Lilliput Lane closes door on Penrith

Date: Friday 20th March 2009

NEXT week will mark the end of an era when Lilliput Lane, Penrith’s flagship model cottage-making enterprise, leaves the town behind and 22 loyal employees at its Skirsgill base out of work.

Breaking his silence publicly for the first time since news broke that manufacturing of the famous miniature cottages was moving away from Penrith to Langholm, David Tate, Lilliput Lane’s founder, said what had happened to the company he set up in 1982 “beggars belief”.

“When the company was sold with great promise of an even brighter future at the end of the 90s it employed over 500 people in Cumbria. On Wednesday I met the remnants of this once so proud workforce, all now without a Cumbrian workplace, many redundant, but resigned to the fact, extremely sad and fearful of the future,” said Mr. Tate.

Enesco Limited, which bought Lilliput Lane, issued a statement at the end of February to say that the relocation of operations to Langholm, Dumfries and Galloway, which followed a strategic review of the business, might result in the loss of up to 30 jobs at both sites.

Many now redundant Lilliput Lane employees, affectionately known as “Lilliputians”, have each amassed more than 20 years of service. It is understood that just 23 people are to move to work at Langholm from the Penrith Skirsgill site, which at its height housed 240 employees.

Mr. Tate, aged 63, who retired with his wife Sandra to Brampton, near Carlisle, almost 12 years ago, said talk of the loss of 30 jobs dramatically understated the actual position. “It’s not 30 jobs lost. It is more than 450 over the last 10 years,” he said.

Production supervisor Debbie Bell, of Penrith, joined the company straight from school 23 years ago. From Wednesday of next week she will be out of work as she did not want to make the 80-mile round trip to Langholm every day.

“Lilliput is here, not in Langholm,” said Mrs. Bell, who added that working for the company had been her life and had allowed her the opportunity to travel to many different countries as a representative of the firm.

Jeanette Brittle, aged 67, of Wetheriggs Rise, Penrith, has been with the company for 23 years and has since the early 90s been a tour guide at the site, which now includes the custom-built Honeysuckle Cottage visitor centre. She gave her last tour at the end of February and the visitor centre closed to the public on Friday.

“Lilliput has not only brought employment to Penrith, it has brought thousands and thousands of visitors. During the annual collectors’ fairs you could not get accommodation in Penrith for collectors,” said Mrs. Brittle.

She was sure those going to Langholm would do their best to keep the name of Lilliput Lane going, but it saddened everybody involved to think the operation was being taken away from Penrith where it all began.

Shane Wilson, aged 40, of Penrith, said he had been made redundant from his job as a giftware tool maker, having served Lilliput Lane for more than 20 years, because the number of tool makers being employed by the company was falling from three to one. He said that over the years he had made a lot of good friends within the firm and felt proud at what they had achieved.

Early in 1982, Mr. Tate and his family came to Penrith from Hampshire seeking a location to site a new company based on products and manufacturing systems he had developed as a technical consultant and mouldmaker.

As a direct result of the help he was given by Eden Council planning officer Roger Irving and Dr. Anthony Leeming, with an offer of start-up premises at Skirsgill, Lilliput Lane was formed in September, 1982.

Mr. Tate said: “We founded the company along with our daughters and three friends hardly the magnificent seven but the hopeful. We came here looking for a better quality of life, and we found it.”

He said the early years had all the ups and downs of a new venture, but by 1985 they had a foothold in the UK and with 60 employees were looking at exporting goods to America. By 1987 there were 8,000 registered members in the Collectors’ Club, formed only a year before, and some 500 staff.

“These wonderful people, virtually all Cumbrians, mainly women, were the engine of our success. They and their skills won the company many awards both in this country and abroad. By the early 90s we had 700 employees, 72,000 members in our club and exported to dozens of countries,” said Mr. Tate.

The Lilliput Lane workforce at that time comprised mainly young people. A few of them, some still in their teens and early 20s, represented the company around the world, demonstrating their skills to promote the product, and by default England’s history and unique vernacular architectural heritage, as far afield as Australia, Japan and across the USA.

Mr. Tate said some spent up to three months at a time travelling as “ambassadors” for Lilliput Lane. Many of these employees became highly skilled as sculptors, artists, administrators, technicians, mouldmakers, painters and casters, and were often hailed as the “best in the industry”.

“Their task was to efficiently produce high quality products of integrity and this was fulfilled repeatedly throughout the years. But more than that they did it with a smile and unswerving loyalty to the Lilliput name and with a work ethos which was the envy of many of our competitors. They were simply the best,” said Mr. Tate. “Cumbria can be very proud of their achievements.”