In Business: the 138-year-old funeral directors adapting to changing times
Founded in London’s East End in 1881, T Cribb & Sons is a fifth-generation family-run funeral directors and Barclays Corporate client. We hear from Senior Partner John Harris about how the business has expanded from a single site in Canning Town to 18 premises across east London, Essex and Ghana.
“When someone asks you what you do for a living and you turn around and say you’re a funeral director – there’s a barrage of questions, everybody wants to know what happens behind the scenes,” says John Harris. “People are just fascinated by it.”
Harris is a stalwart of T Cribb & Sons, the family funeral directors with its origins in London’s East End that he joined 46 years ago. For him, it was not an unusual choice of career – his great grandfather Thomas Cribb set up the company in 1881.
Now a Senior Partner at the 138-year-old firm, he has been part of helping it thrive through challenging times and attributes the company’s survival to being able to adapt to its rapidly changing community – while also holding fast to its traditions.
Reflecting on the origins of T Cribb, he says: “The East End has always been close. If you were born in the East End, you stayed and you died in the East End. And with that you built up very much a community spirit.”
As the area’s ethnic and religious mix has changed over the years, so has the service offered. “With the new cultures and religions coming into the area, we knew we’d have to do something because a traditional high street funeral directing establishment just wouldn’t work,” he explains.
Relocating the business to larger premises in Beckton in London’s East End 20 years ago was key to meeting the needs of the new customer demographics. However, putting its expansion plans into action proved to be a challenge after the company’s previous bank – with which T Cribb & Sons had banked since 1914 – denied their request for a loan.
“A friend recommended that I meet with Barclays. Within a month, we had the money on stream that enabled us to survive and grow,” says Harris.
“We purchased this piece of ground which had a purpose-built building allowing us to have Hindu and Sikh washrooms. We’ve got an area for Chinese traditional burnings of tokens – and we can have all-night Philippine vigils.”
And so began a 20-year relationship with the bank, which has allowed the business to continue to adapt.
“I’m forever blowing bubbles”
Founded in the same neighbourhood as West Ham United, the company has long enjoyed a close link to the football club, and has conducted funerals for its players, staff and fans over many years.
“Cribb’s was founded in 1881 and West Ham was founded in 1895 – and we’ve both been intrinsically linked with the community,” says Harris. Special West Ham-themed funeral services are available to fans – including graveside bubble machines in recognition of the club’s famous anthem “I’m forever blowing bubbles”.
“Although both organisations have grown and evolved, what connects West Ham and T Cribb & Sons is their continuing deep relationship with the local people of the area,” says Harris. “It’s a relationship built on trust, passion and shared values. I’m proud of T Cribb & Sons and everything it represents.”
Fourteen years ago, T Cribb & Sons made another significant innovation, taking its business global by establishing a funeral home in Ghana – again with Barclays’ support.
“We went along to Barclays in Accra with two great big nylon laundry bags filled with cash and wandered off to see the local Chief to buy our bit of ground,” Harris recalls.
Since then, the premises have expanded to cover five and a half acres – and future growth plans include establishing a video link to the UK so that “families who won’t be able to attend from the UK can attend a service on screen”.
While introducing new services has been key, the business has simultaneously held on to its proud heritage – something Harris considers essential.
“We are the only funeral directors in the whole of the UK that have a proper working yard, that is our own horses, coachmen, grooms, vehicles – we even grow our own hay. It’s a big operation.”
Now employing around 90 staff across 18 branches and carrying out an average of 3,000 funerals a year, Harris says Barclays’ backing has been fundamental to the business’ success.
“Barclays has been really supportive all the way along the line – and enthusiastic too. When I first came into the business 46 years ago, we were usually seconded to other companies as bearers and drivers. Now we don’t need to second our staff. ”
Lisa Gray, Barclays’ Relationship Director for T Cribb & Sons, started working with the company four years ago. “Barclays got involved with T Cribb & Sons in 1991,” she says. ”The loans offered by the bank have been instrumental in growing the business – helping them to purchase other companies and buy their fleet.”
“T Cribb & Sons has an exciting future ahead, particularly with their expansion in Ghana. Barclays’ backing has really helped the businesses to flourish – and will continue to do so.”