Proprietor(s): Ern & Roger Curtis.
Location: High Street, Butleigh.
Years of Operation: 1947-74.
Sold: National Benzole and Power Petrol, later Butler.
Interviewee(s): Roger Curtis.
The Butleigh filling station is one keenly remembered by Somerset people, but not one particularly well documented. I had been given a family phone number by a mechanic at a local garage, and this was where my investigations began. The man I spoke to was Brian, the elder son of Ern Curtis, who ran the Butleigh garage. Brian expressed ignorance of the business itself, and suggested I talk to his younger brother, Roger. Neither of the two men had any photographs of the garage itself, but Roger recalled a woman named Yvonne Pope asking to borrow photos of the garage some years previously. Mrs. Pope had apparently constructed a tapestry of village life which was now hung in the village church.
I immediately found Mrs. Pope’s phone number in the local phone directory and left a message on her answering machine. At that point the trail went cold for some months, until I phoned her back several months later; this time she answered the phone. She apologised to me for not replying, because, she said, her husband was a steam engine enthusiast and they’d been off at shows. Having eventually found her copies of the original photographs, she invited me into her home, where she proudly presented me with her husband’s model steam engines. She even invites her husband to come and have a talk with me and, after a short while he emerges from the garden – where I can only assume he must have some kind of workshop. The pair are clearly deeply interested in local history. I am curious, though, as to why someone making a tapestry of village life would include what many might consider an eye-saw. “My husband’s a Butleigh man, lived here all his life, and it’s a part of our history,” she says.
The Popes live just a few doors up from the site where the garage once lived. On the right hand side stands Beulah House, the residence of the Curtis family at the time, and on the left there were once two stone buildings. The one at the front was once the village bakehouse, used by the Curtis family for storage, and the one at the back was where they kept their workshop. This second building was accessed through a gateway that went between Beulah House and the bakehouse, and its first floor was once a chapel.
Ern Curtis suffered a motorbike accident in the 1930s which landed him in hospital in Weymouth for thirteen months. It was there that he met his wife who was working as a nurse. He married her in 1939, and it was around this time that he was running a poultry farm in Southill, near Somerton. As a result of his injuries, Ern ended up with one leg shorter than the other, and walked with a limp for the rest of his life; he therefore did not participate in the war.
The Butleigh site was already a garage when Ern took up the tenancy under Leonard Classey, and had been run by Bert Talberts. Ern later bought the property in the mid-1950s. I ask Roger what kind of man his father was; “shy” he says before correcting himself, “reserved I suppose is the word… He didn’t like mixing in big parties or anything like that. As far as I know he never had a holiday.” Ern retired in 1971 and moved to Chichester Road, Street; “He’d had enough,” Roger tells me. “He didn’t miss it, then?” I ask. “No, I don’t think so. He’d buy an old vintage car, play around with it and sell it on; he did that for a couple years and then just took it easy.” He also used to walk his dog, Danny, a Jack Russel. “A well known dog, that was… A friendly dog, and of course father liked to stop and natter to people.” Roger maintained the business for a further couple of years before closing down in 1974. He sold the business on to Henry Jeffries, who ran it for a few years thereafter. Roger and his father both ended up living in the same street; Roger worked for many years at different garages, including Moorlinch Garage, and as a coach driver for Avalon Coaches, before setting up a garage at his home in 1993.
Roger got started in the trade at an early age. “I was brought up on it, right from a little toddler… I didn’t know anything else… I used to come home from school and on with overalls and help father round the garage. I always done it, never looked back. Just done fifty years – retired this weekend. Well, semi-retired – working three days a week… Just do Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – hopefully, anyway.” I ask him if he will continue to work until the end, “Probably, as long as I can, anyway… What I do is, I still do a bit of the modern stuff, but I do a hell of a lot of the vintage cars… I get quite a bit [of work from that]. I go to meetings and that and you get to know people and just pick up their trade… I had an old Austin 10 Ripley here on the weekend, of which there’s only eight left known.” He tells me that old parts can usually be found, “You can get it made… If you had to get pistons made you could spend three- or four-hundred pounds easy… Normally varies about forty, fifty pound.”
I ask him first about his feelings on the changes the area has undergone in his time and then those that have happened in the industry. “I quite often think about how many more cars there are around the area than there used to be… You’ve only got to look out onto the road out here for parking.” I ask him if he would sooner see fewer cars, “Well, I think anyone would, wouldn’t you? When we moved here you could look up the road and you wouldn’t see a car in sight nearly. Now it’s just bumper to bumper all the way up through.” On the trade: “… Bloody nightmare…” he says before laughing heartily. “I’ve not kept up to date with diagnostics, and that’s the way things are going nowadays. That’s the reason I wanted to get more into the vintage stuff… With the old stuff you would just set the plugs and points and away you go. But now, who knows? Cars are a lot harder to work on nowadays than they used to be… A lot harder.”