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The Morrells: boom to bust and back – a very human story

       


Patrick Hellicar’s recent fully-booked talk for PWDRA and the London Open House Festival at GEA Hall was on the Morrell Brothers, the south London twins Cyril and Stanley who developed the Petts Wood (west) Garden Estate in the 1930s.

They were extremely ambitious young men, starting from scratch by buying up land, grafting hard and, early on, completing 11 houses in 21 months! A breakthrough soon came. In Petts Wood they offered a variety of mock-Tudor and chalet-style homes for as little as £495 with minimal deposits and loan repayments of 13 shillings a week! With their headquarters now in Bromley, their meteoric rise in the building industry also took the Morrells to Chelsfield, Coney Hall and other parts of north-west Kent. Keeping their house prices affordable was mainly due to astute purchasing of land and building materials. As their empire grew, their operation from building to marketing was outstanding, including running their own ‘luxury’ bus service from Coney Hall to Hayes station. They also treated their workers well – once arranging a ‘beano’ that included hiring 50 coaches for a day trip to Margate.

In December 1933, tragedy struck when their younger brother Frank, 24, was killed in a head-on car crash with a milk lorry at Clock House, Beckenham. In his pockets was £400 he had just won at a greyhound race meeting at Wimbledon Stadium. When the Morrells completed their Petts Wood project they named Franks Wood Avenue in his memory.

Morrell’s building output expanded intensely by commissioning notable architects of the day to design art-deco style homes. They showcased their stylish sun-trap flat-roof house in the ‘village of the future’ at the 1935 Ideal Home Exhibition. Only three were ever built – at Coney Hall and Herne Hill and in Dublin – but they are still standing and are all listed.

In the same year the Morrells decided to float their company on the Stock Exchange. Unfortunately, it was a big flop and led to the firm’s voluntary liquidation in 1937. Despite their bankruptcy the twins still had a good reputation in the building business and all their creditors were paid off. Interestingly, a plot of land occupied now by the Petts Wood Garden Estates Association Hall (circa 1949) and allotments, were donated to the community by the liquidator.

During the war, the twins, optimistic and ever enterprising, continued in business, including building air raid shelters.

The Morrell twins were both married but had no children. Following the deaths their money trickled down to Barbara Morrell, Stanley’s widow. When she died in 2009, she left £6 million to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. With it, the RNLI built a state-of-the-art Shannon Class lifeboat. They named it ‘The Morrell’ and it was launched at Dungeness, Kent, in 2014; a fine legacy of the Morrells – or as Patrick Hellicar calls them, ‘the boys who built suburbia’.                 Mel Wright, October 2022

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