was either fated, or the most incredible set of coincidences, that
brought the Generating Station's savoir together. Alex helped his chum
do a deal with Nik, and also introduced the amateur archaeologist to Ron
Saunders. For sure, without him,
Nikolai Askaroff, had it in mind to demolish what he saw as a
liability. That was until he was running short of change, and wanted to
secure the skills of his best decorator. Big thanks then to Alex, and
Igor Askaroff, was one of six boys, brought up by Igor and Rosemarie
Askaroff, the Russian/Austrian entrepreneurs, who escaped from Nazi
occupied territory during World
War Two. The Askaroff family moved from London to Eastbourne, where
Rosemarie and Igor started producing waterproof accessories for baby
prams and buggies. After many years working in the family business, Alex
became a roving, sewing machine, repair man, and author of many books
about people he'd met on his travels.
aerial view of Herstmonceux Museum in 2022, showing the public footpaths
north of the generating buildings. Many of which are unregistered, but
well trodden for over forty years, from our records.
As an independent, mobile, sewing machine engineer, Alex roamed the
Sussex countryside, servicing the machines of hundreds of happy
customers. On one such errand, he was called to Potmans Lane, Lunsford
Cross, near Bexhill, where he met Ronald Saunders. As Alex serviced Mrs
Saunder's sewing machine, they got talking about where they had lived
before. Ronald mentioned that he'd lived and worked near Herstmonceux.
As Alex listened to the unfolding story, and don't forget that Alex was
at the time on the look out for stories to put in his first publication,
he asked if Ronald knew Lime Park.
it. I used to work there as a lad. My Dad was the engineer who tended
the electricity plant."
amazed at this revelation, Alex mentioned that his brother and a friend were in the Park.
I could tell them a thing or two about that place."
had a broad Sussex accent, as many gardeners are prone to. Making him a
little difficult to interpret.
you mind if I mentioned you to my friend?"
course not lad, pleased that anything I know might be of help. Would you
like a cup of tea?"
thank you Mr Saunders."
never drank beverages while doing his rounds. He had to think about
holding liquids in. If he had a cup of tea at every customer, he'd be
quite uncomfortable when working.
left in rather more of a rush than usual. And, not because he was
uncomfortable. He had to find Victor. He was bursting to share this
to his website, Alex was born in the latter half of the 1950's in the busy bomb-blitzed seaside town of Eastbourne on the South Coast of England.
At that time rubble still lay in places from the 11,000 or so buildings damaged by German planes. At Newhaven the old fort still had the empty shells and cartridges scattered around its gun emplacements.
was a keen fisherman. One way of boosting his protein intake, where meat
was a scarcity at home, competing with five brothers for food. One such
haunt was the Newhaven Fort. When fishing from the concrete pier he used to explore the endless nests of twisting tunnels of the forgotten stronghold. The fort was heaven to a band of rebel boys protecting the shores of England.
In fact this is now a tourist attraction, shored up and made relatively
safe. But, in those days it was accessible. Victor also explored the
venue on many occasions, when he lived in the nearby town of Seaford.
As Alex grew, his playground was the soft green undulating hills of the glorious
South Downs and as a wild child
he promised himself, that he would move only when the hills did. He was an Eastbourne lad born and bred and whilst
he would wander far from home at times, his heart remained firmly fixed
to his birthplace.
For Alex there was no finer point in any journey than when he turned
back to head for home even when having a Forest Gump moment, a Crocodile
Dundee walkabout, when he cycled from Eastbourne to the tip of Lands End in Cornwall before
deciding that was far enough.
His father was a proud Russian who had heard the call for men after the terrible losses of the
War. Igor is said to have made it out of Russia by hiding in a coal
train. Finally ending up in Austria, he traveled with his young Austrian partner to England to make his fortune. After the smog filled London streets
Igor and Rosemarie headed for the clean seaside air that Eastbourne
offered. Here he brought up six strapping lads who were the scourge of the
DISCOVERING HIS ANCESTORS
had grown up with a passion for his adopted country, and growing into
the English way of life, this became clear to him. It turned out that
while Alex had a half French, half Russian Father. And a half English, half Austrian mother,
his British roots on his grandmother's side led straight back to Anglo Saxon England.
His grandmother's family were a real surprise, when Alex took the time
to trace back his family tree. It opened up a whole new world to the
sewing machine engineer. Also, an avid collector and dealer of older
machines. The revelations from research, explained to Alex, his deep-rooted affection for
merry olde England. When it turned out that in part at least, his DNA
was very much local. Indeed, human
DNA is 99.9% the same, and 98% the same as Chimpanzees.
The Askaroff boys had a great-great grandfather who founded 'Law
Debenture.' Stanley Carr Boulter, was a barrister who married Helen D'Oyly Carte of the Savoy Theatre and Savoy Hotel empire.
Their great grandfather, four times along, was the British Dramatist James Robinson Planché. The most prolific playwright of the Victorian era. His
father was watchmaker, was a personal friend of King George
III, famous for siding with the clockmaker famous for perfecting the marine
The daughter of James Planché, Matilda Planché (later Mrs Henry Mackarness)
was Alex's, great, great, great, grandmother, and a prolific author. Over 40 of her books are still in print.
Big Al's favourite is, 'A Trap To Catch A Sunbeam.' A perfect title for a
Further back in time, the Askaroff family are related to Bishop, John Fielder Mackarness,
the Bishop of Oxford. Who, coincidentally, died in Eastbourne in 1889.
further back still, there is a connection to Samuel Coleridge, the famous British
poet. Who, through marriage to the Bellew family, had brushes through history with
The mixed heritage included on his mother's side, Austria's renowned painter Anton Faistauer,
Alex's Great Uncle.
Anyone tracing their family tree is sure to wonder at whose shoulders
they sit on. For sure Alex had a bit of a thing about finding his roots.
