You left the cavalry as a result of some sort of backfired attempt at better pay, returning home from the Korean war and resigning your commission in hope of promotion to Major and an increased salary?
Not quite, I had married too young and was not allowed a “married quarter ” when I returned from Korea and was posted to Bovington as an instructor. I had to find my own accommodation which I found it impossible, it was by the sea and a popular destination .
I was therefor stuck and got in a temper. I was also pretty sure by then that because I was not rich enough, or well enough connected socially, that I would never get command. My friend Piers was already adjutant, a good jockey and well connected to the Colonel of the Regiment Roscoe Harvey. I asked for an interview with the Colonel, was marched in and asked what I wanted, ”I want to resign”…. “Come back after lunch”. To my horror I went back and my resignation was accepted, I was literally out on my ear. I had 2 children and you were on the way . Quite a shock as I suddenly had no job .
Is that a move you have ever regretted!
Of course I regretted it, BUT, I was not rich enough to stay in the Cavalry!
How did you end up buying Westley Richards.
John Kelsey was my best friend from my House at Winchester College, he had a brewery in Leamington Spa. John knew Harry Rogers then owner of Westley Richards who was at the time trying to dispose of 52% of the shares. My solicitor employed a man to value it and see if there was any hope. I am not sure of the exact details but the shares came to £2000 and we also had to put in a loan.
Presumably that was a lot of money at the time?
Yes, a hell of a lot of money and it used up my ‘stake’ for the future.
When exactly did you ‘move in” after completing the share purchase?
You were born just before we moved to the Midlands. It must have taken about 12 months from leaving the Army to buying the company, so I started at Westley Richards sometime in late 1956.
Can you describe Westley Richards when you arrived, what was the condition of the company?
Unfortunately I think all the annual accounts from the start which were in the cellar at Grange Road, may have been destroyed. I can remember that the turnover was about £20,000 and loss making. The tool making (now Westley Engineering Ltd.) had only just been started and was in the building on the left side of the courtyard
Were there many gunmakers?
The gunmakers were upstairs in the main building, only 6 or 8 of them. There were also some in single shops, engraving , heat treatment, barrel blacking etc. Roy Hill who was foreman prior to Ken Halbert was a machinist, he had lost an arm firing a test shot with the harpoon gun in Birmingham.
Who was running the company at the time?
Harry Rogers ran it from the main office, he remained as managing director until 1974. I think that Charlie Eaves, a life serving member of the gunmaking team was the foreman and there was a man called Wheeler who had started the tool making side.
I remember you saying there were no loos, the place was very Victorian !
There were loos in the outside block at the end between the two buildings, glorified long drops actually, the water to flush them ran continuously under the seats . There was still gas lighting in areas.
The shop in London had been sold prior to your arrival, did you have the shop in Bennett’s Hill when you arrived?
Yes, and I kept the shop for quite some time, probably until the early 70’s. It was primarily selling fishing gear but had some second hand guns also. We had the Birmingham distributorship for both Hardy fishing tackle and ICI for the cartridges including Kynoch ammunition, in these days only the larger gunshops sold cartridges, later everyone was selling them. The shop served the local area taking in guns for repair and general business. When ICI and later Hardy stopped the exclusive area agencies we closed the shop and moved everything to Grange Road.
Where was your initial focus, on the engineering side or the gunmaking?
I went on various attachments in Birmingham. Mostly to Tube Investments in an attempt to learn something about Industry. I knew nothing about anything so no good trying to do anything in the Engineering, except that I had a few friends, Ian Ley of Leys Malleable Castings in Derby who kindly gave us some work, die making, and I think we kept the account for forty years. Then Harold Werner (Luton Hoo ) I think it was him who put me into Electrolux in Luton. I think we lost that account because the firm went out of business. I had a few other contacts who gave me a leg up. It is not what you know, but who you know. Of course my Gunmaking interest started with the Indian venture which you know all about
We don’t all know about India but we will get to that. The 50’s were the period of the White Hunter double rifle, some bolt rifle contracts with the game departments and also the whaling project. Did you have any involvement with any of these?
