insurance agent. In 1922 he was recorded in the Cleveland, Ohio directory as a porter. I can find no further information about William or Fanny, in the official records, until two newspaper reports recording their deaths. William died in 1931, at 70 High Street. The report states that he lived a quiet life. He enjoyed music and was an accomplished piano player. The report about Fanny’s death, on 6th March 1944, gives more details. Fanny must have joined William at some point as they ran a large hotel in Cleveland, Ohio together. On returning to England, they spent some time in Nottingham before settling once again in Fletton. Fanny continued to live at 70 High Street, until her death on 6th March 1944.

Millicent, her husband Charles, and their family emigrated to Ohio on 14th May 1906. Millicent died there on the 18th April 1946.

Francis also continued to live in Fletton and remained a carpenter joiner. In 1939 he was living on Oundle Road. He died in 1955 in Surrey.

Walter and his wife Julia remained in Fletton for some time and Walter became a railway clerk. However, he died in 1929 in Epping, Essex.

The brothers, George and William, remained close even in death. Both were buried, with their wives, in Fletton cemetery, within sight of their parent’s graves.

Next steps?

Neither the Thurley story or that of the Coffee Palace and the Methodist Chapel on Fletton Avenue are complete. There are many unanswered questions. If you can assist in any way, with personal recollections or photographs please get in touch.

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