The real clue to who you are is in your own talents. They did not get
there by accident. They are the product of millions of years of
evolution, all the way back to Olduvia
Gorge, in Tanzania. Hi chum Victor, was born close to the other birthplace of
Province, near Johannesburg. Another World
Alex were able to go back any further, he'd discover, great, great,
great, great, great, great - multiplied by 100,000 years +, to meet his
greatest grandfather 'Tomac' the tool user. Since, Alex is good with a screwdriver, it
must be that he descended from Homo Habilis. Note also the striking
action is similar to hitting the keys on a computer. And Alex loves to
INTO THE WORLD
It was when his mother was out buying fish from Bob Clarke the fishmonger when she realised that
Alex was coming into the world. She shouted to Bob for help, who, promptly picked up his cart and bolted off-down Eversfield Road as fast as his
tiny legs could carry him.
Rosemarie Askaroff, managed to get inside to the settee, just in time
for baby Alex to make his first appearance. According to his biography, Bob always used to laugh about the way he
panicked on that day.
But who wouldn't. The family continued to buy fish from Bob, so 'Mumsie' could not have been too upset.
"Mumsie" was the name all her children, even the adopted ones,
called her. Either that, or, Mrs A. Later, Mrs T., after she married
Stuart Twentyman-Turnbull in 1991.
Alex was the third of six boys a family of lads that seemed to grow up
His parents had a modest sized factory at one end of Willowfield Road,
just off Seaside Road. This is in Eastbourne, on the sunshine coast of
England, enjoying a view of the English
Channel, and a famous pier. To a child the factory seemed endless. It was
somewhere around 20 to 30 thousand square feet in area (about 2500 m²) and that was before
they expanded to buy an even bigger factory unit adjacent. When
Rosemarie, joined the two buildings.
His parents were business people, so, along with his five other brothers, they
became part of the business. By the time Alex was five, he was already modelling for company brochures and being whisked up to the
smoke in London for photo shoots. Alex got the modelling assignment
because his brothers were too fat. Alex says, he soon caught up.
The Simplantex factory had long cutting-room tables where he remembers
having his nappy changed. Automatic machines ran up and down the tables all day, laying up miles of
fabric, by unrolling rolls of cloth, mounted at one end. Then the cutters would slice the
expensive materials into a hundred different patterns. This is where the
skill was. Cutters included Cyril and Doug. Both gone now.
SIMPLANTEX (SIMPLY PLANNED TEXTILES) BEGINNINGS
Alex's mother was a skilled Viennese seamstress, with the ability to design
patterns and make clothes. She invented such things as the 'Raincape' that simply pulled over a pushchair to keep the baby dry in the rain. Other things like
a nappy changing mat where baby could not roll off easily, was called the Top‘n’Tail.
This plastic mat had pouches at the bottom for items such as talcum
powder and nappy-rash cream. These items were in daily use around Britain,
expanding to encompass the world as exports.
There were few babies that did not have one of these products. The family business became the largest manufacturer of baby goods in Europe supplying
almost every baby shop in the country, a bit like MotherCare. MotherCare
was also a franchise based on clever design, by way of a patented spill
free plastic cup. If you knocked it over, it did not drip.
Alex's dad was born in Moscow on the first official day of the Russian revolution in October
1917. Not a good start. His life seemed to be dramatic from then on. He was smuggled out of the country as a
child in a coal train. Some 30 years later, he settled in the quaint seaside tourist resort of Eastbourne.
He passed away in unexplained circumstances, possibly suicide. The
Coroner recording an open verdict.
The boys' father, Igor, as Russian a name as you could hope for, was able to sell just about
anything. He was said to be a natural businessman. By the time Alex came to know him as a child,
Igor had already created and lost several businesses.
At their factory in Willowfield Road Igor used to sit behind his large leather-topped desk signing papers and arranging deals before gliding off in his huge Jaguar. In
one year he bought two new Jaguars. One was a Jaguar 420G known as the Banana Boat it was so huge. It seemed as wide as a bus and
with a sumptuous leather and walnut interior, it was as luxurious as a five-star hotel.
The six cylinder DOHC engines on these cars were always trouble and very
petrol hungry, derived from the Jaguar E-Type. Victor's grandfather had
a white 420.
fact is that Simplantex was successful because of the design expertise
of Rosemarie, and the determination to push through with products that
people could use and benefit from in everyday life. This is the same
dogged resolve that led Alex to succeed with his sewing machine
business, and his book publishing. Albeit in a smaller way. He was
simply a solid and reliable worker. He did not give up, where others
As proof of this quality, the stair-well walls leading to the offices at the factory were lined with patent documents for many
of the Simplantex baby products. All gone now, as patents only last
twenty years. Eventually, Simplantex was supplying film stars and royalty. Harrods would place
bespoke orders for special customers and their exceptional babies. Princess Diana
carried future King, Prince of Wales William, in a hand made Palm Leaf
basket from Simplantex.
For over 30 years the names Simplantex and Premiere Baby were synonymous with the best you could buy for your baby.
In furtherance of that exclusivity, the company secured the rights to such
characters as Beatrix Potter.
This was partly due to Clare Askaroff, who was a fine artist and watercolorist,
skilled in such reproductions.
A FASCINATION WITH SEWING MACHINERY
Growing up in such an environment, surrounded by the continuous hum of sewing machines, it was only natural that
Alex became interested in the workings of the machinery. If you take the
time to look at the mechanism of, for example, an early Singer sewing
machine yourself, you might also be fascinated at the fact there are two
cotton reels, one very small one under the sewing plate, and another
much larger one, feeding the needle from above the machine, along a
tortuous route through many guides, before getting to the needle itself.
In their cellar at 7 Ashburnham Gardens, stood just one such dilapidated old Singer treadle machine. On several occasions when
young Alex had been a "monster," he was consigned to the
basement. One of these events was when he'd thrown a stone straight through
his parent’s plate glass mirror. Off he was sent, to be incarcerated
for a time. A different kind of naughty step.
Alex claims that on this occasion it had not been all his fault. His elder
brother Nikolai (Nik), had wound him up like a top before the younger
brother had launched the pebble directly at him. In the heat of battle,
Alex had no thought of the mirror behind. No thought, that was, until
Nik ducked. When the stone missile went through the plate-glass like a bullet. The mirror had stretched from the floor to the ceiling.
