Making A Mark In Mid-Sussex With Wells & Co.
by Lisa De Silva
After a century of trading, it’s no surprise to discover that local building firm, Wells & Co have left an enduring imprint on the Mid-Sussex landscape.
Whilst construction companies may come and go, they leave a lasting mark in the buildings and homes of their trade and this is certainly true of Wells & Co. Not only was the company responsible for building most of Plumpton Green during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but Wells & Co also worked on many of the grandest houses in Mid-Sussex.
The Wells building company was in operation for 100 years between 1881 and 1981, although there is evidence to suggest that family members were already working in the trade in 1841. I recently met with cousins Andre and Richard Wells, Andre worked alongside his father, and his uncle, for the company until its demise, learning more about the impact Wells & Co has had on the Mid Sussex landscape.
While the cousin’s ancestor, Francis Stray Wells was recorded as being a bricklayer in the 1841 census, the real power behind the company was William Wells, one of Francis’s sons. William initially started the company with his brother, Albert in 1881, buying land in Plumpton Green, on which they developed a row of houses on Station Road, which still stand today. One of these was Clairmont, William’s own house, which had his workshop adjacent to it. In fact, most period houses in the village today were probably built by Wells. The first houses William built had cavity walls, a new innovation in 1881.
As a result of the railway line, Plumpton Green grew faster than Plumpton Village and soon there was a need to build another church. The architect, Samuel Denman, from Queens Park, Brighton, used William’s company to complete All Saints Church in 1893, costing £1,857. Their relationship thrived, leading Denman to use Wells to build The Downs Hotel in Woodingdean, Whychcote House, a beautiful Victorian residence in Portslade, along with a parade of shops nearby.
Back in Plumpton Green, William bought a piece of land close to the church and to accommodate his growing company erected a purpose built workshop on the site. This has since been demolished and is now a small block of retirement flats. He also upgraded his own living quarters, building The Poplars next door, which now stands at the entrance to Wells Close, named in honour of the local businessman.
“Sadly for William, his only son Reg was killed during the First World War, which meant he had no direct heir to leave the business to,” Richard tells me. “That’s how it passed into the hands of our grandfather, Albert John and his brothers Allen James, and Frederick. Albert had three children, Albert known as Bert, who was Andre’s father, my father, Aubrey and our Uncle Leslie.”
After WWII, it was these three men who ran the business. Bert was the builder, Aubrey the Company Secretary and Leslie designed the houses they built. Coming from such a large family, many of their relatives worked for the firm and at times there were up to 60/70 men on the payroll.
Wells & Co benefitted from having many wealthy clients during this time, working on the 17th century house and estate, The Gote, for Sir Stephen Demetriadi, who was so wealthy he had the company rebuild the porch at least three times until his wife finally got the look she was hoping for. Sir Stephen’s son Richard & son in law Willie Rhodes-Moorehouse were pilots in 601 the Millionaire’s Squadron. Both were killed in the Battle of Britain and the family gave Ditchling Beacon to the National Trust as a lasting memorial to their son.
Plumpton College, then known as East Sussex School of Agriculture, was also built by Wells in 1919, to train officers returning from the First World War to be farmers. The council sold off some of the unwanted land around the college, which included the Elizabethan manor house, Plumpton Place. It’s new owner, Edward Hudson was the founder and owner of Country Life and asked his friend Sir Edwin Lutyens and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll to remodel and restore the house in 1928. Lutyens drew up extensive renovations including plans to restore the moat around the house, with Wells & Co doing all the work including building a small wooden bridge for access.
More recently, Andre worked at the house when it was owned by a well-known rock star and the small wooden bridge caused a problem when a large mixing deck needed to be taken up to the top of the house. A mock up had to be made in plywood to ensure that the deck could be manoeuvred over the water, into the house and up to the recording studio.
The company were also builders to the Shands and their three children, Camilla, Annabel and Mark, at their home, The Laines, Plumpton. “My father was the only builder Mrs Shand would have on the property,” says Andre. “She used to get us to do everything from washing the windows to clearing out the swimming pool. We also designed & built the orangery in the 1970s which is still there today.” In fact, the families became so friendly that Andre’s parents were invited to both Annabel’s wedding in 1972, where Princess Margaret was in attendance and a year later, to Camilla’s first marriage to Andrew Parker Bowles.
Interestingly, the cousins still have an invoice for the grand 1930s mansion, Odintune Place, Plumpton, which Wells built for the Powell Edwards family in 1932 for the princely sum of £5,968. The company also worked on the family’s other houses in the area including the Novington Manor Estate.
Wells & Co finally wound up in 1981, after 100 years of service. “I often wonder what would have happened if Andre and myself had decided to try and keep the firm going,” reflects Richard. Yet while Wells & Co may be no more, there’s no doubt that the company has certainly left its imprint on the local area.