Jim & Hales Vaughan, fifth generation furniture makers

These are the last days of the last chair frame makers in the East End. Within a matter of weeks, brothers Jim & Hales Vaughan of H Vaughan Ltd will retire after a lifetime making bespoke chair frames, closing their old factory situated in the last shipwright’s loft in Blackwall, prior to redevelopment. So it was my privilege to pay a visit, making the acquaintance of Jim & Hales and photographing their premises as a record for posterity.

When you step off the Dockland Light Railway in Blackwall these days, you find yourself surrounded by a forest of ugly towers that has grown in recent years, casting the location into anonymity – as if you have arrived in any fast-growing, boom and bust economy on the planet where buildings are thrown up and torn down with alacrity.

Yet in a narrow side street, beside a closed down pub, sits a small brick-built Victorian factory with a decorative gable and cornice, lettered H VAUGHAN LTD. Here, you step through a cobbled yard into a modest workshop with a pitched roof supported by huge wooden beams and punctuated by tall glass panels flooding the factory with sunlight. Here are the last hand made chair frames ready to be collected by their customers and whisked away to the upholsterers. Here are the remaining pieces of old heavy machinery awaiting removal. Here is the store room, hung with myriad wooden patterns for more than forty years of chair making. Here is the wood store, with a depleted stock of beech, oak and walnut planks.

Here I met James & Hales Vaughan who have run the firm in recent years with the help of Jim’s sons, Paul & Michael. Fortunately, they were happy to take a break from clearing out the factory to chat to me and have their portraits taken. In the front office, I found ledgers containing designs for furniture stretching back through the last century, while in the drawing office cabinets overflowed with working drawings produced by generations of chair frame makers.

This is a story that stretches back even further than you might imagine. Shoreditch and Bethnal Green were traditionally the centre of the furniture and cabinet making trade in the East End and this is where H Vaughan started at the beginning of the last century. Yet even before this there was Edward Vaughan, Cabinet Maker, born in 1857 and before that Henry Vaughan, Cabinet Maker & Wholesale Furniture Manufacturer, born in 1818. Behind them were generations of Silk Dressers and Fan Makers, for this is a Huguenot family that has prospered in London by pursuing an artisan tradition through the centuries until the present day.

As the last sawdust settled upon H Vaughan Ltd, Jim Vaughan sat in his office and told me his story while his brother Hales listened from the next room, popping in to deliver an intermittent commentary, and I could not escape the realisation that I was hearing the poignant epilogue to five generations of furniture makers and the end of this particular industry in the East End.

“My grandfather started the firm in 1902, everyone used to call him Jim Vaughan but in fact he was Herbert Vaughan. At that point it was a trade mill, they used to supply the components for settee and chair frames to upholsterers, and they used to supply the components for cupboards and chest of drawers. I remember my father making the curved fronts for chests. At first, they were in Hoxton Sq then Redchurch St, then Brick Lane before we came here. We were bombed out of Redchurch St in the Second World War and when my father (he was Herbert Vaughan as well) got the premises in Brick Lane after the war, he managed to get the contract to make frames for utility furniture – you had to have a special certificate to do it and he was one of the few frame makers that got that. Then he had the idea of making copies of furniture and that was how we became bespoke chair frame makers.

I started off to be a Quantity Surveyor and lasted about a year. I could not stand the night classes and so in 1964 my dad said, ‘Would you like to join in the business?’ and I said ‘Yeah, Why not?’ My brother Hales is older than me, but it was quite a few years later that he joined. He had done an Engineering degree and was working on submarine cables but they did not have much work for him to do. It was government contract work, an odd system which consisted mostly of writing reports. So when the summer break came, my father said to him, ‘Would you like to try working for us for a bit?’ That was in 1969 and he has been here ever since. Our sister Rosemary worked here in the office for a little while too.

When I came here, I had never worked in wood before and I never got on with woodwork at school, I did not enjoy the joints, doing mortice and tenons by hand. So I started off in the office and then I worked in the factory sweeping up and ‘pulling out’ timber from the back of the machine. I used to get all the wood chips fly all over me! From there, I progressed to the bands aw then I did some frame making. Slowly but surely we started losing staff and we could not replace them. So we let the firm get smaller and smaller until I ended up running the mill with my son while, in the making shop, we had two makers and my brother Hales doing the design work and some of the tricky machining that no-one else can do. Any machinery problems Hales, can sort it out.

In 1973, our premises in Brick Lane were pulled down. We got compensation in as much as they paid for all the removal expenses and for getting this factory wired. Before we moved out, someone came round from the Greater London Industrial Archaeology Society and they documented our old factory. This is luxury to what we used to have in Brick Lane – all the timber was kept outside in an alleyway and we had to chop it down to size, working outside in all weathers even when it was pouring with rain and the wind blowing. We had a sanding shop the size of this office with a big belt sander and dolly sanders and that room would get filled up with sawdust so it was like a fog in there, because there was no extraction. That was how it always was.

When we were in Brick Lane, we were supplying manufacturing upholsterers – small upholsterers that would have half a dozen three piece suites. that was one of the bread-and-butter things that we used to do all the time, and we used to do some work for bigger companies where we would supply fifty tub chairs or a dozen chesterfields at a time. We used to have a full sized removal lorry of furniture frames go out every week as regular as clockwork.

When I first started in Brick Lane, every shop there was something to do with wood and the furniture industry. Hales & I used to collect our timber in a hand cart and wheel it back to the factory. I used to go up the road for all our nails and screws. You would go in there and say, ‘Can I have two pound of nails?’and they would weigh them out for you on the scales, that was ow it was done. I used to pop over to Nichols & Clarke for nuts and bolts. We used to get our polishes at Rustins on the corner of Virginia Rd run by a little old lady with pebble glasses and we went to for carriage bolts to Lewis & Sons in the Hackney Rd. We had a wood carver in the Sunbury Workshops in Swanfield St and a wood turner in Redchurch St.

Once we moved down here to Blackwall, we were still doing a fair amount. We used to do fifty office swivel chairs at a time but slowly that dwindled off and then we were doing a lot of Knoll settees. At the moment, the popularity seems to be for settees with turned legs but over the years it has been getting quieter and quieter as people on the industry are retiring, like we are now. The demand is not there any more. Getting bespoke upholstery done is quite expensive and it is a throwaway society we have now. People think nothing of spending two or three thousand pounds on a three piece suite, having it two or three years and then throwing it away – not  having it re-upholstered. It is the modern trend for everything. Our furniture frames and made to last. We do not actually put a stamp on them that says they are guaranteed for life but they will last a lifetime.

Within the next two to three months, we are closing the business down and retiring. We are just clearing out all the old machinery and are getting rid of the pattern frames. We have sold this building and it will be redeveloped. We have rented a container in Rochester and we are going to store our drawings there for a year in case any of our bespoke customers want them but, after that year, it will be the end.”