As with all happenings like this, it appeared to be in slow motion. Even
his bigger brother Nik running away laughing. Alex often wondered if
he'd planned the whole affair. If he'd been set up. Because Nik was the
smartest of the six boys by far. Nik passed in December 2021, on a golf
course in the Far East.
So, there he was, back in the cellar with the old Singer. As Alex
pondered the impenetrable cast iron and enamel, he wondered what devious deed the machine had done to deserve
a life-sentence down there. In time he learned that it was 'Mumsie’s' first sewing machine.
The one she'd used to start the business. Thus it was not imprisoned at
all. It was a symbol of her determination to succeed, and held a special
place in her heart. We'd probably all feel the same. Victor still
cherishes his very first welding machine, an Oxford Bantam. And that of
John Bamford, of JCB fame, is an exhibit in the Amberley Museum at
Arundel. A very similar machine to the Oxford Bantam arc welder, part of
the collection of welders at Herstmonceux Museum.
Quite a few years later, Alex hauled the old Singer out of the dungeon,
as he says, "like the Count of Monte Cristo," on one of his
recovery missions. Alex then lovingly brought his old cellmate back to working condition.
Having given the machine the servicing of a lifetime, he placed it in the main hall at the
Simplantex factory for all our visitors to see. Rosemarie was visibly
moved. It was indeed, a splendid sight, that trusty treadle machine.
That became the topic of many a conversation. We have just such a
machine, the deluxe model in a beautiful wooden cabinet, in the Museum
at Herstmonceux. And guess what? Alex serviced it, along with a Brother
industrial machine given to Victor by Nik, when they were having a
factory clear out. Both still in excellent working order.
As time rolled on, Alex completed school, at Ratton Secondary, having
been ejected from St. Bedes, deciding to enroll on a four-year engineering course
at the Eastbourne College of Further Education, at the top of Saint
Anne's Road, just around the corner from Ashburnham gardens. Which
course, Victor had also undertaken. Then, having graduated, and after
trying several jobs, including being a swimming pool engineer for a time
at the public baths in Eastbourne. Alex started in the family business
at Simplantex. Where, he was lucky to have some of the best engineers teach
him just about everything he needed to know about sewing machines. To,
in effect, make him indispensable later on, but his family did not
understand this, and would only come to realise just how much of a
lynchpin Alex was to become, in keeping Simplantex a well oiled machine,
after he once again gained his freedom. A bust up to remember, with the
twin doors fitted on the new boardroom partition, by Victor, being
smashed off their hinges.
David Cowan, who ran the local shop in Seaside Road, took Alex under his wing,
leading the younger Askaroff through the minefield of industrial sewing machines. Simon, who was the head engineer at Jaeger, spent his Saturdays
providing more training. Bob Stebbings, even "good old Uncle Gordon," whose family had sewing machine shops almost from Victorian times, taught
Alex many trade secrets, that are so dearly guarded by those in the
Eventually his skill and understanding of mechanized stitching equipment
became ingrained. Alex became one with the sewing machine. A sort of
Edward Scissorhands. The Johnny Depp of the sewing world. In his own
words, Like David Carradine in the 1972 "Kung Fu" TV series,
he could walk across sewing-machine rice-paper with no trace. Maybe, getting
a bit carried away there. But we know what he means. He became the Grand
Master of mechanical stitching, and an avid collector of old sewing
machines. Truthfully, Alex says, he will be forever in the debt on those
who gave of their knowledge.
Learning the trade in the UK was not without its dangers. For
example, one of his mentors, Simon, had a nasty scrape while teaching
Alex to repair machines.
It was a Saturday morning and he was going to teach Alex the basics about the teeth on a Brother industrial. This is a most important adjustment on a high-speed machine. A bit like the tyres on a car. The whole performance of a machine sewing over 5,000 stitches a minute depends on a good feed mechanism.
The eager pair laid the head of the machine back onto its rest-peg so
they could work underneath it. Alex said to Simon to be careful because
he'd noticed that the machine had no hinges securing the head to the table. It was like putting your head into a crocodile’s mouth.
Well you can guess what happened. A few minutes into the tricky operation, while Simon’s head was right inside the machine, the head slipped. It pinned Simon by his head to the table.
He was lucky not to be crushed.
Alex knew it hurt. He was cringing, like when you see something horrible on TV but
also, laughing hysterically inside at the comic situation.
It took a few seconds of watching Simon desperately trying to reach round his head to push the Brother machine off before
Alex sprang to his aid. He had a nasty cut and his glasses were broken but, being a true professional,
Simon carried on with the operation. Alex learned from that experience, never
to repeat that mistake.
Alex was the first of the six boys to start in the factory. He worked downstairs with the cutters.
His father, Igor, was always off to a business meeting here or there. Eventually, after
Igor retired, his mother had a go at running the business.
Fortunately, by then, Nik and his younger brother Sam had joined the firm.
Though Sam had a short stint in banking. Nik’s influence was explosive. The company that had spent three decades growing to around a quarter of a million annual turnover suddenly started to expand at an amazing rate. The sewing machines that most summers were lent out to other factories such as Jarvis Leather Goods were soon being used non-stop.
The long holidays they used to have, due to a lack of orders, disappeared and the ever-increasing workload meant all work and no play. Nik turned
their seasonal business into a powerhouse of manufacturing. For a businessman
it must have seemed like paradise. It was because Nik, like their
father, was a natural businessman. Phone him at 3 am and talk to him about business and he
was still happy, so long as money was involved.
Alex, on the other hand, did not take to it so well. His stress
relieving fishing trips dried up, while his working hours increased.
Within a few years, under Nik’s influence, the firm was exceeding two
£million pounds a year turnover, and this was back in the eighties. If Nik had stayed at the business
one can only imagine the size it would be today. But that would have
required Alex as the manufacturing backbone.
Mumsie, took the opportunity to retire early, knowing she was no longer
needed, and could not compete with Nik. That left the rest of the family
to get their heads down and work. Work, work, and more work. The company or, by
then, group of companies, were like a virus that had to be fed constantly.
Alex felt like the little sparrow that had to feed a cuckoo in its nest. There was no stopping, no rest, just work. In each five-day period
they had to manufacture £40,000 worth of goods just to break even. And
Nik had just purchased a new house in Lime
Park. So, driven to make more money.
