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The 'Bombs to Butterflies' Interviews

Interviewee: Robert Hanson

Interviewees: Anne Hughes and Mary Dove

Date of Interview:

Mr Hanson, can you tell us about how it all started?

It goes back a long way. I think it all started in about 1947. It was not called the Ministry of Defence. It was called the Ministry of Supply. They approached the Chartered Auctioneers in London, asking if they could recommend a firm who could conduct a series of auctions at Ruddington. They did not say how many or for how long, but it was to auction surplus equipment from the Navy, the Army and the Air Force. The president at that time was a
Mr Linnel who was the senior partner of Richardson and Linnel in Derby and he was a friend of my father,
Mr Charles Hanson – of Walker, Walton & Hanson - and since the sales were to take place in Nottinghamshire, he rang and asked my father if he would be willing to come in with Richardson and Linnel and to do these sales. It sounded a pretty big job and so he suggested they should include someone else in Nottingham such as Turner, Fletcher & Essex, where his brother, my uncle, Desmond Hanson, was the senior partner. So then there were the three firms, - Richardson & Linnel, Turner Fletcher & Essex, and Walker, Walton & Hanson.

It was decided that Walker, Walton & Hanson would be the lead player so we did the “lotting”-that is the cataloguing, and the advertising and the organisation of the sales; and the others would come in on the sale days and assist us with the auctioneering duties. The sales were very substantial, sometimes lasting 5 days and I think the longest lasted for some 10 days with two catalogues. The equipment was mainly located at Ruddington, on three sites. I forget how big the sites were but they were at least 10 acres. A catalogue I have in front of me now, for 1958 for example, shows 2,550 motor vehicles, trailers, motor cycles and ancilliaries, and I see the total number of lots in that sale was 5,380, and these were taking place six times per year. These were really substantial sales and being so close to the end of the war, there was a shortage of motor vehicles of any sort. You could not get cars, or lorries, or land rovers and looking at this catalogue I see we had the Standard Vanguard and the Standard Vanguard Van and the Humber Pullman, Willis Jeeps, Bedford Vans, Ford Consuls, Ford Anglia’s, Ford Populars and all of these sold extremely well in the sales. There was a lot of demand. There were plenty of dealers and also plenty of buyers who came regularly to the sales with the intention of picking up a bargain. They were not able to start the vehicles so you wonder why did they bid if they were unable to have the key, to start them or run them or anything like that.

But I think, over the years, the reputation of the vehicles sales at Ruddington was such that if it looked bad it was very bad, if it looked awful it was b-awful. There were land rovers that were taken up in aeroplanes and dropped out of the sky with parachutes from 20,000 ft. and they looked a pretty sorry sight. But you could see exactly what was wrong with it and the Ministry never tried to hide any problem there were. They were quite up front and quite clear on the condition of the vehicles, so if you came to buy a Morris Minor or Mini, even though you couldn`t get they key, if it looked complete it was likely to be complete. It would have been looked after extremely well during its life. I would have been properly serviced and if it needed a reconditioned engine, it would have had one. Everyone had a lot of confidence about the sales at Ruddington.

So what was the situation as far as the money was concerned?

Well for the payments, the MOD were very strict with us. They imposed conditions us regarding the money. At the fall of the hammer the buyer had to produce cash to the tune of 25%. He was given about half an hour to pay his deposit, and if no such deposit was forthcoming his name appeared on the blackboard and he was given about another half hour. If, after this time the money was not forthcoming and it was obvious that he had no intention of paying the item was resold. The effect on all others whose names appeared on the blackboard was fairly instantaneous. They usually paid immediately or they would lose whatever they were hoping to buy. There were no ifs or buts, they either paid or they lost out. So, as a result of this there was a lot of cash taken at Ruddington and it was always a worrying security problem. Even though we were enclosed by a fence around the depot which was guarded, the public were still involved and it was always a problem. There were always wrong`uns about and you could never be sure. But the sales went on until 1986 and we actually never had a hold-up of any sort. At the time we banked with Lloyds Bank and we employed them to take the money and during the day, twice a day, I think, they would collect the cash and take it to the Market Square in Nottingham. But of course there were days when we didn`t finish cashing up until 6.00pm and there was a fair amount of money to take and put into the night safe in Nottingham. I remember on one occasion we were walking down Arkwright Street, past the Chinese Restaurant, the Hongkong, with an awful lot of money in cash, through a pea souper of a fog and it was slightly alarming. However, there were five of us so we felt reasonably secure. During the year of 2002 we would feel no such thing! We would have stayed at the depot until morning, with that sort of money.

How long did the dealers have to pay the remaining 75% ?

They had 7 days to do that. Provided that we had the 25% cash, he could leave us a cheque for the remainder and wait for the cheque to be cleared, or he could get a special clearance over the phone and then we would speed things up. Some of the big dealers would make credit arrangements. They would deposit an amount of money in our bank to be drawn on by cheque as and when required. Of course we accepted a banker`s draft and building society cheques as well. We accepted foreign money and all sorts of money in the early days. Some of it was from under the bed or buried in the garden. Some of it was wet and sticky and I remember the bank staff being just amazed at the state of some of the money. I suppose it was “hot money” really from the black market during the war.

