Category Archives: Business

6 – Helmer and Dyer

We stay in the centre of High Wych for this article and look at Helmer’s yard and the white cottages. Helmer’s Yard is of course so named after Len Helmer, a builder, local politician and entrepreneur.

IMG_5991Leonard Alfred Helmer, was born in 1912 in High Wych, the son of Charles and Alice Helmer. Len’s father and grandfather were both gardeners and born in our village. The family, Charles, Alice, Len and his brother Bert, lived in Woodside Cottages along High Wych Lane. Len went to the village school and trained as a carpenter with Nelson Lawrence. He became a Clerk of Works there and in 1935 joined forces with William (Bill) Dyer, a bricklayer from Sawbridgeworth. Initially their workshop was at the back of Dixon’s garage. In 1938 he married Elsie Hills, at that time a nurse maid with the Wentworth-Stanley family.

hw 65 scrapbook page 095 H&D headed paperHelmer & Dyer soon becomes the local builder of choice. The first houses they built were both on High Wych Road: Millfields for “Baker White” and Broad Oak for James Dixon. There are many H&D built houses around these parts. I myself live in one as does my neighbour Den Lomax. The second half of the thirties was indeed a very good time for house building. It is remarkable how many houses Bill and Len, who were only in their twenties then, built in those early days. One of the secrets of H&D’s success was perhaps that, contrary to current practice, many trade tasks were performed “in house”. So H&D employees came in all sorts: carpenters, joiners, painters, plasterers, bricklayers, a sign writer even: Frank Fish. I talked to two former employees who spent their entire working lives at H&D. Percy Peacock was a painter and decorator who joined in 1943 following his dad who also worked there. Alec Rainbird, a plumber, joined a year later. H&D and its customers could depend on a loyal and capable workforce.

hw 65 or so len helmer 1912 - 1976   hw 59 Eric Willison

Len Helmer              Eric Willson Bill White, Ray Collins and Paul Mercer in H&D’s Joinery workshop

During the 2nd world war H&D became involved with repairing bomb damage. Sometimes two trucks with twenty men each on them went to London in order to clear rubble from East End Bomb sites and do quick makeshift repairs to make the houses more or less habitable again. Improvisational skills were needed: “we learnt a lot in those days” Percy told me. 

After 1945 the company bit by bit moved its operations from the original site to what is now Helmers Yard. Meanwhile more and more building work was undertaken. Mansfield, East Park, Brook Road and Falconers are some of the estates that were built. An award was won for an estate in Dunmow. Another important project was the breaking up of the runways at the USAF base at Matching, where Len had been clerk of works during the war. This took several years. Hard core extracted from Matching could then be used for building purposes in Harlow New Town: another happy coincidence.

Over the years Bill Dyer took more of a background role whilst Len Helmer became a local VIP. According to all I spoke to,  Leonard Helmer was a charming, persuasive and very successful man, larger than life some would say. His contacts as a local councillor must have stood him in good stead. Between 1949 and 1974 Len Helmer served on Braughing Rural Council; for seven years he was its chairman. Between 1970 and 1974 he represented Sawbridgeworth, the Hadhams and High Wych on Hertfordshire County Council. He was chairman of High Wych Parish Council and a magistrate.

hw 51 h&D fire001a    hw 51 h&D fire002a

Saturday 28th April 1951 Fire at Helmer & Dyer

H and E Observer 1951 0504 H&D fire

On 28th April 1951 fire breaks out in the white cottages, used upstairs  to store plumbing supplies whilst downstairs cement etc. was kept. Due to lack of water pressure the Fire Brigade has great trouble coping. Water has to be brought in from ponds at the Manor of Groves. Subsequently the roof is re-thatched with reed and the building refurbished as offices. The Parish Council starts a campaign for a better water main. Helmer’s Yard meanwhile also plays host to other small businesses Andrews Heating bases itself there as does Engineering Prototype Ltd., a company manufacturing plastic mouldings started by my late father in law Mike Elsdon.