If you think about their system, at the beginning of each week on Monday,
they would start the machines to lay and cut. By Friday thousands of items in hundreds of different shapes had to be sewn together, checked, packed and shipped.
The company imported the best raw materials from around the world. Corduroy from China, lace from Switzerland, woven fabric from Austria, hand-made palm-leaf baskets from Africa. Everything
that was needed to make their premiere range of goods. Their price list contained over two thousand items.
Nik and Sam (Simon) organised shows in London, and around the country, where
they would show off all the latest products. Things like Beatrix Potter soft toys, or the latest musical potty that played a tune when you tinkled.
Alex never understood why that did not catch on, it worked brilliantly on
his kids and you could not get them off the potty, until the tune had
played. We wonder if there are a generation of adults, who can only
perform to music. In Japan they pay people to sing outside public
toilets, to drown any noise they might make.
Askaroff boys mingled with the very top of their trade. Lunches with Maclaren, visits to Nottingham lace factories where machines that had made lace for over a century were thundering out new reels of lace for
Premiere Baby products. They toured the famous Silver Cross pushchair factory where they were still
hand-making the Rolls-Royce of pushchairs. Alex watched with quiet admiration as an old man ran a perfect blue stripe along the carriage of a new pushchair earmarked for a young prince of the realm. He had been painting the same stripe for 30 years with a sable brush. A true
craftsman, with coach painting a dying art.
Money was flowing, business was fantastic,
Simplantex were at the top of the heap. Gradually however, things that used to give
Alex great pleasure, no longer seemed important. Things like having a suit tailor-made by a Saville Row
craftsman, and having three fittings to get the suit just perfect. Or being announced at the Ritz.
Staying in hotels like St Ermins, where a steak would cost a day’s wages. St Ermins, a superb hotel, was the unofficial meeting place for spies, just around the block from
the base for allied intelligence during the last war. Their parties were the envy of the trade shows.
Alex remembers the company spending £10,000 on one night in the 1980s.
Premiere Baby booked the entire top floor of the Kensington Roof Gardens in London. What a place it was, with flamingos wandering around beside the fountains. It used to be the Biba Centre, a huge boutique store selling such makes as Mary Quant. In the Swinging Sixties, along with Petticoat Lane, the Biba Centre was the hottest place in town. Stars that were about to burst onto the fashion scene, like Twiggy would rush down there to spend their hard-earned cash. On
their evening, the men were all dressed in dinner suits, the women in ball gowns draped in their finest jewels. A live band serenaded us throughout the night.
They were super times but the pressure of work for Alex was mounting. He
was like the stoker on an old steam train. Alex recalls that when the train was quiet it was
great fun. Now he was stoking the boiler non-stop. More coal, faster, faster, faster.
They all became slaves to that boiler and the more they shoveled, the more the monster
It was around this time that Alex made what was, to him, an staggering observation.
His life was disappearing. He wanted to get off the Merry-Go-Round.
Alex explains. Ten years or more had passed in a blur. He had eaten, slept and even dreamt about work. It was an all-consuming passion. A thousand deadlines on a thousand products.
He became aware that during a conversation with other people he did not know anything about the most basic goings on, for example local gossip.
Let alone national news, or world events.
What was happening outside of his immediate circle became irrelevant. He
lost track of, and was unable to measure time. Most weeks, or months, even years, were the same. Rush, rush, rush.
Another year gone.
It finally hit Alex like a ton of bricks. It was like the period at dawn when you have not quite woken. You look at the clock and it says 6 am, you glance again only seconds later and it reads 6.30.
He could not distinguish much about any month or any year. Work was silently and efficiently stealing
This is how you
might be able to understand it. It is not Einstein’s Theory, but to
Alex, a far more important rule. Imagine you are in a racing car speeding around a track. The track is life. You see very little, except the track immediately ahead. A moment’s diversion leads to disaster. Like the time when, in
his rush, Alex dropped ten rolls of Viennese lace trimming, into a bag
meant for Swiss broderie anglaise material. No problem, that is, until you see the
result of a single error. Hundreds of cot quilts that were cream with peach lace. The machinists never questioned the work they just put it all together.
These products looked terrible and almost had to be given away.
That single second’s mistake had cost the company thousands. These mistakes only occurred when concentration
dropped off. So, no slacking, and no time to enjoy life. Work, work,
Now imagine if you got out of the racing car and got into a normal car and just
cruised around the track of life. Suddenly you begin to notice things.
Then, get out of the car and get onto a push bike. You feel the wind in your
hair, smell flowers. You notice the birds twittering and see and greet other
people, who you'd rush straight past in a racing car.
wanted to jump out of the racing car, the fast track, and bloody-well walk.
He could not stop time itself. No man can, but he could slow it down to
a natural pace.
DIFFERENCE OF OPINION
So there he was having second thoughts. Alex wanted to smell the grass and touch the
flowers again. To make idle chat with people that he didn’t know. He did not want to
watch the clock down to the minute. Living by the sound of the factory
hooter. He wanted to stop his children’s childhood slipping through
through his fingers like the sands of time.
So there Alex was, the engine-stoker on an old train that had grown beyond anyone’s imagination.
His brother, Nik, on the other hand wanted more. He had decided that the firm was just not big enough.
Nikolia wanted to start a chain of Premiere Baby shops to be franchised across the country.
For that he'd need another factory making toys down in the West Country.
More. More. More.
THE OTHER CHEEK
One day after another huge show at Earls Court,
Alex looked at his children and thought enough was enough. He had missed so many important things.
That day he had arrived back from London just before midnight, and was unlocking the factory gates before 6.30am the next morning.
He had to plan his escape or his life was doomed to commercial oblivion.
Alex envisaged that one day he would be asked into the office, patted on the back and handed a gold
watch. Signaling that his working life was over.
Giving up life in the fast lane, was not going to be easy. The so-called
"good life" traps you with chains of gold. Nor can you take out an integral part of a mechanism and hope it will still work. As an engineer
Alex was well aware of the stormy waters that he would have to wade
through to reach the safety of shore. Money, big houses and fast cars surrounded
him. All of those trappings were going to be lost if he jumped ship. The Rolls-Royces and BMWs would have to be exchanged for a van with a tool kit. The paid holidays and pension would be lost. The champagne life would have to go,
if he was to be able to slow down and smell the roses once more.
