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Interview with John Wills, 4th February 2011 – by Clive Wood, with Mary, transcribed by Sue Manton
John Wills
The Skew Bridge Ski Club started when my wife and my family were on holiday in Frinton-on-Sea. One day I had an idea to take a cine photograph of someone water skiing which I had never seen before and they had never seen a cine camera before and I’d got one. And I went and saw them and said “Do you mind if I take your photograph of you skiing.” And they said “No, no. we’d love you to. If you’d rather ride in the boat you can do it from the boat.” That was marvellous I’d never ridden in a speedboat before and that’s how it started. And we invited them back for a cup of tea, the boat owners, there were two of them. We had a cup of tea and got talking what with one thing or another I had a word with Mary and we decided to buy a boat. We bought this boat and took it to Frinton-on-sea with us on holiday the following year. That’s right isn’t it Mary?

(Mary) That’s right. I was just trying to remember when we started skiing on the lake.

(Interviewer) When did you start skiing on the lake?

We didn’t ski on the lake to start with. I had a friend who had a gravel business at Northampton called Mr. Staughton. I rang him up one day and said “You know I have a boat. Could I speed on your lake.” In my gravel business, we were competitors, friendly competitors, and my lake wasn’t ready yet. We used to operate at different methods. I used to pump the water out and he used to pump out the gravel. Pumping water out was a lot cheaper than pumping gravel out because you could see what you were doing. We used that for about a couple of years and then my lake was ready and we started using that. Before we used my lake we went to Billing Aquadrome. You can’t see a lake now, it’s on the left hand side, there’s a caravan place now.

(Interviewer) When did you start in Rushden, when you got your lake established?

I used to have about six friends who came with me. I’d bought a boat by the way, similar to the one I saw in Frinton-on-Sea and each member who was a friend of mine, used to ski on Billing lake. One day I saw a strange chap there and I said “Who are you? Who invited you here?” He had been skiing. I used to supply the boat. He said “I saw it going on and I just came along.” So I said that won’t do.

(Mary) Do you know who that man was?

I don’t know I never did find out. So I said I run a sort of a club and only members can use it. They can bring a guest every time they use it? So I know what’s what. I had a meeting at Rushden Golf Club and six people became the founder members. There were just the six in the club eventually who became full members, just the six, and I can remember them now. I won’t name them as they’ve all died now. Then we had to decide on a name. There used to be a hump-backed bridge along where the A45 is now. Do you remember? Called Skew Bridge in the Domesday Book so I thought we’d call it Skew Bridge.

(Interviewer) I never knew it was in the Domesday Book. I always thought it was a railway bridge that was skewed at an angle. I didn’t know that.

It wasn’t a railway bridge. It was where the ski slope was. They abandoned the railway joining the other one across the river, Irthlingborough through to Ditchford..

(Interviewer) So you established the club.


(Interviewer) Had your workings finished by the time you had established the club?

No, no they were still going on. Ten years afterwards.

(Mary) You started the ski club in the time that you were working? I can’t remember.

Oh yes.

(Mary) You started the club?


(Interviewer) You just went on and developed it? There are pictures of the club.

In about ten years something like that.

(Interviewer) That was for water skiing at that point.

(Mary) I can’t remember the year you put the slope up. I’m sure that doesn’t matter.

No it was there. The hill was there. It was going to cross what was now my lake to join the railway from Wellingborough to Peterborough. It was ready made but pointing in the wrong direction. So I built it again and shifted it round. You can see that from the photographs.

(Interviewer) When did you start the ski slope. Any idea?

Not really.

(Interviewer) We can establish that. The national competition that you held there, that was for water skiing wasn’t it?

Yes. The Lord’s Taverners played cricket there.

(Interviewer) It was quite a centre of activities for quite a few years wasn’t it?

(Mary) They were good times they were weren’t they?

Yes they were.

(Mary) We always had a ball.

The Skew Bridge Ski Club. I sold out and kept the lake so I just had the water skiing.

(Mary) And the ski slope.

Oh yes.

(Interviewer) Who did you sell the gravel works to, a local company?

I sold it to John Hawtrey from Harrold.

(Interviewer) Another contractor?

Yes. I sold the water ski club some years later.

(Interviewer) How many members did you have?

