From the Beginning to 1905
The founder of the company was George R Barrett. He was born in 1871,the son of a Canterbury Town Sergeant and Sheriffs Officer, Robert George Barrett, who lived at 66 Burgate Street. George was an enthusiastic cyclist (he held the Canterbury-Herne Bay-Canterbury record for some time) and obviously had an interest in things modern and mechanical. After an apprenticeship with Court Brothers, who were Ironmongers and Cycle Agents in Butchery Lane, he worked for them in Canterbury and as their shop manager in Chelmsford. In 1902, at the age of 31, he started his own business in partnership with George Jackson, who he had met during his time at Chelmsford.Barrett and Jackson opened for business selling cycle and motor fittings in February 1902 at Number 26 St Peter's Street, Canterbury (now the Starburger Restaurant). These premises were leased to the two budding entrepreneurs for £60 per annum by George Mount although Mr Jackson bought the freehold in December 1902.
By 1904 however, G R Barrett - The West End Garage and Motor Works, was being advertised at 30 St Peter's Street, with a phone number of Canterbury 86, and Mr Jackson was now no more than a sleeping partner in the business. Number 30 had been a prominent mansion house in the eighteenth century, having been built by the wealthy Six family who had come to Canterbury from Flanders and made their money in the silk trade. One of the Six family - James(1731-1793) became a scientist and invented the minimum/maximum thermometer (as used in gardens and greenhouses today). In fact it was known for a long time as a Six Thermometer. The house, with its large garden behind, had become a girls school in 1878 and a Co-op store in 1900 before George bought it in 1903. He used sheds in the garden as a workshop and stores, accessed via a high double door entrance at the side by Pound Lane.
1905 - 1920
The space and quality of the storage facilities were obviously improved because by 1909 the petrol licence had increased to 520 gallons and also for 432lbs of calcium carbide which was the fuel that created acetylene for the (non-electric) headlights of the day. In 1912 a small showroom was built on the corner of St Peters Street and Pound Lane. This replaced the advertising hoardings which had previously formed the corner. George and his wife Florence (nee Cobbett) had three children, Elsie, John and Reginald and both sons were destined to join the business. John was born in 1899 and during the First World War served an engineering apprenticeship with Clement Talbot and then with the RNVR at Queenborough Pier, Isle of Sheppey. When he joined his father in 1919 his initial tasks involved the maintenence of Fordson tractors for which the company were East Kent dealers. During the war George had continued to run the business, which was carrying out engineering work for the War Ministry, and he was also appointed an Area Food Production Officer. With the war over, George bought number 26 from the estate of Mr Jackson, who had died at his home in London. With his son John helping him, he now started to look at ways of consolidating and building the business.
Detour: There is a corner of a Foreign Field
In September 1996, Barretts supported a visit by Canterbury British Legion to the Somme battlefields in Northern France. The visit commemorated an "adoption" 75 years ago. In 1921 the British League of Help asked towns in Great Britain to adopt towns and villages that had been devastated in the First World War. Canterbury adopted the villages of Lesboeufs and Morval because the 1st and 7th battalions of the local East Kent Regiment, The Buffs, had won a distinguished victory there during the 1st Battle of the Somme in September 1916.This led to the founder of Barretts, George Barrett, and his wife,visiting the area in 1922 and being shocked by the bare, tree-less landscape. It was still littered with shell holes and war debris even though the local inhabitants, who were living in Nissen huts, were working all day to clear the land.
In 1922 George's eldest son, John, joined the business to form G R Barrett and Son. At the same time a large investment was also made in building an extensive new showroom fronting Pound Lane and the last undeveloped area behind was filled with more garage and workshop facilities. Customer service and satisfaction was at the top of the father and son's business ethos, and there can be no doubt that they offered the people of Canterbury everything for their mechanized mobility. 1927 saw Councillor George Barrett becoming Mayor of Canterbury; sadly one of his first duties was to start a Mayor's Fund to help the large number of people in Canterbury whose houses had been flooded when the Stour burst its banks after heavy rain on Boxing Day 1927. However his year in office did have its high point when he bestowed the freedom of the City on both the Archbishop of Canterbury (the first time it had been offered to the Primate of all England) and to Admiral Lord Jellicoe. 1928 was also the year that John married Violet Turner.