In 1963 Len Helmer married for the second time: to Hilda Sutton. By 1965 H&D employs about 100 people. In December of that year a party is held to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary and also to mark Bill Dyer’s retirement. In 1967 Jon Smylie joins the company Jon, quickly rises through the ranks and soon becomes Len Helmer’s second in command.  

hw 63 helmer wedding 002a

Len & Hilda’s marriage in 1963 – note LH’s mother and best man Alfred Mabey

Len Helmer passed away in 1976. By that time Jon Smylie had already acquired a minority share in the business. The company then carries on under his management and with Len Helmer’s widow Hilda in the background. After Hilda dies in 1997 John Smylie then takes on full ownership. This situation continues until 2006 when H&D is sold and moved to Ware. But the new owners do not make a success of it. In January 2008 the London Gazette publishes an insolvency notice: H&D is bankrupt. Jon Smylie meanwhile continues as owner of the Yard and landlord of companies such as P&R Travel and Willis Architectural Ironmongery.  

  1206 2826 hw gravestone Charles, ALice Len and Hilda  Helmer b&w smaller       percy & alf002a

percy & alf001a

Thanks this time go to Jill Clark, Roger Kempthorne, Percy Peacock, Alec Rainbird, Bob Springham, Jon Smylie and Eric Willison.

5- The Blacksmiths and the Garage

blkacksmith cottages as they are now

Right in the centre of our village opposite the Curatage (formerly Wych Croft) and the Pink Cottages now stands the small housing development of Blacksmiths Way. No prizes to be won for guessing why it is thus named!

Indeed from the early eighteen hundreds until about 1920 a Blacksmith’s Forge stood on that site. When exactly Joseph Smith, born in 1802 in Sawbridgeworth, started his business in High Wych is not certain. The 1839 Tithe map, however, shows Joseph as occupying plot 484 (next door to 485 – the Half Moon Public House). The plot was owned at the time by the trustees of Thomas Nathaniel Williams who also owned the Manor of Groves. Two years later, at the 1841 census, Joseph is registered as a Blacksmith and living with his wife Jane, sons Charles, Joseph and Samuel plus daughters Jane and Julia.

Ten years later Joseph Smith Sr. is still there whilst his wife is registered as a grocer. Sons Charles and Samuel are also registered as Blacksmith. Joseph Jr., born in 1830, lives next door with his wife, confusingly also called Jane who is   15 years his senior. Joseph and Jane have a 9 months old daughter: Emily. Also living with them are 4 “sons in law” and 2 “daughters in law”, all with the surname Brace. I believe this to be a mistake. The Brace children must have been Joseph’s step children and Jane’s children from an earlier marriage,

By 1861 Joseph Jr. and his wife have 4 more children, one of which, another Charles, born in 1860 grows up to join the family business, which he will then carry on for many years. Charles marries  Annie Wilson and they have  ten children. One of the girls, Elsie, later marries Arthur Sapsford, the manager of Rivers Nurseries. Another, Emily, marries Arthur (Duchy) Ward with whom she manages the village shop and post office. After Duchy’s death Emily marries Arthur Lindsell and as Mrs. Lindsell she continued at that shop until the early nineteen sixties. Some of you may well remember her. 

hw 00 or so Charles Smith in front of the blacksmiths cottage small  hw undated The High Wych Green ew

 1900: Charles Smith in front of his cottage                                1910: HW Green with blacksmiths forge

Kelly’s directory of 1914 still lists Charles Smith as HW blacksmith. What happens after is unclear. Census results after 1911 are not publicly accessible and the Kelly directories do not mention Charles Smith any more.

Now fast forward eleven years to 1925 when retired Stortford Grocer James Dixon buys the Blacksmith’s forge and cottage. James, nicknamed ”spouf” due to his habit of puffing out his cheeks as he spoke, starts a one man taxi company, bicycle and farm equipment repair business which develops into a garage. The taxi became a familiar sight around the area evidenced by the fact that even now people remember its license number : AKX 100. In 1931 James’s son Richard, better known as Roy enters the business and it is under his stewardship that Dixon’s Garage became the commercial hub of the village.

