In this guest blog post, Founder and Managing Director of Busworks, Gillian Harwood describes her incredible journey from being handed a letter by a bailiff, while holding her two small children, to take possession of her house to creating the highly successful Busworks business hub and other creative spaces around Britain. 

Founded 40 years by Gillian Harwood and her late partner and architect, Philip Lancashire, the couple rescued a robust but derelict Victorian bus factory and timber yard just off the Caladonian Road, London, and with flair and imagination converted it into a thriving business hub.

Opening A Hub In The 1970s

Was it easier to start an enterprise back in the 1970’s?  Probably not if you are now able to set up a business with a laptop, a smart phone and a corner seat at Starbucks or Costa and an idea for a useful new App or a research project or freelancing in some other way.   In fact, now I think about it, definitely not!

The 1970’s was  the era of the penny-in-the-slot telephone box,  a nationalised Post Office which took eighteen months to install a new phone and six months to move your home phone from one room to another.  A budding business person would need a manual typewriter and carbon paper to keep copies of correspondence and a smart outfit in which to go to the bank to meet the manager.   Business cards and stationery would take weeks to get printed by your local printer using letterpress technology.  If you were lucky you had a primitive Sinclair pocket calculator.

The 1970’s was the decade of the oil crisis, the 3-day week, constant power cuts, petrol rationing, the secondary banking crisis, the credit corset, soaring interest rates, massive inflation and increasing unemployment caused by the beginnings of globalisation resulting in the rapid decline in heavy industry.

Bailiff, Babies and Business Beginnings

My own business came about quite by chance.     I was at home one day in 1976 in my shambolic scruffy house in south London. (I had been able to buy the house for £9,000 in 1971 but I needed four lodgers to help me pay the mortgage of £15 a week and I gave them bed, breakfast and an evening meal).  The doorbell rang and I answered it with two babies clinging round my legs to find a man in a mackintosh and a trilby hat standing there with a long brown envelope in his hand.   It was the Bailiff.    He had come to repossess my house.   He said that I owed the National Westminster Bank £12,000. It seemed odd as I banked with the Midland Bank.  He agreed to go away until I had sorted out the misunderstanding.  

My boyfriend had forged my signature on a bank document agreeing to pledge my house against a business loan he had taken out a year before with NatWest Bank.   He had run his business into the ground and the bank wanted its money back and, failing that, they wanted my house instead. That is what I very quickly established.

Using my manual typewriter I wrote a letter to the chairman of the bank telling him that I would make a fuss to the press about the fraudulent situation that had occurred if the bank didn’t give me six weeks to come up with a plan to enable me to repay the “loan” and not take away my house.  He agreed.

Bedsits For Small Business

My boyfriend (the father of my children) had rented a small artists material factory in the Hampstead Road from which to run his new business.   The factory had originally been rented by my grandfather just after the War and then my aunt ran the art business before sub-letting the place to my boyfriend.   At least, I thought, there is a lease on a commercial property to work with – what might I be able to do with it?  Could I make enough money to repay the bank by letting it out room by room as “bedsitters for small businesses”?   But it was not to be so relatively simple.   I quickly learned that no rent had been paid on the factory and the landlord had re-possessed the lease.  No insurance had been paid and just before the bailiff appeared at my house the factory had been burnt down by a mad arsonist.  I also discovered that even if I could somehow find money to rebuild the factory, it would be no use as the property had planning blight because of proposals to build a motorway down the Hampstead Road.  Finally, the company set up by my boyfriend and which owned the lease of the property had not filed any accounts for over three years, owed lots of back tax for which I would also become responsible.  In short, there was less than nothing to work with.  And my house to lose.

Self-Doubt And Building Resilience

This is where I hesitate.  What was it that drove me on believing that I would overcome all these roadblocks?  With no experience of any of these matters, how on earth did I prevail?  I think I was just terribly lucky but other people might put it down to a guardian angel sitting on my shoulder.

When I rang the landlord they told me that they remembered my grandfather and that he had been a good chap and that they would be happy to grant me a new lease on the property. I made enquiries and learnt that the GLC had decided the month before to cancel all ideas of the motorway and the planning blight no longer existed.  I rang HMRC and they had no record of my boyfriend’s company and its debts of taxes due.   The files had gone to be microfiched and must have been totally lost.  

So, I was left with a new lease on a burnt out shell of a small factory in the Hampstead Road with no money of my own and a debt to the bank of £12,000.   I had a big unmodernised house in Wandsworth worth £12,000 with a mortgage of £8,000.    I had two children under three with no husband and a rogue of a boyfriend and four lodgers.  I also had a manual typewriter, an early pocket calculator and an Anglia van I had bought for £15.   I was desperate.   I had just six weeks.  What I discovered was that I also had determination, imagination, a capacity for really hard work and an inner certainty that things would turn out OK in the end.  I did have a bit of business experience from having had an antique stall in a market and having previously set up a one-woman gardening business.   This was 1976 in a recession.