Sales peaked in 1926, slumped, and recovered by 1932 but then dropped off again and took yet another three years to get back, such was the boom/slump style of those years. But by now G R Barrett and Son had another string to their bow. This was brought about by John's interest in wireless (he had been an enthusiastic radio ham with the callsign 2JW since 1920) and the purchase in 1931 of 28/29 St Peters Street, next door to the motor business at No 30. The New Radio Shop. This property was converted into a new shop from which gramophones, radiograms and radios were sold together with all the accessories that went with them, including records, toys, particularly Trix and Hornby trains, were also sold and the bicycle shop (which was always George's greatest interest) was also now in these premises. This meant that Barretts were now retailing and servicing the two most advanced technologies available - the internal combustion engine and radio. The garage business was now employing over 75 members of staff and a 24 page booklet was produced entitled "Service for all Motorists". Not only did this contain a great deal of lavish self-advertisement but it included everyday hints for the motorist - such as:
It is interesting to note that 65 years later it is not possible to carry out any of these actions with a modern car, even if one wanted to! George's twenty-one-year-old second son, Reg, joined the business in 1933, forcing another name change to G R Barrett and Sons. The first grandsons were also born at this time - Geoffrey to John and Violet in 1932, and Douglas to Reg and Honey in 1935. After 1932 sales (and profits) steadily improved in all departments with cars growing even faster than the rest, but seldom being more than half of the company's total sales.
FireWith 5 years of steady growth and consolidation the family was starting to consider other ventures (Baby carriages had already been added to the shop in 1936) when disaster struck, and it had nothing to do with the impending war which was also going to radically affect the business. Fire damage.
World War II
By 1940 the vast majority of employees had joined or been conscripted into the services or war work (several went to Vickers at Woolwich). John Barrett joined the Ministry of Supply as a Mechanisation Inspector and moved with his family to Harpenden. Reg Barrett joined the Royal Signals and was posted to the Middle East. GRB was left to manage the business with Gerald Williams, the pre-war sales manager, joining the board. The shop remained open but the works were given over to repairing and maintaining motor bikes for the Army.
Clearing up after the bomb in the Garage
If most people had gone to war, the war came to Barretts in October 1940. The Kentish Gazette ran a (successful) campaign to raise £5000 to buy a Spitfire. To help this fund-raising project a Messerschmitt Me 109 that had crash landed intact and was put on display in the Garage. In 10 days 3885 people saw it, raising £88 for the fund. The exhibition closed on 12th October. On Monday the 14th the Luftwaffe accidentally got its revenge. A lone raider came out of some low cloud and dropped 2 high explosive bombs on the High Street, causing several fatalities and much damage, and 2 incendiaries, one of which fell through the garage roof damaging two buses, some offices and the Me 109! The roof was repaired, but not the offices, and the war moved to the rest of Canterbury. Barretts survived unscathed in the heavy Baedeker raids of June 1942.
1943 and 1944
GRB died at his home, Westgate Court, on the 12th October 1943. It was obviously the end of an era, and he was greatly mourned with over 150 people attending his funeral. On January 22 1944 the Luftwaffe ensured that nothing could be the same again. On this day the Germans launched their Steinbock campaign which was to be their last mass bombing campaign of the war. However such was the poor state of their aircrews, and the strength of the home defences, that only 30 of 500 tonnes of bombs reached their London target. At least two bombers found Canterbury instead, one of these strays was shot down and crashed in Lower Chantry (now Waitrose, St Georges site) and another dropped its load of 2.2kg incendiaries along the London Road, St Dunstans and beyond the West Station.Just one found its way to Barretts; at about 5.10 am it fell through the roof into a locked caravan that was in storage. The firewatchers tried to put it out, but in vain, so they called the National Fire Service who were already busy in London Road. Unfortunately by the time they could get their hoses on the blaze, at 5.40 it was too late. The buildings were completely destroyed and the new store was gutted. Barretts were back at square one. The photo shows the site after it was cleared, it was completely flattened, all that remained was the front half of the "new" building that had been erected in 1938.