Twelve hundred. I nearly brought the book, the membership book but I couldn’t find it.

(Interviewer) If you ever do that will be very interesting if, in this day and age, it’s not classified.

The visitors’ book.

(Mary) Have you got those books?

I’ve still got them I’m sure I have.

(Interviewer) It was generally realised, as I said to Mary that we’re doing the Olympic Exhibition [at Rushden Museum] this year ready for next year. That seemed to be a good thing to do as you have skiing and water skiing local to Rushden. It’s not quite Olympic but it’s very important and very rare. There are an awful lot of people that live here now that wouldn’t have a clue about it.

I get a lot of stick from members of the golf club whose fathers weren’t allowed to join.

(Mary) You know half the trouble was when I started to play golf and the ladies used to sit down for tea, they didn’t even ask you to sit down to tea. I took some friends. They didn’t even mention it. I was young married and I thought how bad that they didn’t even make you welcome. And so none of the golf people that applied to come got in.

(Interviewer) This is local politics.

Once they’d been refused membership I had the casting vote. They had to be proposed and seconded by existing members and counter-signed by two founding members. Who are the founding members. They had to find out. One of them was Orme.

(Interviewer) John? I’ve met John Orme.

He tried to close me down for making noise at night several times at eleven o’clock.

(Interviewer) That was overtime with sand & gravel?

Yes. I went up to see him and I said “I understand you’ve put a complaint in to Rushden Council trying to close me down at night.” He said “Yes you’re making too much noise at night.” I said “Look I’ve been up to your house and you can’t hear it. It think it’s the Ironworks at Irthlingborough the furnaces there you can hear.” Anyway that was that. He came down one day when I’d got some friends staying playing cards in the old Nissan hut and he said he wanted to join. He had a dog with him and his wife. I said “Yes I’ll see him.” I said “You tried to get me closed down.” He said “That’s Mr. Kilsby.” He was sitting there at the table playing cards with me so I said “Yes.” He said I’ll fetch my card and I’ll get him to sign.” So of course poor old Ted Kilsby had to sign. He had no choice. He’d got no chance of getting in because I had the casting vote.

(Interviewer) You’re making it sound a very exclusive club. It’s how do you say it “It’s not what you know but who you know.” I suppose a private club is like that. But that’s what a club is, isn’t it.?

No foreign people were allowed in.

(Interviewer) Oh we’ll have to cross that bit out. No it was perfectly all right then. It’s quite fascinating really.

No other publicans were allowed to be members.

(Interviewer) Oh really?

I caught one of them one day, came as a guest, trying to pinch, not pinch their bottom, but steal one of the waitresses which I had got from Switzerland.

(Interviewer) You had waitresses from Switzerland?

Oh yes all foreign staff. Swiss ski instructor, waterskiing and snow skiing.

(Interviewer) There was a foreign man’s name in the newspaper article.

He was employed by Lilley Whites. They had a tiny ski slope in a chapel somewhere in London.

(Interviewer) In a chapel?

It wasn’t a working chapel just a premises to put the dry slope in. It was ever so small.

(Mary) Who was it you met there?

Herr Hohl the first ski instructor.

(Interviewer) That’s the man in the paper?

I couldn’t remember his name until I saw it in the paper.

(Mary) We had quite a lot of the Swiss in our time didn’t we?

We had very strict rules. We had an application form to join and if you contravened any of them you weren’t allowed to join. If an employee of a firm in the town was a member the boss of the firm couldn’t join and vice versa.

(Interviewer) I would imagine you would contravene a lot of rules under all these new rules of Human Rights - Fascinating history though.

Clement Freud’s secretary rang up and said “I want a table for my boss.” I said “Who’s your boss?” “Mr. Freud.” I said “I don’t remember a Mr. Freud as a member.” She said “He’s not a member he’s coming to eat.” I said “He’s not coming to eat. I don’t care if he’s Clement Freud or the Sheik of Baghdad he’s not coming”. So he didn’t come, and that was that.

(Interviewer) It’s incredible really. I never knew those sort of rules existed.

I’ve been looking for a copy of the rules. I can’t find a copy anywhere. You might have one.

(Mary) Who me? No I haven’t got one.

(Interviewer) There might be copy of them in that book. If we go back then now to how your Father and Mother started.

