Historic Oxford building business goes into administration

Symm blue plaque

Symm, One of Oxford’s most respected and longest-lasting building companies has fallen into administration. Lawrence King of Critchleys LLP has been appointed administrator and a statement on the firm’s website said: “The company has experienced recent tough trading conditions and the current pipeline of work is not sufficient to continue this longstanding and highly regarded Oxford brand. The directors have explored various alternative paths but have taken the difficult decision to appoint an Administrator.”

The company, which employed around 150 people in all, operated its joinery and cabinetry business from two sites in Pershore, Worcestershire with its main construction function operating from Oxford. Over the decades it had worked on some of Oxfordshire’s most prestigious buildings.

For decades Symm, which had its headquarters at Cumnor in the city, was synonymous with quality and heritage. The company’s last audited accounts, filed at Companies House in January last year, showed a company turnover of around £27 million, a 46 per cent increase on turnover on the previous year, bringing it to near break-even. But while Symm had secured a number of key contracts for last year, and had reduced the company’s overheads and it was not enough to save the business from administration.

In September last year, Symm Chairman James Axtell, participated in a Business & Innovation Magazine round table. He was clearly aware of the difficulties. He said the company’s future was about trying to retain what it excels at but encouraging more sophisticated ways of delivering it. “Rigorous financial controls are going to be critical for us,” he said at the time.

“We are known for the quality of what we do, but that doesn’t mean we should stay as we are. We need to explore new technology in the business, adapt our teams to take best advantage of their skills and decide what we need to augment the expertise we already have in the business.”

The collapse of this venerable business is the latest in a number of construction business administrations this year.

The founders of Symm were Daniel Evans, born around 1769 in Fairford, Gloucestershire, and Joshua Symm from Northumberland, and the men were awarded an Oxfordshire Blue Plaque in 2004, mounted on 34 St Giles, part of a terrace of three houses that Daniel designed and built in 1829.

Oxfordshire Blue PDaniel Evans was born c.1769 probably in Fairford, Gloucestershire. He began as a bricklayer working from London; his first Oxford venture was the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, New Inn Hall Street, in 1817. He was the first building contractor in Oxford and his first college contract came with the building of Magdalen Hall, now Hertford College, completed in 1822. Until his death in 1846 he lived at 34 St Giles’.

Joshua Symm was born in Allendale, Northumberland in 1808. He joined Evans as a stonemason in the 1830s and married his only daughter Elizabeth. After the death of Evans he took over the firm’s business, constructing a good proportion of all new nineteenth-century college buildings such as Exeter College Chapel to the design of Gilbert Scott, the Meadow Buildings at Christ Church, the Clarendon Laboratory (T. N. Deane) and city buildings e.g. the main Post Office (E. G. Rivers). The firm’s craftsmen in wood and stone also worked on the Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian, the Cathedral, Tom Tower and many other buildings of both town and gown.