Forgotten faces from Littlehampton’s pioneering 19th century business world

Littlehampton has been home to some fascinating characters over the past 150 years, from pioneering businessmen to family-friendly entertainers, and all have helped make the town what it is today.

Past and present partners of John Eede Butt & Sons
Past and present partners of John Eede Butt & Sons

Here, we continue our Forgotten Faces series, by looking at a couple of well- known local names from the business world...

John Eede Butt was the first of a family dynasty that went on to become important players in Littlehampton’s history, and whose name still lives on today through the well-known local property agents, run by a branch of the Butt family since 1939.

John Eede was the first great timber merchant in the town and, from the mid-19th century, he was the dominant figure in the trade.

Henry Harvey

He had a timber yard from the 1820s in Terminus Road, and by 1853 the firm’s rapid growth meant that he was employing more than 60 men and had expanded into the building trade with his own brickworks.

By this time he had also acquired Norfolk wharf by the river, and by the 20th century the company had also taken over Old Quay Wharf and Baltic Wharf by the public hard, opened a site in Pier Road and a branch in Brighton, and had a wharf at Portslade.

John Eede was also responsible for the building of the telescopic railway bridge over the River Arun at Ford; it was the first of its kind ever constructed, and the company gained a lot of praise and recognition for the job.

John Eede and his family lived in one of the tall houses which faced the Congregational church at the top of the High Street.

He had a large garden and an orchard, the latter of which stood within a large flint wall which protruded halfway across the road in Surrey Street, until it was finally demolished in 1912.

John’s favoured method of transport was a two-wheeled gig with his ‘high stepping grey.’

The horse, it was said, had a habit of bringing one foot down with a loud whack at varying intervals, so people always knew who was coming, even before John and his horse appeared around the corner.

John Eede Butt passed away in 1868, and the business continued to flourish under his sons.

By the end of the 19th century, John Eede Butt and Sons were importing timber from Scandinavia, the Baltic and Russia, and slate from North Wales, and had become a major local supplier of building materials.

As a company, John Eede Butt and Sons had something of a reputation for innovation; for example, in 1879 they acquired two of the first Edison telephones in Britain, with a line that linked the firm’s Littlehampton and Brighton offices.

The telephone wire ran alongside the railway line for some 22 miles, and the Daily Express reported that this was the ‘longest telephone line in Europe, if not the whole world’. Their number was ‘Littlehampton No. 1’.

John Eede Butt and Sons remained a family company until the mid-20th century, when in 1944 the business was taken over by Travis Arnold (later Travis Perkins).

Henry Harvey came to Littlehampton from Rye, in East Sussex, in 1846, and rented some space in Stephen Oliver’s successful shipyards on the western side of the River Arun.

Harvey was a ship-builder and a master craftsman, and under his management, the yard soon acquired a reputation for finely-built vessels that was to remain connected with the name of Harvey for the next 70 years.

As an important local business owner, Henry Harvey’s name also crops up in other areas; for example, he appears to have been instrumental in saving the project to get the Congregational church built.

The land in the High Street had been leased for the purpose by the Duke of Norfolk in 1859, but construction was put on hold when one of the project managers, Samuel Evershed, a local timber merchant and Deacon of Arundel Church, died in 1858.

Harvey, alongside Evershed’s son and a man named Thomas Duke, fought to revive the project, with work beginning again in 1861 when the foundation stone was laid.

Henry’s last few years were troubled with ill-health, but when he died in 1868 two of his sons, John and William Benjamin, were already heavily involved with carrying the business forward and continuing their father’s legacy.

Under Henry’s sons, the yards went from strength to strength, with the yard continuing to build the high- quality wooden ocean sailing ships, then in big demand.

At one point, Messers John and William Harvey were building four ships a year and employing more than 100 men.

Harveys’ shipyard continued to flourish into the 19th century, with the brothers turning their attention to repair work and building ketch barges for the coastal trade, when the demand for wooden ships petered out.

John Harvey continued to oversee the business until well into his 70s. The last Harvey boat was built in 1919.

For more information please contact Littlehampton Museum on 01903 738100 or at [email protected]