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Article by Paul Wright, 2020
The Taxi Trade
and Memories
Alco taxi at the Welcome Inn

Over the decades the taxi trade in and around Rushden has seen many a change in the nature of its business. Due in no small change to the fact that we no longer work in the same sort of places.

Who would have ever thought that our once great boot and shoe trade would fall from having forty plus shoe factories, to the four we currently have in 2020. They are DB shoes in Irchester road, Sanders and Sanders in Spencer road, Sargent's up Portland Road, and Grenson’s on Crown way.

Not that the shoe workers would have had a taxi to get there for the clocking on time, no they would have got on their bikes, or maybe the “workers bus” that was operated by United Counties. United Counties operated their buses out of the garage up Newton road, which is now the Lidl store.

My late father Jack Wright was a clicker who worked at Wilkins and Denton, which then went on to trade as “Totectors”, he worked there for over forty years in the “clicking room”.

He used to join in some sort of mini peloton of men on their bikes from Wymington into Rushden every day. Wilkins and Denton were making army boots in the early days, and then developed the world famous safety boot, with a steel toe cap.

Before saving up to buy his first motor car in the early 1960's; this car was a Ford Popular, which was grey in colour, the registration number was KNV 342. (a Northamptonshire number). It had three forward gears, and a reverse gear of course. And the windscreen wipers that worked off the vacuum from the engine. So they were okay going down a hill with your foot off of the accelerator, as soon as you put your foot down, they virtually came to a standstill.

In those early days of motoring there was no heater in cars for the working man, so he bought a self-install one out of the Exchange and Mart magazine, and we thought we were in clover from then on, all fairly warm. More expensive cars, such as Humber’s, Jaguars, a Rover, or maybe a Wolseley, would have benefitted by having fitted heaters. And to make things a bit clearer on the windscreen he fitted a little plug in heated bar, that just about de-misted the screen if you were lucky!

Anyway on the days when he did come home for dinner he could catch the workers bus home to South Grove in Wymington, and mum would have "egg and chips" waiting on the table for when he came through the back door in to the kitchen. So we sat there at the table with our dinner, workers always had dinner between 12.00-13.00, and I remember watching a test match between England v Australia, this was in black and white and broadcast on the good old BBC. This was about fifty years before Sky TV came along, with their subscription service to watch sports and films etc.

Our television was purchased from Clark's, which used be down Rushden High Street, and it was a Bush, boasting a 12 inch screen. But the cabinet was a lovely piece of wood, and the sound from the speaker was a warm sound, unlike modern TVs being a bit on the thin side.

In those early years of TV, the BBC was the only option, and then in September 1955 saw the advent of ITV. Dad took out a repair insurance policy with Clark's, and the engineer used to come out every so often to replace a faulty valve. The engineer used to open up a sort of suit case that contained all of his bits of kit. Most people just had to have the odd valve replaced every now and then, but the expensive item would be the cathode ray tube (CRT); this was the original way of displaying the black and white picture.

Clark's were a highly respected firm based down Rushden High Street, at their close it was at number 89, they also opened a record shop over the road which was opposite. This was opened with great excitement one Saturday morning in 1963 by a drummer who was just about to top the hit parade with “Glad all over”. He was Dave Clark of the Dave Clark Five.

He arrived at the opening in the back of a big American convertible car. Luckily at the time of securing his booking, they got his services for £50, and a lunch at the Westward Hotel on the corner of North street and Shirley road.

His fee was perhaps the weekly wage of several people added together working in a shoe factory at the time.

In fact 1963 saw the struggle of many workers in town, with John White's and Bignell’s, CWS (Co-op), Eaton’s, were laying people off.

Other firms by contrast were on “overtime” and other were working a four day week, (short time).

On the TV screen were schoolboy legends such as Ted Dexter, Colin Cowdrey, Peter May, and fast bowlers such as Brian Statham from Lancashire, and good good old Freddie Trueman from the other side of the Pennines. Cricket was on the BBC, the commentary was provided by a Hampshire burr of a voice of John Arlott, Peter West, and Brian Johnston, Alan McGilvray, and Tony Cozier.

It was horse power that you were propelled along by with James Sargent, going back to the 1890s. He was based along what we now know as Duck street. Now it is a one way street, but back then it was a two way affair, with little traffic.

If you fancied a nice summer outing, Mr Harry Scroxton was offering to take to take you out in his new Pullman saloon. They were based up at Portland road in Rushden.

Mr Ian (John) Hart ran Hart’s taxis in Church street in town, and spread his wings by running the good old Cedar cafe.

