When Alan Bennett died on Halloween Night my mum’s shrinking circle of family and close friends took a big hit. He was mum’s nearest and dearest cousin, and we visited him often. Alan introduced my mum to my dad when she was thirteen and has been constantly in her life. Due to Covid19 my mum was confined to her care home so my sister and I attended the funeral. Honouring Alan was easy and the sight of his coffin being transported by a 1936 Bedford lorry painted in Bennett’s Livery was priceless. It was what he had requested.
Our family business ‘Albert Bennett and Sons’ was established in 1777 and when it was sold in 1987 managing Director Stan Bennett was the great, great, great grandson of the founder. Originally, Bennetts made traditional ‘witches’ brooms for Greater London and even delivered to the queen. They soon added wood cutting, sand quarrying and then loam production. The horticultural business eventually expanded to include leaf mold and other composts and Bennetts were the first company in the country to sell these products in plastic bags wholesale to a vast range of customers.
My grandmother was a Bennett and like all her family grew up on Sandpits Lane leading to the company ‘yard,’ in the village of Shirley. Originally all the transport was provided by horses and my great, great grandfather Albert Bennett was a familiar site in the village driving his pony and trap. The company switched to motor vehicles in the 1920s, first using model T Ford’s, but they were destroyed in a disastrous fire. One Bennett family tradition was keeping a goat, as a mascot, although in earlier times they had been used to pull a small cart alongside the horse wagons.
From 1936 Bennetts fleet consisted mostly of Bedford lorries which my dad and Alan would drive. During WWII the lorries were commissioned by the military and my dad did his bit with no-one concerned that the fifteen year old driver didn’t have a license. Sometime later Alan and dad obtained their commercial vehicles driving licenses on the same day taking a memorable trip to Scotland Yard in London which was the designated test site. The vehicles were always heavily overloaded with sticks and poles as the dare devil boys competed to see who could carry the most. Alan said my dad won, mostly.
During the war the government commissioned Bennetts to carry out some top secret work designing and making fenders for the D-Day landing harbours. They made them out of bundles of birch and hazel wood. Being located between three airports the area around the yard was constantly being bombed so the family would take it in turns to fire watch overnight. My dad was on duty when an incendiary bomb land on a lorry loaded with pea and bean sticks. He was renown for taking naps during his watch but that night he became the hero in Alan’s eyes by jumping on the lorry and kicking off the bomb to avert a disaster.
My dad’s family lived just across the road from the Bennetts and that’s why he eventually hooked up with my mum. Shirley was a quiet and pretty little village consisting of a few hamlets between farms and the estates of large houses. A windmill for grinding flour was built in 1808, and rebuilt after it was burnt by fire in 1854. It remained abandoned for decades and Alan and my dads initials are carved into it’s ancient frame. Apparently, my dad once climbed right out to the end of the windmill sails for a dare and created a family legend. The windmill is now a protected landmark and enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. In the 1950’s a golf course and hotel was built in the old Shirley Park and it was there that my dad’s dad, my uncles and cousins worked for many years mostly as barmen.
After WWII ended Bennetts bought a fleet of coaches and made daily runs, picking up people around south London and taking them to the beaches and tourist sights all over the south coast. My dad loved that work but left for a better paid job and moved our family down to Hailsham on the south coast. Alan progressed to becoming an ace mechanic for the family business, then a garage owner, a hotelier and eventually the landlord of a pub. His restless nature was most pronounced when he left his wife for a much younger woman. That put Alan at great odds with the family but as an action I could understand it simply made him a renegade great uncle in my view.
After Bennetts business was sold in 1987 it was moved from Shirley Hills to Paddock Wood in Kent and soon after sold again to an American company who typically stripped the assets and made a fortune building fancy new houses on the ‘yard.’ There ended a flourishing business that had existed for over 200 years.
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