Post War Rebuild
So began a long period of make do and mend. George's sons John and Reg returned from their war duties in 1945 and found the business spread around Canterbury. The general offices had been moved into GRB's house, Westgate Court, on the other side of the Tower. The car workshops were in Pound Lane, the County Hotel's garages in Stour Street were used for motor bike repairs and the gramophones, toys, prams and bikes were being sold from 26, 27, 28 and 37 St Peters Street. Some ex-army huts were acquired and placed behind 27 and 28 and these were used for storing what stock could be obtained.
However before any grand plan for the business could be made the City of Canterbury had to sort itself out, and John Barrett played a large part in this. Like his father he had a strong sense of civic duty and he had been elected a councillor in November 1945 joining the Planning Committee at the same time, and became its Chairman in November 1947. Throughout this period controversy raged as to how the blitzed city,
particularly the town centre, should be rebuilt. The council was fully aware of the historic nature of the city, and also recognised that road traffic was a major influence in modern towns (although they could not have imagined the situation 50 years hence!).
The Holden Plan was first mooted in 1945 but rejected as too radical and was replaced by the Wilson Plan in 1946. Both plans featured a ring road around the city but the later plan proposed coming through the Barretts site and demolishing all the houses on the city side of Pound Lane to make a road through to Northgate. This proposal was to blight the site for over 30 years.The debate concerning the style and cost of the future city, and particularly the flattened centre went on for over six years with one public enquiry after another. John worked tirelessly as the planning chairman (although as the owner of three properties in St Georges Street he had to take a back seat in one or two meetings) and eventually in October 1951 the first permanent buildings - Woolworth's, Grieg's, Dolcis and the Colonnade were given the go-ahead.
John and Reg's contribution was part of the next phase with the building of the St Georges Street store next to Marks & Spencer's which had been the only building in the street to have survived the Blitz. Building work started on the bombed site in late 1952 (although it had been unsuccessfully excavated for Roman remains in 1946) and it was opened by TV star David Nixon on 22 April 1954 for the princely fee of 25 guineas. Reg Barrett had overseen the setting up of this truly modern store that sold all types of electrical goods, records, toys, bikes and prams and it became a major attraction for children and their parents. There are very few people from Canterbury in the fifties that do not remember the electric train layout that was on display in the shop window every Christmas time.
Post War Car Sales
The post war years were not good times to sell cars because the economic climate ensured that demand was limited and the government required most car production to be exported. Barretts had been Rover agents since the company began and had been appointed the Austin distributor for East Kent in 1946. By 1952 the economic climate warranted some investment and the surviving front section of the 1938 store in St Peters Street was refurbished to make an Austin and Rover Showroom, in preparation for the better times ahead. The showroom was opened on 1st February, in the week that George VI died, and almost exactly 50 years to the day since GRB had first opened his shop. Barretts were now employing nearly 90 people and whilst Reg oversaw the shop activities John oversaw the motor business, and this made 1952 a very busy year for him as he was also elected Mayor that year.
That same year a new commercial vehicle workshop was built in Linden Grove, next to Westgate Court. This was constructed using the only materials available then, a light steel frame covered with asbestos sheeting, and is well remembered by all who subsequently worked in the building as being incredibly hot in the summer, and very cold in winter. The post war rebuilding was finally completed two years later when 16,700 square feet of new workshops together with parts storage and offices were built on the bomb flattened area behind St Peters Street. This was built with a curved front to follow the proposed road line down Pound Lane. The workshop was designed by the service manager, Charlie Dean, to work on a through flow principle, but the real advantage for all the mechanics working in it was that at long last they had all the latest modern facilities. In spite of the proposal to demolish 26, 27, and 28 St Peters Street and rebuild them as car showrooms they were delayed by planning politics (and subsequently scrapped). Barretts were back to the 1939 position of having the best electrical and motor retailing business in Canterbury.