Joan Hart Hart's Taxis at Higham
left: Joan Hart of Hart's taxis
above: Hart's wedding cars at Higham church

Hart's Calendar from 1953
My late uncle Ray Brown, who was then living in Gold Street in Podington, had the pleasure of working for Hart’s taxis. And when there was a bit of spare time, Ian would walk over to Claridge’s shoe factory, wander back with a roll of leather. And the drivers would do a bit of “clicking” work to fill in the gaps in their taxi jobs. We can see a shot of Ian’s wife standing with the client board, (called an idiot board in the taxi trade).

Ross Neville was running quite a large operation in Rushden, he ran that until 1953, his coach trips were taking you to far flung places such as Great Yarmouth for 10 bob. (50 new pence). He then focused on his stationery business down the High Street, where it was possible to make booking for theatre trips etc. The shop closed when Ross retired in 1997.

Robinson’s Garage was a busy old place, situated next to Betty’s hair salon and Ginns the blacksmiths. They operated a charabanc and taxi service from about 1920, the garage closed in the 1970s. One of the workshop staff from the 1950s and 1960s was called George; he still lives over at Melchbourne and well into his retirement was doing part time at Park Road Motors.

Whilst the Airbase was still in operation at Chelveston many of the GI’s would come into Rushden for a night out, and Mr Don Wills was lucky enough to be allowed on to the base with one car to ferry the lads to Higham market square, where another local car would bring them in to town. With the servicemen coming in to Rushden for a night out, many a punch up would kick off between the locals and the GI’s, (at the time referred to as the Yanks). And their military police would cart them off with the aid of their baton in hand!

Don was very well liked in town and for running Palace motors. No doubt many a new motorist learned to drive from the mid 1950‘s onwards with his Palace school of motoring!

I myself had the pleasure of honing my novice driving skills with Ernie Cross, he was based up Oval road if I remember correctly, he ran the “Cross Way school of Motoring”: and would charge me £2 per lesson. (I passed, on my second attempt, at the centre then based in Broad Green in Wellingborough).

Meanwhile the licensed vehicle that Don Wills owned would be doing the run to and from the airbase at Chelveston. That opened in the 1940s, and would remain busy until the early 1970s, it then had the concrete runways ripped up in 1977.

An RAF high frequency signals facility was established in the same year, operated by RAF No. 81 Signals Unit, with a large array of antennas. The site incorporated a microwave relay mast linking the site with the MOD in London and RAF Strike Command based in Buckinghamshire, at High Wycombe. At the time the masts intrigued many a person to think it was a “Spy base”, in fact one of the masts was used for ‘RAF Volmet” to receive weather reports for aircraft in flight. (So alas no spies). The station closed in the winter of 2003 when the RAF's high frequency communications system was replaced by a different system.

Halfway down the High Street near to the Rose and Crown pub, and the Ritz Cinema, you were always going to get a cab home with Maxy’s taxis. He and his sister seemed to be always on duty in their office, which was located up a flight of stairs, between Dunkley’s the barbers and the Evening Telegraph, at number 63A High Street.

Around the same period Mr George Smith was working his taxi business from home, which was at number 69 Moor road in town.

Moving along to more recent times High Street Taxis were in full swing, and Mick Field was operating his mini bus service, which in many ways was the forerunner to the current Rushden Rider, which is operated by Bedford company “Express Lines” on several routes in Rushden and Higham.

Back to the taxi business.

Wellingborough based Lee cabs bought Alco taxis of Rushden in January 2014. Alco was founded by Alan and Rose Wesley, then Alan Russell took it over in 1990, and was then based at his house in Bedford road, near to the Rugby club. Alco taxis moved to their John street base in 1993. Alan then drove a taxi for Alco, the company that he’d owned many years back, but he decided to hang up his badge during the year of 2020, and retired.

And in May 2016 Lee cabs/Alco purchased Ken's taxis from owner Mr Ken Potter, who decided to retire at the age of 70. They were based in Park Avenue, Rushden.

There were radical changes in taxi ownership over the last few months of 2016.

The closed former Alco/GPS waiting room & office
Firstly Lee cabs and Alco took over GPS, which was owned by Paul Storey. Paul is now working for Brian’s Taxis, although he had worked for a few years for the new firm.

Adding to this portfolio, was the acquisition of Wellingborough based company Twenty-four-seven, who had been on the Lawrence Leyland estate in Wellingborough during 2016.

At the time the combined group of Lee cabs companies were running about 100 cars in the fleet, including mini buses. The big move came when all of the amalgamated Rushden taxi companies taken over by Lee cabs re-located to a state of the art office. This was to be computer controlled by a system that was meant to have cost a six figure sum.

The former office and waiting room was vacated in John Street in the afternoon of Wednesday, 14th December, 2016, and from that date, the waiting area and control room were at number 126 High Street. This was the former GPS taxi premises opposite the Railway public house.