Around 1931 the Dixons also started selling petrol. The brand was called Cleveland; it was initially delivered in cans and sold for one shilling one pence a gallon (just over 5 p). Roy recalled how, as a boy, he cycled to school and delivered cans of petrol to Mr. Mabey the headmaster. Another early customer was local builder Len Helmer. Proper petrol pumps soon arrived. Roy’s sister Alice was also active in the company. See below for a nice picture of her “at the pumps”.

dixons garage 02  hw 65 dixons garage asmall

From the thirties to the eighties: Dixon’s Garage.               

Roy spent the war years repairing bombers at Marshalls of Cambridge. It was there that he met his wife Sybil. He was also in the Home Guard. In February 1947 Roy and Sybil were married. In December of that same year their son Richard was born. In 1950 father James died. The garage meanwhile expanded with a Ford franchise added in 1953 and a showroom built. In 1957 a second son was born: David.

hw 65 dixons garage alice dixon at pump a    dixons roy and sybil

Roy and Sybil Dixon – Alice Dixon at the pumps

The company grew further still: a Reliant franchise was acquired; the Scimitar being a popular model. Filmstar Rita Tushingham bought a honey coloured one in 1969 and was pictured with it in front of the show room. A Wartburg franchise was added in 1968 and one for Mazda in 1970. Personal care was what Roy and his staff prided themselves on. Dixons had its own paint shop, bodywork shop and even its own carpentry unit, initially shared with Helmer & Dyer Thus it was that they even manufactured a bespoke milk float; Priscilla the model was called and it was based on a Ford chassis. Roy Dixon acquired another dealership in Sudbury (Suffolk) and started a Reliant wholesale parts operation in Harlow from a 1 acre site with a purpose built warehousing operation. A new showroom was added to this site in 1979 selling Citroen and Fiat. At the height of success around this time they employed around 50 staff across those 3 locations.

68 dixons gets wartburg agency Harlow citizen 1-11-68 -8

1968: Roy Dixon wins a Wartburg franchise

hw 69 rita tushingham and her reliant scimitar at dixons garage hw 65 or so dixons letterhead001

1969: Rita Tushingham at Dixon’s        –       Dixon’s headed paper.

In the late seventies however the business started to struggle. Perhaps they had over reached themselves. Large increases in interest rates coupled with a slump in demand made things very difficult. Then in 1982 the business finally failed. The site was then sold to a developer who in deed did build the present Blacksmiths Way houses. 

Thanks this time go to David and Richard Dixon, Colin Jackson, Wendy Oxborough, the Herts and Essex Observer and as always those nice folk at Hertfordshire Archives and Library Services. And do not forget these articles would be impossible without your contributions, your memories, stories and photographs. Keep them coming; please get in touch!! Contact me at: or phone me at 01279 725468. 

4 – The High Wych village shops

As I write these words, in February 2014, High Wych has only one shop and no post office. This was not always so. At the time of the 1841 census George Patmore of High Wych described himself as a grocer and beer retailer. Patmore was based at what is now the Rising Sun pub. By the 1851 census Jane Smith, wife of Joseph Smith, the blacksmith was also registered as a grocer. Another name that I found mentioned is that of William Ward who in 1891 and 1901 was referred to as a hawker and a shopkeeper.

The Wards and the Smiths coexisted for a while. Father And son, “Daddy” and “Duchy”, ran a horse drawn delivery service for groceries and other goods to outlining villages over a wide radius. The story goes that having been refreshed at several hostelries en route, the driver would fall asleep after his last call and leave the horse to find his own way home. Duchy, William Jr that is, married Emily Smith one of the ten children of Charles Smith the last High Wych Blacksmith. It was said to be a marriage of mutual convenience. “He wanted a house keeper, she wanted a shop”.

There was also a dairy which was based at Bakers Farm and of course a bakery headed by Baker White who some may still remember. Groceries were also sold by the Tyser sisters, who had followed Patmore in the Rising Sun, in the last quarter of the 19th century. Steve Prior thinks the shop was a single story extension on the left hand side of the building accessed by the left hand door. The business probably stopped trading by 1929. Fishmongers also called round.