It was going to be a great leap. A Neil Armstrong moment, a leap of faith.
Alex was going from the security of a business that had never let him
down, into the unknown. He would be walking away from a business that had clothed and supported
him all his life. The only person he would have to blame for failure would be
Each day, at the Eastbourne factory, Alex had the responsibility for around a hundred people. This
was about to change, to be just one person. Himself. The problem with
such dramatic life changes, and the timing and circumstances that makes
them happen, is that few people make provision for it. They don't have
the time leading up to the head of steam. Had his revelation moment hit
him sooner, he might have been better prepared. But not then.
So here was Alex, on the engine platform of a family steam-train, hanging on like grim death, looking out into the dark abyss that was
his future. He was though certain in the knowledge that he had to make the jump.
Come what may.
or no coincidence at all - just before Alex jumped ship, Nik, the golden
boy, had left for greener pastures. Well, as the rumour goes, he did not
just leave, but was forced out, all part of a takeover plan by his rival
siblings. Nik had been caught dealing on the side. It was leave or else,
allegedly that is, but a strange move to make of his own volition, with
such declared ambitions. Whereas, all Alex wanted to do, was slow things
down. To be in control of his own future, to build a less demanding
lifestyle, unfettered by family politics. Though, it may have crossed
his mind, that it was those scheming wannabes, that might have planned
the whole thing. We will never know.
As the time drew near Alex sold his shares to his younger brother Sam
(Simon). After extortionate taxation, because of his high tax bracket,
Alex was left with just enough money to settle his debts, buy a van and tools.
And start afresh.
On his final day Alex parked his BMW in the factory yard, made a few
quick goodbyes and walked down the long drive to the factory gate. As he
passed the gate Alex stopped and stared at the padlock that he'd unlocked so many times for so many
years. It had a new significance. He turned and took a final glance back at the factory too.
He knew he would never be back.
And then it hit him, the yard where he had played as a child, where his friends
had played football with him. Where he had parked his first car, the view that was so familiar, were all to be no more.
The Titanic was bobbing before her final dive. The great times, like when the factory girls and an even more enthusiastic boy thought they might like to strip
him naked before Christmas lunch, were all now in his memory. That time, after a frantic chase,
where he had had to dive out of a back window like a rabbit down a hole with
his clothes hanging about his person in tatters.
There was the memory of all the workers making Father Christmas outfits for the annual lunch. The sight of a hundred red and white costumes racing up the road to the restaurant is something that
Alex would never forget.
The three-mile walk home from the factory was an invigorating one. Alex was carried on wings of air.
Deep down, he knew that hehad made the right decision. He knew that his life was going to change in a million ways but they would be the right ways. Nik and
Alex had left the family business that had grown for four decades in the safe hands of
his four other brothers. Well, that is what they both thought at the
time. But, that is another story.
AN ACRIMONIOUS DIVORCE
The next few months were the trickiest. Estranged from his family of over 30
years, instead of them being understanding, they had taken the parting
from the family firm as an intolerable insult. As though Alex should put
up with the acrimonious meetings and backstabbing, that had become a
feature of his BMW lifestyle. Alex knew this was something that he could
It's all about money and power in big families. That is, when there is
something to fight over. Alex had left all those worries behind, leaving
his brothers squabbling like children over the last cake at a party. He was
relieved. Alex felt like Julius
Caesar who had somehow cheated being stabbed to death on his way to the Senate,
and then escaped from Rome. He had his family and a home Willingdon. He
was a skilled man. Life would be what he made of it from now on. His way.
THE TAX MAN COMETH - TO PAY OR NOT TO PAY
Things went well until, completely out of the blue, a huge tax bill hit
landed on his desk. It was for rollover-tax due from money paid to Directors in years past. This tax was something that
he knew nothing about and certainly for money that he had never had; but
was apparently liable for.
Alex went to see his accountant. The accountant looked through the details and sent
him to a solicitor. Apparently, there was no getting out of it. It was
either pay the tax or prove he'd never had the money. Easier said than
done, when you did not know to keep records, about something you did not
know about. The thought of doing battle with the Family was a nightmare. It would open a real can of worms.
To pay or not to pay, that was the question?
It was a dilemma with no easy answer. In reality a no-brainer. Alex knew
the Family would close ranks. He decided to pay the bill, even though it
was crippling. The money that was to see his family through the hardest months at the beginning of
his solo venture, his safety net, was gone.
One of his friends, Eddy Graves, whose children Alex had babysat many years before, was in the car trade. He found
the budding entrepreneur a lovely little Renault van and let him have it at a price that
he could afford. Alex strapped some extra car seats in the back for the kids and off we went.
Another van Alex owned before this was a white Vauxhall (Bedford), that
he's boyed up a little, earning him the name; Carlos Fandango. There was
no cash for that kind of thing.
Being on the breadline, or very nearly, so to speak. Alex chased every penny that was
to be had. He would travel far and wide fixing machines and sharpening scissors well into the night.
In this manner he built up a solid customer base for repeat business. Although
he had many contacts and plenty of suppliers, Alex knew that he had to get the businesses in
his area. So he kept his prices keen.
During these hard times, Alex had many fantastic friends for support and
his wonderful wife, Yana , who had stood by him through the good times and
bad. She had been his rock, since meeting in College.
Alex had slid from the top of the ladder to the bottom without any
stages in-between. When the money was not enough to cover their week’s
outgoings, Yana, would do a boot sale at the weekend. This is a bit like garage sales in America, but on a larger scale.
Yana would sell things that they could spare, or do without.
knew things were really bad when Alex cut up the four-poster bed and made a table using the posts as the legs.
He sold that and many other things to get them by.
The kettle was repaired with fibre-glass when it leaked, and the kid’s clothes
were made to last longer by being patched and darned. In the winter the
family piled on three jumpers rather than turn the heating on. Something
we should all do, with climate change heating the planet.
