The Skulls - the Skeleton in the Cupboard

by Sally Scagell nee Peace (daughter of Ruth Nicholson Skull and grand daughter of Charles Arthur Skull)

Records show that Charles Skull (1780–1851) was a chair japanner in High Wycombe. He had several children but it was his sons, Edwin (1810–1873) and Walter (1816–1893), who were to become the best known within the funiture industry of the town.  Long before the advent of railways the two brothers were sending chairs by road to London and had a furniture depot in Liverpool, managed by Walter.  It was in Liverpool that Walter met his wife, Ellen Foster, whom he married in 1850.   In 1872 he purchased a chair factory in High Wycombe from a Mr John Tilbury, and with his son, Charles Edwin Skull (1850–1931), developed the Skull chair-making business which had already achieved an excellent reputation for its "Wycombe" chairs.

Walter retired from active chair making in 1884 and on his death, bestowed a thriving business upon his son Charles Edwin.  Charles Edwin married Georgiana (pronounced Georjana) Tilbury, quite probably a relation of John Tilbury (but not his daughter), and set up home in High Wycombe at a house called Edgerley or Eversley.  He was keen to raise the whole standard of chair design and to make Wycombe famous for a range of  fine chairs, far better than the rush-seated and Windsor models that it was already known for.  He sought inspiration from authentic antiques and soon established a market for reproduction furntiure of quality and craftmanship. As his prosperity increased he moved to a magnificent house on Amersham Hill, confusingly called Enderley, where he raised his family of six sons and four daughters.

Almost from the start he was to find that it was his sons who were going to bring him the greatest joy, the deepest sorrow and the worse problems.  In 1880 his fourth son died at only ten months old.  He had been called Charles Arthur and, rather surprisingly, when Georgiana gave birth to their fifth son the following year, they gave him the same name. Then in February 1886 his sixth son, Arthur, was to die when he was just thirteen months old.  The grief of the family must have been unimaginable when in August that same year his eldest son, Walter, was tragically drowned in the mill pond on the Rye.   He was thirteen years old.

The remaining children grew to adulthood and, fitting their status in life, were to marry well.  Fred, the eldest son, joined his father in the business in 1886 with Percy and Charles Arthur being admitted into the partnership not long after.  They expanded the firm's output to include cabinet making, developing designs from wax impressions taken from antiques housed in museums and the collections of wealthy connoisseurs.  All Charles Edwin's children were given shares in their father's business and enjoyed the company's prosperity.

Finding genuine antiques on which to base their designs became a passion for Fred and he eventually decided to break free from the company and set up on his own as an antiques dealer.   This must have been a huge disappointment to his father but it appears that he retained links with the company and maintained an antiques collection on behalf of the Skull factory to eliminate all risk of them "reproducing the reproduction".  Since Fred needed to raise funds in order to 'go it alone' he sold his shares to his youngest brother, Charles Arthur.  This left Charles Edwin, now getting on in years, and his two younger sons to run the company.  Photographs of the workshops taken at about this time show a large workforce making quality chairs and furniture which still required a great deal of manual labour in their production.

Percy and Charles Arthur did not always see eye to eye about the future of  the business but while their father was alive he was able to quell any arguments.  Unfortunately, when Charles Edwin died in 1931 the bickering between the two brothers began with a vengeance.  Percy felt that they should be moving into the area of cheap mass produced furniture whereas Charles Arthur favoured the quality and traditional production runs that the factory was famous for. Unfortunately Charles Arthur's traditionalism meant that he failed to see the enormous potential of producing furniture that was affordable to all.  Having bought Fred's shares in the business he now had the greater power in company decisions and his intransigence meant that the firm lost the opportunity to beat the competition by producing low cost, no frills furniture.  Thus Percy had to sit and watch Furniture Industries Ltd, a rival firm, become the market leader in mass produced furniture.

It was not that Charles Arthur didn't care about the well being of the family firm it was, if anything, because he cared too much.  The firm's reputation for quality had been built up over many years and it was this reputation that would be put at risk if Percy's plan went ahead.

Ruth Nicholson Skull, now 85 and daughter of Charles Arthur, recalls "I remember my father walking to the factory every morning with Stumpy Wag, our little dog, at his side.  Stumpy Wag must have thought of my father's office as his second home for he had his own basket in the corner.  Our house at No 3, Lucas Road was bought and furnished with the results of  my father's endeavour."

