Fifty Years a Christchurch Estate Agent

Tom Kelly

The advertisement in The Christchurch Times vacancy section read ‘trainee negotiator required’.  It was November 1958 and, not long demobbed from the Royal Air Force, the item caught my eye, although I really had no idea the type of employment on offer.    Chas. G Bulstrode and Sons were one of the few long established estate agents in Christchurch, perhaps better known as auctioneers.  It was to their offices in Stour Road that I cycled on a November morning, responding to their invitation for an interview for the position advertised.  I had not thought of estate agency as a career, but then again having left the Royal Air Force after being called up for National Service, any ambitions I might have had of being a professional sportsman now seemed extremely remote.

A family business, owned by the brothers Ken and Peter Bulstrode, the estate office fronted the auction rooms behind, and in the days of few motor cars was ideally situated for distant property seekers alighting at the railway station.  My interview lasted probably half an hour.  My administrative background during my Service days may have had some standing, so a day or so later a letter arrived confirming my employment.  I never knew if other applicants had been interviewed.  So began my entry into the business world.  Weekly wages of £6 paid on Fridays, and office hours Monday to Saturday lunchtime.  An ideal arrangement for Saturday afternoons gave me freedom to play football and cricket for Christchurch according to the season.

Apart from the partners in the office, my overseer was Horace Bailey, then probably in his mid-sixties.  A man very much a traditionalist with strong views as to how an estate agent should present himself.  Our secretary was Janet Willard, although she would move elsewhere before long.  The office was like many others in the town, stuck very much in a time warp, almost Dickensian in presentation.  My immediate role was to meet people at the front office, providing particulars of properties for sale.  No photographs on leaflets in those days, just plain information created from a somewhat messy Gestetnor machine.

The first property boom had yet to happen in Christchurch, and the pace of business moved along at a steady rate.  Competition between estate agents was almost non existent and everyone got along agreeably.  For example, no agent would poach another client’s property.  As such much business was done on a sharing basis.  Commission rates were laid down by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.  Property purchasers who required a mortgage found most Banks and Building Societies operated loans on a basis of two and a half times a main income and often 1% of a wife’s earnings.

My employment at Bulstrodes went from strength to strength.  The Partners very generously paid for my driving lessons, and once I had passed the test a car was provided for both business and social purposes.  The structure of my income was revised with the incentive of commission on property sales.  Mr Bailey, however became a somewhat thorn in my side.  Petty reasons to undermine me, for example during the very hot summer of 1959 he rebuked me for taking my jacket off in the office.  Despite these irritations I must add that I never really disliked him.  Perhaps he began to realise that the property world was changing and I represented a less formal way of dealing with the public.

My week always began collecting rents from tenants who occupied properties in various districts in the borough.  Most were protected as control tenants.  Weekly rents averaged around £1.7.6d, increasing only when Council Tax maybe increased, little income therefore for the landlord.  Tenants generally paid their rents on time – except one.  This family lived in the Purewell district in a bungalow gradually falling into disrepair.  Their rent book was nearly always left on an outside window sill for my collection, most weeks the rent due fell short, resulting in the arrears column rapidly increasing.  Some years later a contemporary of mine humorously suggested we were probably the original rent boys.

Property values in Christchurch scarcely moved in the early 1960’s.  Detached houses in Friars Cliff changed hands for less than £5,000.  Bungalows in Mudeford might fetch £3,000 to £3,500.  In the town areas properties in roads such as Avenue Road, Douglas Avenue and Fairmile districts probably £2,500 to £3,000.  Both Mr Bailey and I were always busy ferrying applicants to view whatever properties took their fancy.  When a sale resulted the prospective buyer paid the agent 10% of the price agreed. The sum was lodged in the agent’s client account until completion of the transaction.  It’s hard to believe now that every stage in the property market was done on trust. No agency agreement forms between vendor and agent.  Often a hand shake took place with a letter to follow acknowledging the business arrangement.

Once an applicant entered Mr Bailey’s car, he was relentless in finding them a suitable property.  Nothing was too much trouble.  I recall a time when the office received a somewhat prestigious property to sell at Friars Cliff.  Responding to an advertisement, a lady in Winchester expressed very strong interest.  Mr Bailey set off to collect her.  Could her friend accompany her?  Of course.

The viewing was arranged for the afternoon, so Mr Bailey took both ladies for an early lunch. During the meal and afterwards neither of the women engaged in any conversation regarding the property, and indeed spent probably less than five minutes inside on arrival at the house.  A nice day out!  Made more miserable for Mr Bailey as he had earlier agreed to take them back to Winchester, needless to say nothing more was heard.

My own encounters with the public also had some humorous times.  One afternoon the office door burst open.  Standing before me a figure of slight build who introduced himself as Mr Suckling from Andover.  My reflection as I write is of a man who could personify the young Mr Grace from the television series “Are You Being Served”.  “Would you be interested in selling a house at Mudeford young man” he asked.  “It’s a property called Gundimore” he added.  A most sought after location near the entrance to Avon Beach. Having discussed terms of business with Mr Suckling, he stood up with a proposition, again he addressed me as young man.  “You shall have the property for sale on one condition, we will have a race to the house, you drive down the by-pass and my chauffeur will go through the town”.  Yes, I won, although I am sure the business was already clinched.

By 1962 I decided I must acquire a property of my own.  A bungalow in Burnett Avenue didn’t seem to attract any buyers, and at an asking price of £2,250 I felt it was within my financial means.  So an agreement was made at a purchase price of £2,000.  When I met the seller of the property, who turned out to be a lady stockbroker she enquired as to why I wanted a property in poor condition.  I explained that the price was what I could afford bearing in mind that I was shortly getting married.  Hard to believe in today’s world the lady felt a wedding present was in order and promptly reduced the selling price of the bungalow to £1,900.

The property “gold rush” took off in the mid 1960’s.  Land which had previously lain fallow was rapidly being acquired by developers once planning permission had been obtained.  Areas such as the old gravel pits at Mudeford, which is now Bure Haven Drive, produced a huge number of residential properties.  The most prominent builder in this location was perhaps Jan Daum, who from modest beginnings, constructed many of the bungalows in the bird named roads such as Falcon Drive.  Arriving in Christchurch during the mid 1950’s Jan in early days could often be seen towing a concrete mixer behind a vehicle fit for the scrap heap.

After seven years at Bulstrode’s I was head hunted by another estate agent in Highcliffe.  Time to move on, although not without regrets, the Bulstrode brothers had been good to me but I had no real future in the business as I saw it then.  The property world was changing and with it increasingly higher incomes made properties very much affordable.  As a result the number of estate agencies multiplied in Christchurch.  The boom years were beginning.  It was not to last of course and some estate agents’ offices fell by the wayside.  The boom and bust continued in the decades ahead.  During this time span, partnerships in business came my way to eventually running my own business in Bargates.  Now, as I write with the credit crunch very much undermining the whole financial world, those far off days of my experiences half a century ago have a certain glow of more stable times.