Timber yards have been part of south east London’s history for millennia. They helped with the development of Roman Londinium, including the construction of old London Bridge. Yards proliferated in Lambeth in the 17th century, and in the Victorian era emerged in Camberwell and Peckham near the routes of new canals. Last century, many survived the Blitz and the filling in of the canals.
This century, however, the arrival of property developers means the old trade in south east London looks set to be largely consigned to the history books.
Catford Timber Yard
Today, the Catford Timber Company, opposite the giant fibreglass cat, is a shadow of its former self. After 117 years, it has ceased trading and clearing agents are removing its wood, which will be sold at auction. Racks stretching the length of the yard, once filled high with wood of all shapes and sizes now stand largely empty.
Its disappearance is a loss to DIY enthusiasts, local residents and builders, and the schools, hospitals and theatres that have relied on its services.
John Wignell, who joined the yard in 1977, is among a small group of men moving the remaining piles of wood onto a forklift truck. He says:
We served everyone, from the little old lady needing a small piece of wood cut – and who we wouldn’t charge for this service – to an entire school wood fit-out.
Little wonder, therefore that he says the yard provides a service “that is very difficult to find anywhere else”. John, along with all the yard’s staff, will be out of a job later this month.
Catford timber yard is not the only business locally providing a wood cutting service, but it prided itself on providing a better quality of wood than the large DIY stores, and highly specialised cutting services.
Evidence of the latter is in the complex array of machinery in the yard’s mill. They include a moulder, used to cut wood into complex shapes for skirting, architraves, panels. Next to it are two large wood plainers, and a bansaw. Thick pipes reaching up to the ceiling collect small bits of wood, which are fired up in a burner and provide heat for the mill in winter.
Shaun Coope joined the yard 13 years ago knowing very little about the wood trade, but now professes to be an expert at milling and cutting. The yard’s uniqueness is that “it can cut every bit of timber in a house, from the ground floor upwards,” he says, as he recalls cutting walnut and North American tulipwood for rocking horses, and specialist wood for kayaks and even an entire boat.
John Wignell had cut specialist moulds for the likes of the House of Parliament, the National Theatre, the Globe, St Dunstan’s School, Dulwich College and Goldsmiths University. According to Anthony Ahern, the owner of the business, the yard once provided wood for a gazebo used at Buckingham Palace.
In a few weeks, all this will be history. Developers Catford Homes and Mount Audley, have acquired the timber yard land and its access road. They intend to develop the site for mixed use.
Simon Miller, a director of IMA, which includes Mount Audley, describes the site — dubbed “Catford Island” — “as a town centre regeneration opportunity that would create a thriving mixed use area”.
However, locals sense the departure of important trades, including Catford Timber, is a big loss to the area.
Melanie Woods, who has been using the Catford timber yard since she started training as a carpenter 18 years ago, says: “Catford timber yard is very different to the large DIY outlets. The quality of the wood is so much better. You can get beech, walnut, maple wood at the yard, but no hard woods at the DIY supermarkets. Catford Timber also offers a personal service, and also the staff are very friendly and knowledgeable.”
In truth, the yard has been in decline for several years. John Wignell says: “The last five years have been really quite difficult. Trade has gone down and we have had to cut our costs accordingly.” At its height, the yard employed almost 20 staff. Today the number has dwindled to around five.
According to the yard’s staff, one reason is the rise of the large DIY supermarkets. Indeed, according to John, the yard experienced a boom in the 1970s and 1980s when “there was no competition, no large DIY shops”. Change began in the late 1980s with the launch of large DIY outlets, many of which sought to trade – illegally at the time – on Sundays. “I joined the fight against Sunday trading,” John says.
Anthony Ahern blames it on the decline of house-owning and the rise of the rental market. “So many people rent these days and they have less interest in putting up shelves and doing DIY,” he says.
Anthony’s grandfather, Joseph, started in the timber trade in the 1920s, opening a wood import business at Rotherhithe docks and an office in Finsbury Pavement. In 1958, Anthony’s father, Bernard, happened to be walking past the Catford Timber Company and noticed it was in a state of disrepair. Later that day, Joseph telephoned the yard’s owners — a well-known timber-owning family called the Messers — to find out if they were interested in selling the yard, and they agreed.
The timing was good. Demand for wood was rising as Victorian house were being converted into flats. DIY was also booming in the capital. But now Catford Timber Company’s time in the sun has finally drawn to a close.
Meanwhile, change is also afoot at Whitten Timber in Peckham, one of the capital’s largest family-owned yards.
The Whittens, who have owned the company for four generations, are in talks to sell the yard’s land, which houses a substantial warehouse and large car park. The buyer, a developer, plans to build accommodation for 425 university students on the site.
The sale will not mark the end of the yard altogether. The plan is to lease part of the ground floor for specialist wood cutting. However, cutting services will be reduced, and milling outsourced.
Today, the yard’s large car park houses huge piles of lower grade building timber from Latvia and Scandinavia. Its large brick and metal warehouse has a façade almost 85 metres wide. At its rear is a huge corridor, wide enough for several forklift trucks to move side by side. Better grade wood — sourced via dealers from Scandinavia, the New Forest and elsewhere — is arranged on huge shelves either side of this corridor.
John Whitten, the fourth generation of the family to be connected to Whitten Timber, describes the yard as a “one stop shop where you can buy everything [wood-related]”, from basic cutting services to wood milling, specialist mouldings for coving and more.
James Duncan, who has worked at the yard for 15 years, says: “Demand is changing. Every three to four years you have to evolve new wood styles and techniques. You have to constantly get in new wood. There is a sudden excitement for a type of wood, we stock it, and then the next one comes along. Then the multinational companies also come along and we have to make sure we survive.” He adds that “the move to specialism is the way to go”
Customers, meanwhile, expressed concern about the partial loss of such a valuable local building trade.
Marta Genova, who uses the yard for small wood cuts, says: “There is already a lot of art studios and student accommodation nearby. The change is a good thing, in a way. But the community needs something basic like a wood cutting service. This is gentrification before our very eyes."
This is not the first time Whitten Timber has been affected by regeneration.
Back in 1920, W.H. Whitten & Sons Limited, founded by John’s great grandfather, William Senior, acquired a lease on land at Canal Head, at the site of the current Peckham Pulse. A tributary of the Grand Surrey Canal began at Rotherhithe and ended at Canal Head, which made the site an ideal location for receiving timber from across the globe. In 1971, however, the canal was filled in and in 1978 Southwark Council refused to extend the lease. According to Whitten, the authority was more interested in arts, leisure and social housing than local trades.
The Whitten survived, however, leasing nearby land at Eagle Wharf, just north of Canal Head, on Peckham Hill Street. The land included the site of an old sub-station, now occupied by Peckham library, as well as some freehold land.
In 2000, the council threatened to issue a compulsory purchase order over all these sites – again because it wanted to use the land for regeneration purposes. In the end, the Whittens handed over this land to the council. In return, the family was given the freehold on the yard’s current site.
The Whittens are nostalgic and proud of the yard’s past. Bill’s son, Robert Whitten, who started working for Whitten Timber in 1955 aged just 12, has published a book on the yard’s history titled Something Very Extraordinary.
Its history is also told on plaques dotted about the inside of the yard, and even in a documentary on YouTube. The walls of Robert’s offices are adorned with beautiful paintings of the yard by his father, Bill, and his younger son, James.
Robert admits to feeling "a bit sad" about the changes, adding the yard has been an important part of Peckham's history for almost a century. "People want us here. Whitten is part of Peckham," he says, adding that the yard is a "one-off”.