The History of Charles Hellis & Sons
The gunmaking firm of Charles Hellis was founded in 1884 by Charles Edward Hellis at 21 Shrewsbury Road, Westbourne Park, London. Like Harris J.Holland before him and also Robert Churchill, Charles Hellis does not appear to have been apprenticed to any famous gunmaking name, but was a great lover of guns and shooting generally. Describing himself as a gunmaker since 1884 he is listed from this address as a dealer in antiques in 1888, and the 1891 census states that Charles Hellis (a dealer in miscellaneous property) and his Scottish wife Mary had by now five children-two boys and three girls.
By 1894 he is listed as a gun and pistol manufacturer, the family probably living above the shop, the property being leasehold. It is believed that he also supplied live pigeons to the various shooting grounds in his locality. This was not such an uncommon practice for gunmakers of that period. Mr. Marchant, who was in charge of the cartridge loading works just after the second world war, recalled being told that in the Shrewsbury Road period the family could only afford to sit down to one meat meal per week on a Sunday. Charles Hellis in all probability combined all of these activities in order to establish himself.
In 1897, his hard work having paid off, Charles Hellis moved to a more prestigious address at 119 Edgware Road, Hyde Park, London - now described as a practical gunsmith and expert in cartridge loading. Edgware Road had been used by a number of gunmakers of note by this time. Mooer & Grey, Boss and Beesley had occupied business premises there, and the famous Joseph Manton had worked out of Burwood Place (just off the EdgwareRoad) very briefly in 1832.
The lease on the Shrewsbury Road property was retained until termination in the late 1940s when, under leasehold conditions, the property reverted to original Victorian specification including the original colour for the windows.
His two sons, Charles Robert Brand and Clifford John, following tradition joined the family business in 1902, both gained practical experience at the workbench. From that date and Sons was added to the title. On 5th September 1905 Charles Edward Hellis, the founder, died aged 52 years. He had amassed an estate valued at £6,254.9s.2d., a considerable amount at the turn of the century. The entire management was then taken over by his two sons who successfully ran the business until 1932 when Charles Robert Hellis died, leaving Clifford John Hellis as sole governing and managing director.
The business became a Limited Company around 1928. Both sons were active members of the Gunmakers Association in the 1920s, Clifford John being elected Chairman in 1927 and 1939. He was also elected Chairman of the Long Sufferers Association in 1934. The Long Sufferers Association was set up in 1926 for those who had served moer than 25 years in the gun trade, to look after the welfare of old trade workers. 1942 saw him as Master of the Gunmakers Company.
Charles Robert died 9th July 1932 leaving an estate valued at £15,206.13s.1d., reflecting a growth in the business when English gunmaking had reached its height. His will had been drawn up thirty years prior to his death, in his own handwriting and not made through a solicitor.
In 1935 the firm moved to larger premises at 121-123 Edgware Road. They owned this property, which was double fronted and had two let flats above with a flat roof, from which the staff were able from time to time to watch the various royal processions along the Edgware Road. The shop was modern for its time with glass gun cases and cartridge cupboards around the walls. In the centre of the shop stood a large baize covered table where guns could be taken down and inspected. Downstairs housed the busy repair workshop, store and packing room, with the administration office at the rear. There was access from the basement to a yard they used for zeroing rifles.
There were also two large offices at the back on ground level, which were occupied by the directors just after the Second World War. In that period four craftsmen were employed in the workshop, Ron Howell, Joe Zaruba, Bill Roper and with Jimmy Dudden in charge. Jimmy Dudden had worked at Cogswell & Harrison as a finisher and also at Purdey and Winchester in America. His name is mentioned in Howes book The Amateur Gun Craftsman as a maker of chequering tools. An apprentice named Brian Beckett joined while Bill Roper served out his two years national service. Bill was also mentioned in The Gun-Punt Advenure by Colin Willock, published in 1957.
Hellis also acquired a cartridge loading works at 8-10 Burwood Mews, which was situated nearby, and had trial and practice shooting grounds at Northolt, Middlesex. Their own coach Mr.Rider was a fully experienced and practical game shot. Guns could be tried and fitted to customers, with special attention given to ladies and boys. Their earlier location was at Coronation Road, Park Royal, set up in 1911 and used until 1928. This early location was used exclusively by the firm.
