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Joice’s Yard

by John Hollands

The Willis Museum’s gig on display at Milestones.

A short walk from the museum along Winchester Street takes you to an arched opening bearing the name Joice’s Yard. Nowadays this leads you to a public car park, but in days gone by it was the beginning of a thoroughfare called Wendover Street, which connected with Cross Street. Had you been standing at this spot in the early nineteenth century you might well have seen a stage coach bound for London or Winchester emerging from the opening, because it led to the stable yard of the Crown Inn, a coaching inn where Jane Austen is believed to have dined.

By 1880 the stage coaches were no more and the Crown Inn had fallen on hard times and shrunk to a small tavern; it was in that year that the stable yard and part of the warren of buildings were acquired by John Joice who was to establish an important coach building business there, plus another in Staines. John Joice was not a local; in fact he hailed from a farming family in Danbury in Essex where he grew up in a time of depression in the farming industry and it was his mother who urged him to train as a coachbuilder.

Though the railways had caused the almost complete demise of the stagecoach, the number of horse drawn vehicles on our roads was increasing rapidly at that time, reaching a peak in the early years of the twentieth century. There was plenty of work for coachbuilders. However the writing would soon be on the wall, and before the 1880s were out the first internal combustion engined “horseless carriages” had already taken to the roads. Just twenty years later Basingstoke’s first car dealers, Webbers, opened for business.

Nevertheless Joice’s business prospered for many years and in the late 1890s John’s son, Arnold was apprenticed to him, and in due course became a partner in the firm, eventually taking over the management of the Basingstoke works whilst his father concentrated his attention on the other workshop in Staines. Arnold inherited the business when his father died.

As the demand for new horse drawn vehicles slowly but inexorably declined thanks to the unstoppable onslaught of the motor vehicle, the firm diversified into the repair of motor vehicle bodies for Webbers, whilst work on horse-drawn vehicles became largely limited to repairs instead of new construction. Arnold Joice finally retired in 1960. He closed the by now much reduced business, and sold the 9000 square foot site in Wendover Street, much of which was soon afterwards destroyed by fire.

This article draws on a taped interview recorded in 1992 with Mrs Barbara Broadridge, Arnold Joice’s only daughter who was born in 1918 and brought up in the family home in Winchester Street adjoining the works. A copy is kept in the museum. The museum also has copies of some priceless early photographs taken in Joice’s Yard, mostly showing finished vehicles, but including one or two of the workforce.   The vehicles photographed range from small two-wheeled vehicles, such as the museum’s gig, to quite large four wheeled Broughams, which had an enclosed saloon for two passengers behind the open box for the driver. They all appear to be private conveyances as distinct from commercial or farm vehicles.  Mrs Broadbridge had these developed from glass plates that had been bricked up for some seventy years in a recess in the family home and came to light when alterations were made to the property. Other sources of information on Joice’s Yard are a chapter in one of Arthur Attwood’s books about Basingstoke history, and a second audiotape of reminiscences by Graham Viner who lived close to the works in his childhood in the 1930s.

One of the photographs taken in the yard in about 1900 shows a workforce of 18 men. Mrs Broadbridge thought that the largest number of employees had been about 15, but mentioned that one or more sign writers and a trimmer (who fitted the leather upholstery) were not employed by the firm but were often called in as needed, and perhaps that accounts for the three others. The number of workers had probably also peaked by Mrs Broadbridge’s childhood, and had declined to just two full time employees when the business finally shut down.

In her interview Mrs Broadbridge made brief references to a body shop, a paint shop, and a varnish room with staging outside from which finished vehicles were winched down into the yard with the aid of a pulley.

She said that it took two men to make a frame in the body shop. Assuming that normal practice was followed this would have been made of straight grained oak. The men would have called the main longitudinal member a “perch” and the cross members “bolsters”. Curved body panels, and likewise the gig’s curved shafts would have been made of ash, and have been bought in from “bending factories” where they had been steamed and bent to shape while the wood was still green, and then kept for several years to season.

