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Chris & the Orient Express

Ok, that’s rather an ambiguous title.

Tonight’s speaker was our Chris and he spoke of the company A Dunn & Son.

He spoke of how Albert left school wanting to become a chippy, though quickly became disillusioned when all he was doing was making coffins. Pretty gruesome when you’re responsible for measuring the deceased body, coz nobody (🙂) wants to be rattling around in a box. He had a chance to study under a French master marqueteur (you had to pay for your own apprenticeship in those days) and fell in love with the trade.

After a seven year apprenticeship he branched out on his own and A Dunn was formed at the end of the nineteenth century. They flourished and in the thirties, Bob joined the company (the ‘& Son’ bit) and the war happened. Being a skilled worker he was sent to the Handley Page factory, probably to build the wooden framed Halifax bombers. He soon tired of this, left, and was recruited into the RA. Chris tell us of his posting to Folkestone & shooting at Spitfires (well, they did  have a designated safety corridor that they had to use) his landing with the second wave at Normandy, of being one of the first into Belsen and at the Nuremberg trials, though Chris was at pains to add that Bob never spoke of the last two, preferring to keep that to himself. Returning home late in ‘46 to the company.

One of their commissions, post war, was the refurbishment of the Orient Express Pullman cars. The OE head offices in Paddington were flattened during the war and all records destroyed, however the family still had the original designs. Chris also tells us of the problems they faced getting replacement glass shades for the light fixtures. They wrote to the manufacturers who said they couldn’t because all the workforce had retired and they didn’t have the skills or knowledge. They then discovered the last person who had the skills, brought him out of retirement to teach a new generation of glass blowers. A similar story with the carpets.

Another commission involved repairing floors at Buckingham Palace, though only Bob & his wife were invited. Fair praise indeed.

Chris joined the family by dating & subsequently marrying, Bobs daughter, Cathy.

(she recently passed away and most of us have fond memories of her within the club)

At a lull in Chris’s work (he too trained as a chippy) it was suggested that he join the firm (much to the chagrin of his father who said family & work don’t mix) an apprenticeship followed and one of the first things he did on completion was build his own ‘donkey’ a manual machine designed during the 18th century for precise cutting of the veneers. During this period, the company moved to Chelmsford, Wharf Road, where they still trade from today.

Chris & Bob were into photography and spoke to the guy in Godfreys’s (remember them?) about joining a camera club. "Yeah” he said "try Chelmsford Camera Club”

They didn’t like the club.

Back to Godfrey’s and he said there is a new club starting up at Springfield, you could try that. Bob & Chris stayed members until Bob’s passing. Some of our trophy’s are because Bob wanted to leave a mark at the club.

The company, A Dunn is still flourishing under the stewardship of Cheryl, Bob’s granddaughter (you can find them at adunnandson.com) She still uses a traditional donkey. Naturally, some wise guy has come up with CAD designed, laser cutter to make it modern, but, as with the glass blower, you can replace the skill of the craftsman with a computer program but, if the program crashes …

Chris entertained us photos of their work in the Pullman cars for the Orient Express, the Queens liners, the Gallagher Group, panels for the 21 nightclub in New York amongst others. His own donkey, his work bench, his not so tidy drawer! There was some sample veneers, photos of the Chelmsford Chieftain’s logo and a plaque (probably a sampler). A fretsaw blade with tales of how they sharpened them.

A splendid evening for us oldies with an appreciation for the finer crafts

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