The furniture trade story behind the Ferry Lane estate

Local author explores the history of the Harris Lebus factory

The polishing shop just before the First World War
Credit: Lebus Family Archives/ Haringey Archive and Museum Service, Bruce Castle Museum

By Lorna Reith, Chair of the Ferry Lane Action Group (FLAG)

Few local people know that the ‘largest furniture factory in the world’ once stood in Tottenham Hale. The site, which occupied both sides of Ferry Lane and had its own railway sidings, is now home to the Ferry Lane estate and Hale Village.

The factory employed some 6000 people at its height, before closing 50 years ago. The headline in The Tottenham and Enfield Weekly Herald, dated Friday, 27th February, 1970 read: ‘Lebus Shut Down – So 1,000 Will Lose Jobs.’

Former employee Sissy Lewis recalls: “Oh, it was dreadful. Fellas were coming along the lines shouting out, ‘we’re finished, we’re finished; we’re closing down!’ We all cried.”

The story of how Harris Lebus rose to become the world’s largest furniture manufacturer in the mid-20th century and then collapsed, needed to be told. Harris Lebus: A Romance with the Furniture Trade is written by local resident Paul Collier and will be published this month.

Fifty years on from the fateful day of the closure, the book retells the story of this world-class furniture manufacturer, featuring testimonies and reminiscences from those who were there – drawing the reader into the drama as if experienced in real time.

The book includes recollections and oral histories of past employees, and is fully illustrated with 200 photographs, old catalogues and maps.

Paul was privileged to spend time with Oliver Lebus, the grandson of Harris Lebus, and the only family member who still remembered the factory. He gained access to Oliver’s personal archive collection and so is now able to tell the complete Lebus story spanning 130 years – from small beginnings in 1840 to the closure in 1970.

Tottenham was once a key manufacturing centre and this book records an important part of that history – it is the story of a life, of a business, of a family, and of a workforce community.

Paul, who has lived on the Ferry Lane estate for many years was supported in making the book by residents’ association, the Ferry Lane Action Group (FLAG), said: “When I first looked into Harris Lebus, the man behind the name, I discovered he had died at a relatively young age, 55. This was not long after he had established the factory here at Tottenham Hale, which was in fact an extension to operations that had already been taking place from premises in the East End of London.

“Harris died on 21st September 1907, and in line with Jewish tradition, he was buried the very next day. I moved into my flat on September 22nd 2007 – 100 years to the day when Harris was laid to rest.

“I wrote the book because I wanted to share this story and preserve history for future generations. In a way that is hard to place into words I felt drawn into the story and somehow guided to do it. The process from start to finish has spanned 13 years.

“One of my favourite characters was Phillis, the canteen assistant who weaved her tea trolley through obstacle after obstacle to keep workers refreshed during the morning and afternoon tea breaks. In testimonies and reminiscences from other workers – they all seemed to remember Phyllis, the ‘tea trolley lady’. The book is full of characters like Phyllis. The factory seemed a pleasant place to work and former employees had fond memories of working at Lebus. There is a sense of there being a real community.”

Paul has generously agreed that, once costs are covered, proceeds from sales will be diverted to enable FLAG to continue to provide activities for the 2,000 residents on the estate.

FLAG organises a number of activities and events throughout the year, and we are already well advanced with plans for an Eco-Day, following on from a very successful event last year, which was attended by over 400 people. We would use any monies raised towards this event, celebrating wildlife and the green environment, as well as providing opportunities for residents and their children to interact with nature.

Paul said: “Ferry Lane estate is a great place to live, it’s by the River Lea, the blocks of accommodation are low-rise, and there are abundant areas of green space to enjoy. Lots of work is done by individuals who are passionate about these green spaces – in particular Jeanette Sitton, FLAG’s nature officer.

“Maintaining and celebrating our green spaces through an annual Eco day event is a fitting way to celebrate the evolution from industry to open, pleasant, green spaces, whilst at the same time making the story of the past beneath our feet accessible to all.”

Paul added: “If I were to break into the realms of fantasy, I would say that one of my hopes is that one day, the book leads to a period drama, because, in my mind’s eye – I can see the characters come alive, as dramas are played out once again.”

Harris Lebus: A Romance with the Furniture Trade will be available from Bruce Grove Museum when published this month. You can help support this historical publication by subscribing in advance and getting special editions, here. To order the book, click here.

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