From that moment on, the now out-moded voice transmission on FM (frequency modulation) that controlled the fleet of Alco cars was turned off. And all cars were then sent essential job information via mobile 4G cell phone technology.

The office was staffed by a couple of controllers on duty, on a split shift pattern, one was taking the phone bookings, and the other was working a separate computer terminal, which was dispatching the cars.

Lucy & Linda
Lucy & Linda - former Alco controllers

At the end of 2017 a small company called "Station" taxis was also bought out by Lee cabs, they had been operating for about a year. Previously they had been registered at Spencer Street in Ringstead.  

The combined Lee Cab and Alco companies continued to work out of the office at 126 High Street in Rushden.

On the money front, the Taxi fare increases came in to operation in mid April of April, 2018. The previous rates were used for about three years. The new starting rate is £2. 80, and that replaced the £2. 50, which had been the minimum fare. 

This Lee cabs/Alco marriage was fairly short lived, and after about five years another take over was on the cards for the taxi scene in town.

In the summer of 2019 the Lee cabs/Alco company was now taken over by Bounds of Northampton, who were formed back in 1958.

This collection of taxi operations now stretches over several counties, including firms in Buckinghamshire, Warwickshire and of course Northamptonshire.

With over 60 years of service provided to the community of Northampton, Bounds stated they were at the forefront in our local towns.

But the wind of change was set to blow at the back end of 2020. The size of this new company had a total about eight hundred vehicles.

The Rushden office was to benefit from “air conditioning” for the controllers to work in comfort. And modern technology was playing another big part, with an “App” (Application), now available via the Apple store, and also on “Google Play”. But all this high tech could not fend off a new virus that was hitting the world with a vengeance!

It was a crushing blow to the whole of our country in the first part of 2020, in the form of a virus which was thought to have originated in China, it was called Covid-19 and also labelled Coronavirus.

You can imagine that the taxi trade, along with many other businesses being decimated, and some did not survive this painful period in 2020!

It was called “a lockdown”, and people were instructed to stay in their houses etc, and keep what was called “social distancing”, the requirement of staying about 6 feet apart. This was to prevent the spreading of the virus through droplets released in the air when an effected person coughs or sneezes. And we saw a death rate in April 2020, of around 1500 people per day in this country losing their life, this pattern was repeated in other parts of the world.

This figure did level out during the year when the government imposed the “lockdown” of the UK.

One major loser locally during this period was “Wicksteed Park”, they went in to administration just short of their centenary, and a fund was launched to keep them afloat for the longer term.

Also during the summer, several shops down at “Rushden Lakes” failed to re-open after several weeks of temporary closure.

And the shoe trade took another knock, when it was announced that “Barkers Shoes” at Earls Barton were laying workers off, and over at Kettering, Loake’s also made staff redundant in July, 2020.

Despite all of these troubled times, we saw another new company come in to the local arena in 2020.

This was to be named “2020 cabs” and is run by Mr James Gentle and Miss Jodie Cox.  The company is based up Hayden road in Rushden. Jodie was a former controller for “Alco” taxis.

As mentioned earlier, the wind of change saw the “Alco” office at 126 High Street closed to customers who wished to book, or wait for a cab. Office staff were made redundant and have sought employment elsewhere.

The pendulum of market share also went to “Brian’s”, who have picked up several drivers from Alco, some blaming the ‘above inflation’ rent rises as a reason to leave.  Former loyal customers of Alco were not keen on their calls being switched through to a call centre in Asia, after the Rushden office closed.

Brian's waiting room & office

As from Thursday 5th of November 2020, a second lock down was implemented, with the orders that you must not leave or be outside of your home except for specific purposes. In most cases non essential businesses were not allowed to trade until Wednesday 2nd December.

At long last we did hear some good news regarding Coronavirus, Covid-19; this came on Monday 9th November 2020, with the Conservative government announcing that a successful vaccine is just around the corner now. 

The vaccine - called an RNA vaccine - has been developed by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech and is one of 11 vaccines that are currently in the final stages of testing.

The companies now plan to apply for emergency approval to use the vaccine by the end of November 2020, and a limited number of people may get the vaccine this year? The UK has already ordered 40 million doses - enough to vaccinate up to 20 million people as each person will need two doses for it to work effectively.

The Oxford coronavirus vaccine shows a strong immune response in adults in their 60s and 70s, raising hopes that it can protect age groups most at risk from the virus.

Several other companies have a vaccine available; this seems like the only possible way to get our liberty back again.

So as the year 2020 comes to a close, the front runners in taxi operations are now “Brian’s” taxis, and can be found at their base in the Precinct near to the former “Wheatsheaf” pub, which we feature in one of our shots.

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