Mike and Greg Rowland hold a royal warrant from The Queen to keep her carriages in trim – and it's a true family business. Victoria Marston caught up with them. Pictures by Richard Cannon.
At Mike Rowland & Son Wheelwrights and Coach-builders, it really is a family affair.
Mike, aged 80, started out mending wheels for gypsy caravans and set up the business in 1964 in Colyton, east Devon, after serving his apprenticeship in nearby Honiton.
His son Greg, 47, originally embarked on a career in the army, after which he then worked as a blacksmith. The lure of the family business lured him back in, however, and he eventually took his place by his father’s side.
Although Mike’s own father wasn’t a wheelwright, but his forbears were. Almost unfeasibly, the trade can be traced back in the family for almost 700 years. Greg has a unearthed a record from 1331, when one of his ancestors was recorded making a great wagon for St Peter’s Cathedral in Exeter. The grand total for the work done came to 7s and 10d; today, the prices are different but the clientele is even more illustrious: Rowland & Son hold a royal warrant and, together with a firm in Kent, share responsibility for maintaining the Queen’s carriages.
A lack of repeat business will always be an issue – ‘when we mend something, it doesn’t break’
The youngest member of the company is George Richards – at 20, he is the youngest qualified wheelwright in the world. George is not a relation, but, as a seventh-generation carpenter, it’s no less in his blood.
He first appeared asking for work experience and completed an apprenticeship here through Exeter College – the Rowlands only became aware of this plan when they received the forms in the post. ‘If anyone wants it that much, you give them a go – and he’s got the skills to back it up,’ says Greg.
The Rowlands earnt their stripes as wheelwrights before progressing to making vehicles and it’s this skill that is now at risk. ‘People don’t restore wagons any more as they’re not worth much,’ laments Royal Warrant Grantee Greg.
A lack of repeat business will always be an issue – ‘when we mend something, it doesn’t break’ – but this also creates a pleasing element of diversity.
‘Every job is different, so you never stop learning,’ Greg enthuses. ‘I always say I’m 25 years into a 50-year apprenticeship.’
You can find out more about Mike Rowland & Son at www.wheelwright.org.uk