Did everybody pay up? Did you ever have anyone who did not pay up in the end?

No, not normally, because the pain of losing 25% of your cash was so punitive so they preferred to complete the deal Just occasionally there were people who did not complete the deal, never to be seen again. The lots were then resold. If they made the same amount they would get their 25% back, but if they made a loss then they lost it.

Once they had paid their 25% did they move the vehicles from the area?

If they had paid in full in the morning they could go that day. They could go straight round to collect the vehicle - we had facilities such as cranes and ramps and tractors which would pull their vehicle to the gate, where they took responsibility it. They weren`t allowed to drive it in the depot. We brought it to them. This system worked very well. Some vehicles needed a crane to lift them out but others were OK. They did not have log books. They just had service numbers so they had to be re-registered with a number plate. It was a bit of a scam. For example if they were registered as 1999 they would get a log book showing 2002. Eventually they stopped that sort of thing and a 1998 vehicle would have a 1998 registration.

Did you have foreign dealers coming to buy vehicles?

Yes, we did. We found that if there was trouble, say, somewhere in Africa, there would be an increase in demand for 4 wheel drive vehicles and particularly Bedford 4 wheel drive trucks. The foreigners would flock over here and there would be a sudden increase in the price of those vehicles. So the foreign buyers did make a difference because they knew they could come and get 100 or 200 vehicles, only at Ruddington. You couldn`t do that anywhere else in the country.

That pushed the price up then?

Yes, that pushed the price up, but they still came back for more. We all benefited from the extra money.

Did you catalogue the items yourselves or did you have a team of people to do it?

I did do it myself occasionally, but only when we were very busy. I had a team led by David Loach who worked with me for 25 years and another chap called Brian Busby who is still with the firm. They went round and did the cataloguing and knew each item like falling off a log. I would have been lost but they knew every vehicle that the Ministry ever had because they had seen them all. They had to be careful to look not just at the front of a vehicle but at the back too. There were a number of occasions when a man would buy a Bedford lorry and come to collect it. He would look in the back and find up to 10 motor cycles in it. So that would come as a bit of a surprise! (Laughter)
They were either BSA or Norton’s which in those days were worth between £5 and £15, but today would be worth thousands as collectors` items. We sold an awful lot of English bikes.

So the sales were started by the Ministry of Supply? Did that develop over the years – did other Ministries use that facility as well?

Yes, it became so successful and so well known that the Foreign Office requested the permission of the Ruddington Depot to dispose of their limousines, such as the Ambassador`s car from Lagos or wherever. These would be shipped to Ruddington to be sold off. I well remember the one from Washington I think. I remember thinking, “What a way to treat a Rolls Royce”. The bumpers were smashed to smithereens. I don`t know if they practised parking by shunting but I have never seen so many bumps on a Rolls Royce.
Then we had vehicles from the Ministry of Health. They sent their hand controlled vehicles, used for invalids or the disabled. There were Morris Minors and Minis with hand controls. They were extremely popular and it was quite easy to remove the hand controls and revert them to ordinary vehicles. The Ministry of Agriculture sent tractors in and the Forestry Commission sent in their equipment for removing trees. The Air Ministry sent tractors etc. used for building airfields. These were later used in the construction of the M1 motorway.
So the equipment sold at Ruddington had a really wide market throughout the U.K.

Did you auction a lot of clothing?

Yes, there was another side to it called the Miscellaneous Sales, where they sold army boots, jackets, haversacks, razor blades, housewives (those little sewing kits), shoes, raincoats, tents, sparking plugs, watches, binoculars all spares and bits and bobs. These sales went on in parallel to the vehicle sales. Because of the quantities they were intended for the dealers, not for the private buyer. In contrast, the vehicle sales were intended for the private buyer.

Some of the heavy equipment – did you say it came from America?

Yes it came from a system that Churchill organised with Roosevelt, called Lease-lend. When Churchill went to see him he said, “If you give us the tools we`ll do the job”. So these pieces of equipment such as caterpillar tractors had quite severe restrictions on where they could be sold. For instance they could not be sold to Arab countries or Israel because of the problems in the Middle East. They were really quite strict about granting export licences, so quite a lot of it stayed in this country. As we did not at that time make a lot of heavy equipment it was extremely useful for earth moving, road construction and that sort of thing.

So a typical day that you would spend – were you banging the gavel all the time?

