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Hidden histories: Britain's oldest family businesses - Episode 3

Updated Friday 24th January 2014

The final episode traces the roots of Britain’s oldest family building business: R Durtnell and Sons.

Black and white photo of workmen at Durtnells Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Durtnell Personal Archive Workmen at Durtnell's

About the episode

In the final episode of this series, we learn about Kent-based R Durtnell and Sons, who’ve been builders since the time of Elizabeth I. Over the last 400 years, the Durtnells have worked in wood, brick, steel and glass, and built country estates, council estates, town houses and cottages. They are Britain’s oldest family building business, and properties built by their ancestors as far back as the 1590s are still standing to this day. 

It’s all change at the top of the business, as 38-year-old Alex Durtnell has recently taken over from his father who had been running the company since before he was born. As Alex settles into his new role, we join him on a journey into his family history. The Durtnells have a treasure trove of historical information - much of which he’s never seen before – and Alex meets with historians and archivists to learn about the techniques of his forefathers and discover for whom they built homes. 

He traces his family’s changing clientele across the centuries, from the Elizabethan merchant class who wanted decorative timber houses to display their wealth, to Victorian industrialists and on to the welfare state. Along the way, he visits properties built by his family as far back as 1593, learns how the Great Fire of London changed house building, discovers how the family contributed to the war effort during the Battle of Britain, and traces the ups and downs of the business over the centuries.  

Alex has taken over the company at a difficult time in the industry as 7,000 construction companies have gone bankrupt since the financial crash in 2008.  He hopes his journey into the history of his family business will make him feel more confident about its future. This is a history of the homes we live in, told through the story of a family that has built them.

 

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