Talk by John Force of

Force & Son


Thursday, 8 October 2015

At the end of the 18th century, King George III was on the throne, the French revolution had just occurred and we were at war with Spain. The Battle of Trafalgar was still 15 years away.  Transport was by horse or stagecoach, there was no electricity or telephone service and trains didn’t arrive for another fifty years.


Heavitree, Wonford, Exwick, Whipton, Pinhoe, Alphington and St Thomas were just villages and were yet to be swallowed up by the expanding city.  Exeter itself was a busy Georgian city, mainly agriculture based.  It was very compact and most people still lived within the city walls.  It was very insanitary. The population was about 20,000.   It was the sixth largest town in England.  A hundred years later it was the 60th largest.


John Force was the founder of the firm in about 1790.  John was born in Exeter in 1763, the fourth child of John and Anna; they had married in 1754.  They lived in Rack Lane.  John was my great great great great grandfather. 


John became a builder and auctioneer and set up in Cathedral Yard in about 1790. He married Mary Townsend in 1785 and they had fourteen children, including a set of twins.  A few died young.

Their seventh child was Charles Nicholas, born in 1795.  He was my direct ancestor.


Little is known of what sort of business John ran, although family hearsay is that he was a bit of a rogue.  He must have become fairly well-to-do, however, as his portrait depicts a gentleman.  

His son, Charles Nicholas, started up as a house agent, valuer and auctioneer in 1820.  It seems to have been a separate business to that of his father.  His offices were in a fine bow-fronted Queen Anne building, almost on the site of our present offices.  It was known as 106 St Sidwells.  The family lived above.  It was a beautiful building and it survived the blitz, but it couldn’t survive Exeter City Council who redeveloped that side of Sidwell Street in 1970. 


There is no record of staff numbers but, by 1825, Charles Nicholas had also become an undertaker, so he must have employed a good number of people.

Most of our funeral business was local although we conducted  funerals to any part of the kingdom notwithstanding transport limitations.


Building, estate agents, auctioneers and funeral directors were good allied trades.  As the city grew, we also became shop fitters and business transfer agents.

Charles married Sarah Rice in 1822.  They had six children (3 boys and 3 girls).


Why would someone become an estate agent when most people were tenants rather than houseowners ?  Landowners tended to own several properties so the estate agent would manage their estates and find tenants for them. Hence the origin of the term “estate agent”.


At this time only male property owners were able to vote.


In 1825 we had our first connection with Dawlish: the auction of Dawlish Brewery by John Force.   There were still no trains so he would have had to travel to Dawlish either by stagecoach or pony and trap.  I sold the premises again in the 1980s.


Charles and Sarah’s fourth child was Sidney Rice (named after his mum). Born in 1829 he joined the business about 1850.  Charles and Sidney were respected businessmen in the city and must have lived fairly comfortably.


The Bristol & Exeter Railway came in 1844 and was extended to Dawlish and beyond by Brunel in 1846.  In 1855, Charles and Sidney sold Church House in Dawlish.  They would probably have travelled by train.  I sold the property again in the 1980s.


Charles and Sarah lived over the shop until Charles died in 1863.  On his deathbed, Charles wrote to his three sons:


“Be unanimous in all things.  Do not flitter your money away on solicitors.  They are insatiable and you will always be the loser.  This I have avoided all my life and reaped its benefit.  You must do the same.”


As the business grew, the upper floors in Sidwell Street became offices and workshops.  Sidney married Martha Joan Penny in 1863.  They lived in a Georgian town house at the bottom of Old Tiverton Road close to the fountain.  They had four children (two boys – William and Arthur - and two girls).  Both boys went into the business.


Sidney was a leading city gent: a councillor for 35 years, Father of the Council, Alderman, Justice of the Peace and Chairman of the West of England Estate Agents Institute.  He was also a leading supporter of the horse tramway movement.  Horse-drawn trams had been introduced in 1882 but electric trams started to take over in the late 1880s. The last horse-drawn tram ran in 1905.


In his old age, crippled by arthritis and therefore unable to mount the horse-drawn trams which he favoured, he paid a small boy to carry for him a mounting stool.  The boy was then expected to run along beside the tram to have the stool ready outside Force & Son to enable his employer to dismount.  The boy then took the stool home and the process was repeated in reverse every evening!


Both his sons started work in London but in 1890, when Sidney became too infirm, Uncle Willy came back to the firm.  Sidney died in 1910. 


Uncle Willy was evidently a real character.  He did much of his business in the London Inn and regularly ran up large bar bills, which the firm had to pay off.  He was also a great stamp collector and spent hours with my dad who remembers him as constantly having a pipe clamped in his mouth.  My dad inherited his collection, but sadly sold it to take girls out including dating Anne who became his wife !  The collection would be worth a fortune now, but I might not be here …


Arthur, Uncle Willy’s brother, came back in about 1900.  He was my great granddad and married Rose Lilian in 1898.  They had five children (2 girls and 3 boys).  He died a few years before I was born, but I k new all of his children.


Two of the boys, Monty and Billy, spent most of their working lives a Force & Sons.


We don’t know how the Great War affected business.  Many of the workforce would have marched off to war and many wounded and evacuated came to the city.  Thousands of horses were brought to the city to be commandeered.  Food would have been scarce. Our business would have been badly affected although the undertaking side would have thrived!