Hellis guns gained favour with royalty and subsequently Under Royal Patronage appeared on their gun case trade labels. The King of Portugal purchased guns from the firm, and in 1926 Harold MacMillan ordered a pair of 12 bore No.1 sidelock ejectors with extra quality engraving plus spare barrels, paying £265 for them. He had learnt to shoot in his teens on the family estate at Birchgrove using a 20 bore by Charles Hellis, and he used this pair of sidelocks made up for him by the firm for the remainder of his life, obviously being very satisfied with their performance. His grandsons are still using the guns to this day. The Prince of Wales, Lord Bruntisfield, Major M Portal D.S.O. (Banknote Printers) and the Earl of Carnarvon were also valued customers for the firms hand loaded cartridges.
On 31st March 1946 Clifford John Hellis died at the Royal Masonic Hospital, Revenscroft Park, London, leaving an estate valued at £8,559.1s.0d. His son Stuart Clifford Hellis, who had recently left the forces as a Captain, Royal Marines Commando, succeeded him as managing director. Stuart had gained practical gunmaking experience by serving an apprenticeship at their Birmingham Works before the war until joining the marines in 1940. He went on to become the youngest ever Master of the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers in 1949, and was elected Chairman of the Gunmakers Association in 1955. He was assisted by his cousin Robert Hellis, who accidentally blew two fingers off his hand whilst making home-made fireworks, and who subsequently left the profession to become a greengrocer in Yorkshire. He was replaced by a Mr.Billinghurst who joined the firm as a Sales Manager.
Another Co-Director at this time was Charles William Hellis, the son of Charles Robert, who after a family disagreement in 1946 left the firm to start up on his own, having bought the old established gunmaking business of George Hinton & Sons of Taunton, Somerset. He became Chairman of the Gunmakers Association in 1961 and 1964 and was elected Chairman of the Long Sufferers Association. His son John M. Hellis continued the business after his fathers death in 1983.
In 1953 the company of Hellis-Rosson Limited was formed by Charles Hellis and Sons Limited and C.S.Rosson and Company Limited, as a joint venture to produce shotgun cartridges from a new factory unit in Norwich, sending cartridges to many parts of the world. The two gunmaking firms had already enjoyed business dealings with each other before this company was formed. In the period just after the Second World War over a dozen staff were working from their Edgware Road address, some workers listing famous gunmaking names as previous employers.
From as early as 1900 Charles Hellis advocated the use of barrels, which were shorter than the recognised standard of 30, and was met by the opposition of most of the gunmakers of that time. One notable exception to this was Robert Churchill who built his prototype XXV game gun in 1914. The firm continually recommended the use of shorter gun barrels and in later years up to 95% of their guns had 26 barrels as standard, with any other length to special order. Hellis statement advocating short barrels (taken from their 1950s catalogue was not however entirely accurate, the sales ledger for 1902 shows virtually every gun made having 30 barrels. The shorter barrelled guns did not appear in any numbers until after this date.
Hellis guns were of high quality, a large proportion being made by the better of the Birmingham gunmakers and mostly finished by these firms and proofed at the Birmingham Proof House. G & S Holloway, S Wright & Sons, Harrison Brothers and Bentley & Playfair were names associated with Hellis. These gunmakers supplied guns to the trade and also retailed guns under their own names. Holloway would identify their work by putting their own serial number prefixed by the letter H on the short rib between loop and lump. All the outworkers were co-ordinated for Hellis in Birmingham by Ralph Crump from a small workshop in Price Street, the heart of the gunmaking quarter, which survived the development of the Birmingham Ring Road in the 1960s. Ralph Crump also co-ordinated the outworkers for London gunmaker Cogswell & Harrison from the same premises.
Charles Hellis & Sons Ltd also made up complete guns by traditional methods themselves having the trained craftsmen and facilities at their Edgware Road premises to make them. These guns were proofed at the London Proof House. By 1952 the company letterheads had changed, informing customers that they also had a gun works in Birmingham.
