The Story of Supersound (1952 - 1974) Part 2 by Mary Wootton
The Move to Hastings
By now we were coming to the end of our seven year lease on Hawley Grange and were a family of four (having had Clifford arrive in January 1954 and Dennis in October 1955).
We started looking for new premises and were drawn to two places – Sevenoaks and Hastings – both of which were considered areas where they needed industry and would be sympathetic to our applying for permission to work. I was much taken with Hastings as we had had a holiday there and I always thought I would like to retire there, so I was quite pleased when Sevenoaks fell through and we started concentrating on Hastings.
We had details of properties sent to us every Friday and then we went down on Saturdays to have a look around. We found a factory which we could rent at the rear of the shops in Kings Road, St Leonards, and a house to live in at Hastings. We moved down in June 1959.
We were lucky that our three staff members had elected to come down to Hastings with us, and then we had to take on a couple more so things started to expand. We were now working for Boosey & Hawkes and Rosetti and Co, both well-known wholesalers in the music business. We didn't do much in the way of custom built equipment now as we did not have the time, and also being that much further away from London, the artists were not so willing to come down here and see us to arrange for their equipment. However, we were kept busy making a range of guitar amplifiers for Boosey & Hawkes as well as guitars, foot pedals, tremolo arms, etc. The amplifiers were all endorsed by the well-known guitarist Ivor Mairants and all had his signed sticker on.
We were also making a range of amplifiers for Rosetti & Co and these went under the name of “Lucky 7”, “Lucky 15” etc. They also took our Echo units, mixers etc. We used to supply a few shops with our own named amps and guitars, and worked through our own Wholesale Company, Kent Musical Instruments (named to look like EMI at a distance!!!), which we had set up with Johnny Spice of Sidcup. The way it worked was, we manufactured and sold to KMI and took our profit, then KMI sold to Johnny Spice and we shared the profit, then Johnny Spice sold to retail customers through his shop and made his profit. That way we “kept it in the family” as you might say. Johnny and his wife Ivy were Directors of KMI and Alan and I were the other two Directors, with our Accountant holding a casting vote. Unfortunately, after we moved to Hastings it rather petered out.
At that time we were in our premises 25A Kings Road, St Leonards, behind the shops, and we did not have woodworking facilities, but there was a firm next door who were cabinet makers and they started making our amplifier and echo unit cases for us; Eddie Burnett and his son, Derek. That worked well as we made a hole in the wall between the two premises and used to be able to pass the cases through.
By now we had to take on some new local staff and I think we employed three young fellers. I know one of them was the son of a policeman and was one of the awkwardest and most accident-prone people we have ever met. He was always breaking things and causing us headaches, and the crunch came when he stepped back and put his foot through a very expensive acoustic guitar which Boosey & Hawkes had sent down for us to electrify for a special customer. Regretfully we had to sack the lad and his father came and saw Alan and said he quite understood the situation and how we felt and he thanked us for “putting up” with him for so long – phew!
After some time, two of our original employees, Bob Kilgour and Dave Perkins, decided to go back home as they had been living in digs in St Leonards, but the third one, Ron Hopkins, married a girl from St Leonards and stayed there.
We were on the look-out for better premises as the ones in Kings Road were a bit run down and the roof used to leak, and were lucky enough to find some old bakery premises to rent in Mount Pleasant Road, Hastings - I think the rent was £6 per week and our landlord was Mr Scotcher! These premises were quite a bit bigger than our previous ones so we were able to spread things out a bit and eventually take on a few more staff.
By then we were making runs of fifty small amplifiers both for Boosey & Hawkes and Rosetti so we set up a production line and bought in woodworking machinery and started making our own cases and covering them.
Our transformers were made by a firm at the old lido at St Leonards and one day their foreman, who had got to know Alan, asked him if we could find him a job as he was a bit dissatisfied where he was and thought our firm was so innovative that he even offered to come and work for us for a pittance. We took him on (not at a pittance) and he set us up with a small winding department to make our own transformers. His name of course was Theo Woodall (as he was then – it was only years later that he found out that he was adopted and that his original name was Faberge – related in a distant way to the famous Faberge jeweller, and so changed his name back to Faberge – that's where he gets his artistic expertise from obviously).
By now we had started making the electric guitars ourselves and had set up our own woodworking department with circular saw, a couple of routers and planes, etc. The guitars were made with Pyrana Pine, which we had to buy in specially, and although we had to buy the machine heads, we started making all the other accessories ourselves. The pickups (all hand wound) were very popular and we sold a lot of these to the music shops as single items.
By now we had our own facilities for presswork, electronic wiring, coil and transformer wiring, plastic moulding, cabinet making, machining, turning, drilling, grinding, tool making, tape and disc recording, hot stamping of plastics, plastic forming etc., and were almost completely self-sufficient, only having to buy in raw materials and a few specialised components. We made all our own front plates and knobs for the amplifiers, and all the metal parts for the guitars. We also made different size and shape guitars to make them easy for all to use.
As things progressed and electric guitars and amplifiers were becoming more and more popular, other people began appearing on the scene and Boosey & Hawkes asked for bigger discounts. When we did a costing, we found we were eventually giving them sixpence with every amplifier, so we decided to call it a day.
Superstripe Film Services…
To get us back in business, Alan went all out to finish developing a new project which he had in mind. It was of course the sound attachment for projectors, made as an add-on unit, to enable amateurs to turn their silent home movies into sound films. The idea had first come to Alan when he was at home after being ill, being a movie buff himself of course. As soon as he had built a prototype and perfected it he took it up to the Amateur Movie Magazine and it was reviewed very favourably by Alan Watson.