No, Harry was in charge of all this. The Harpoon business was still going on. It was the life saver as they paid on Invoice, not on results. I did once go on a trip to Norway to meet the Hector Whaling man, Bobby Buge . He was some sort of health freak who got into certain positions and expelled foul air form his stomach by farting, awful. The harpoon business came to an end due to protestors and the fact that GE, who were responsible for the electric cable, could not make one that lasted. It kept breaking, so that was that . It was a pity about the White Hunter double, Have any survived ?
Yes, we still see some from time to time, not our finest product but serviceable I guess!
Well it was made for the Game departments for a small budget, it was a practical rifle, built for a purpose at a price like the bolt actions we supplied them. This all came to an end after the Macmillan “Wind of Change” speech in 1960 and the independence of the African states.
I suppose in the late 50’s and 60’s the Americans started to replace the Indian Maharajah’s of the pre war years, when did you first notice a revised interest in English guns following the quiet period after the war? What did you do about it at Westley Richards?
I had tried to do a few things in the gunmaking. We introduced sleeving which was a success. As for new guns I had not got the knowledge nor the inclination to do much, I had the shop in Birmingham and I was shut out of London where all the action was and not even getting the repairs from Malcolm and no Gun orders or enquiries for the same reason. I was quite happy with the general repair business and of course the second hand guns and the antiques. We did later make an effort to revive the gun trade In cooperation with Albert Brown who I gave premises to and he made sidelock’s for us and Webley and Scott later made the barrelled actions for the Connaught shotgun model we introduced.
We also made on attempt to load our own cartridges in cooperation with Pino Fiocchi which provided nice visits to Milan ! We had not got suitable premises BUT the main trouble was that people were driving into the car park, picking up 1000 cartridges and by the time Stewart got back to the shop he had forgotten to do the invoice .
Do you think any of this was successful?
It all helped pay the wages! It also gave us the opportunity to visit America and sell our new guns which we did quite successfully.
When did you first meet Malcolm Llyell the former manager of our London Shop and by this time owner of our London Agency rights and Holland & Holland.
After I had bought the firm, though of course he was Harry’s friend.
Did you regret that that Westley had sold the London premises before you got to it?
Yes, very much.That whole business was a disaster. I hated it all and was most frustrated as the licence agreement didn’t allow us back in London, but was helpless. Westley Richards had been in London since 1815 and our guns had a similar reputation as the other makers in town, with prices very much in line with each other. We perhaps had a wider variety than the other gunmakers offered. The 30 years we were unable to have London premises took their toll on the reputation of the firm. By the time we were able to move back to London, when Chanel took over Hollands in late 80’s, we had been priced out of the market. You have seen the massive losses that Holland and Purdey have had since that time, the rent and staff demands exceed what is possible with gunmaking.
Quite a lot of people lay claim to being the first in India to buy the arms back from the palaces, you were the first…weren’t you!?
I seemed to think Malcolm also thought he went there first but perhaps not. Some of the auction houses but they wouldn’t have been looking for guns I suppose.
Malcolm may have visited India but he certainly didn’t get any guns out as I had to start making hat process possible. There were strict controls on Antiquities.
How did your first trip to India come about and when was it?
By chance I was looking through the WR ledgers. I noticed the huge amounts of weapons the Indian Princes had ordered .The used gun business in WR seemed to be the best and easiest business. I had a friend, Ian Elliot, who had a confirming house in Birmingham which had an office in Bombay. The idea was that he should provide the Export facilities if there was any business to be had. I put an advertisement in the Times of India and stayed in the Taj Hotel, Bombay. My luck came within a day. This was in 1959. A man called Murad rang me up to ask if he could come and see me. When he came, all he wanted was to introduce me to Bobby Kooka who was the Commercial Director of Air India and of course, an extremely powerful man. He had offices and managers all over India and parts of the world, he was also a very keen big game hunter. For some reason he liked me, helped me with all his managers ie when I was trying to get permission to allow the export of weapons. The work had to be done in Delhi and most of this work was done for me by T K Menon the Air India manager in Delhi. Bobby Kooka remained a friend till the day he died.
Did you buy any guns on this first trip?
Some success was achieved with the ad, I had a reply from the Maharajah of Alwar. He was of course a major client of WR. In those days the had no desire to sell the best rifles, only the junk. He took me to a room in the Palace and on the floor was a huge pile of English flint lock pistols about 200. I knew that there was enough money there on the floor to finance the whole operation without having to look elsewhere. It took 2 years to get this first lot out of India and back home. The rest as they say is history.