The late fifties also saw the arrival of the next generation of Barrett directors. After serving a four year apprenticeship with Austin at Longbridge and two years National Service in Nigeria with REME John's son Geoffrey joined the Company in November 1956. Reg's eldest son, Douglas, joined in November 1959 after an apprenticeship with E.K.Cole at Southend and National Service with the Royal Signals. Their arrival certainly helped with the running of the business because although John was still very involved with Civic duties for Canterbury, he had to take life a little easier having suffered a heart attack in 1953.
In the fifties the structure of the motor trade was such that the manufacturers supplied their cars to distributors who in turn wholesaled the cars to the dealers within their geographic area. As Barretts were the Rover and Austin distributors for East Kent they were dealing with over 50 garages and responsible for the annual sale of hundreds of cars. With the market being so buoyant, and with an eye to export sales, Austin decided to market a four wheel drive vehicle, to be called the Gypsy. Because it would compete directly with the Land Rover. The Rover Company insisted that the two vehicles could not be sold alongside each other or even by the same company. Therefore a new company, Barretts Automobiles Ltd, was created to handle the Rover franchise.
With this in mind, but also needing more shop space at St George's Street, land in Rose Lane, almost next to the store, was purchased and a car showroom was built with shop space on the first floor, offices and storage on the second and just storage in the basement. This was numbered 3 and 5 Rose Lane because, between the two Barretts buildings was number 1, a car parts factors run by AES. As befitted a new building in 1960 it was finished in the style of the times with blue tiles on the front elevation between the windows and the showroom was painted in Cantaloupe - a greeny-yellow colour! The first floor was given over almost entirely to baby carriages, mainly Marmet and Silver Cross; by now Barretts were probably the largest retailer of baby carriages in Kent and one wonders how many future car customers started out in a Barretts pram!
The irony of the new showroom arrangements was that the Gypsy was not a success, but another car launched in 1959 kept the garages very busy over the next two decades - the Mini.
Whilst there were now two car showrooms in Canterbury there was still only one workshop (or Works, as it was called then) at St Peters Street and as this also housed the spare parts space was at a premium and more premises were needed. In January 1966 this need was satisfied when the Malthouse off St Stephen's Road was purchased at auction from Mackersons. When it was handed over to Barretts it came complete - including the cottages, kilns, grain and the inevitable rats! The Malthouse had been built in 1898 because of its proximity to both the railway (it had its own siding) and the River Stour. It was custom designed for the very special process which turns barley into malt by damping it, allowing it to sprout, changing the grain starch into sugar, and then drying to the required colour before being stored and despatched to the brewers.
The whole process would take about ten weeks and was extremely labour intensive, although the flow of the barley/malt was such that it started at the top floor and each successive process was carried out on a lower level, so that gravity at least helped, once the grain was in the building.The five floors, with relatively low ceilings, were very suitable for Barretts requirements of parts sales and storage and vehicle parking and the kilns were soon removed (and the rodents!) and windows were added to the southern elevation for offices. When the Parts department moved from St Peters Street the space vacated by them was changed into a new reception area for the workshop.
More Planning Problems
1967 saw the Rose Lane shop in its ultimate configuration when AES moved out of 1 Rose Lane and Barretts were able to organise the department store so that all the sections were interlinked, from St George's Street through to the top of the car showroom. This also gave more floor space and the Sports and Camping Department was expanded to fill this space. The early 1970's were filled with frustration and sadness. John died in April 1971 just as outline plans were being made for the biggest move of all. With St Peters Street showroom in desperate need of attention two plans were made. One was to demolish the old shops at 26 and 27 and the remnants of the pre-war shop at 28 and build a new showroom; the other was to move lock, stock and barrel to a new, single 4 acre site in the Sturry Road. Neither was to happen. Just as planning permission was sought for the first proposal the two shops were listed, forbidding demolition.