Hellis brand names included Premier, Mark Over, Featherweight (in sidelock and boxlock), Universal, Standard, Reliable, Utility, Plain Quality, 2 A & D and the 2 Plain Quality; most having top rib extensions which were phased out round about the time of the second world war. The grades of guns varied from Anson and Deeley boxlock non-ejectors with border engraving, right through to Best London sidelock ejectors with finely chiselled fences and rolled over trigger guards. They also made specialised single barrelled trap guns with raised ventilated ribs. The firm also supplied sporting guns to Harrods, the London departmental store, and a large proportion of the firms product was exported to Australia where they demanded 32 barrels with full chokes and no ejectors, as there was no-one there to repair them. At times Hellis made complete guns for provincial gunmakers, Rosson of Norwich and Linsley of Leeds being two of their better-known customers. Hellis numbers appearing on the fore-end loop can help identify such guns, the retailers name being engraved on the barrels and banners in the usual manner.
George Hinton of Taunton (now owned by Charles William Hellis) also had an arrangement with Hellis to have their own guns made by S Wright & Sons who were making guns for Hellis at that time. Hintons numbering was in the 7000 series so as not to be confused with the numbers that Hellis were then using. Probably the last two guns custom made by the firm was for Captain Hellis himself. They were 12 bore sidelocks and were inset with his monogram in gold on both the stock escutcheon and the fore-end. They were returned to England to be sold at auction sometime during the early 1970s.
An important aspect of their business was in pre-owned guns, something that many of the top London gunmakers would not contemplate for many years. Hellis had a considerable trade in used guns by virtually all of the British makers since the turn of the century. This probably helped the firm survive the second world war period when they still advertised that they were Builders of high grade sporting guns, but between 1941 and 1945, no new guns were actually built. Another factor which helped their survival would have been government contracts to supply shotgun cartridges for use by the Home Guard. Charles William Hellis was working from the Edgware Road shop during the war as well as serving in the Home Guard. He was also charged with inspecting barrage balloons that filled nearby in Hyde Park at this time.
During the late 1940s Hellis, in conjunction with Durion Limited, advertised an anti-corrosion treatment for sporting gun barrels named Durionising. This process left a chrome layer bonded to the bore. This diamond hard layer differed to chromium plating in that the Durion deposition was so well bonded to the main body of metal that it would not peel or flake, or so it was claimed.
Charles Hellis and Sons Limited were also experts in cartridge loading, exporting throughout the world, and it was generally recognised that they had the largest independent cartridge trade in London, and possibly in the whole of the British Isles. At one period they hand loaded over 1,000,000 cartridges per year. Hellis also retailed cartridges from all the other major manufacturers. They loaded many different cartridges in numerous gauges, some of which did not carry brand names.
They also loaded cartridges to special order, the Earl of Carnarvon at Highclere being one such customer, the cases carrying his personal crest. All their better cartridges were fitted with large percussion caps, the Pegamoid being one such example. Other brand names included the Kestrel, Falcon, Merlin, Woodcock, Pheasant, Eclipse, Field & Marsh, Burwood, Edgware, Marlboro, Championship, Economist, Service, Standard, Sixteen, Twenty, Twenty Eight and the Two Inch.
The firm also had agents in various locations throughout the world including Delhi, Sydney, Melbourne, Copenhagen, Montreal, Dublin, Italy, Baghdad, Colombo, Singapore, Bangkok, Malaya, Borneo and Teheran.
By the 1950s the shop had extended their range of products with sporting books, a gift voucher service and at this period they decided to stock high-grade fishing tackle and offered the well known products of Alex Martin to their customers. They stocked Webley and BSA air rifles and pistols and also .22 calibre rifles by BRNO, Remington, and BSA, a garden gun by Webley & Scott, and a humane killer. The firm also introduced a gun hire service for overseas visitors and customers who only have a very occasional days shooting. They were also sole agents for the Settling woodpigeon decoy, which was patented on the 6th September 1932 by Mr. Arthur Harris Penn of London. They also diversified into carrying other types of sporting equipment, namely archery supplies and skin-diving equipment.
During the mid 1950s William Roper, a worker with the firm who had trained with them as a gun and rifle repairer and tester, acquired a lease of their cartridge loading works at Burwood Mews, which after the merger with C. S. Rosson and Company Limited was no longer required. Bill was then in business for himself as a gun repairer and out-worker to the gun trade, including Hellis. In that period just after the Second World War, steel for gunmaking was in very short supply, and Bill and Bill was one of the first to experiment with sleeving worn-out barrels. Hellis provided him with two single barrels left over from before the war, which he sleeved to an existing breech and submitted them for proof to the London Proof House. They subsequently passed.