My Father was in the army in the First World War. He was Percy Wills. When he came out he was on an Army Course in Ipswich. It wasn’t a university but something like that. He’d married by then and I was born in Ipswich as a matter of fact. What happened then, oh yes he went into accountancy and book-keeping and then he became a commercial traveller in Lincolnshire.

(Interviewer) In what?

I don’t know what he used to sell but I think it was shoes or something like that because he used to bring the shoes home and put them in the front window of the house. And he used to sell them on the never-never. How he got the money I’ll never know but he was very clever with money my father was. He used to work in a shoe factory – Horace Wright.

(Interviewer) My mother used to work in Horace Wright.

Did she?

(Interviewer) In the closing room. But he wouldn’t be in the closing room if he was a man. It would be somewhere different.

Yes the lasting room or the clicking room. That was Horace Wright in Harborough Road, then the airship at Cardington was being built and there was a little town there that housed all the workers. That’s how it started.

(Interviewer) Your parents were living here then in Rushden.

Oh yes they were living by this time in a council house in Newton Road, I’m sure it was 217.

(Interviewer) So where did your mother come into that ……..

My mother suggested it. She had a very good flair for fashion and the Park Road shop became vacant so they left the council house where they had been living with their father’s mother. She started buying fashions from the quality manufacturers. Father always paid his bills on time, always. He never owed anyone a penny. Only on monthly credit

(Interviewer) A very good principle. Makes you popular with the wholesalers I imagine. How long were they in Park Road?

A few years. Must be eight years I suppose. Then they went to trade in shoes, fashions etc. in Ward’s grocery shop. Ward’s corner.

(Interviewer) Ward’s corner. Yes I’ve heard of it.

Father, how much he paid for it I don’t know. So they moved there, with living accommodation there as well and my brother was born.

(Mary) When did they move up to The White House in Grove Road?

(Interviewer) They actually lived in the White House in Grove Road did they? I wasn’t sure of that.

(Mary) A lovely house when I met John

(Interviewer) Wonderful house. It should never have been pulled down. Like so many others.

(Mary) Has it been pulled down?

(Interviewer) Oh yes they built houses on the site.

(Mary) They haven’t.

(Interviewer) Oh yes many years ago. There’s a lovely photograph of it and some of the owners we know of.

There was only Ebenezer Wrighton shoe manufacturer, Knights the jewellers and father.

(Interviewer) I’ve got a picture of someone who is supposed to be there but perhaps that’s a tenant. Perhaps they didn’t own it.

(Mary) Did your father move from there.

No he went to South Africa.

(Interviewer) Was that a personal thing going to South Africa or was it something to do with business.

Four old gentlemen, Arthur Allebone, Arthur Neal, Arthur Colton and Percy Wills used to go out round about October and come back round about March. It was interesting really. They used to take it in turns to fix up where they would go and they all had to go.

(Interviewer) I can see where you got your authoritarian attitude from if even on holiday you had to go where you were told to go.

At the airport I used to go and meet them and they used to look like four broken down gold prospectors who hadn’t struck it very rich.

(Interviewer) That’s a lovely story and all names that we know or know of anyway. So now we’ve covered more or less that, the club all the membership on the club, how strict they were. The barrel bar as we see it in the photograph in the book is not as it was when you were there.

No not quite.

(Interviewer) So was the club sold on at some point?

Yes I sold the ski club to David Hamblin. Court Country Club in Bristol made an approach to me to see would I sell it. I said “It is up for sale.” He said “I noticed that in the paper or somewhere. Are you interested in selling it?” It all depends who you are and what you are going to do with it. I follow your example. I’m strict with members. I said I smoke a pipe and sit on the door and watch the people come in. Anyway he came up and brought his accountant, his solicitor and his builder and architect for a meeting with myself and my solicitor Roland Evans. We got on fine and went off for lunch. We both went our separate ways for lunch. I forget the chaps name now. He said “The plans you’ve given me are not correct. There’s some land short.” I said “What do you mean there’s some land short.” “You don’t own it.” I said “I beg your pardon I do.” Apparently when he came over the railway bridge through the arch he saw a piece of fencing sticking out. People used to catch their cars on it and knock it down and so I cut it off. I said “We needn’t look into this any further if you’re complaining with a disgruntled attitude about two square yards of land you can go home to Bristol.” And he did and he tried to sue me.

