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Britain's oldest builder R Durtnell and Sons from Brasted, near Westerham, appears in BBC Four documentary Hidden Histories

29 January 2014
by Chris Price

A family construction firm which has been in operation since the reign of Elizabeth I is retracing its history in a TV show.

R Durtnell and Sons is Britain’s oldest building company, founded in 1591.

Based in Brasted, near Westerham, many properties it built more than 400 years ago still stand today.

R Durtnell and Sons chairman Alex Durtnell visits historical sites built by his family firm in the documentary

R Durtnell and Sons chairman Alex Durtnell visits historical sites built by his family firm in the documentary

The oldest of these which still survives is Poundsbridge Manor, just outside Penshurst, built in 1593.

Today, the firm has a turnover of more than £50m and employs more than 130 full-time staff.

Yet the long-standing company has arrived at a time of change as it appears in a BBC Four documentary tonight.

Handed down from father to son for 13 generations, 38-year-old Alex Durtnell has recently taken over from his father John, who had been running the company since before he was born.

Having taken over at a difficult time for the industry – with 7,000 construction firms going bankrupt since 2008 – Durtnell’s ability to adapt through history has been the key to its survival.

Chairman Alex Durtnell at Poundsbridge Manor in Penshurst, the oldest surviving house built by his firm in 1593

Chairman Alex Durtnell at Poundsbridge Manor in Penshurst, the oldest surviving house built by his firm in 1593

In 1802, owner Richard Durtnell made the decision to bring together all the craftspeople he needed, such as glaziers and bricklayers, in one yard.

He raised £360 to buy his new workspace – a move that proved crucial, as the innovation made the firm one of the first general builders.

Since then, recent high-profile projects have included the Turner Contemporary in Margate and a new music school for Brighton College.

Originally carpenter builders, now the firm specialises in the type of building projects which were least affected by the economic downturn: churches, private schools, art galleries and luxury houses for foreign millionaires. 

In an interview with the BBC, chairman Alex Durtnell said: "I remember as a child going to London, there was a lot of arm-waving out the window, 'We built this and we built that.

"Sadly there weren't in-car TVs back then, so we actually had to listen to what dad was saying, and I thought: 'How boring is that.'

“ Of course now I do the same thing with my children."

Hidden Histories: Britain's Oldest Family Businesses is broadcast tonight on BBC Four at 9pm.

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