As predicted by Percy market trends changed and the trade in expensive, quality items slumped - the firm had to close.  Had Charles Arthur been prepared to declare the business bankrupt his financial downfall and that of his brother Percy may not have been so great but despite his many faults he had strong family values.  Bankruptcy would not only have brought enormous shame to the family but his four sisters would have lost the value of their shares.  He did the only honourable thing and sold the business in 1934  - to Furniture Industries Ltd - to pay the company debts.  Since he owned double the number of shares to that of his brother, Percy, his was by far the greater financial loss and he eventually sold the house in Lucas Road and moved into rented rooms.  Even so Percy was understandably bitter and the rift between the two brothers grew to a chasm.

As a consequence Charles Arthur and Percy forbade their children to meet or to have anything to do with one another.  Both the men's wives, always good friends, thought the situation ludicrous and continued to meet weekly, somewhat clandestinely, in Lyons Coffee House to share family news and, by this time, to relay family hardships.

Thus the Skull children lost touch with their cousins, the only link remaining between them being the two mothers.  Charles Arthur's children, in particular, suddenly found themselves bereft of all the niceties of life.  Fortunately for Percy his children, Joan and Anne,  were virtually grown up and both married well (Joan marrying Roland Clarke of Castle Hill).  Charles Arthur, however, had two sons and two daughters with the youngest daughter, Ruth, still at boarding school.  His eldest son, Charles Nicholson, was already training in his father's company and thus lost his job,  Ruth lost the chance of going to college. All four children had to part with their savings from an inheritance from their grandfather, Charles Edwin, in order to pay their father's debts.  As a result the Skull family became divided into 'the haves' and 'the have nots'.

Charles Arthur continued to work within the industry, gaining employment as a sales rep for other Wycombe manufacturers and Percy retired early and lived at Castle Hill with his daughter Joan.  Fred, however, appeared to retain his earlier links with the Skull factory and was employed as a design historian for Walter Skull and Son (1932) Ltd, which became an off shoot of Furniture Industries Ltd.  It would appear that this part of the company continued to make traditional furniture for the upper end of the market and traded under the Skull name due to its reputation for quality and craftsmanship.  Furniture Industries Ltd later became better known as Ercol.

Lucian R Ercolani, owner of Furniture Industries Ltd, was to write in his memoirs that the Skull reputation for quality had really become a myth by the time his firm took over the Skull factory in the 1930s.   He was astounded by the poor materials being used in the production process which were being touted as better than those of their competitors.  He was equally horrified to see the disorganised way the different departments were managed.  No doubt this lack of controlled management stemmed from the constant bickering between Percy and Charles Arthur with poor materials being the initial cause of the friction between the two brothers - Percy being keen to prove that he could be more economical in the production costs of the company.

The animosity between the two men continued into old age.  When Fred, the eldest brother, died in 1952 and his house, Bassetsbury Manor, was put up for sale Percy refused to agree that it could be sold to Charles Arthur's youngest son, Arthur Nicholson Skull.  Instead, it was sold for far less to Wycombe Borough Council.

Fortunately, when Percy and Charles Arthur died the feud died with them, allowing Charles Edwin's grandchildren to remain in contact with one another.  The skeleton in the cupboard is rarely talked of by the family today.  The past is the past but every so often the bones give the odd, occasional rattle -  if you listen carefully!

Sally Scagell, October 2000, updated Sept 2003

The above information has been collected from notes written by Charles Edwin Skull and Fred Skull, the memories of Ruth Nicholson Skull and Arthur Nicholson Skull and from details kept in the archives of Wycombe Museum.  (Skull chairs can be seen in the furniture collection on show at the museum).  For many years Ercol's kept the sign 'Walter Skull and Sons' at the entrance to their factory, just off the London Road, in High Wycombe.   Many of the Skulls married into local Wycombe families and Arthur Skull recalled "You couldn't walk down Wycombe High Street in the early days without bumping into some relative or other."

This branch of the Skulls twice married into the Peace family (of Castle Hill) and another branch twice married into the North family (Wycombe furniture manufacturers). Both Peace and Skull families were also linked to the Treacher family.

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