It would have taken several years for the business to recover.  Monty (my grandpop) started working in London in the mid 1920s and his brother Billy in Bournemouth soon after.  Monty nearly stayed in London as he had been offered a partnership at a very good salary.  But he was persuaded to come back to Exeter in the 1930s.  Their mother was bedridden through rheumatoid arthritis and their dad, who was looking after his ill wife, had therefore somewhat lost interest in the business.


My grandpop, Monty, was then only 23 years old and the firm was close to bankruptcy after the great recessions of the 1920s but he succeeded in selling a hotel in Bournemouth  for £11,000.  The owner had told him that he could keep anything he earned over the agreed price of £10,000.  That meant he retained £1,000 which was a lot of money in those days and it probably saved the business.


Grandpop married Winifred Bonham in 1931 and they had two children (Arthur and Valerie).  Then, in the 1930s, his brother Billy came back to run the shop fitting side.  He was President of the South West Builders Federation and was awarded the MBE in 1969.


The Second World War fell like a shadow over the city but one daily newspaper managed some cheer wth a pun on the firm's name!  The Daily Mirror on 14 October 1939 showed one of our boards stating "LET BY FORCE" with the caption undernead "Looks as though there is a bit of Nazism going on down Devon Way" !!   


But for Force life was difficult as so many employees were called away to the war and Grandpop was posted to the Shetlands for a short time.  When he came back he became an RP Warden, reputed to have pulled the first blitz casualty from a bombed building.  The family home in Alexander Terrace was struck by an incendiary bomb but failed to go off.


Billy had a reserved occupation as a builder.  The firm was busy with repairs and as undertakers.  As war ended, Billy was able to buy, quite legally, huge amounts of wood available because of the bombed out buildings.  This he stored and used in subsequent rebuilding.


He won a contract from the Council to build temporary shops in Princesshay and Bedford Street.  The firm thrived.  Billy was also Chairman of the Local Conservative Association, while grandpop was a Councillor.


Grandpop’s son, Arthur, went to college, became a surveyor and worked for a time in London.  He married Anne Hutchinson and they had two boys (Steve and myself).  In 1958, after National Service Arthur joined the firm.


We were still house agents, builders, shopfitters, painters and decorators.  The last funeral took place in the early 1960s.  It was felt that estate agency and undertaking no longer went well together so it was decided that the business should start to specialise more.  Anyway, Dad didn’t enjoy dealing with dead bodies.  In his early days with the firm he went to collect a corpse who had died sitting up.  Attempts to straighten the body caused it to fall forward and wrap its arms round poor Arthur.  That put him off so much that he sold the  business !" 


Then the building and shopfitting side of the business was sold off in the 1970s.


Force & Sons had long standing staff: Bob Martin worked for us from his de-mob in 1945 until he retired in the mid 1980s and Stafford Isaac started working for us in the 1920s at the age of 14 and continued until he retired in his 80s.


I joined in 1979 after working as a commercial agent in Bristol and a residential estate agent and auctioneer in Tavistock.  My brother Steve joined us in 1982 after a spell in Bournemouth.  We became partners in 1984.


While other Exeter estate agents expanded into Exmouth, we decided to go south west rather than south east. I opened the Dawlish office in 1982. 


Paul Munro was scheduled to manage the office but left just weeks before we were due to open.  So Steve and I planned to take it in turns to manage it for six months at a time.  It opened in February 1982 with one property on the books in Kenton.  I sold it on the first day!


Dawlish was very different from Exeter; it had a very close-knit community.  Steve was more used to bigger towns.  So I stayed on in the Dawlish office while Steve stayed in Exeter.


In 1981 I married Amanda Dimond; we have two boys (Oli and Dan).  When we telephoned grandpop with news of the birth of our first child, he memorably responded “Is it a partner or a secretary?”


Grandpop and I had a special bond with a shared birthday and my being the first grandchild.


Steve married Alison Hender in 1985 and they have three children (James, Jacqueline and Helen).  All five of that generation are pursuing other careers.


Estate agency is now very different, very cut throat and not seen as a good profession to follow.


When I was young, Grandpop and dad used to have morning coffee each day in Bobby’s with bank and building society managers.  Business was done over a cuppa – we considered ourselves to be in a very gentlemanly profession.


The advent of the internet has changed the profession out of all recognition.  Manual typewriters, carbon paper particulars, Roneo, Gestetner, wet/dry photocopiers, all have gone.


The firm’s name changed several times: J. Force, C Force, C Force & Son, S Force, Sr Force & Sons, and now we are Force & Sons.  Seven generations of Forces and ten male Forces have been involved in the firm.


Dad retired from the firm at the age of 80 and now Steve and my stepbrother, Andrew, work in the Exeter office while my wife, Amanda, runs the property management side in Dawlish.


All talks are on the second Wednesday of alternate months (February, April, June, August, October & December).                                          All meetings start at 7 pm and are held at JURYS INN, Western Way, Exeter EX1 2DB.                                                                  Free parking is available from 6pm in the Triangle Car Park at the rear of Jurys.                                                                                Walks/visits are usually on the second Wednesday of alternate months (January, March, May, July, September November). 

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