Besides their home, and a few sewing machines that Alex had collected for years,
he had one other possession that was dear to him, his 1966 V8, Daimler
saloon. This car was sold to him by his chum Victor, for peanuts, along
with another that his brother Nik had bought, also for a couple of
hundred pounds. Not being in very good condition. Alex had lovingly restored
his car over many years and it was the last valuable thing that they had that could be sold.
He had rebuilt her from a rusty shell to a beautiful, near pristine
condition, classic car. A work of art. Alex booked her in at the local auction rooms and dreaded
making the trip.
However fate stepped in to lend a hand. His wife, Yana, who was coming back from a shopping trip, misjudged the garage wall. She hit the front of the Daimler, scraping the wing against the wooden door. Well.
Most people would have stopped at the crunching, but, in a very feminine way,
Yana decided that as she had gone so far, she might as well continue into the garage.
The result was that she scraped the car along its entire length, from the front bumper to the rear. The damage meant that the car had to be
spray painted professionally, called re-finishing. During the few weeks
delay in repair, the family fortunes changed. Money from the schools and factories had started to roll in, and for the first time
Alex and Yana had money in the bank. The Daimler was saved from auction.
Alex could not afford to pay the road tax or even insure it any longer, but it looked great in the
garage, giving him a warm glow inside. Some years later, the Daimler was
back on the road restored to her full glory. When Alex took pleasure in
providing the car for weddings. Even dressing up like a chauffer. He did
not charge for this service.
Money was still tight. As Alex called on customer after customer, he had to learn how to deal with complete strangers in a friendly manner. This was so important because
he was a guest in their homes and fixing their own personal machines. No more shouting out orders across
a factory floor.
After many years experience, Alex almost felt as if he knew a new
customer, before they opened the door. This is because humans are very
similar when it comes to it. And a repair man is automatically a
friendly face, because he has come to render assistance. As part of a
great big society, we may be individuals, but we have a many
similarities, especially when in need of help. Eventually Alex became totally at ease with
meeting new faces. One of the secrets of success.
MIGHT HAVE STRUCK GOLD
After the third year of running 'Sussex Sewing Machines' the family had
their first holiday. One of his very close friends from school days, Andy
(Jack) Russell, lent them his car and they had a relaxing week driving around England. What a
special holiday that was, because it meant they had made it. Andy
Russell runs repair and MOT garages. One in Eastbourne. He was
previously a carpet salesman.
Alex and Yana had started their own business and survived. The future was looking
better. Alex's chum Victor, set up their Sewalot.com website, and taught
his pal how to do some of the basic hypertext coding (html), and make
the best of photographs. Something that Alex took to, like a duck to
As the business grew, and with it their prosperity, the thing that Alex had dreamed of most was coming true.
He was now getting enough spare time to be able to smell the roses. He would spend time chatting to strangers
and many times they would become friends.
During his travels Alex came across people that had wonderful stories to tell and
he was always ready to listen, gathering their memories up, and banking
them. He also had time to play with his kids before they went to school and help them with homework after school. Well, to try to anyway.
Now, in a new millennium, their little home enterprise was responsible for millions of pounds of machinery and around 7,000 customers in
the Sussex geographical region. Alex, looked after anyone and everyone with a sewing machine: schools, laundries, hospitals, hotels, factories and
It seemed like another life back at Simplantex when dozens of women on piecework and bonuses were screaming for their machines to be fixed.
He had left that 'monster' behind and lived to tell the tale. Hardly
surprising, that in
the absence of Nik and Alex, the monster quite soon after their
departure, just rolled over and died. A sad fate for what had been a
thriving business that should have lasted forever. By which Alex means
that children just don't stop coming. They are an annual crop, or repeat
business, so to speak; for anyone in the baby supply business.
One day Alex got a call from the new owners of Premiere Baby (Simplantex),
crazy enough to have bought the family giant, without the champions that
had made it tick. When he arrived at the factory, he got a shock to see
the emptiness. The day he had left the factory it was a heaving mass of humanity. They had a full order book and the future was bright.
As mentioned, the good thing about babies is that there are always new ones coming
into the world. A natural phenomenon that keeps the human race going,
when if parents thought about it, they might never form a union, that
enslaves them willingly. In the 1970s, the miner's strikes, that caused the blackouts during the evenings, led to one of the first baby booms
in the UK since WW2. No
television meant finding alternative entertainment. With an apparent
shortage of contraceptives, not helping.
When Alex had left the factory, everywhere you looked there was noise and commotion, cutters,
seamstresses, checkers, packers and office staff running here and there chasing orders.
That was how he expected to see it now.
He parked in the yard that he'd not been back to for nearly a decade. We
all experience moments like this. A Titanic
moment, like for Rose Dawson, in the brilliant James Cameron film from
1997, with Kate
Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio. When Rose retells her story, and we
go back onboard the lavish leviathan, having seen the empty wreck on
underwater cameras. The factory was similarly bereft of life, save for one flashy sports
car in the yard. The cutting rooms lay silent where cutting machines had ploughed the room all day. The sewing rooms, where there used to be so much noise, you could not hear yourself think, had just a handful of machines left. They looked so sorry for themselves all alone.
Like the great lady at the bottom of the Atlantic.
It was on a ghost ship. The silence was dreadful. It was as if the
staff, many very good friends of his, had all perished, as on that cold
April morning in 1912. The canteen where they sat and had so many laughs as
they swapped tales and jokes over a sandwich and drink, was the saddest place of all.
Alex felt a lump in his throat as he walked around. No one had come to greet
him. He wandered - lonely and thoughtful - as a cloud. Hopeful for a
sign of life.
The rooms where his brothers used to hide as children, were full of dusty junk.
Alex walked to where there was a familiar hole in the floor, stopping to
recall a memory. At the tender age of twenty he was rushing through the factory with a new Brother industrial machine. The wheels of the trolley hit a lump in the floor and tipped. The machine rolled off the end of its table. As the heavy industrial head hit the floor it was like a cannon exploding.
Bang, hundreds of £pounds lost. Mumsie was not best pleased.
In a split second the busy factory fell silent. You could hear a pin
drop. Every eye was on Alex. All the machinists looked up from their
machines, trying to suppress a smile. The packers and checkers all
stopped, equally straining. There was the sound of the cutters running up the stairs to get a
look. All in silence: complete and utter silence. The whole factory was
in a momentary time and space vacuum.
