It was, however, the most important, and later to be significant interview ever. At the time I was totally unaware how that single meeting would change the rest of my life.
The factory of James Purdey & Sons was located at 22 Iron Gate Paddington just off Parade Street. We lived in Wimbledon and the district line underground ran directly from Wimbledon to Edgeware Road Paddington, and so the daily commute, albeit in total darkness to and from work during the winter months, was quite easy.
I had prepared myself well for the interview. I had my school exam results in a folder in order of the highest marks first on the top. I was proud that my woodwork and metalwork exam results were among the highest, although sadly my maths were only just above a passing grade along with English literature.
I can remember to this day the short walk from the station to the Purdey factory. As I turned into Irongate, it looked like something out of a Victorian novel. A cobbled road with flat York stone centre slabs were kinder to horses’ hoofs. The pedestrian pavement was much higher than the road and the Victorian design streetlamp posts were clearly once gas and converted to electricity. The doors and windows to the buildings were either painted black, brown or dark green. I walked to the side of number 22 and rang the doorbell. A gentleman opened the door. His off-white, oil-stained apron had a thick jumper that protected a clean white shirt with a collar and tie. I later got to know him as Frank Hirst, Jobbing Manager.
By then I began to feel slightly nervous. “I am here to see Mr. Gadsby.” “Follow me,” said Frank. We went up two flights of concrete stairs to the factory. Chris Gadsby appeared at the top. With a broad welcoming smile he said, “So you must be Stephen. Come this way lad.”
We went into his office, which was also the gun store. Three of the four walls had gun racks, one row on the floor the other about shoulder height. To say I had the feeling of a kid in an enormous, very expensive sweet shop doesn’t even begin to describe it.
“So, Stephen let us see what you know about guns? Very carefully I want you to take out from the bottom rack a 12-bore, side-by-side gun and hand it to me.” I had not been in the factory for more than two minutes and I was just about to touch a Purdey – a gun I had only ever seen in shooting magazines but never for real. Desperate to conceal a shaky hand I drew from the rack the gun with the largest bore as clearly there was also a 20 bore in the line-up. Pointing the barrels to the floor I opened the gun checked it was unloaded and very carefully handed it to Mr Gadsby. “Why did you open the gun first?” he asked. “To make sure it hadn’t been accidentally put back there loaded.” Another ever broader smile came on his face.
“Now I am going to ask you to point the parts of the gun that I say. Barrels. Stock. Forend. Action. Left barrel trigger. Luggers.” “I’m sorry I don’t know what the luggers are, sir.” “Okay, how about the ejectors?” I got that one right. “Luggers are the Purdey name for the ejectors. Don’t worry, you will learn the different names Purdey sometimes uses. So, what about school?” “I have taken my exams, sir,” and I produced my folder with the results. Keen to emphasize my wood and metal work skills I showed him those first.
“Well, clearly you are a bright lad, but we won’t worry about your exam results. We will teach you everything you need to know. Thank you for coming in to see me. The next thing will be for me to have a word with your parents and see what the outcome of it all is. Can you find your way out okay?” “Yes, sir, thank you, sir.” I reached the last few steps when this lady shouted down the stairs. “Don’t forget when you start, bring a mug for your tea and a hand towel.” I later found out Nellie Bleightman always had to remind the new lads that had been accepted to bring a mug and towel when Chris Gadsby forgot to mention it. Chris Gadsby spoke with my parents and to our delight I was soon to start at Purdey.
My parents were advised that, along with the all-important mug and hand towel, I would also need a carpenter’s or decorator’s apron. Gunmaking, particularly action filing, is a messy business second only to lapping out barrels. I started at Purdey with one “gaffer” and when he left, I went to work under Ben Delay, son of Ben Delay Senior, an actioner and brother to Harold Delay, a stocker and father to Peter aka Porky Delay, actioner. Ben Delay Senior was from the group of between-the-wars Master Gunmakers. Edwardian gentleman gunmakers came to work in starched white collars, suit and a tie. Despite their factory environment they were not regarded as blue-collar workers; far from it. These were master craftsmen, and their attire reflected their high standing in society then as now.
After only a few months, my off-the-peg carpenter’s apron was starting to look a bit shabby, plus my mother had begun to despair at how dirty the unprotected parts of my shirts were becoming. Ben Delay handed me a piece of paper with a simple diagram of an apron and some sizes on it. “You are going to have to get your Mum or someone to make you a proper gunmaker’s apron, lad. Carpenter’s aprons just won’t do. The material should be as strong and as heavy as possible.” He added there was a haberdashery shop in Parade street that sold the right material. The material was called “bull denim” – a heavy off-white material that softens during washing to a brushed cotton.
These proper gunmaker’s aprons were significantly different from carpenter’s or decorator’s aprons. For a start, the bib covered the whole of the front of the shirt and tie. The length was far longer, stopping a couple of inches from the bottom of the trouser leg. The apron sides wrapped around the waist reaching as far as the back trouser pocket not stopping level with the side pockets.
As I recall I had three or four made up. When former Purdey Chairman Nigel Beaumont offered me a position to return to Purdey about 17 years ago to head up the Purdey Sporter development I looked for the apron pattern to no avail. The 2020 Covid lockdown brought about my slightly sooner-than-anticipated retirement from Purdey. Until then I was visiting the U.S.A. up to five times a year to present the Purdey Sporter and our entire range of guns to prospective buyers. In September 2017, I was invited to attend the 20th Vintage Gunners Cup at Hopkins Game Farm in Kennedyville, Maryland to give a presentation about gunmaking. I was told the event was formerly known as the Order of Edwardian Gunners Cup and so I cobbled together as best I could from memory a traditional Edwardian design gunmaker’s apron, as I thought this would be of some interest. It was indeed of great interest.
Some guests asked if these traditional aprons were commercially available. Unfortunately, they were not. However, during lockdown, I was looking through some books and to my surprise I found the original sketch of the pattern given to me by Ben Delay back in 1970. I had four companies make up some samples. The quality of one example stood out above the others.
Stephen Murray lives in England and is currently retired from James Purdey & Sons.