Celebrating an unsung Leamington Builder

PUBLISHED: 10:13 22 March 2012 | UPDATED: 21:13 20 February 2013

Celebrating an unsung Leamington Builder

Celebrating an unsung Leamington Builder

We remember the architects and the bigwigs who commission them - but who ever remembers the builders? Peter Rhodes stirs some memories...

I was reading the local paper when an old familiar face sprang from the page. It was Arsinoe Wainhouse, founder of the Leamington Anglo-French society who, at 92, has just been awarded an honour for her work.

It was good to see the redoubtable Madame Wainhouse is still alive and well. As I read the piece the years fell away and memories of Anglo-French soirees in the gilded summers of the Swinging Sixties came flooding back.

But one item in the report jarred. It told how the headquarters of the Anglo-French Society in High Street, an old house known as La Maison, had been restored with the help of some young people involved and their parents.

Not so. Some of us teenage members volunteered to help strip out the old bathroom and kitchens. I recall that legendary press photographer Geoff Mayor taking a picture of some us pulling out the bathroom fittings. The Leamington Spa Courier thoughtfully headlined the picture: Taking a Bath.

But turning La Maison from a derelict house into a chic youth centre was a major building job. It was done not by volunteers but by my fathers construction company, John T Rhodes Ltd of Althorpe Street, Leamington Spa.

It was one of a number of projects he did for no profit, and little recognition, for reasons which will become clear later. Another of his pro bono projects was the swimming pool at Leamington College.

John T Rhodes constructed some landmark buildings in and around Leamington including the Loft Theatre, St Albans House in Warwick Street, Kenilworth Methodist Church and Dale Street Methodist Church.

It is a strange thing that when a fine new building is opened, they will put up a brass plaque commemorating the bigwig who officiated at the opening and the architect who designed it.

But how often is there a mention of the builder? This is the man (or woman) who turned the blueprints into reality and, from time to time, quietly ignored the plan because what seemed to work in pencil and paper in an office wouldnt work in steel and concrete amid the mud and dust of a building site.

My father was a typical builder of his generation who came from nowhere to become a prominent citizen in his adopted Leamington Spa.

Jack Rhodes was born in poverty in Bradford. He was dumped in an orphanage when his parents split up and became a mill lad and then a plumbers apprentice. He was conscripted into the mines as a wartime Bevin Boy and after the war worked for a stately home in Lancashire as the estate plumber.

He wanted better and moved his young family (there were eventually five Rhodes boys) first to Kington in Herefordshire and then to Bicester in Oxfordshire. As he worked, he studied at night school.

In 1958 he had the qualifications to move to Leamington as a general manager with a building firm.

It was the best move our family could have made. To this day I remember our arrival. We had left a bleak Oxfordshire market town which seemed to be populated almost entirely by school bullies. We arrived in this beautiful, genteel Spa town where the shop windows of the Parade glittered and dazzled.

We settled in a new 2,000 house in Freemans Close and all five of us lads went to Milverton School and Leamington College.

Three years after our arrival, Dad set up in business on his own account. John T Rhodes (For all thats best in building) was based first at The Spinney by the old Milverton Station and later in Althorpe Street. His distinctive green vehicles with cream lettering were seen all over the region.

He made a good living. He built a splendid family home, Stansfield House in Coniston Road, and indulged his passion for a string of luxury cars: Jaguars, Bentleys, Aston-Martins and some exotic imports including a magnificent mustard yellow Chrysler Charger. He built a house on Loch Long in Scotland where he loved fishing from a motor-cruiser.

Jack Rhodes did well out of Leamington and, aware of his wretched start in life, tried to put something back into the community. He was chairman of the local Church of England Childrens Society, a founder of Leamingtons Yorkshire Society, a donor to the new Warwick University and Master of a Freemasonry lodge. And when other commitments allowed, he did work for the public good without looking for any profit, as with La Maison.

And then, at the end of the 1970s, it all went wrong. The money ran out and the company ceased trading. Bang went the big car, the house in Scotland and my parents house in The Fairways. Mum and Dad moved into rented accommodation before downsizing to a bungalow in Milverton.

Ive been rich and Ive been poor, my father would observe. And rich is better.

But Jack Rhodes was never one to dwell on past glories or to think what might have been.

He was astonishingly well read and could quote endlessly from Kipling. It was a verse from Kiplings great Poem, If, which inspired him:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings,
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss.

He applied for all sorts of jobs, including chauffeur to a local mayor, and finally found employment as a clerk of works and later depot superintendent with Warwick District Council.

He was deeply moved in the early 1980s to be invited to become chairman of that fine old organisation The Leamington Priors Association for the Prosecution of Felons.

Sadly, my father developed cancer. He died 20 years ago in February 1992, aged just 66.

But the great thing about being a builder is that your works live on long after you are gone. I can walk through Leamington today, past the Methodist Church in Dale Street, the Loft Theatre or La Maison and think, with pride: My Dad built that.

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