. hw 00 Daddy and Duchy Ward small

Daddy and Duch Ward

The original shop, as is shown on two of the photographs below, was situated in what is now number 7 Half Moon Cottages. The Post Office was also situated there. For most of the time it was managed by one and the same person: Emily Smith who became Emily Ward and upon Duchy’s death and her subsequent marriage to Arthur Lindsell became Mrs. Lindsell. She stayed in charge until 1963 when Bill and Kath Springham took over. They ran the “Cottage Stores” until the early seventies.

hw undated High Wych Bakery & Mr White the baker small    hw 56 or so Emily Lindsell002small

Early 1900s – on the left: “baker white”                                    Emily Lindsell in the 1950s

For most of us though the Village Shop is connected with the name Camp. When In 1952 Mr. Lindsell, the sub post master died, his widow, Mrs. Lindsell, preferred to continue the business just as a sweet shop. For a period afterwards the Post Office then operated from the Village Hall on a part time basis. In 1953 William and Mary Camp purchased a strip of land adjacent to their “Dovedale”. Bungalow. Originally it was known as “The Willows” owing to the row of willow trees along its length.

hw 55or so-  fred puncher & j stevens small   hw 65 springham shop 4 a

 1955: Fred Puncher and J. Stevens and their dairy van   –   1965: the Springham’s Cottage Stores

 Shortly afterwards the Camps applied to the Post Office for a licence. In April 1954 Mary started  serving customers from the front door of the bungalow. At first, the Camp’s daughters believe,  it was only 2 days a week as it had been in the village hall.  While this was going on, planning permission was obtained and a small building was constructed on the strip of land that they had purchased.  The building was in fact no more than one quarter of the size of the present building, maybe even smaller than that. 

Right from the beginning it was an enormous success.  The people of the village were so pleased to have a shop and post office again that they queued up to buy there.  Soon it was realised that the tiny building was not going to be big enough for either the stock required or the customers, so only a year later William and Mary started to think about how they could expand the shop to meet the need.  It was probably a couple of years before they managed to acquire the funds, but they then doubled the size of the shop.

High Wych Village Shop was a true family business. As soon as they were old enough daughters Heather and Rosalyn started helping out. Aged 16 and 15 they even took over for a week enabling Mum and Dad to go on holiday.  On Friday nights the whole family sat down to do the books.

Those were the days before supermarkets, when most people still did not have cars. Many villagers really did most of their shopping with the Camps. Cheese and meat was cut to order and the skill was to try and get it as near the required amount as possible as it was really hard to work out how much it should cost if it was slightly under or over. HW resident Jean Pedder (now 83) remembers buying ham at Christmas time and how the meat slicer was used.  

Interesting people came to the shop. Miss Morris would wait outside astride her horse. One had to go out to collect her shopping list and return with the items – plus a packet of polo mints for the horse. A certain gentleman had such dirty hands one was loathe to take his money.  Miss Valentine Fane in her old Humber car full of cardboard boxes would call to post strange smelling parcels possibly containing pheasants that had been well hung!  An elderly lady more than once came for her pension in her nighty. Heather or Rosalyn were then asked to take her safely home to High Wych Lane. Italian immigrants working at Actons and not having a good command of English came by with letters and forms which William had to read out.

hw 65 Trevor Helmer in front of Camps shop square

1965: Trevor Helmer in  front of the shop

The store provided many house hold items, provisions, frozen foods, vegetables and, in late October, early November even fireworks. The sale of sanitary towels posed particular problems in the early days. Firstly, ladies would always wait for a female to serve them. Then, the items were  kept out of view, so Heather or Rosalyn had to go ‘out the back’ to ask their dad where they were, then wait for him to wrap them in a brown paper bag for the girls to take discreetly back to the customer.

In 1963 a Sainsbury supermarket was opened in Harlow. That shop and others like it took away a lot of custom. Still the shop continued to thrive and  in 1975 it was even extended again with the frontage being doubled. Two years later, in 1977 William Camp closed the shop and Bert Thorpe became the tenant. In the nineties Mike Ellis took over.