The body shop and perhaps most of the workshops appear to have been on first floor level. Barbara recounted how as a two year old her father had begged her grandfather to take him to the body shop. He seemed to be no trouble as he sat quietly on the workshop floor until it was discovered that he was pushing sawdust through the cracks between the floorboards on to a newly finished carriage stored below. The visit was not repeated for some time.

Our gig bears witness to the great skill and care that went into painting, lining out and varnishing the carriages, making them well able to withstand the rigours of the British weather.

Mrs Broadbridge remembered the painting being done in a very dark paint shop with multi-coloured steaks on the “lovely knobbly surface” of the walls where the painters unloaded excess paint from their brushes. The varnish room by contrast had good natural lighting. When it was not possible to do any varnishing during the Second World War, Arnold Joice had kept chickens there.

In 1924 part of the family’s garden was sacrificed to make room for a new paint shop. Probably it was the work now being done on motorcars that made this necessary. An interesting insight into the conditions of the day was the fact that this building contained the first WC for the men, a requirement of new Factory Act legislation. The works’ first telephone was added two years later, and a new clerk was taken on to answer it. Incidentally Mr Joice used a bicycle to call on his customers.

Mrs Broadbridge did not give a detailed account of the making of the carriage wheels by the firm’s wheelwright, a highly skilled job requiring extremely accurate craftsmanship, but she did recall with obvious and justifiable pride that three kinds of wood were used in their construction. The nave (hub) was made of elm because it could be relied on not to split when the twelve spoke mortises were cut from it. (Old hubs were saved as Yule logs, she said). The spokes were made of oak for strength, and the felloes (the six curved sections that made up the rim) were made of ash which combines strength with flexibility.

Our gig has solid rubber tyres like early bicycles and motor vehicles. These had been developed in the 1870s; they would have given a much quieter ride than the more usual iron tyres. The latter had to be fitted in the open air in full view of any bystanders.

The wooden wheels had to be clamped to “tiring platforms”. Remains of these platforms could be seen until quite recently. Made of iron strip up to four inches wide – a fifteen foot strip would be needed for a larger wheel – a tyre would be made fractionally smaller than the wheel to which it was to be fitted. (Wheels could be re-tyred several times, and old tyres were sold to Mr Ruddle, a farrier, as material for making horseshoes). It was heated in an open furnace to a dull red, causing the metal to expand one eighth of an inch for every foot. Some of the fuel for the furnace consisted of old shoe boxes from the original Milwards store. It would then be quickly taken to the wheel, hammered and levered into place, and immediately quenched with much hissing to make it shrink tightly on to the wheel, and of course to stop the wheel catching fire. Sometimes small boys were enlisted to help with this operation. One of them was Graham Viner, born in 1930, who gave a vivid account of the process when interviewed in 2001.

“When I was a boy”, he said, “they were still making these horse drawn carriages in Joice’s Yard. In fact he had at least six stored in the workshops there, and I can remember them bringing in carts and carriages to have new rims put on the wheels. There was a large flat metal ring, a huge great thing, about ten foot in diameter on which they used to light a fire in the hole in the middle of it to heat the rim up, and then when the thing was red hot, it was hammered on to the outside of the wheel, and us small boys were charged with throwing buckets of water over it. They were canvas buckets, and they were very heavy. I remember that, remember them being heavy, and running backwards and forward to the tap that was actually out in the middle of the street, and throwing water over these wheels, and the smell of these burning and all the bits of paint; you know it was something you can’t imagine nowadays. As I say, this was the middle of the town.”

Not that small boys had always been as welcomed on the scene as Graham Viner appears to have been. Mrs Broadbridge recalled how other boys sometimes got in the way and risked having a bucket of water thrown over them or having their heads ducked in a water tub, sometimes resulting in visits to Mr Joice from irate mothers.

But as Graham Viner memorably put it: “It was something you can’t imagine now – in the middle of the town”.

The tapes and transcripts of the interviews with Barbara Broadridge and Graham Viner are available in the Resources Room at the Willis Museum.

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