Sworders: A Bishop’s Stortford Success Story Three Centuries in The Making

21/05/2018     Fine Interiors

In 1782 Peter Ramsay began his practice as an agricultural agent in a coffee shop on North Street, Bishop’s Stortford. In the 1840s the business was taken over by George Edward Sworder, and soon became G E Sworder & Sons, when he brought his three sons on board. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the Sworder family’s company grew and grew, to become one of Bishop’s Stortford’s most highly respected businesses covering property sales, the livestock market and, of course, fine art and antiques. Sworders truly established itself when in the 1920s it held a series of sales auctioning the assets of Walter Gilbey, Bishop Stortford’s famous (and very wealthy) wine merchant and founder of Gilbey’s Gin. 

Sworders Bishop's Stortford Saleroom

Sworders Bishop’s Stortford Saleroom

Fast forward to 1985, when I began my career with Sworders which was, by this time, established as a multi-practice regional estate agent. The auction room was based in a tiny wooden building in Northgate End (the building now forms part of Glyn Hopkin’s garage site). At the end of the 1980s, building societies were buying estate agents across the country, and G E Sworder & Sons was sold. However, my colleagues and I were determined to keep the Sworder name alive and, with the auction room thriving, we felt it was a sustainable part of the business to retain…a very good decision. Sworders as we know it today, was born.


Bishop’s Stortford Saleroom Valuation Day – Tim Turner and Guy Schooling

A Valuation Day in Bishop’s Stortford with (now) Chairman Guy Schooling and Senior Valuer Tim Turner, 1993

From then on, we continued to develop our knowledge of fine art and antiques, building a team with expertise across a wide variety of fields. Today, Sworders is one of the most long-established and respected auction houses in the United Kingdom, holding more than 40 auctions per year. The business employs a team of 30 full time staff and 20 part time staff, with specialists in Asian art, 20th century design, fine jewellery and watches, modern art and British and European furniture and works of art, to name but a few.

The business has continued to grow at a phenomenal rate over the past 30 years – it is incredible how far Sworders has come. In 2000, we outgrew our cosy auction room in Bishop’s Stortford and acquired new premises, five times the size, in the heart of Stansted Mountfitchet, with a 21 year lease. I was convinced that the space would last us for at least the next 20 years, but within just a couple of years we needed more room – more storage, a bigger area for auctions to take place, and additional parking spaces and accessibility. In 2002, we decided to take a leap of faith and purchased our current site, a disused gravel works on Cambridge Road, on the outskirts of Stansted Mountfitchet and four miles north of the original premises in Bishop’s Stortford. Certain that this would be the right space for the longer term, the land was purchased (without planning permission) thus we spent five years preparing a nerve racking planning application. 

Planning permission was granted in 2007 and we finally began to build the award-winning auction rooms that we know today. In March 2008 we were overjoyed to open the doors to our brand new, eco-friendly auction rooms after the year-long building project. During planning, the company directors and I spent a lot of time working on the concept for the building – efficient use of space and resource was a key consideration but so too was a mission to have a positive impact on our local environment. The late Robert Ward Booth, an architect and Director at Sworders at the time, proposed the eco-building design, and it was my wife, Pam, who suggested the wonderful idea of constructing with straw bale walls. In the end, the building’s timber frame was sourced from managed sustainable forests in Scandinavia and filled with the tight-packed locally sourced straw bales, which are compressed and held together under a sustainable cedar-shingle roof.

Design for Sworders Stansted Mountfitchet Saleroom

Plans for the build of the new Stansted Mountfitchet Salerooms

 Not long after opening, Sworders held its inaugural, and extremely successful, Country House sale, where I had the pleasure of being the auctioneer. The auction featured many significant items, including The Red Coat (1926), Christopher Wood’s notable portrait of Jeanne Bourgoint, who was famously the inspiration for one of Jean Cocteau's Enfants Terribles; the painting sold for £30,000. Another memorable sale was held in 2013, when we auctioned the private cellar of Hugh Johnson, the world's best-selling wine writer. The auction included more than £100,000 worth of wines, collected by Johnson over a half a century; there were vintages dating back to the 1830s and even a single 1971 German Riesling, which sold for £6,000.

In April 2018 Sworders conducted its biggest auction to date; the North Mymms Park sale comprised the entire contents of the Hertfordshire estate, formerly owned by Anglo-American banker Walter Hayes Burns. The sale included a collection of 17th/18th century European tapestries that had been in the property for over a century, as well as famous paintings, antique furniture and an exquisite silver candelabra. With 550 lots offered during the two day sale, the grand total of sales reached £1.75m with an average lot value of over £5,000. 1,718 bidders registered for the sale across the two days, with over £600,000 of art and antiques sales transacted online – showcasing how the introduction of online auctions has supported the expansion of Sworders.

Sworders is now one of the five most successful and respected regional auction rooms in the country, and operates internationally, providing valuation and auction services worldwide. Due to the continued growth, just three years after opening, the auction rooms were further extended to include 20 additional containers for auction items. As well as these award-winning auction rooms in Stansted Mountifitchet, Sworders currently maintains offices in Hertford and Stansted, and also has a representative in Kent. We are now looking to secure further warehouse space to store exhibition consignments, as well as expanding the online, international side of the business.

Sworders Team 2018

The Sworders Team May 2018

 To commemorate 10 years in our award winning auction rooms, Sworders is hosting a prestigious two-day 10th Anniversary sale on Tuesday 19 and Wednesday 20 June. The auction will profile more than 1000 lots of fine furniture, British and European paintings, silver, clocks and works of art. We would like to invite our local community to come along to experience the excitement of the sale and celebrate our anniversary with us. For more information about the sale please call 01279 817778.

In support of Tom's Trust

Tom's Trust

You can make a donation to Tom’s Trust now by simply texting the message 'TOMS11£amount' to 70070, for example to make a £10 donation, please text 'TOMS11£10' to 70070.

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