Captain Stuart Hellis then imported tubes from Jean Falla of Liege, Belgium, which were duly sleeved by Bill. The join on the barrels was then engraved with oak leaves by E. J. Rainger and Sons of Chiltern Street, London. This firm appears to have had a long association with the gunmaker dating back to the turn of the century when they worked from the first floor of Hellis shop premises at 119 Edgware Road. The finished work was then submitted for proof, which Hellis then retailed for £22.10s.0d which represented a considerable saving on new barrels. Guns they sleaved in this manner included names like Purdey, Woodward and Holland and Holland. There was now a rush of submissions by many gunmakers, and at a later meeting the Proof House decided that henceforth all tubes and breeches had to be submitted to them before assembling, thus maintaining the highest standard of workmanship.
Bill Roper recalls that Charles Hellis was a good old-fashioned firm to work for. The Directors being practical gunsmiths themselves always kept an eye on the quality of the guns. When Stuart Hellis discovered that Bills mother was widowed, he waived the £50 bond for apprentices at that time. He also helped Bill to set up business on his own.
The firm continued selling and repairing sporting guns from their Edgware Road address until finally closing in 1956. In March of that year the remaining stock was then acquired by Henry Atkin Limited of 27 St James Street, London with C. S. Rosson and Company Limited of 7 Bedford Street, Norwich, selling off the remaining Hellis-Rosson cartridges.
The closure of Hellis was probably caused by a number of factors; one being a venture into the making of a single barrelled 12 bore shotgun by machine- patent number 696692 which was poorly designed. Another factor being the Hellis-Rosson cartridge making venture that was under funded.
In 1954/1955 Captain Hellis secured a very large order for cartridges from a company which distributed to a network of retail outlets in Western Canada. It was obvious that the normal eight hour factory shift using hand loading equipment would not cope with this huge single order plus their normal orders which had to be fulfilled. He decided to buy a new electrically driven automatic cartridge machine. Initially there were problems with the powder station on the machine and test-firing cartridges from each batch confirmed that the powder charges were erratic. Another incident resulted in one of the male operators badly damaging his hand when it got caught in the machine, and it took the fire brigade several hours to free him.
However despite these problems, Captain Hellis was assured that the order had been completed on time and then shipped to Canada. Before long the company received calls from their retailers indicating that something was wrong. As soon as this unfortunate situation came to Captain Hellis attention he promptly flew to Canada to meet with officials of the company and to refund the total amount of the purchase. The Canadians were so impressed with this display of British honour that, despite having to recall all of the unsold products, they gave him a larger order for the next season. Hellis-Rosson then started to experience considerable difficulties with their English suppliers and soon after this Captain Hellis decided to close everything down before this order could be fulfilled. In April 1956 he and his family sold all their remaining business interests, bringing to a close three generations of traditional English gunmaking.
For any family firm such as Hellis to have survived over 70 years and two world wars in days of tremendous changes in economic and social conditions was quite an achievement, but the old traditions and respected gunmaking names were too great to be discarded easily.
On 1st April 1960 Henry Atkin (who had retained the Hellis name) merged with Grant and Lang to become Atkin Grant & Lang Ltd of 7 Bury Street, St James, London and then later Churchill was added to these names. In 1976 the collective business was bought by Harris and Sheldon Group of Companies and re-located in the House of Hardy branch shop at 61 Pall Mall, London, along with the manager and staff from Bury Street.
The Hardy management then controlled all the branches of the gunmaking business, with Mr. James Leighton Hardy, the marketing director, selling off the remaining stock of Churchill guns and barrelled actions in America. Hellis guns of that period bear the 61 Pall Mall address on the top rib, very few being made in this era.
Eventually Harris & Sheldon sold most of the gunmaking names including Hellis, which was acquired by Mr. Fred Buller and incorporated in Chubbs of Edgware. By 1986 the firm was known as Hellis, Beesley and Watson and was located out of the city at 132 White Lion Street, Little Chalfont, Amersham Bucks, a shop incorporating quality gunmaking, fishing tackle & sporting books.
With greatful thanks to Terry Utterson, the author.