Meanwhile the plans for Sturry Road fell victim of a Catch 22 situation. To fund the new site all the other motor trade properties would have to be sold. However because of the planning blight on St Peters Street, which was earmarked for the northern section of the ring road, the site could not be sold for its real market value. Therefore, without the blight being removed, the planning gains of moving to a single site could not be made. The Sturry Road project floundered in early 1975 and so it was subsequently decided to develop at the Malthouse and a new PDI department was therefore constructed next to the railway. A new showroom was planned for St Peters Street, but that would have to wait another four years until the new city plan was agreed and the planning blight was removed.
The 80’s started with Barretts biggest ever building project, the redevelopment of all their property facing St Peter’s Street - from number 26 to 30. 26 and 27 had been allowed to decline since the war because it was thought they would be demolished to make way for a new showroom. However they had been listed in 1975, and following a survey it was ascertained that they had 13th century origins. It was therefore decided to fully restore these two properties to their former glory. At the same time, with the lifting of the planning blight, No 28 (the pre-war electrical shop and post-war car showroom) was to be demolished and a brand new showroom with offices above was to be built right up to the edge of Pound Lane. The design of this building was a very complicated process because the council did not want a single block, but something that reflected the historic style and character of the area. After 9 months consultation with John Chater, the conservation officer, the design was agreed with its varying mass, rooflines, windows and detailing. Work began in 1979 with a new petrol station being constructed, then, throughout 1980 there was complete upheaval as the new building was put up; the business carried on behind this activity as best it could - the salesmen’s offices were in garden sheds for the summer! The opening of the new building was a double celebration because October 20th 1980 was also the launch of the then much awaited Austin Mini Metro, a car that was to improve both Barrett’s and British Leyland’s fortunes.
If there was optimism on the car side of the business, regrettably this could not be matched on the shop side. Because of radical changes in High Street shopping, particularly the rise of the multiples, it was decided to stop selling bikes and prams and reduce the size of the premises in Rose Lane. The front section was let out to C&H Fabrics whilst the toy and model departments were relocated into the car showroom that had been vacated by the opening of St Peter’s Street. The fourth generation of the Barretts family, Geoffrey’s son Paul, and Douglas’s son Shaun joined the Company in 1983, becoming Directors in 1984. Paul assisting his father in the garages whilst Shaun was with Douglas at Rose Lane. Indeed his arrival coincided with the final iteration of Rose Lane when the toy, model and sports departments were closed and the focus was put into Barretts Sound and Vision, specialising in TV and audio equipment.
Sadly the last link with the second generation was severed when founder George’s son, and Company Chairman, Reg, died in October 85.
All the painstaking work that had gone into restoring no 26 St. Peters Street was tragically undone in December 86 when Oscar Rudolph, who ran the 'Frogs' restaurant there, committed suicide by setting the ground floor on fire and then driving his car through the front of the building. The sixties and seventies had been times of enormous change in the motor industry when many of the British manufacturers came together as British Leyland, and this had to be reflected by their dealers. By 1980 we had been encouraged to put all the brands we sold - Austin, Morris, Rover, Triumph and Jaguar into one showroom, but by the mid-eighties Jaguar had been privatised and so started a new process of separate showrooms again! The chosen area for the Jaguar dealership was then being used as the used car centre in Pound Lane. To give Used Cars a new home the Schweppes distribution depot in Broad Oak Road was purchased in 1986 and converted into a used car centre. The new Jaguar showroom, workshop and parts facility was finished in 1987 about six months after Jaguar had launched their new XJ6 saloon.
1989 saw Barretts first business outside Canterbury when they bought Ashford Audio in Ashford’s County Square, and rebranded it as Barretts Sound and Vision. More expansion of the electrical business came in 1991 when the car accessory shop at St Peters Street became a Sony Centre and in 1994 when Barretts opened a Sony Centre in Maidstone’s Stoneborough (now Chequers) centre. By the late eighties all the remaining BL marques had distilled down to just Rover and Land Rover and, with the arrival of the Discovery, we needed to have a separate facility for Land Rover, so another round of musical premises started in 1991.
