From a hobby to a business and still going strong after 45 years

Posted by Jo Ashburner-Farr on

Robin Ashburner, the original flag man remembers how it all began.

In my early days as a flag man, it was very much the case of trying to build a business from scratch, and by scratch I mean raise awareness of a product its fair to say consumers don't easily connect with. In the 1960’s there was so little connection that it was almost impossible to buy a flag let alone a flag pole.

I was very keen to start making flags, an idea that grew out of something of a hobby.  It is hard to believe now but the first time I wanted to fly a Welsh flag I found it impossible to buy one so I made do with a deckchair cover in the Welsh colours and flew it over one of my farm buildings on the Drummau mountain above Skewen in the South Wales valleys.  There was not even an official design for the Welsh flag back in the day – the Dragon came (if it came at all) in all sorts of unromantic designs.

In 1969 I became involved with that old Welsh aristocrat Sir Hugo Boothby BT of Fonmon Castle who chaired a committee to design a dragon to go on the Draig Goch.  The Dragon we see today is the result of that consultation and was used for the first time in 1969 to celebrate the investiture of The Prince of Wales.

The Welsh Flag (the Draig Goch) is a comparatively simple flag to make.  Back in the day, all flags were sewn and once one had apattern, the red dragon would be appliqued to the white and green background which represent the colours of the Tudor King and Queens.

The Union flag is a different matter again.  There are thirty one pieces of cloth that must be cut out and shaped to fit whatever size of Union is required.  After a long search I did manage to obtain a quality Union Flag from the firm of Arthur Smart in Radium Street, Manchester which I then took to pieces and sewed back together to work out how best to get it done and at the same time as finding a source of bunting cloth from the now defunct firm of Stroud Riley. 

Ironically a few years later I bought the Arthur Smart firm but back at the starting point I needed a workforce to help me make flags, I was lucky at the time to have a farm maintenance man who had been a tailor in the Royal Navy.  Tom took on the cutting of the flag fabric and delivered the packages of material sets out to our sewing ladies who then all worked from their homes. 

This was a novel way of working in 1969 and just as we were underway I received a call from HTV who said they wanted to do a piece on us as the Welsh flag makers.

Panic stations.  They wanted to cover everything from flags to flag poles.  I did happen to have a good source of both pine and larch not far away on Forestry Commission land and luckily also had the necessary farm machinery to haul these poles back to the farm where we turned the fresh trees into poles.

We’d had a very hard winter in 1964 in South Wales and the conditions caused a slight misalignment in each tree, not noticeable when the tree was standing but obvious when the tree had been felled.  We quickly learned that if you try to dry out freshly felled larch it splits so the secret was to get the tree into the workshop - use the electric plane take off the bark and remove any defects - then paint immediately with wood sealant to seal in the sap. If the tree / pole dried out it split but once sealed, undercoated and a coat or two of white paint, we had a pretty presentable pole.  Add to this a mushroom shaped top turned by the local wood merchant working in his forest home and we were good to go.

So the TV wanted to see the lot and see us in action from cutting down the trees to turning the tops and putting up a pole.  That was manageable but we wondered how to make the flag production resemble a buoyant growing business without having a factory to film in – somehow we managed what seemed impossible at the time and moved a number of machines into one of our sewing lady’s homes and set up her living room to resemble something like a factory! The TV crew wanted to show us making not only Welsh flags but the large 30ft banners we had been commissioned to make for Caernarfon Castle.

Not long after this eventful period, I was able to build a covered yard in which to winter my cows which in turn left my old fashioned Welsh cowsheds empty.  Not one to hang around, the buildings underwent a face lift, changing several into housing, one into a shop and office space and what was left was given over to flag production.

In time the family moved to Abergavenny which in turn left even more space for flag production.  At-home production moved from employee’s homes into what was a production work shop and the old farm house became flag H.Q.

Once we outgrew the farm buildings and farm home we moved into a warehouse in Swansea – then into the old ice factory on Swansea docks and onwards.  The domestic market for flags in the UK was not as it might have been but in the next few years we built on trade overseas particularly to Denmark and Holland and with considerable shipping company orders around the UK, sales gradually grew.

Today I look on from a distance while my daughter carries on the business I started so long ago, still in Swansea but now using state of the art printing equipment as well as traditional sewing skills – and still making among the very best quality flags, banners, bunting and (supplying) flagpoles on the market. 

What a great adventure it has been and how reassuring that the business is still going strong after all these years.

 


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