Joseph Strettle was a First World War veteran, who, having survived the horrors of the Somme as a Sergeant in the Lancashire Fusiliers, returned home to Preston, Lancashire to work as a Postman for the remainder of his career. In 1939, he took his then 14 year old son Don to see if he could get an apprenticeship, either as a ‘Brickie’ with the local builder, or at the local Monumental Sculptor’s Yard.
The first of the two to offer Don a much coveted job was the local monumental sculptor, a firm named ‘Sharples’ in Preston who just happened to require an apprentice ‘Letter Cutter’ and so it came that Don did indeed serve his time as a letter cutter with that Lancashire based firm.
In late 1943, the call came for Don to serve his country and as the luck of the draw would have it he was called up as a ‘Bevan Boy’, the famous troop of young men conscripted to work in Britain’s coal mines and given no choice in the matter.
Donald was sent to Backworth in Northumberland to work down the local pit. Every spare moment when he wasn’t shifting coal, he was working for the local monumental sculptors in Backworth.
Upon his release from his mining service in 1946, by which time he’d been joined by his younger brother Peter from Preston, they set up in business trading as ‘Strettle Brothers’ in Shiremoor, on the corner of the garden allotments and in the shadow of the New Palace Cinema.
During the 1940s, Donald and Peter’s first memorials were fashioned from raw blocks of stone, hand sawn and polished in their yard at Shiremoor and delivered to local Churchyards at Earsdon and Seghill by a hired horse-drawn cart.
It wasn’t until the late 1940’s that the brothers were able to afford their own motorised transport, by which time they’d been joined by local men Jimmy Foster and Tommy Brown who went on to become stalwarts of the firm and who both went on to give 40 years plus of service as time served monumental craftsmen with the firm.
During the 1950s and 60s, their reputation spread and they expanded, adding a branch on Church Bank in Wallsend which was previously a famous Sculptor’s yard owned by an ex-Lord Mayor of Wallsend named Joseph Mullen, a yard famous locally as the home of a statue of a tragic young girl. This was followed by the acquisition of a new sales branch on Prudhoe Street in North Shields.
This expansion was followed by the acquisition of the famous Newcastle Sculptor’s firm William Donaldson & Son (a founder member of the National Association of Memorial Masons) whose premises were opposite St. Dominic’s Priory on New Bridge Street, followed by a lengthy period of consolidation and modest growth.
It was not until Don’s son Gregg joined the firm in 1974 that the family embarked upon their next project of expansion.
Ironically, Gregg was invited to join the firm only on a temporary basis between jobs when the firm was a little short-staffed. His chosen profession at the time was to be a rock drummer and he had to turn down the opportunity to tour Europe in a rock band to help with the family business. Little did he know at that point in 1974 that the rest of his career would involve rock of a very different variety! Forty-two years later he remains at the helm of the business, supported by a small but dedicated team of designers and craftsmen.
Strettles then went on to take over the well known and highly respected firms of TS Turner of Saltwell Road, Gateshead and W. Delaney of Chester Road, Sunderland during the next few years.
As the needs of the firm outgrew the yard at Shiremoor, the Palace Cinema Building and the former Barton workshops were acquired which remain to this day the Company’s head office and works. With the added capacity they diversified into decorative stone fireplaces at the height of the boom in feature stone fireplaces and subsequently became one of the North East region’s leading fireplace installers whilst also expanding their monumental coverage throughout the North East region.
Although having to contend with the vast reduction in the number of burials over the decades, the advent of cremation and commemorating those cremated remains of loved ones has brought back a share of the reduced workload. As in all industries, nothing ever stays the same for long.
Changes in the funeral industry has also brought about challenges in the way the firm operate as a business. In the 1960’s and 70’s, there were roughly 20 – 30 independent funeral directors locally who would recommend Strettle Brothers as monumental sculptors to their bereaved families and this was the source of a lot of their work. As time went on, changes in the funeral industry came about, pioneered by Howard Hodgson, who embarked upon acquiring a huge number of independent funeral firms. This resulted in Hodgson Holdings Plc becoming the biggest funeral group in the UK. With additional interest from the huge American corporation SCI which resulted in the creation of the Dignity Group in the UK, an enormous number of family funeral directors were taken over including the local firms of John Bardgett & Sons, W.S. Harrison and Sons and R. S. Johnson, Dignity Group now owns over 700 funeral homes across the country and who with the Co-operative Group alone control huge swathes of the UK’s funeral business.
These changes in the industry prompted the firm to take the decision to diversify into funeral directing in 1996. With their vast experience in dealing with the needs of the bereaved families and having worked alongside funeral directors over many years, this was a natural and easy transition.
With the passing of the fireplace fashion and with the industry being taken over by the huge DIY stores, together with the closure of the British Gas showrooms, Strettles ceased carrying out fireplace work to concentrate on their growing funeral business as well as the established memorial business.
The firm continues to provide memorial commemorations throughout the North East and serves the entire needs of the bereaved with a complete monumental and funeral service.
Still a family run business, Strettles offer an old fashioned and traditional, personal service. In looking after bereaved families, they provide for them as much or as little as they require during what is undoubtedly a difficult and traumatic time. The loss of a loved one is more often than not an extremely distressing time for bereaved families but the Strettle family firm, through their vast experience, provide a service together with advice and guidance that will almost certainly always assuage the grief and concerns that Abound at such a time.
No single firm in the North East region has commemorated the lives of as many people as Strettles have, which is a proud record that they celebrate in this, their 70th year and indeed it is now hoped that the business will continue to survive until its first centenary which would be a remarkable feat of endurance and would be testimony to their well-earned reputation.