Firstly the Rover workshops were moved into the PDI building at the Malthouse site, then the used cars moved into the old workshops behind the showroom at St Peter’s Street and finally the premises at Broad Oak Road were converted into the Land Rover dealership. Having expanded as far as the Rover franchise would allow in Canterbury, further opportunities were sought. In 1992 the opportunity to represent Rover in Folkestone was taken, and our premises in Foord Road were opened.
The global car business was also changing rapidly, and after years of representing just "British Leyland" brands the time had come to broaden the range of cars offered and Subaru was now represented in Canterbury, sharing the Jaguar showroom. The late nineties saw an enormous expansion of the Company. New premises were built and new franchises added as a new policy was pursued to offer customers in East Kent a wider range of cars. 1998 was to become a pivotal year for the Company as a new Rover workshop was built on the Malthouse site, the accident repair centre moved into the "old" workshop and Barretts vacated the Strawberry Fields site in St Stephens. The other occupants of the St Stephens site, the radio workshop, moved to the Company's new electrical showroom in Maynard Road. Having also moved our Sound and Vision centre in Rose Lane to Maynard Road the Digital World name was now used to signify the much wider range of goods on offer. White and brown electrical goods were now displayed in the custom built 10,000 square feet of showroom. The Ashford Rover and Land Rover dealership also opened in March 98,allowing Barretts the claim of full East Kent representation for the two marques. 1999 saw the arrival of Citroen at St Peters Street in Canterbury and then, at the end of the year Barretts made their first purchase of another dealership when Newmans BMW in Vauxhall Road, Canterbury was acquired
The turn of the century saw the arrival of Citroen at St Peters Street in Canterbury. 2001 was a busy year and saw the move of the BMW franchise, which had still been trading under the Newmans name at its original site on Westminster Road, move to a new purpose built bigger showroom and servicing site on Broad Oak Road. This move also coincided with BMW acquiring the rights to MINI from the Rover Group and so moved to the site, with BMW, and both began trading as Broad Oak BMW and MINI as part of the Barretts Group.The company expanded once more in 2001 when it acquired Honda from Perry’s, and in 2002 it was moved when the old BMW showroom on Vauxhall Road was converted. 2002 was a pinnacle year for Barretts which marked the company’s centenary year. In 2004 the site in Folkestone was swapped from Rover to Citroen, and a year later following MG Rover’s collapse, Jaguar was moved alongside Land Rover on Ashford’s Orbital Park. The decision was made to relinquish both the Subaru and Izuzu marques. In 2005 following the success of MINI and BMW, both franchises were opened in Ashford on the Orbital Park with separate showrooms next to each other. SEAT began trading in the old Subaru showroom in 2006, and the decision was made to sell the Citroen franchise in Folkestone to Willmoths. 2008 was another busy year with Citroen moving back to St Peters Street from Broad Oak Road. This allowed for MINI to move into a new showroom across the road from BMW and give both franchises much needed space. It was also the year that Land Rover celebrated its 60th anniversary.
2012 - 2015
In 2012 the decision was taken to sell the Malthouse site on St Stephens Road, and end an era for Barretts. It was sold to The Kings School Canterbury that year, with their plans for it to be converted into a new theatre. At the end of 2013 Barretts acquired a new site on Westminster Road, which became a new showroom and service department for Citroen, moving Citroen from its previous site at St Peters Street. This gave the Citroen much needed space with the expanding model line due to the successof Citroen DS. Barretts ceased the trading of SEAT in April 2014, and applied for planning permission to build 12 houses on the old SEAT and old Jaguar workshop site, with building finally commencing summer of 2015. The same year was a busy one with Barretts opening the first DS Saloon showroom in the UK in July, due to the Citroen and DS brand becoming independent from one another. Barretts also acquired a new site on Waterbrook Park, Ashford to relocate both Jaguar and Land Rover to a new bigger site in the near future. The Barretts Group sold Digital World to the Stellisons Group in August 2015 and therefore, ceased its trading of electrical goods to focus on the motor trade.