Woman Entering A Man’s World

It would cost at least £20,000 to rebuild the factory according to the builder who said he’d be interested in the job as he needed the work.  On top of that it would be necessary to pay for fitting it out. I needed another £25,000 on top of the £12,000 I already owned.  I thought it made sense to go back to NatWest Bank and see if they would increase my loan to them by £25,000.   “ No” they said (not unsurprisingly).   I went to my own Midland Bank to seek a £37,000 loan.   “We don’t get many requests for business loans from women” the manager said, with a pat on my head “No”.  “Sorry” said another boutique banker “I actually only agreed to meet you because I wanted to see what you looked like”.  And so it went on at other banks.

Support, Collaboration And Risk

Maybe it was the guardian angel who put the Evening Standard on my seat when getting on the tube from Warren Street back to Wandsworth.   In it was an article about an architect who had had the radical idea of taking a building in Covent Garden and letting it out as a co-operative with other start-up firms in the building industry on monthly licences.  He had had the same idea as me. Unheard of in those days of 25-year long leases.    But not unheard of in my old antique market and with the bedsits at home.   I telephoned him the next day and asked him who his bank manager was.  He told me and he also agreed to come along and look at my ruin and see if it had potential.   With his support I approached his bank manager at Barclays Bank telling him that I had had pretty much the same idea as his client and look what a success his idea had been.    Somehow, in the middle of a huge credit crisis in the banks and a recession, the bank agreed to lend me £37,000.

The bank took a second charge on my house – which was released by NatWest once I paid back the £12,000 loan.   There was a charge on the new lease of the ruined factory and I also remember pledging about £120 worth of Premium Bonds.   And I gave a personal guarantee.    It would be quite impossible to obtain a bank loan in 2019 on these terms.   But the bank manager was not some sort of algorithm crunching numbers up in Birmingham.   He was a real person and he met me and trusted me and believed in me and my idea of “bedsitters for businesses”.

The van then came into its own.  The babies could be carted around in it.  They could be left to sleep in it.  I could fetch building materials and pick stuff out of skips.  The builder put the roof back on the factory and rebuilt the floors and ceilings and put in the wiring and basic plumbing.   The rest was up to me.  I would need to get in a power supply and telephone lines.   I would need to decorate throughout and make a kitchen and carpet the floors if I was going to be able to attract the small businesses.   The building only measured about 6000sq.ft. so I thought I might be able to do it alone. But the angel brought me Eric Holroyd,  the telephone engineer from the Post Office who told me he was only permitted to do 45 minutes work a day by his union.  The rest of the day he was free.   We were both brought up in Leeds and were grafters and the job got done. I bought carpet tile ‘seconds’ from Arding & Hobbs in Clapham which Eric fitted beautifully.  He was an excellent painter too.  He was great fun to work with but he sadly died of AIDS a few years later.

Shoots Of Success

A small ad. In the Evening Standard brought me the first occupants of 1 Prince of Wales Passage. A small publishing company run by the son of Niklaus Pevsner, a secretive security firm run by a very posh ex-Army colonel, the sparky woman who started Screen on the Green Cinemas and a couple of girls who free-lanced for Time Out and Forum magazines and a rather solitary building surveyor.  I had no idea about planning permission or Use Class Orders and was distressed when Camden Council threatened to close down the building about a month after it opened.   They told me that the building was a classed as a “factory” and now they had heard that it was full of people who worked at desks.     They needed to come and check it out.  The appointed day came when a team from the Planning Department arrived and saw a building full of people in jeans and overalls working at sewing machines, Black and Decker Workmates with saws and soldering irons.   I did not hear from the planners again.   It took another two or three years before use class B1 was introduced permitting redundant industrial buildings to be occupied by small business whether it was office, studio and/or workshop.

Impact Of Hubs

From that rather hair-raising and totally unexpected beginning I have gone on to refurbish and re-use other problem buildings both in London and in other towns.  Many small businesses have grown under our care.   I think several whole neighbourhoods have improved by other people seeing what can be achieved if you are prepared to take a risk, use imagination and keep persevering.   Starting with the desperation of terrifying debts and the probable loss of my home I have, rather to my amazement,  grown a successful business that I hope to pass on to my daughters.   

Starting A Business in 2019!

As in the 1970’s, this is a period of fast and frightening change.  There is serious social unfairness and the future can look hopeless to many people.   Some are starting to think there is a real danger that there might not even be a future thanks to changes in the climate and environmental decay.    I would say that this is just the time to get going, there is so much that needs to be done.   Ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen if you take a risk:  believe in yourself and your idea:  don’t listen to the negatives: be honest and realistic and knuckle down to really hard work.   It was tough in the past and it could be tougher now.   But you’ll be glad that you did it.

Gillian Harwood, Director: United Workspace Ltd. (16.May.19)


There is increasing pressure on hubs, creative and community spaces and artist workplaces in cities across the world, with global capital demands ever increasing returns. Pressure on space like Stour Space in east London, as discussed at The Creative Work And The City symposium highlight the vast array of issues owners of these spaces must negotiate to survive. Gillian offers an excellent account of how, even with dynamic forces raging against an idea, positive results can still emerge.

Haphazard Business will be seeking more such personal stories to better understand the hurdles people have faced in realising their ideas.


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