No. Each day would start at 10.30am. We would do about 150 lots per hour. We sat in a room in a tin shed with cast iron boilers all the way round and wooden benches. It was draughty, it was horrid and they treated the punters pretty badly. They were awful places. The lavatories were no good and the food was b-awful but we had to put up with it. Eventually in the 1970s they built a proper purpose-built theatre with proper seating which was a lot better. Anyway, the auctioneer sat on the rostrum with the booking clerk next to him and then the witnessing officer from the Ministry of Defence was present to check that everything was above board, making sure that the auctioneer was not fiddling anything or knocking it down to his mates. The auctioneer would be there for one hour which is the optimum time for selling. After that you tend to slow down a bit. Then another auctioneer would come on followed by one or two more in the following hours, selling so fast the purchasers had no time to think. It was a very slick operation.

That building, is it still there do you think?

I don`t know, I know the tin shed isn`t. Whether the new building is still there I can`t tell you.

You say the food was awful – was there a canteen there?

Yes, there as a very big canteen, an army services type of canteen. You could get mugs of tea, sandwiches, soup and that sort of thing, because you were not allowed to leave the site during the working day. You couldn`t bring your car in and it was a long way to a local café. It was a long walk just to get out the gate to the car park. When you first came in the gate you bought a catalogue and this allowed two of you in again. Without that you could not get back in again.

So you got the catalogue earlier did you?

Yes, we had 4 days of viewing and they had to come and buy the catalogues at the viewing gate or they would be on a mailing list. If they paid a year`s subscription they would get a whole year`s catalogues which were sent out as they became available.

It must have been an enormous operation.

Yes, it was – we used to advertise in the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, all the national press as well as the local papers. They came from all over the country, not just locally.

You probably got to know the regulars, those who came to each sale.

Oh, yes we did. I knew from when they first started and they came for 20 years. Most of them were upset when the sales stopped, because it was a market place where they met their friends and talked business. It was quite a social occasion with a very good atmosphere and they found it depressing when it finished.

You say you made a lot of friends in those days. Was there one particular character who stood out from the rest?

Yes, there was one particular man – a man called Bernard. I remember him coming to the sales with cash in bundles. I think he had about £20, 000 in old fivers. He was a regular dealer who came from Stratford on Avon and he was a scrap man. One day he came and said, “I wonder if it would be possible for me to pay by cheque? “ I said, “I don`t know why you haven`t done it before Mr Bernard.” He said, “I can`t write, but by the time I come next time I hope to be able to do so.” So I told him we could fill in the cheque for him, but he replied, “It`s not that – I can`t write my name.” He was obviously self-educated, what you might call dyslexic now, but he could add up so fast you couldn`t believe it. But the next time he came with a smile on his face. He took about five minutes to write the cheque in separate letters, and this he did for the next three sales. Then, an impressive moment, he managed to join the letters up and we all cheered.

What sort of age was he?

Oh probably in his sixties. He had two sons but he didn`t trust them to sign his cheques and he was determined to do it himself. He was an absolute gentleman and he became extremely wealthy. I believe he sold out to a plc and retired to Eastbourne.
Then there was another man from Doncaster – Lew Jackson his name was. One day I came to the office and the police were outside. I said, “Is it a parking problem?” They said, “It`s a lot more serious than that. We want to know who bought Lot No. ….” I said, “You could have rung me up about that”. They said, “Have you not read the paper?” I said, “You mean the train robbery?” “Yes” they said, “the vehicles used in that robbery came from Ruddington. We want to know who bought them.” I had a look at the book and said, “It`s a Mr Lew Jackson, Owston Ferry, Doncaster.” “Thank you” they said and were gone! So, apparently two or even three of those vehicles used in the Great Train Robbery came from Ruddington.

You never heard from the Police after that, or whether Mr Jackson was involved?

Well they interviewed him and apparently he said that a third party had bought them. I heard later that when the enquiries were finished the vehicles were sold again at auction and had an unusual value due to their notoriety. It gave them a special ambience with their history.

What was the most unusual item you sold?

Well most of the items seemed normal to us, but I suppose the land rover conversions were unusual. Some of them had tracks on them at the back for going cross country and over mines. Another unusual item was something called an army pig. They were Humber armoured cars. We were suddenly stopped from selling them. They were removed from Ruddington, but I believe they were very useful in Northern Ireland to protect the soldiers. Once they were refurbished they were very useful, giving protection from petrol bombs etc.

You obviously enjoyed your work?

Oh yes, I learnt an awful lot whilst I was working. Not all of the vehicles came to Ruddington. Some of them, such as earth moving equipment and cranes, were too costly to move so they were sold on the spot wherever they happened to be. It was cheaper to move the personnel around. We went to a depot near Tewkesbury, another near Uttoxeter simply to carry out a sale wherever it was required. I found it very interesting and I have kept up this interest all my life.

You were saying that on some days you didn`t cash up until 6.00pm. so they were pretty long days?

Yes, you could be auctioning all day and you had to be there when the books were balanced. Yes they were longish days. It was pretty hard work but always interesting.

You would miss it when it finished?

Yes, but the good reputation we had achieved reflected on our firm, Walker, Walton & Hanson. We became specialist auctioneers in contractors` plant and earth moving equipment. We still do those throughout the U.K.

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Hanson for a most interesting morning.

Interviews > Interview with Robert Hanson


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