(Mary) Did he? I didn’t think Bristol people were like that.

(Interviewer) I don’t know any Bristol people so I wouldn’t know.

(Mary) I do - I went to college in Bristol. Nearly married into Bristol.

He’d spent a lot of money investigating into it.

(Interviewer) So David Hamblin came in then did he?

Yes. The same price.

(Interviewer) It really wasn’t any of our business to know that but it was interesting to know that. I know Morgan’s came into it somewhere. Of course it’s been in planning permission ever since to be developed and re-developed. But nobody’s ever taken it up yet.

Morgan’s bought it from Hamblin’s, when he didn’t make it pay.

(Interviewer) He did actually run it as a club did he?

Yes. He was the exact opposite to me. He would let anyone in. Long haired a fiver. My philosophy was anyone who joined the club paid a fiver for the year. It would be a fiver a year for the rest of their lives. It had to be paid on April 1st. by standing order to the bank. I had about twelve hundred members. He’d had it for about six months and I went down for the first time and he had about sixty members. Different bank, different method of payment, different system all together. Different people.

(Interviewer) Can we go back to your system of gravel extraction? The kind of extraction you did that had iron ore in it.

My father was walking. He used to come and see me every day. He was very interested in sand and gravel because due to the credit business being sold to John Nash and Charles Metcalfe of John White. He said “What are these black stones in here? And I said “I don’t know, as far as I’m concerned, Pop, they’re gravel.” I’d have them tested if I were you” he said.... So I sent them to Wellingborough New Works as it was then.

(Interviewer) They analysed it to see what it was.

It was 50% gravel iron ore. FE203, it has to be FEO you have to get rid of silicon and the only way to do that is to get limestone. I went to see a Professor Fry at London University in the mining department and he wasn’t very interested in me. I took my manager with me and I said “Fetch my sample out of the car.” It was parked outside in those days. So he brought them in and he got some heavy media. Gravel used to float on it and iron ore used to sink. Specific gravity.2.8 or 8.2 I can’t remember. He put some in a test tube, a small piece, and it didn’t float but it sank. He said “Oh I love you very much. Let me give you a hug. You’ve made a discovery here”. “Have I?” I thought I had. It was my father really who suggested it might be iron ore. I thought it was mined over in Irthlingborough, underground. He then said “Get this tested at GEC Laboratory in Wembley. They employed about two thousand people there. “Get in touch with them and see what they make of this.” “How much gravel do they want?” He said “About a ton.” Well a ton is a lot of gravel. So I got all my men on it and picked a ton out. So I sent it off and the man in charge of the laboratories came from Bedford. He was a very interesting man and he said “Yes it works on the Laboratory size plant….. I said “Send me a price.”

(Interviewer) This is to what, separate the iron ore from the gravel?

Yes the gravel needs to go in one end and it comes out the other end as gravel and iron ore.

(Interviewer) Interesting. I didn’t know that. It was obviously a remarkable amount of it. Worth doing. Then went off to Corby

They weren’t interested in buying the ore. It went off to Scunthorpe and Stoke on Trent.

(Debbie) Was some of it used to build the M1?

No I didn’t supply there. The Post Office Tower in London was built with gravel after the main ore had been removed.

(Interviewer) What from your plant? That’s an interesting little story. So where did the Braybrook part come in. I thought there was a connection there. He did the transport for you did he?

He had his own company and I had mine. He transported my goods. He had first call on transport.

(Interviewer) Have we missed anything with the ski club. I don’t think so. It was very interesting about the membership. What made you think of the ski slope? It was something you obviously thought was worth doing. It was very popular according to the paper. How did it finish? When you sold they didn’t carry on?

Anybody could walk round there, ride motorbikes.

(Interviewer) The standards had dropped.

(Debbie) Terry Benford took it on didn’t he?

Terry Benford took on the skiing. He took on the ski slope. Apparently he’s designed the ski slope in Milton Keynes and done several abroad in countries where you never see any snow.

(Interviewer) The National Championships. Water skiing championships. Was there anything you wanted to say about them?

We only had it once or maybe twice.

(Debbie) I know we had it more than once. I remember getting very excited about it. Daddy used to spend ages going rounds the lakes with his Flymo getting it ready.

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