A History of Fowler Building Contractors

Stephen Fowler, 1826-1882 In 1826 Stephen Fowler was born at Frylands Farm, near Henfield, in the house presently occupied by his great grandson and current group chairman John Fowler.Stephen served his apprenticeship as a wheelwright and in 1853 he set up his business in Cowfold.

His original building in the West Grinstead Road was later extended to accommodate the manufacture of joinery including the pitch pine pews & pulpit still in Cowfold Church. A machine shop was later added, powered by an early Ruston “Hot Bulb” semi-diesel engine the distinctive “piff-paff” sound of which formed a background to local life until 1950, it was replaced by electric motors and went to start a new life in India! In due course the business expanded to include building and blacksmithing.

When Stephen died in 1882 the business was carried on by his widow, Elizabeth and sons William and Thomas, trading as “E. Fowler & Sons” and later as “Fowler Bros”.

The Fowler family in the 1880's

In 1914 the firm, which had previously relied on handcarts and horses, acquired its first mechanical transport in the form of a Burrell steam traction engine but this was shortly afterwards requisitioned by the War Department for service in France. Although returned to its owners after the war it is said that it never fully recovered from the experience!

Fowler Team in the Victorian Era In 1926 the company was incorporated as “Fowler Bros (Cowfold) Ltd” and the next generation took over in the persons of William’s sons Cuthbert and Stephen and Thomas’s son Fred. This generation saw the company through the difficult inter-war years and the Second World War when Stephen left to work on airfield construction as a Quantity Surveyor for the Air Ministry, returning at the end of the war.

Shortly before the war the company had started a haulage business employing two 1933 Foden diesel Lorries, both hand-started and with a speed limit of 20mph! Once again these were requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport on whose behalf the company operated them until the end of the war, driven by two worthy Cowfold men, Walter Pummell and Jack Faires.

Walter Pummell with grain sacks in the Thirties

Throughout the Fifties these Lorries were engaged in the haulage of bricks from the Sussex brickyards into London, returning with loads of Thames ballast from Shepperton or cattle feed from the London Docks.

During the Second World War the company also started an English timber mill on land behind the Hare and Hounds pub in Cowfold. This was run by Jim French – probably the last person to go to work in Cowfold in a bowler hat – who lived in a wooden caravan, which he had built for himself on the site.

The mill was originally powered by two portable steam engines, fired with timber off-cuts and stoked by the redoubtable Miss Watson, but was later driven by a single Gardner 4LW diesel engine. During the early days round timber was hauled from local forests on a pole trailer drawn by a rubber tyred steam traction engine hired from the Harris brothers of Steyning – whose well-known funfair was laid up for the duration of the war – and subsequently by a Fordson Major diesel tractor.

The mill, which produced materials for the mining and railway industries during the war and later oak fencing and joinery timber, remained in production until about 1970 when it was dismantled to make way for the present large warehouse and, in due course, new buildings to house the company’s offices, joinery works now occupy the site.

Huntscroft (to the right), the then Fowler office in Cowfold, pictured in 1912 The offices were previously located at “Huntscroft”, the former family home in the village centre, but in 1913 they were moved into the adjacent single storey wooden building which still stands on the site.

This building, which remains in good order, had started life as a beach house at Shoreham until it was re-located in 1913; it must be well over 100 years old and has never needed structural repair since it arrived in Cowfold, demonstrating the longevity of timber buildings if properly maintained.

After the Second World War the management team was augmented by Ted Oakley, who joined in 1948. In the meantime Stephen’s son, John, had trained with Brighton builders, T.J. Braybon & Son and – the following military service in the Royal Engineers – he joined the company in 1954.

Between 1948 and 1955 the company was continuously employed in the restoration of St Hugh’s Charterhouse (commonly known as Cowfold monastery) which had twice been bombed during the war (mistaken for a military site). Here some very fine stonework and vaulted cloisters were rebuilt under the able supervision of site foreman Bill Lindfield.

In 1998 the directors appreciated that the apparently nepotistic atmosphere of a family-controlled and managed business was tending to stifle initiative amongst the non-family staff and so it was decided to split the business, giving substantial share holdings to the managers of the subsidiary companies. Thus the management of Fowler Building Contractors Ltd was taken on by Maurice Denyer (with the firm since 1963), David Porter (with the firm since 1965) and by Will Lydon who joined as a graduate trainee in 1996.

