At A E Batchelor Ltd, Saddlers
After I featured Mia Sabel the Saddler in Walthamstow last spring, Anthony Batchelor got in touch and invited me to visit his family business of A E Batchelor Ltd, Saddlers, established in Epping in 1919
Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven & I took the train down to Epping to meet Anthony Batchelor and his dad John who work together as the third and fourth generation in their family saddlery business. Anthony picked us up from the station and drove us through the town, past the former shoe shop and saddlery established by his great-grandfather in an old weatherboarded house in 1919.
Since 2005, high street premises have no been longer required by A E Batchelor Ltd. Anthony drove us through the winding lanes until we turned into the yard behind an imposing Georgian farmhouse, where he and his father operate today from a comfortable and quiet workshop in a converted barn. Such is their reputation that, even without a website, Anthony and his father find they have as much work as they can handle simply by word of mouth.
While John stays in the workshop at his bench, Anthony sets out on the road driving seven hundred miles a day to visit customers across East Anglia, from the daughters of wealthy businessmen in Southend up to old hunting families in Norfolk. I was assured that, given their different preferences in music and choice of radio channels, such a division of responsibility suits father and son very well.
“In 1919, my great-grandfather Alfred Edward Batchelor returned from the West Indies where he had a sugar plantation,” Anthony explained to me,”he worked for Freeman Hardy Willis in Croydon and then he bought a shoe shop in Epping.” In the thirties, the family purchased the saddlery next door and ran both shops until 2005.“He always called himself the reluctant saddler,” admitted Anthony, referring to his grandfather Alfred Robert,“so he went and worked at Blisses.”
Bliss & Co of Sun St, behind Liverpool St Station, were the last of the many saddlers that once existed in the vicinity of Bishopsgate, originally serving the needs of travellers in the days before the coming of the railway. Thus Alfred Robert and then his son Alfred John both trained at Blisses, which – astonishingly – only closed in the eighties and today its handsome red brick building, custom-built as a saddlers, still stands in Sun St unfortunately awaiting imminent demolition.
“We still use my grandfather’s tools,” Anthony revealed, lifting and brandishing up a half-moon shaped knife which his father had just employed,“he ‘liberated’ this knife from an abandoned saddlery when he went into occupied France at the end of World War II.”
Neither father nor son have any regrets about abandoning the retail side of the business in Epping.“When we had the shop we were there all hours, it was a hard life,” confided John,“now I can take a day off whenever I please.” I watched John as he stitched a simple dog lead with painstaking care. “The work we do is rustic in style,” he informed me modestly, almost apologetically, confessing that his primary concern was to create items which serve their purpose at a reasonable price. Yet, to my eyes, John’s expert stitching and years of experience conspired to produce a distinctive object of subtle beauty in which the form fitted the function perfectly.
The shoe shop in Epping High St opened by Alfred Edward Bachelor in 1919 with the saddlers next door
Alfred John Batchelor
In the saddlery in Epping in the sixties
Alfred John Batchelor with his father Alfred Robert
John at his work bench
Sewing a dog lead with the traditional saddlers’ double stitch
Bob Cuthbert repairing harnesses at A E Batchelor in the sixties
The knife ‘liberated’ by Alfred Robert Batchelor in World War II and still in use
Anthony shows the card templates used to ensure saddles fit the horse’s back
A Sciver – a machine for splitting leather straps
Catalogue for Bliss of Sun St, beside Liverpool St Station
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
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