The Camp daughters continue their tale:

For many years prices were very stable and you could ask Dad the price of anything in the shop and he would know it.  Later when inflation began to be a problem, prices changed so quickly that he could no longer do that.  I can also remember the first time someone stole something from the shop.  It had never happened before, and then one day a box of pens went missing.  At first Dad couldn’t work out what had happened as it was unheard of for people to steal.  Unfortunately, after that it happened quite often and we had to be on our guard so people didn’t have the opportunity to steal.”

I remember 3 burglaries always the thieves were after cigarettes, always they happened at night. The first time they successfully broke in through the front door, no bars in those days. The next time they made the mistake of taking some Cadbury’s cream eggs on their way out, then calling at Dixon’s garage on the way passed and dropping some out of the car onto the forecourt this was seen by Roy Dixon on his way home from a late night party and guessing where they had got them he called the police and they were caught. The last I remember was after the grills were fitted and they unsuccessfully attempted to break in via the roof.”

By the time Bert Thorpe and Mike Ellis had taken over, thefts, burglaries and even hold ups had occurred a number of times.  One such occasion happened in 2003 and my own neighbor, the late Ede Lomax was involved.  The robber demanded money and it is thought he waved a gun about. Mike, who had been held up once before, told the man he would give him the money. Ede,76 at the time and made of sterner stuff told Mike he should refuse upon which she herself got threatened. Her reaction: “All right then, shoot me if you must”.  The robber got away with the money and Ede, Mike and a child who was also there, with just a fright.

hw 93 l eft to right Ann Thorpe his  daughter. Vera Thorpe his wife. Bert Thorpe. Mary Jackson, June David.1993: Bert Thorpe, his wife and daughter plus Mary Jackson and June David in front of the shop.

When In 2010 Mike Ellis sold the business on to Diogo Fernandes, all seemed normal. Diogo, sometimes assisted by part timers worked in the shop whilst Rob Ambrose, his employee, worked behind the counter at the post office. Business wasn’t roaring but it ticked along. Until one day in February 2012 when the postal authorities came around for an audit and discovered a shortfall of close to £ 40.000. Rob held up his hands and confessed to having defrauded the GPO of that amount. The Post Office subsequently closed the branch and took away the license from Diogo in whose name it was registered.

H and E Observer 2003 1106 ede lomax ao held up at shop2003: Mike Ellis and Ede Lomax are held up.

Months of confusion followed. The Post Office maintained officially that they wanted to keep their High Wych branch open but somehow seemed to hold the licensee responsible. Diogo, now being left with a business without the beneficial effect of a sub post office on the premise decided to close and found himself “a regular job”. A petition to the postal authorities remained without success. For a few weeks it seemed as if High Wych would have neither a post office nor a shop.  

H and E Observer 2012 1101 rob ambrose in court small

Still, on Monday 11th June, High Wych shop opens its doors once again. Diogo’s dad. Assis, a retired city worker hailing from Goa had taken over the reins. The shop was restocked. Assis also applied for the post office license, but this proved difficult. The postal authorities just seemed to set the bar that little bit too high. Payment was to be on commission, not through a salary. It was even suggested the post office open on a Sunday. It made you wonder whether they were really interested in ensuring good postal services in our village. Letters to the local paper, nor intervention by councilors such as Mike Carver or Roger Beeching seemed to help. In November 2012 the case against Rob Ambrose finally came to court. He received a six months suspended sentence.

Assis Fernandes meanwhile, was (and is)  serious about the shop. He bought the freehold of the shop from the Camp daughters. In February 2013 a number of us were invited for a grand opening. The Fernandes family, Assis and his son Alex are here to stay. They now own the lease. “Let’s lend them our support Roger Beeching wrote a year ago.” It seems to have worked. As its stands at the time of writing the Post Office will not come back to the shop and instead is considering offering a part time service from the green room at the Memorial Hall. Despite all that the shop is doing well.  Father and son Fernandes are doing well. High Wych village stores are thriving once again.

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2013: Assis Fernades behind the counter of his shop.

Information for this article was drawn from the writings of the late John Sapsford as well as from Andrew Elsdon, Assis and Alex Fernandes, Den Lomax Lily Mynott, Jean Pedder, Steve Prior, Rosalyn Reed, Heather Smith and Eric Willison. Help was also given by the staff at HALS, Hertfordshire Archive and Library Services.