Then suddenly, a huge round of applause, whooping and shouting, erupted spontaneously from everyone. The boss’s son had made a big
blunder. Alex turned a bright shade of pink, picked the machine up, bowed to
his audience and trundled off with it the wreckage as fast as his legs could
Times like those were brought back to Alex, as he stood on the deck of
his ghost ship. He felt tears well up in his eyes, and had to look up and cough to clear
his throat, as one of the new owners found their visitor, and walked towards
him. He had no idea of the connection Alex felt to the old place. He just wanted to know if
the local sewing machine dealer, was interested in the last few machines that they were getting rid of.
Alex bought them and left. It was a very sad day for him. But, money is
money. A deal is a deal.
THE CORNER - SUSSEX SEWING MACHINES
Luckily Alex's youngest brother Oliver (Olly) had listened to him before
he'd parted company with the family firm. Oliver had split part of the business away from the parent
company, presumably as his part of the business carve up. This component
of the old firm was still going strong when this story was written. So, a part of the original
Simplantex survived for a bit longer, mainly supplying rain covers for
invalid carriages. And who knows, one day it may grow as large as the firm that it broke away
from. Though, the last we saw of the company, it occupied a very small
unit in Eastbourne.
To begin with, in the early years of his fledgling business, many of the local factories were suspicious of
Alex entering their premises. He was after all part Russian, and
according to Tom Clancy's film: The
Hunt for Red October. "A Russian doesn't take a dump without
a plan." Whilst they were desperate to have someone with his ability to tune a machine, they were also aware that
he could probably manufacture almost anything he saw. But Alex was not
into manufacturing. Nor industrial espionage.
One factory he visited, was so cautious that they took the precaution of shielding their entire production from
him. As Alex entered the factory, he was guided along the corridors to the machines that needed work. Each door that could be
locked was closed. Every opening was blocked with sheets or boxes so that
the Russian invader could see nothing. Hardly surprising, with Putin
Years later, Alex laughs about those precautions. As he would roam about with a free hand, often being given the keys to be able to start early.
Having built up a rapport.
As he traveled around what he thought was his South East corner of England,
Alex became ever more aware of its beauty. There were places that he had passed a million times and never noticed. Once
he was off the beaten track he would be transported back in time. Back to an England that only survives in books
- or so he thought. Places like Ashdown Forest, a one hundred acre Wood, where Winnie-the-Pooh came to life. The same forest where
VIII hunted deer.
For Alex, Eastbourne was the most perfect Victorian seaside town, coming
from the days of horse drawn carriages. It was designed and built by people with vision in an era of elegance.
He loved it so, having wandered around it since childhood. He saw it grow into the bustling holiday resort it is today.
Unfortunately, the Victorians could not predict the motor car. Even with
the street grid pattern, the town being one of the first to be designed
that way, rather than evolve, it is difficult to get to and from the
resort. Where dual carriages and motorways were not part of the plan.
Eastbourne has become somewhat stranded.
ACORNS TO OAK TREES
Alex says that he was born in a small corner of the United Kingdom, a tiny part of the world that had built the
one of the greatest empires
the planet had ever seen. Based on slavery and colonialism of course,
but then, all nations control their population, and many expanded, like
conquistadors, and French, to colonize the known world, plunder what
they found, and charge taxes to keep the ruling classes in luxury. Both
overseas and at home.
What had made this possible was the people that lived
in England at that time. Their vision, character and, often-bloody, history had made
Britain Great, with the likes of the Singer sewing machine company, and
textile mills, making the Kingdom a major exporter during the Industrial
Revolution. Not so today, most goods are imported. Each day Alex would visit
the descendants of those people, and gather their stories, while also
earning a living. They were everyday people, people that knitted
together to pain a picture of the past.
Through these people runs the blood of an empire past, but not entirely
His love for writing poetry allowed Alex to describe what he'd seen and the people
he met. As the weeks became months, then years, he started to arrange
the priceless anecdotes and stories from his customers. These were stories from all over the world but mainly from Sussex
folk; from meetings with explorers that had been to the heart of the Amazon, to people that knew
Rudyard Kipling, all
fascinating, every one.
In the stories on his website and in his books, you may get some idea of the affection that
Alex holds for this unique spot on our planet. As do we, seeking to
protect one of the rarest
buildings in the world today, and combat climate change.
A SUCCESS STORY
When Alex started to put pen to paper, who could have imagined what would
that might lead to. All of those he contacted advised him that writing a book was a dangerous game. Lots of time and money invested and little reward. Out of the thousands who try only a handful make it. How wrong they all
were. Alex reveals that his first book sold out so fast that he had hundreds
of pre-paid orders for the second edition, before I could get them printed. And don't forget this was in
the days when people had to write a letter, enclose a cheque and post
it. Snail mail. If Alex could have bottled the printers face when he turned up asking for more,
he could have sold it to clowns to scare children.
note, having collected so many stories, from so many people, for his
books. Alex is finally a character in a true story, himself. Immortalized,
as part of the discovery and saving of Herstmonceux Museum. A champion
of the Sussex countryside, natural and the built environment.
Quote from a BBC interview:
“My books are about local people, local history, local folklore even ghost stories plus photos thrown in for good measure. Why so many people have bought them from all around the world I am still unsure. We have posted out over 2,000 copies to America. Last year I had a couple sitting on my doorstep from Canada! I have also had visitors from Australia and Mexico as well as local people. Its all a bit of a shock to someone like me."
" Someone once described my books as a nostalgic trip down an old Sussex lane with cream tea thrown in. I loved that.”
“I know people say that my writing is very James Herriot you only have to read a few pages of mail I have put on my review page on my website to see."
"After I finished Patches of Heaven and started to get such incredible feedback I went out and bought one of Herriot's books to see what they were talking about. It is to my shame that I had never read any of Alf Whight's great stories about Herriot. There are similarities but one is fiction and East Sussex is very different to the Yorkshire Dales and far more appealing to me."
