Sampson Society

As described in ‘Sampson’s Sidmouth’ by Sylvia Brownlee

Fortfield Chambers has the date 1928 on its ironwork and holds the initials RWS in relief to the South above the arched entrance and WH to the North. Originally Mr Sampson owned the ground and first floor on the right of the archway (the South) and Mr Hastings owned the ground and first floor on the left of the archway (the North). Today all four properties are owned by separate people.

A childhood memory of Alastair Gilchrist (Mary’s son) is of Sampson’s partner Mr Dingwall propping architectural drawings up against the walls of the office courtyard. They were framed with sensitive paper behind and left to develop in the sunlight for some hours in a primitive reprographic process. The prints were afterwards coloured by watercolour wash and looked very attractive.

It would appear that Mr Sampson, working with Mr Dingwall, continued to use Fortfield Chambers until his death in 1950. Mr Sampson arranged for Mr Dingwall to remain free of rent for the 12 months following Sampson’s death and within six months to allow him to buy if he so wished. This Mr Dingwall did in 1952.

I may dwell a little long on the history of Fortfield Chambers since 1973, but I have the unusual personal experience of both working and living here and decided to record it for future reference. By July 1973, when Derek Parry was looking for suitable offices in Sidmouth, the whole of the two-storey North portion of Fortfield Chambers was occupied by a solicitors’ firm – Burra, Thomson and Robinson run by a salaried solicitor (Mr Jenner) and an elderly assistant (Miss Thomson). That part of the property (being all one unit) was owned by Mrs Thomson of Sidbury, the widow of the former senior partner. Two staff worked downstairs: upstairs, every level surface (other than the floor) was covered with bundles of papers and files, all tied together with red tape. Not only was the whole place very dilapidated, with gaps in the floorboards and severe cracking of much of the plastering, but when the ground floor office had last been repainted, the painter had stopped a short way up the stairs – where the wall was no longer visible from the ground floor!

In 1974 Mrs Thomson separated the two floors, creating a separate entrance to the first floor office where the door to Flat 3 is now. At that time, in the south portion, Flat 1 was owned by Mr and Mrs Carpenter and Flat 2 was occupied by Mrs Shand,

In 1984 Mr Parry bought the north portion of the freehold. In 1986 the two floors were reunited as a single office suite and the makeshift doorway which had been the entrance to the first floor was converted back into a window.

Flat 2 in the south portion came on the market and Mr Parry bought it with the intention of incorporating it into his suite of offices, however, the title deed contained a covenant prohibiting any form of business use. Mr Parry was advised that the only way in which the covenant could be enforced would be by the owner of the freehold of Flat 1 in the south portion. In order to be able to incorporate Flat 2 into the offices, Mr Parry therefore needed to buy Flat 1.

The owner was not keen to sell, but Mr Parry eventually offered him a price which he could not refuse and thus acquired all three elements of the freehold of Fortfield Chambers, being the only person throughout its history to own the whole property.

Hardly was that process complete than his business entered a sharp downturn, from 1988 to 1991, which meant that the intended enlargement of the office suite never proceeded! Instead, Flat 2 was sold on a long lease to Mr & Mrs Hunt and was later sold on in turn to Mr & Mrs Morris and then to its present owners (2009).

Flat 1 was sold on a similar basis in early 1991 and was used as a holiday let until 2005. It was then sold on a long lease to the present owner.

Meanwhile, Mr Parry decided to operate the business just from the ground floor and convert the first floor into a separate flat, to be sold on the same long leasehold basis as the other flats. My husband and I purchased the lease of the first floor flat (No 3) in August 2002 and used it as a holiday let.
At the same time, a balcony with a wrought iron balustrade was created in Flat 3 with a faithful copy being made by the owners of Flat 2, thereby making their joint creation appear as a whole and enhancing Fortfield Chambers.

We decided to convert the unexpectedly large loft space into an en suite bedroom, sell our Alexandria Road, Sampson house and move in permanently to Fortfield Chambers in November 2004, the loft conversion being finished in 2005.

Mr Parry sold his business in 2005 to Cathedral Financial Management Ltd of Exeter, who also bought a long lease of the ground-floor office. In 2007, Mr Parry sold the freehold of the whole property to Fortfield Chambers Ltd, which is the management company for the property, three of the leaseholders holding the shares.

The following text was written by Mr Derek Parry in January 2009 and some of it was used to create the above text for Sylvia’s book. It has been decided to include it as is because it contains the full history of Fortfield Chambers since 1973.

The following was written by Derek Parry, Chairman of The Sampson Society

My introduction to Fortfield Chambers was in July 1973 when Brian Bagwell (then running an estate agency at the bottom of Old Fore Street) came to my house in Newlands Close one evening and said, in a triumphant tone, “I’ve found you an office – and it’s a very good address: Fortfield Chambers!”. We had decided the previous August to base our brand-new business in Sidmouth, but at that time there was no vacant office or shop space of any kind, anywhere in the town. We even spent months trying to negotiate the purchase of what was then an empty plot on the High Street (now Lloyds Chemists) but to no avail.

