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Thicker than mortar

PUBLISHED: 15:41 24 April 2009 | UPDATED: 15:58 20 February 2013

The Durtnell workshop in Brasted

The Durtnell workshop in Brasted

Kent's oldest company has been going for more than four centuries, and it's been carefully handed through 12 generations of one family. Could this be the secret of its success? Kent Life investigates

Back when William Shakespeare was putting quill to paper, a carpenter by the name of John Durtnall (spelt with an 'a' back then) was building a timber-framed house in the Medway valley at Poundsbridge. With the help of his brother Bryan, the brothers spent two years constructing Poundsbridge Manor for their father, William, the rector of Penshurst.

Started in 1591, it is a fine example of a Wealden rectangular box-framed house. Although not open to the public, the much-appreciated family home can still be admired from the outside with its logo of an entwined WD and ETA 69 (the Reverend Durtnall was 69 when he moved in) and, above it in the gable, the year it was completed: 1593.

William had been a farmer in Westerham when he married John's mother Margaret in 1541. But in 1560 William was ordained and moved with his family to Leigh, then to Penshurst. After Margaret died in 1577, the vicar married again, another Margaret, and it was she who persuaded her husband to have a brand-new 'modern' house built on a plot of land in Poundsbridge.

Twelve generations later, the Durtnell family is still in the business of building. In fact, Richard Durtnell and Sons, based on its original 16th-century site in Brasted, is the third-oldest company in the UK still in business today. The two older companies are the university publishers - Oxford University Press was founded in 1478 and Cambridge University Press in 1534.

Number four on the list is the Old Bushmills Distillery Company in County Antrim, founded in 1608, and five is the Post Office, whose counters first opened for business in 1635.

Back in the first Elizabethan age when the business was getting going, the brothers John and Bryan were in demand to build homes for yeoman farmers and others with some wealth.

Kent was the Garden of England and fruit farmers and graziers were providing fresh fruit and vegetables and meat for the London market.

John began to take on the role of house-wright, employing other carpenters and craftsmen with construction skills. The brothers supervised the work and ordered the materials needed for building a house; not just timber, but slates, tiles, plaster, stone, bricks and glass.

Over the centuries, as generation succeeded generation, the building company carried out work locally and, increasingly, nationally. The fortunes of the business fluctuated. At the beginning of the 18th century, the then head of the family, David, got into such debt that he had to mortgage all the family property to keep the business going and pay the wages.

To add to the difficulties David fell gravely ill and died before he was 50. His wife, Ann, was strong-willed and in contrast to her late husband was extremely business-minded. She immediately took matters in hand and put the family finances on a sound footing in time for their son Richard, the fifth generation, to take over.

This Richard had a son also called Richard, but he was an invalid and rather disparagingly was considered the 'family's prize failure'. Fortunately his son, yet another Richard, retrieved the family's reputation as fine builders and again got the business back onto an even financial keel.

It was this Durtnell, the third Richard, who is considered the founder of the 'modern' family business. According to Hugh Barty-King, who was commissioned to write a history of the company, A Country Builder, to celebrate 400 years of business, it was this Richard (1766 to 1845) who 'had a clear idea of the value of property and consolidated the family interest, and changed the word carpenter into builder.'

During the tenure of the eighth generation, again under a Durtnell called Richard, another matriarch comes to the rescue of the company.

Elizabeth is known in the family as 'the iron lady'. It was she who kept the business going when her husband developed dropsy and died of it in 1856, at the age of 49. Elizabeth is supposed to be buried in an iron coffin in Brasted churchyard.

Another wobble in the company's fortunes came in the early 20th century. The ninth generation, yet another Richard, had formally created a partnership with himself and his two sons (hence the name today).

After their father died in 1911, the brothers rubbed along, but were like the proverbial chalk and cheese. After a fairly liquid lunch one Sunday in 1922, they had a blazing row, with one brother telling the other to go to hell. The response: "I'll see you there."

The partnership was dissolved, with the elder brother (yet another) Richard taking the building business and Harry their brick-making business in Sevenoaks (which subsequently went bust).

Geoffrey (the 11th generation) took the helm in 1923, having refused to join while the 'two elders' were in partnership. He was in charge when the company went back to work on their original project. Poundsbridge was in 'Bomb Alley' during the Second World War, and a stray bomb had landed on the manor that had been built in 1591-93. Richard Durtnell and Sons carried out the extensive repair work and made the house habitable once again.

The current head of the family business is John Durtnell. Jovial and bearded, he attended the Brixton School of Building where he was awarded a London Master Builders' Silver Medal for coming top of class.

"After a few years in Gibraltar with Taylor Woodrow International - where I learned how to swear in Arabic and the Spanish for 'reinforced concrete' and 'beer' - I came back to the UK and joined the family business," he says.
"Since I've taken over we have consolidated the business, concentrating on projects large and small in the south east, including the new theatre at Benenden School and Tonbridge School's new media and sports centre. Turnover last year approached £70 million and we directly employ about 160 people.

"Durtnell's current largest single contract is the Turner Gallery at Margate, which is worth £13.5 million - we officially started this on 25 November 2008."

Of the current financial climate, John is pragmatic: "Durtnell will continue to offer traditional building skills and value for money, and it will come through this recession as it has those in the past. The secret of a business that has lasted for 400 years is to put aside some money for a rainy day and not have clouds of debt when there is a downturn."

So what of the future? "My son, Alexander, joined the firm eight years ago and is gradually learning the ropes. He is currently managing a number of contracts successfully. It certainly would be nice to imagine that at some stage the 13th generation might take over," says John.

"Looking further ahead, there is now a 14th generation in the shape of Alexander's son, William, so there is little danger of the family connection dying out. At present there is no timetable; the 12th generation being in no hurry to leave!"

Over the generations, the family business has prospered and, at other times, struggled. But Durtnell has endured and adapted, which is what you have to do if you want to pass all that experience and credibility and hard-won reputation onto those that come after you.

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