What were your first impressions of India
It was quite normal to me, I had already been to the Far East, Singapore, Japan, Ceylon so I knew what to expect. Then apart from the lack of cars and modern hotels it was very much the same as now. Nearly everyone spoke English, dinner jackets were worn at dances and grand dinners, just like home. One of the main advantages was that my would be competitors had no idea that the main language was English.
When you did eventually get the first lot of Alwar pistols out of India did you sell them from the Grange Road premises?
No, I put them straight in Christies auction in London. I needed the money back and at that time hadn’t established the contacts to sell them directly, they came later, Archie Walker the collector from America and Keith Neal.
Did they sell well?
Yes, they didn’t cost anything hardly! They provided the seed money for the continuing business which lasted for years, 40 years!
Over the years you became good friends with Malcolm Lyell and worked in each others interests to keep the companies going.
That was all very strange. My mind is a bit confused with the dates but presumably our relationship started with Hyderabad, then of course he made a nonsense of Mysore, most of which I rescued for him. Then he had the bright idea of making me his successor, he had taken a dislike to Jeremy Clewes, a delightful man. Anyway that all went flat as the Holland & Holland chairman, whoever he was, the Chairman of Baby Cham, had a massive heart attack and croaked.
Can we talk about the Hydrabad deal, it came about after you had done quiet a few years in India and was a partnership between you and Holland & Holland.
Yes, Malcolm Lyell had been to Hydrabad with Jeremy Clewes and David Winks, they inspected the weapons and catalogued them extremely well, they then attempted to buy them, Malcolm offered £150,000 and was told it was not enough, “Clode has offered more” to which Malcolm responded “of course he hasn’t, he hasn’t got the money”. “he has” Malcolm was told “he has been here many times”. It was a good play by the Maharajah’s men, I had never been there and had never offered and Malcolm walked away empty handed.
Did Malcolm not try to get hold of you?
Yes he tried, but in those days the phones were terribly unreliable and I was in America anyway so there was nothing much he could do except return home empty handed.
So how was it finally done?
I was in Geneva to see the sale of a load of silver furniture we had bought and put in auction. After the auction we were walking in town and passed a Jewellers who had a similar silver chair in the window, we walked in and talked to owner about India and he asked if we were interested in buying antique weapons. I asked if he referred to the Hydrabad ones, he said yes and that he could introduce me to the man handling the deal, that he was just over the bridge in his office at that very time. So I went and met the man and concluded a deal for the armoury, asking for a few days to go and get the money sorted. I did not have this amount of money! I returned to London and met with Malcolm and we agreed that he would put up all the money and I would do all the work, we would then split the armoury 50/50.
So when eventually it all arrived in England how did you divide it up?
It all came back to Grange Road and we laid it all out in the long attic. There was David Winks representing Hollands and myself, I won the toss of a coin and chose the first item, a pair of silver mounted flintlock rifles or something. Then David chose for Hollands and picked a Colt revolving rifle, I couldn’t understand why he had chosen such a plain and rather boring item, but was worried. David was a very shrewd and knowledgeable dealer and he said it was engraved by the most sought after American engraver of colts, I forget the name.
What price did you each get for your first items?
I think David got £80,000 for his and I got £10,000 for mine! They did feel guilty a few years later and gave me another £3000 to cover the expenses! Overall it was a great deal and good for both the companies.
You used to enjoy going to Las Vegas Antique Arms for the shows and poker, did you take this stuff over with you?
Very much so, it was always fresh stock, things which hadn’t been circulating the tables every year so we did very well. Most of the early armoury items I got out of India were antiques, the modern weapons, rifles and shotguns came later. Much of it was junk, I always liked the junk, matchlocks and other less expensive items, it made good money. I was never fascinated as much by the guns themselves, I liked the dealing and making the money to keep the business going.
We often wonder where all the money went from the India deals.The answer may lie in the roll-call of the original independent Gunmakers. We were the only one still going.
Did you ever regret the decision to buy the company?
No, I never regretted it. It is no good in life “jobbing backwards” I saw it as a challenge. Now piss off I’m tired, if you want more come back another time.
I talked to my father at his house in Worcestershire today, the opportunity was there and we were both quite unprepared. I hope some of the things we touched on are found of interest.