The following morning, Brian took me to see the offices. At that time, the whole of the two-storey portion to the north side of the arch was occupied by a solicitors’ firm – Burra, Thomson and Robinson. They had what I believe was then their main office at Budleigh Salterton. The Sidmouth office was run by a salaried solicitor (Mr Jenner) and an elderly assistant (Miss Thomson). That part of the property was owned by Mrs Thomson of Sidbury, the widow of the former senior partner. (NB Mr Thomson is buried in the next plot to Mr Sampson at Salcombe Regis Church – probably a coincidence)

It was obvious that the practice was not flourishing. I assumed that it had not been generating enough income to pay the rent required by Mrs Thomson and that she had instructed the firm to withdraw into the ground floor portion so that she could let the first floor to someone else. When we went in, the premises were still one unit. The two staff worked downstairs: upstairs, every level surface (other than the floor) was covered with bundles of papers and files, all tied together with red tape. It was obvious that no client had been up the stairs for many years. Not only was the whole place very dilapidated, with gaps in the floorboards and severe cracking of much of the plastering, but when the ground floor office had last been repainted, the painter had stopped a short way up the stairs – where the wall was no longer visible from the ground floor!

I was told that Mrs Thomson was going to separate the two floors, creating a separate entrance to the first floor office where the door to Flat 3 is now. She was offering the place on a 10-year lease, with an upward-only rent review after 5 years. Mr Jenner handled the negotiation of the lease on Mrs Thomson’s behalf. He soon proved to be a difficult person with whom to negotiate. Eventually, the lease was signed and I was able to start work on the updating of the office. Tom Chambers, the retired Surveyor of Sidmouth Urban District Council (and the man who, “by eye” and with the help only of an excavator driver, had created the Jacob’s Ladder Chine) was recommended to me as the best person to draw up plans and specifications for the building work.

A complete rewire was needed and, although there was a very old large-bore central heating system in the building (possibly dating from 1928), it obviously had not worked for many years. With Mrs Thomson’s permission, the remaining pipework and radiators were removed from upstairs and a new gas-fired system installed. Tenders for the building work were obtained and the contract went to the local firm of J H Dunford & Sons Ltd, then run by Les Dunford. Among other peculiarities, they found that the gas fire in the corner of my office (by what is now the door to the balcony of Flat 3) was electrically live!
Renovation was completed at the beginning of March 1974. After carpets, furniture and basic office equipment (the most modern being a “cutting edge” long-carriage Grundig electric typewriter!) had been installed, the business transferred from my home on 16th March 1974 – a year to the day after we had moved to Sidmouth. I had three support staff and the offices had ample space.

At that time, Flat 2 was occupied by Mrs Shand, the widow of the former Managing Director of Shand Engineering Ltd at Axminster – a position held in 1974 by my friend Ken Tasker! The ground floor flat (Flat 1) was owned by a Bristol couple who used it as a holiday home, visiting several times a year.

The 5-year rent review was a pain, ending with an arbitration hearing at which I was assisted by Ed Harrison. The negotiations for the 10-year lease renewal were proceeding excruciatingly slowly, when Mr Jenner eventually asked my solicitor (David Govier) if I would like to buy the building. As I had told Mrs Thomson when I first met her that if she ever wanted to sell her part of the building, I would like to know, I naturally accepted this invitation. The price of £50,000 was agreed very quickly and the Midland Bank (John Mullins) readily agreed to a 100% mortgage. By the time I bought that portion of the freehold in 1984, Burra Thomson and Robinson had closed – although I believe their Budleigh Salterton office was still operating. The ground floor had been occupied for a couple of years or so by Vanessa Kennett, who ran a beauty parlour. In about 1985 she moved out to bigger premises elsewhere in the town. I did not seek another tenant, as my own business was expanding rapidly at the time, in terms of personnel. In 1986, the two floors were reunited as a single office suite and the makeshift doorway which had been the entrance to the first floor was converted back into a window.

By the summer of 1987, our original staff of four had grown to 13: our newest member of staff did not even have a desk of his own! It was thus very convenient that Mrs Shand, the elderly occupant of Flat 2, decided at that time that she wished to move into a smaller, more modern property in the town centre. Her flat came on the market and I bought it with the intention of incorporating it into our own suite of offices.

Although the flat was freehold, the title deed contained a covenant prohibiting any form of business use. I took legal advice about that, and was advised that the only way in which the covenant could be enforced would be by the owner of the freehold of Flat 1. In order to be able to incorporate Flat 2 into our offices, I therefore needed to buy Flat 1 – even if only to then let or re-sell it without that restrictive covenant on the original freehold. The owner was not keen to sell, but I eventually offered him a price which he could not refuse and thus acquired all three elements of the freehold of Fortfield Chambers.

Hardly was that process complete than the business entered a sharp downturn, from 1988 to 1991, which meant that the intended enlargement of the office suite never proceeded! Instead, Flat 2 was sold on a long lease to Mr & Mrs Hunt. It was later sold on in turn to Mr & Mrs Morris and then to its present owners (2009).

Flat 1 was sold on a similar basis in early 1991 to my daughter and son-in-law, then living in Germany and wanting to get a toe-hold on the UK property ladder. They used it as a holiday let, with bookings being done through an agency and with my wife Gill supervising the cleaning and changeovers. By about 2000 they were down to a single salary and finding cash tight, so I bought the property back from them. We ran it ourselves as a holiday let until 2005, when Gill’s deteriorating health made it all too difficult for her. It was then sold on a long lease to the present owner.

Meanwhile, my decision to reduce the scale of my business and the consequent reduction in staff numbers, back to the original four, made it wasteful for us to continue to occupy the whole suite of offices. I therefore decided to operate the business just from the ground floor and convert the first floor into a separate flat, to be sold on the same long leasehold basis as the other flats.

Derek Parry
January 2009