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Coach builder Jeff Knowles on the history of Ashford's Coachworks buildings

The brick buildings that form the border of Dover Place in Ashford are easy to look past nowadays, eclipsed by the new Connect 38 office block and 14-floor International House.

However the site will soon be fully opened as The Coachworks - a centre for business, entertainment and food.

Croford’s staff holding the new wheels for the Gold State Coach used by royalty at coronations and jubilees
Croford’s staff holding the new wheels for the Gold State Coach used by royalty at coronations and jubilees

Its name comes from the site's heritage, one that has seen visits from royal vehicles, coaches and traveller wagons.

Occupied by Croford Coachbuilders in 1962, the facility quickly became a by-word for quality carriage building and repair work.

The company manufactured wooden wheels and body work, with a separate department headed by Michael Goodbun handling touch-ups on the paintwork.

Jeff Knowles, who joined the company in about 1965 and worked there for 23 years, said: "It was enjoyable work - the manager would come to us with a blueprint then we'd have to scale it up and build it from the ground up.

"It could be hard work, as we machined all of the wood and the machines were at least 100 years old.

Jeff Knowles spent 23 years at Croford Coachbuilders in Ashford's Dover Place
Jeff Knowles spent 23 years at Croford Coachbuilders in Ashford's Dover Place

"Fast-running belts were everywhere, flapping around.

"There wasn't really too much thought for safety but it was a great atmosphere."

Mr Knowles carried out a number of tasks, including woodworking, welding and bodywork.

Relying on a team of roughly 25 skilled craftsmen, the firm soon started attracting business from the upper echelons of British society.

Croford's gained a royal charter when its employees outfitted the Gold State Coach - used in royal coronations since George IV's in 1820 - with new rubber wheels ahead of Queen Elizabeth's silver jubilee celebrations in 1977.

Work on the Speaker’s Coach included Jeff Knowles’ rebuilding of a gargoyle on the front corner, which was later gilded with gold leaf
Work on the Speaker’s Coach included Jeff Knowles’ rebuilding of a gargoyle on the front corner, which was later gilded with gold leaf

The crew also worked on an extensive restoration of the Speaker's State Coach, the oldest of the three great State Coaches of the United Kingdom.

Restoration on the carriage - originally built in 1698 - entailed the rebuilding of its wheels and footwells, while its doors and windows were re-set. The coach was also thoroughly cleaned inside and out and re-varnished during its five month stay in Ashford.

Mr Knowles said: "I used to go up to the Royal Mews from time to time for the Lord Mayor's Show.

"We used to get the coaches prepared for it, including the Lord Mayor of London's State Coach and the outgoing Lord Mayor's carriage.

"I'd have to go through tight security as it was during The Troubles in Ireland.

The Speaker’s State Coach being looked over by Clive Bampton, with International House in the background
The Speaker’s State Coach being looked over by Clive Bampton, with International House in the background

"We used to see shows up in London, we'd park in the Royal Mews and when we left the police would stop traffic as we came out."

Less regal commissions included a former chief superintendent who wanted a carriage for his wedding business and horse-drawn delivery coaches for top London stores.

Fortnum and Mason went to Croford's for its bespoke inner-city delivery coaches, following the example of the hugely popular Harrods delivery vans - all three of which were crafted in Ashford before their reveal in November 1986.

Mr Knowles fondly remembers building seven-foot-high wheels for a Hare Krishna 'Ratha' - a massive mobile temple that takes part in annual chariot festivals.

With many of the company's creations still in use, the 68-year-old former wheelwright looks back fondly on his time there.

The religious group, the Hare Krishnas, came to Ashford for the commission of a giant mobile temple known as a Ratha. Mr Knowles particularly remembers its seven-foot-tall wheels
The religious group, the Hare Krishnas, came to Ashford for the commission of a giant mobile temple known as a Ratha. Mr Knowles particularly remembers its seven-foot-tall wheels

He said: "People thought we earned a fortune, but people say that if you enjoy the work then that in itself is worth a fortune.

"The fact that people worked there for decades tells you how fun and interesting it all was.

"I still meet up with the foreman Peter Wilson and Robin Hills every two months for a beer and a walk down memory lane."

Speaking about the upcoming Coachworks development, the Willesborough resident says he will be interested to see what is done with the site.

Mr Knowles said: "I will probably go down and have a look, as it will be interesting to see if they retain or highlight some of its past.

The Croford’s team outside the business’s front entrance
The Croford’s team outside the business’s front entrance

"In my head I can walk in there and see exactly how it was and where everything was positioned.

"It will be very odd seeing something so different there."

Croford's work still continues at Kennington Hall off Canterbury Road with a workforce of only a few people.

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