‘You can’t run it just as a business’
The history of Wareham’s markets has for the last hundred years been bound up with the auction house of Cottee’s, as John Newth explains
Published in March ’11
In the yard of the premises of Cottee’s, the auction house in East Street, Wareham, is a stone carving by Jonathan Sells that not only is decorative but also serves as a celebration of markets in small towns throughout England. At the lower levels are medieval figures with livestock and produce, but higher up, these merge into household goods such as a chaise longue, a grandfather clock, even a ’cello. This progression symbolises the history of markets in towns like Wareham: their primary function of auctioning the products of local agriculture and horticulture largely disappeared in the years around World War 2, so they had to diversify and become general auction houses. Cottee’s were no exception and in fact are unusual because although the last livestock auction was held in 1975, its produce auction still survives. However, it must be a reasonable guess that at least ninety per cent of its business comes from its other, non-produce sales.
It could be said that Cottee’s are in a direct line that stretches back to 1211, the year when King John gave Wareham a charter that permitted the town to hold a weekly market, as well as a fair every year. The market was held at various locations around the town but by 1900 its home was at West Walls, where the car park is now, and was run by one Arthur Rogers. It was in 1905 that Samuel William Cottee came onto the scene. Originally from Hertfordshire, where he trained as an auctioneer, he set up business in Bournemouth but soon developed into Swanage, Ringwood and Wareham. The last of these appealed to him so much that he moved there, setting up home first at 12 West Street and then at Worgret. He moved the livestock market to St John’s Hill, installing rails to which the cattle were tied, while the poultry and produce were sold in the Corn Exchange, part of the Town Hall building.
The business reached something of a peak in the 1920s. In 1923 Samuel opened a separate market office at 10 North Street, and in 1926 he took the major step of acquiring Chichester House in East Street. This had been one of Wareham’s major schools but had now closed. He sold the house, which was eventually converted into flats before being demolished in 1973. On the garden he erected buildings for his business, most of which survive today.
In good dynastic style, Samuel brought both of his sons into the business. Cyril, the elder, worked with him until 1932, when he left to open an electrical shop at 2 South Street. Could it be that his nose was put out of joint by his younger brother, Ron, who joined the business in 1931? Sensibly, Samuel sent both boys to be trained elsewhere, Cyril at Frome and Ron at Stafford, before inviting them to join him. There was also a daughter, Winifred, known as ‘Muffets’, and life was not all serious business since she and Ron formed a dance band that would sometimes play for parties held in the Cottee’s buildings. Ron had a social conscience, too, starting a boys’ club called the Monday Club, which also made use of the East Street premises, as did Wareham Dramatic Society.
Ron took over the business following the death of his father in 1939. If there had been a rift with his elder brother, it was now healed, because Cyril helped out with some of the produce auctions. When Ron departed for service with the Royal Navy in 1942, Samuel’s widow, Julia, was also involved in helping to keep the business running.
Cyril Quick, who had joined the business in 1938, took over the day-to-day running of the company while Ron was away, as well as sorting out petrol coupons for farmers across Dorset and running a livestock auction in Sturminster Newton.
It was after 1945 that the produce and livestock sides of the business really began to decline and its nature began to change drastically. Everyone would even decamp twice a year from East Street to the banks of the Frome, where an auction of boats would be held. On Ron Cottee’s retirement in 1972, he sold the business to Cyril Quick and John Egglestone, the latter of whom had joined the business in 1948. They moved the office from 10 North Street to the East Street site. The next change of ownership came in 1989, when the business was bought by the estate agents, Bullock & Lees, who by ironic coincidence had taken on 10 North Street (where they still are today) shortly after Cottee’s had left it.
The moving spirit behind the purchase was Ward Bullock, and it was not long before he left Bullock & Lees, of which he was a founding partner, to concentrate on Cottee’s. Cyril and Ron were both dead by this time, and the freehold of the site belonged to Samuel’s daughter, Winifred, so she had to vet the new tenants; Ward Bullock gained her approval because they shared an enthusiasm for the traditional market. At the same time, he had no illusions about the difficulties facing auction houses like Cottee’s. One way in which he tried to tackle these was to carve out a niche by staging specialist sales. Not all succeeded (it remains a matter of regret to him that his Moorcroft pottery sales never got off the ground) but those that did work are among the mainstays of Cottee’s today.
Pre-eminent among these is the Poole pottery sales, which in Ward’s words, ‘went off like a rocket.’ The vague geographical connection probably helped, but the then world record of £15,000 for a piece of Poole pottery was set in Wareham. Cottee’s still hold two sales of Poole pottery a year that are the biggest in the country, with bids coming from all over the world. Almost as important are and were the sales of toys, especially model railways. Ward Bullock shrewdly identified the power of nostalgia for childhood, especially in men for some reason, and today Cottee’s hold four specialist sales a year for model railway and toy collectors, the number of lots per sale often exceeding 500.
It was Ward Bullock who commissioned the Jonathan Sells sculpture when he left Cottee’s in 2003. As part of a divorce settlement, he sold his interest to his ex-wife and to one of Samuel William’s great-grandchildren, Bill Grounds. Sadly, Cottee’s did not flourish under their ownership and went into administration before being bought from the administrator by local businessman Geoff Thompson in 2006. John Condie manages the business on his behalf and is taking it into a new age in which the internet plays an ever-larger part. Although they must have registered first and will probably have asked for a condition report, bidders can take part in an auction on screen in real time; last summer a Chinese vase was sold in this way to a bidder in Shanghai for £30,000.
Although the weekly produce market continues every Thursday at Cottee’s, a parallel thread in Wareham’s market history is now the Saturday morning market on the Quay. It started a few years ago in North Street and, like its predecessor, had various homes before settling on the Quay. It is run by Ward Bullock, who resolutely maintains its local character: ‘local stallholders selling local produce and products, and no-one from Basingstoke selling jeans imported from Asia’ is how he describes it. It is clearly a case of ‘once a market enthusiast, always a market enthusiast’, but Ward also describes the special demands that markets make on those who run them: ‘It’s like being a nurse. You have to love it. You can’t run it just as a business.’ Somewhere, Samuel William Cottee is surely nodding his head in agreement.
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