"Down here we really are walking in the footsteps of history from pre-Roman times when the great forests of Anderida stretched across the southeast. When Neolithic man tied an antler to a stick and started clearing land for cattle and pigs. Thousands of years had gone by before William decided to have a go at running the country in 1066.”
“ East Sussex has got to be one of the best places on this planet for history. For example, we have a higher concentration of medieval churches in this area than any place on earth! Birling Gap is in the top ten most beautiful but endangered places on this planet."
" I have simply put a lot of this history and information into my books from great battles to anecdotes about Rudyard Kipling from people who actually knew him”
“Since my second book, Skylark Country I have been on BBC radio, appeared in countless features and talked till my voice was hoarse. In fact I have had so little time to write that the third in the trilogy, High Streets & Hedgerows, has taken ages to finish. I even turned down more radio shows and talks just to concentrate on writing.”
“Since I started writing I was asked by a publisher to write a travel guide, another even knocking on my door, I declined. I write stories that touch people’s hearts, which make them laugh and cry. They are all from the people I have met in my travels around this little piece of heaven in which I was born."
" I have to admit that the books have been great fun to write. The fact that they have been described as the most successful trilogy to come out of Sussex for a decade is just a nice pat on the back."
"If I had the time I would do it all again. I ignored all the experts, probably through stubbornness and ignorance, but proved it was possible. The years have flown by since those early days on the road with my first tool kit. Now as I write in 2013 I am already working on book nine. The journey has been a great one, as exciting as any blockbuster, and the ride of my life."
GREAT BRITISH LIFE 20 DECEMBER 2011 - ALEX ASKAROFF'S LIFE WITH SEWING MACHINES IN EASTBOURNE
Sewing runs through Alex Askaroff's life from his beginnings at his family's firm to his current life as an expert on and repairer of sewing machines and author of many books about his life as a travelling repairman.
NO ONE really knows the path that seems to be mapped out for them. When my sneaky father asked me what I would like to do I answered immediately, “I would like to be a doctor, a surgeon”. He thought for a moment, scratched his head and told me how perfect that was as I could operate on his sewing machines!
He saw that one of his six boys had a gift in his fingers which, with training, could keep his busy production lines running. So my path was set but few could have foretold the collapse of the British manufacturing industry which would, in turn, lead to me becoming a master craftsman, run my own business, start a publishing company, write books, become one of the few world experts in early sewing machine pioneers like Isaac Singer, and build Sewalot.com, the number one website of its kind on the planet.
Where did this crazy journey start? I was born in the latter half of the 1950s in the busy bomb-blitzed seaside town of Eastbourne. It was the most bombed town on the south coast of England. Rubble still lay about, in places, from the 11,000 or so buildings damaged by Luftwaffe.
My father told me he was descended from a line of proud White Russians. By Dad’s accounts they were all sword swirling Cossacks. He had answered England’s call for men after the terrible losses of the Second World War. He was handed a ten-bob note at customs, patted on the back and told to, “Go forth and prosper.” That he did.
By the time I entered the world my parents were manufacturing baby goods from a factory in Eastbourne called Simplantex, trading under the name of Premiere Baby. It grew to be one of the largest businesses of its kind in Europe. For years I kept the sewing machinery running on the factory floor as well as all the outworkers that stretched from Hastings to Hove.
Eastbourne was a hive of industry. Many remember the huge Birds-Eye factory that ran 24 hours a day at what is now Tesco’s but there was also lots of fabric manufacturing from Jarvis Leather Goods to Pura Plastics, Lizannes, who made shower curtains by the thousands to Kitestlye and of course the famous Jaeger where a dress cost a month’s wages. There were many and sadly they are nearly all gone today.
Eventually, like so many British companies, Premiere Baby was priced out of the market by cheap imports and only a small part of the parent company survived.
After I left the family firm, I started Sussex Sewing Machines, which today looks after countless customers around the South East. My engineering diplomas and specialist training all those years earlier had stood me in good stead and my father’s words had proved right. I did not stumble across any Russian relatives riding bareback through the streets but I did have a living in my fingertips.
I am better known to thousands of households as the man who turns up to fix their sewing machines when they grind to a halt. An Alex Askaroff gold label on the machine is the clue. Few knew that for more than 20 years I had been collecting, writing down and publishing the fascinating history of our area mingled with our local folklore.
After my first few books, American publishers asked if they could publish my next works. I was gobsmacked. I said yes so fast I almost choked. I tried to appear calm and restrained but my brain was just shouting yes, yes, yes! They launched my books in 40 countries worldwide and they became some of the first ever E-books.
My last offering, Tales From The Coast, like my previous books, is a series of short true stories in which I try to bring both England’s history and her people vividly to life. It is full of more tales picked up from my customers, like the ghost of Vivien Leigh at Blackboys or Driscoll’s the Eastbourne dressmakers who worked for the Palace and spilt the beans on Queen Elizabeth’s pregnancy! Cockney royalty, war veterans, hop-pickers who picked while the Battle of Britain exploded above them, everyone from Salvador Dali to Picasso and William Duke of Normandy. In the meantime I shall carry on following my path and won’t be too surprised if I come across the odd Cossack or two.
Alex’s books were available from www.crowsbooks.com (now a dead link)
+44 1323 509874
If it had not been for Alex operating a mobile sewing machine repair
service, caring about Sussex, and taking the time to share information, Victor
would never have met Ronald Saunders, to help complete the Herstmonceux
heard that in early 2023, Alex was diagnosed with cancer. In a video on
Facebook in June, he tells that the treatment is nearly over, and it is
is quoted: WHAT A SHOCK! These last few months have been a trial by fire.
BUT there is some great news. My son Tom has been quietly creating something magnificent. Tom is the next generation in our sewing machine dynasty that stretches back to Victorian times.
https://vintagesewingmachines.co.uk/ is nothing short of spectacular. It is probably the finest of its kind and supplies the cream of machines to the ultimate collectors around the world. He has made me very proud. While I step back and smell my roses Tom will carry on the flag for great and rare machines selling from his site and Ebay. https://www.ebay.co.uk/usr/happyelephantcustoms
warmest wishes go to him and all his family.
you know of any information that may help us complete this story, please get in