Whitten Timber in Peckham is the current base for the Whitten family business. Starting in 1919, first from barrows and later shops in Sumner Road, they later moved to a timber yard on the Peckham branch of the canal in Canal Head (now Peckham Square), then Eagle Wharf and finally a purpose-built store. But Whitten’s was only one of dozens of such yards, distributing vast quantities of timber imported through Surrey Docks from the Baltic, Scandinavia and around the world.
Whitten Timber is a family run business and is one of the longest serving timber traders in Peckham.
Whittens was originally founded by Mr Whitten Senior on Sumner Road in 1919, operating from barrows and later shops and initially selling firewood collected from the vast numbers of empty wooden ammunition boxes that came back from the First World War. The business was soon selling softwoods which arrived in horse drawn Thames barges along the canal towpaths from the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe, where the timber had been shipped from around the world.
One of Mr. Whitten’s two sons, William – known as WH – took over in 1933. WH went mobile, using a hand-pulled track cart to make deliveries around south London to help enable the company to expand. By 1935, WH Whittens was registered as a limited company trading from Canal Head warehouse – now the site of Peckham Pulse leisure centre.
The Whittens have always been an inventive family and WH devised a bicycle powered cutting saw, by replacing the back wheel with a belt drive attached to a circular saw. The invention allowed timber to be sawed quickly and production duly increased.
During the Second World War, WH was discharged after being injured at Normandy, returning home to a blitzed Peckham. By the end of the 1950s, WH had expanded the business again, obtaining Footbridge Wharf along the Grand Surrey Canal (now known as the Bridge to Nowhere in Burgess Park). WH had three sons, and Robert joined his father’s business in 1959.
By the 1960s, business in the area was affected by the decline of Surrey Docks, and this had a severe impact on the Grand Surrey Canal which was closed and in 1972 and was filled in. By this time Robert Whitten was operating the family business from a timber shop at Canal Head, near the site of Peckham Square and Library. (The Library was designed by Will Alsop of Alsop & Störmer and won the Stirling Prize for architecture in 2000.)
Despite the canal’s closure, Whittens continued to thrive commercially, helped by the expanding DIY market. In 1980, business moved again to a nearby warehouse in Eagle Wharf, and Whitten’s final move in the early 2000s was next door, further up the canal to a brand new retail warehouse.
Today Whitten Timber is run by Robert’s two sons John and James – the fourth generation. However if you pop in you’ll see that Robert is never too far from the sales counter!
On 23rd March 2020, with the Covid19 pandemic just taking off in the UK, all this history came to an end. The business finally closed down, as the site had been sold for redevelopment, and the canal’s last traditional business disappeared. There were hopes that part of the business could rent space with a local builders merchant, but Whittens is now in liquidation.