We started to get interest from the photographic shops and soon had three models developed – one for the Eumig, the Bell & Howell and the Bolex projectors. Then we linked up with a wholesale firm in Hastings called Hutleys and they began distributing them to the shops. This led to us taking a stand in the Photo Ciné Fair at Olympia.
We were really hitting the big time now. I remember our Doctor (Dr Thomson) saying to me, “I saw the article all about your husband and your firm in the Sunday paper and I felt very proud to know you!” I was very chuffed, as we hadn't even realised there had been any publicity – it was a review of the Ciné Fair in the Sunday Times or something.
Anyway, the Fair was a great success and all the magazines started talking about “…this progressive new firm and ingenious proprietor Alan Wootton”. Our link with Hutleys did not last all that long, and by the time Alan had thought up some new products we decided to go it alone.
He and Theo devised a machine which could cut recording tape into the narrow strip required to go down the side of the 8mm film. They made a machine to stick it to the film and we launched the Film Striping Service and registered the new firm; Superstripe Film Services. We were the first firm in England, although I believe there was one already operating in Switzerland for Bolex.
This started going well and, with advertising in the ciné magazines, we soon had to take on special staff to handle all the orders as we guaranteed a “return of post” service. Up to now, Alan used to bring all the orders home with him at night and sit at the dining room table during the evening striping the films. As soon as each one was done, I used to type the invoice and pack it in its Jiffy Bag, and they were ready for posting the next morning.
Next came the actual striping machine. Alan developed this, and after building a prototype batch of six, he set off on the road to sell to the shops. His venture really paid off and it wasn't long before the phone was ringing incessantly with orders from shops all over the country. In fact there were so many calls, the operator told me not to bother to put the phone down after each call as she had six others waiting to speak to me! I made myself up a chart so all I had to do was tick off the items and quantities - I hadn't time to keep writing it all out.
We used to advertise in the ciné magazines of course, and it wasn't long before we started getting enquiries from abroad. We certainly had not contemplated the thought of exporting, but orders started coming from America, South Africa, Hong Kong, all over the place and so we made the biggest firms our agents. In the end, we were exporting to over seventy-five countries.
By now we had a secretary to do the main office work and I handled all the export paperwork as well as the accounts and PAYE. I must say it was very exciting, and I became quite an expert on the documents. Each country had different documents, which was quite tricky but very interesting. We took out Patents on the 'stripers' and trade names in France and South Africa, as we had already seen an Australian firm starting to make stripers under the same name.
We increased our staff to twenty-three and installed machinery to cater for plastic moulding, vacuum forming, pressing, and everything needed to keep us self-sufficient. It was the only way to keep control over supplies by just buying-in raw materials and making everything ourselves.
When our regular Customs man came to vet our books he was astounded by our export success and recommended that we go in for the Queen's Award to Industry, as we would be sure to win. So, we put in an application, but I'm afraid we didn't get an award.
The Government enrolled us in the Export Credits Guarantee Department, which safeguarded our monies from foreign clients, so we were well away and were offered all sorts of benefits. They listed us in their journals and we did have some very funny requests from overseas as we were under the heading of Cinématograph Engineers. One was from India to set up a chain of cinemas.
We developed a motorised striper for professional users, and this was taken up by people like the BBC, hospitals, universities etc.
We had an order from UNESCO, which involved many special arrangements for despatch through Afghanistan by their authorised carriers. These stripers were presented in a nice leather-covered wooden carrying case, so the wood department was expanded to cope with these. The small stripers by now were completely vacuum formed, having progressed from the original wooden board model through leather cases to the present model.
The stripers and striping service kept us going for several years and we were very well known in the industry for our good service and quality. We had many letters of recommendation, which we were naturally very proud of. We were aware that things could not go on like this forever, and Alan started thinking of his next projects. He wanted to go into the model railway business and had Dave, our advertising man, make up a couple of wax templates of engines ready for moulding, but we never did get any further.
We also set up our own printing department so that we could print all our own leaflets, labels, etc. That saved us quite a lot of money, as we were able to turn stuff out as and when we wanted it.
The End Of Supersound…
When Alan died suddenly on 10th June 1973, at the age of 46, it was a great shock to everybody. I had some very nice letters of condolence from all over the world and the magazines said some very nice things about Alan.
Obviously, I had to carry on and things went quite well. Derek, although young, was in charge at the works and I communicated every day, and handled all the paperwork of course (our secretary had left the year before when her husband became ill, so I had all the office work to do).
Something I had to cope with on my own later that year was the three-day week, but we got round it by working weekends and other times when we had electricity available to run all our machines.
Our staff then was down to six and they were all able to work on their own initiative, but in March 1974 Derek came to me and said he would like to give his notice in because he was going into business with his brother. I had to think about things and decided that, as I wasn't going to be able to run the place without him, and the future of stripers and striping was looking dodgy now that amateur video had come in, it would be an opportune time to close down completely.
After having confirmed with my Solicitor and the Employment Office that I could do so, I wrote to all the staff saying that we would be closing on 5th April 1974. I wrote to our main overseas agents informing them of the position so that they could order stocks if they wanted to, which they did, and luckily we were able to fulfil all orders before we closed.
It took a little time to adjust to the idea of not having the works and staff to think about but eventually I was able to settle down, satisfied that I had done my best by everybody and that it was a lovely period of my life, which I would not have missed for anything.
©2006 Mary Wootton