First a short introduction. I am 80, retired of course and with time on my hands. Only last week I heard about the Tracks inspired The Forest magazine with its many contributions by local people and thought ‘I can do that’. So here goes: a monthly article about ‘something‘ in Forest Gate; not a straightforward account but a bit of history and how it operates behind the scenes. Hence, I am calling it - Back Story.
This month's Back Story features The Old Slate Yard. Thanks to Natasha for filling me in on everything.
In 1952 Natasha’s father-in-law, Louis Fenech arrived in London from Malta.
He lived in Gladding Road and made his living as a rag and bone man, not with a horse and cart but with an old truck.
Someone gave him a pile of old slates which someone else then bought. I would have been pleased with the sale but would have thought no more about it. But not Louis. A budding entrepreneur he saw an opening in reclamation and started up The Old Slate Yard in the 1980’s. It was and still is a family run business, owned now by his four grandchildren, Charley, Billy, Danni and Frankie. They are also helped by some close family and friends.
In the beginning it was just the narrow strip at the front of today’s yard but expanded later with the acquisition of the large area at the front and back 458-461 Sebert Road.
The Yard didn’t stay the same. It metamorphosed into what it is today, trading in bricks, slates, tiles chimney pots and all interesting, reclaimed building materials. The main source of this is from their now successful demolition business BGF Demolition (which Billy concentrates on). When doing the demolition of an old brick-built building most of the building is dismantled by hand. All the bricks are cleaned by hand using axe. Once they are cleaned, they are then palletised and brought back to the yard ready for sale. They also purchase from the public and builders.
There have been other subtle changes. For example, trading in the reclaimed slates, used to be London focused. Now with more and more roofs covered in new tiles in London, their reclaimed slates go north.
Natasha tells me that one reason fewer slates are available is that builders have lost the knack of removing them undamaged!
The major reclaimed material is now bricks including the lovely London yellow stock bricks. Many are used in renovation projects and repairs in conservation areas and for listed buildings. They provide a free brick matching service.
Everyone who knows the Yard know it is now two very different businesses. So how come the hard graft of demolition came to share its premises with the delicate business of floristry? Easily explained. Natasha and Charley trained as a florist and in 2010 opened her shop The Flower Cabin. Danni also trained as a florist but also works on the demolition sites. They are also helped part time by her daughter, Frankie who I am told is ‘the clever one’. Frankie has just passed 10 (yes 10!) GCSEs and is now doing her A levels. Congratulations, Frankie.
The shop has a steady all year-round trade providing flowers for funerals and other special occasions but floristry and garden centres – a natural development for the shop – are also seasonal. The year starts with Valentine’s Day followed by Mother’s Day and then the arrival of the spring plants. The flowers and plants are sourced from wholesalers with most of the flowers coming in from the Netherlands.
The shop steadily ticks over until November when Christmas starts. At the end of November, the Christmas trees arrive. Again, via wholesalers but coming from Scotland and Norway.
But Christmas is not exclusively about trade; it’s also about family and the community and the Yard plays its part in Forest Gate’s festivities.
Some years ago, they held a Christmas market, but the Yard has become too small because of the high volume of stock changing all the time, so now they link with St Mark’s church helping with the Christmas float and hosting a carol singing event. Singing, mulled wine and mince pies, what’s not to like.
Some of us remember another small enterprise at the Yard it’s antique business. I used to love browsing there and was sorry to see it go. It wasn’t a lack of success but repeated flooding under the arch that brought about its closure. A pity but the wooden legs of antique furniture do not do well standing in water.
Well, that’s it except to introduce the final two members of the family, Ritz and Ella. Ella has just arrived. Ritz has been a member of the team for many years. Their dogs of course.
For more info check out The Old Slate Yard website here and for further updates follow @theoldslateyard