At the Mansell St Garage
Maurice Courtnell & his son Gary
Maurice Courtnell, proprietor of the Mansell St Garage, is not entirely optimistic about the Olympics coming to the East End next month. “It’s going to be worse than wartime!” he informed me gravely, “They’re turning people’s lives upside down, and for what?”
Fortunately, Maurice has taken precautions by installing a caravan into his garage where he and his son Gary will sleep for the duration of the Olympics, thus sparing themselves the risk of travelling back and forth to Basildon in the melée. And if things should descend into a dystopian nightmare, Gary has a Land Rover that he restored which could serve as their escape vehicle in the last resort. “We carried on, all through the war and the bombing,” Maurice assured me confidently, emphasising that he does not intend to let the Olympics interrupt his garage’s record of more that seventy-five years of service.
Such a combination of prudence and ingenuity is characteristic of the Courtnell family who run the East End’s oldest garage, started by Maurice’s father, Edward Courtnell, in 1935 in Mansell St. Amidst the fly-by-night world of motor repair, they have acquired such a reputation over the decades for trust and good service that the name of the garage has stuck, even though it moved from Mansell St more than thirty years ago, and no-one thinks it strange at all to find it half a mile from Mansell St in Cannon St Rd.
For over half a century, the Mansell St Garage took care of all the police cars for the City of London Police and, now that sufficient years have gone by, Maurice can admit – in discreet tones – that once upon a time the Mansell St Garage also did work for most of the notorious East End gangsters, tuning their motors. You might say that it created a certain equality back in the day, both for the cops and the crooks, when it came to the business of get-away vehicles and car chases.
Set back from the road, occupying a former World War II Ambulance station, the Mansell St Garage incarnates the oily romance of motoring superlatively. Sunlight streams through from windows high in the iron roof, casting a glow – upon all the utilitarian clutter that has arrived at its best arrangement through years of use, upon the gaudy adverts for motor parts and upon Maurice’s cherished photograph of the Queen with her favourite horse. Remarkably, for a garage, she is the only female whose photograph you will find on the wall here. “We’ve never displayed nude photographs of women,” Maurice asserted with pride, “because they come in as customers and we treat them with the greatest of respect.”
The surname Courtnell is an unusual one and I did wonder if Maurice might be of Huguenot descent, but he was quick scotch such an ignoble notion. “I’m a true Cockney, I’m proud of my country.” he declared, ” there’s no French in me!”
“My grandfather used to make steam engines and he was bare knuckle pugilist who fought in Hackney Wick. My father started the garage after he had been fleet manager for Goldsteins, clothing manufacturers. They gave him the garage in North Tenter St. All through the war, he was in the home guard and continued to run the garage when it was requisitioned for the RAF. He won a medal for shooting given by the City of London Gun Club and he took me down the Blackwall Tunnel and taught me to shoot, and then after the war I became top gun. I was sixteen when I joined the garage in 1949. My brother Terry was a speedway star who competed for Britain in the World Championship and my brother Edward, the eldest son, did bodywork at the garage until he went off on his own. Terry was killed in a car crash in 1956 and is remembered to this day as speedway legend.
My two sons work with me today, Terry and Gary. They’re the third generation in the business. Terry does the bodywork, Gary does electrics and I do MOTs – I’ve been doing them since it started in 1972. It’s a long, long while. I’ve met some lovely people, some very important people. I’ve always done work for the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral and the London Hospital. You take people as you find them. In my life, I’ve seen them all come and go – first the Jewish people, next the Greeks and the Turks, then the Blacks after them, and now the Asians. They’re all good people. Not everyone’s a millionaire. We can repair cars that insurance companies would write off. Anyway life goes by and we get on very well with the Ministry of Transport. They come every three months to keep an eye on things.
I enjoy diving and I hope I can make eighty-one, and do a hundred foot dive and beat Jacques Cousteau who died at eighty. I shan’t ever retire. I come here because it’s my life. I’ve no interest in sitting indoors and watching TV, there’s no life in that. I’m an old timer, so if an old car wants repairing they’ll need me!”
Maurice Courtnell, proprietor of the Mansell St Garage started by his father Edward in 1935.
Maurice on the Olympics -”It’s going to be worse than wartime!”
Maurice & Gary in the caravan where they will be sleeping for the period of the Olympics.
Maurice & Gary with Gary’s Land Rover that he restored himself.
The mini that Maurice plans to have ready for his grandson to drive (currently fifteen years old).
The entrance from Cannon St Rd.
Dean Stringer, striker for Leyton Orient, is proud to work at the Mansell St Garage.
“I’m an old timer, so if an old car wants repairing they’ll need me!”
Mansell St Garage, 145-147 Cannon St Rd, London E1 2LX.
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