During these early post-war years the company also built more than 100 of the new council houses in Cowfold and Henfield.

In those days virtually none of the company’s work was contracted out but was executed by full-time employed staff including Bricklayers, Plasterers, Carpenters, Joiners, Machinists, Plumbers, Painters, Blacksmiths, Drivers and Vehicle Mechanics. This is apparent from the photograph of the firm’s Centenary Dinner in Cowfold Village Hall in 1953 which was attended by more than 100 employees.

In 1958 the company added swimming pool construction and servicing  to its other activities – that side of the business being run by Ted Oakley until 1968, when he left to start his own business in Hassocks. The department was then taken over by John Fowler while the building department was taken on by another John (Linfield) and the office management by Maurice Denyer who had joined the firm as a junior cost clerk in 1963.

As the swimming pool work load increased the company was joined in 1968 by Fred Fowler’s son, Geoffrey (formerly a farmer) and his son-in-law Peter Lang in 1974 after service in the Regular Army. Geoffrey remained with the company until his death in 1985 and Peter until his resignation in 1999. At the peak of the outdoor swimming pool boom in the early 70’s the company was completing some 90 reinforced concrete pools annually until the mid east Oil crisis of 1972 dampened this exceptional demand.

During this time the building department was working on a wide variety of projects including Church and country house restorations, prestigious private country houses, new offices at Gatwick Airport and much work for Sun Alliance Insurance when they re-located to Horsham.

In 1985 the swimming pool business was expanded when John’s son-in-law, Philip Pamment, opened a branch office in Whyteleafe, Surrey, whilst the main pool building business in Cowfold was taken on by Fred Fowler’s grandson, Tom Holman, allowing John to expand his growing consultancy business whilst remaining Chairman of the Group.

At the same time Fowler Swimming Pools Ltd was taken over by Tom Holman, later joined by Malcolm Child. Management of Fowler Bros (Whyteleafe) Ltd remained with Philip Pamment and Tom Holman.

Following the success of the new swimming pool company, Fowler Building Contractors Ltd was founded in 1999. Maurice Denyer remained managing director and was joined on the board by David Porter and Will Lydon. Since Maurice's and David Porter's retirement, Will Lydon has now taken over as Managing Director. Fowler Building Contractors now employs around 50 staff, many of whom have completed with their apprenticeships with the company, and are committed to training young people for the industry. In recent years Fowler Building Contractors have become an approved contractor for many local authorites and has gained a reputation for the refurbishment and renovation of historic buildings and churches.

The Fowler Bros Group is controlled by a holding company, Fowler Bros Ltd, with a board comprising:

  • John Fowler (Chairman) - Great grandson of the founder
  • Maurice Denyer (Director and Secretary)
  • Tom Holman (Director) – Great great grandson of the founder
  • Susan Haworth-Booth (Director) – Great great granddaughter of the founder.

The building company has long been active in the relevant trade association, currently styled The Building Employers’ Confederation. Stephen Fowler chaired the local branch in 1948 and again in 1952 while Maurice Denyer, having held the same post in 1980, progressed to the office of regional chairman in 2000 and served as a member of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB). In 1995 he received a well-earned MBE for “services to the construction industry”. On the swimming pool side the group has been active in the Swimming Pool and Allied Trades Association (SPATA) with John Fowler serving as national president in 1975/6 and SE regional chairman in 1973, in which post he was subsequently followed by Peter Lang in 1990 and Tom Holman in 1996.

John served as SPATA’s technical officer from 1986 until his retirement in 2000 when Peter Lang was appointed in his place.

In addition to activities in the building and swimming pool industries the Fowler Group and its predecessor companies have been, and remain, manufactures of high class specialist joinery. At various times they have also operated as Wheelwrights, English Timber Millers, Hauliers, Shoeing and General Blacksmiths, Funeral Directors, Glassfibre Fabricators, Paint and Hardware Retailers, Plant Hirers and Earth Moving Contractors.

It is a sad fact that family firms established in the UK construction industry seldom survive beyond the second generation. Fowlers take pride in the fact that they have been continuously managed by five generations over the past 150years – and continue to trade successfully and profitably.

The sixth generation will, hopefully, carry on the name in due course.
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