What happens if your house-mover vanishes and takes all your belongings with it?
Homeowners in Yorkshire who were left thousands of pounds out of pocket when the removals firm they hired disappeared with their cash have been promised their money back after The Observer intervened last week.
Brown and Sons, a removals company with a business address in Hull, employed a team of salesmen to call on local people who had For Sale signs outside their properties. The firm, run by sole trader Richard Brown, then gave people discounted quotes for their removals bill and in many cases for storage as well.
The company had large adverts in the local Yellow Pages and came highly recommended by the neighbours of some of those about to move. But about a month ago, just before the floods hit Hull, Brown and his team disappeared from their business address and have not answered any phone calls since.
Anne Cottingham, a retired headmistress, was five days away from her move to Norfolk when she realised something was amiss. ‘It wasn’t until I wanted some more boxes the Thursday before I was due to move that I started to worry, as the company was not answering the phones,’ she says. ‘I had paid them for half the price of the move, £594, and I have since had to pay again to get another firm to move me. The very thought of getting to Tuesday, the day I was due to move, and no one turning up filled me with horror.’
David Taylor and his wife Marjorie, and husband and wife Roger and Val Bachelor, are, by coincidence, all retiring to the same town in Devon in the same week in August. Both couples had put all their possessions into storage with Brown and Sons – or so they believed. ‘We had paid £1,127 to Brown and Sons, half the cost of removals and storage. We became suspicious when they didn’t answer the phones for days or send us the boxes we had asked for,’ says Mr Taylor.
The Bachelors had paid for removal but not storage. ‘The realisation that we had lost our money was bad enough, but what was more of a worry was what had happened to all our furniture and personal belongings,’ says Mrs Bachelor.
The Taylors and the Bachelors eventually came across their belongings when they started to ring other removal companies. Their containers were being stored with Arnolds, another local firm which had leased storeage space to Richard Brown before he disappeared. Both couples have now paid Arnolds to move them. Arnolds was also storing the goods of another couple who were customers of Brown and Sons, Ted and Rachael Chamberlain. The newlyweds had over £4,000 of wedding gifts in storage as well as the rest of their household possessions. ‘We spent a very stressful weekend not knowing if we would ever get our stuff back,’ says Mr Chamberlain.
Carl Arnold, who runs Arnolds, says he is still coming across people desperately searching for their belongings. ‘We are in the process of tracking down the last couple of customers,’ he says.
The Observer has been in contact with Hull City Council’s trading standards department over the last fortnight and last Wednesday it said it had located Brown and spoken to him. ‘Richard Brown has confirmed that his business has folded,’ says Mike Pindar of the council. ‘He has given us reassurances that he will return everybody’s money and their goods. We will be liaising with him over the course of the next few weeks.’
Both Arnolds and another local removals firm, Hardaker’s, say they are also owed money by Brown after he leased storage space from them.
‘The man is a sole trader and therefore a law unto himself. But I don’t feel this is an isolated incident; I feel this is going on throughout the UK,’ says Tony Lawson, managing director of Hardaker’s. ‘I am disappointed that the industry is not regulated. Anyone can buy a van and some glossy brochures and set themselves up as a legitimate removals firm.’
Arnold says people need to be more careful in choosing a removals company. ‘People will pay £800 to get a survey done on their house without question, but they won’t pay someone proper money to move their possessions. They need to do proper checks on a company; otherwise it’s like getting your gas boiler inspected by someone who is not Corgi registered.’
Jon Allen, a policeman, says he is also owed money by Brown and Sons. Mr Allen believes he did everything reasonable to check on the firm before he chose them. ‘After I had given him some of the money for storage, Brown even called me to tell me I had overpaid,’ he says.
It was only when the floods hit Hull in early July that Mr Allen began to worry. ‘I called the firm as I was worried our stuff, which we believed was in storage at their offices near the river Hull, could have been flooded. I was reassured everything was fine and Mr Brown asked me to send a cheque to cover the next week’s storage. I never heard from him again.’
Alan Cocksworth, a retired policeman, also says he had no reason to distrust the firm, which he says has disappeared with £761 of his money. ‘A neighbour of ours moved with them and recommended them, as did the lady who moved in across the street. They were in the Yellow Pages with three different adverts and sent us a glossy brochure, so we had no reason to think anything was wrong.’
Richard Brown did not respond to The Observer’s attempts to contact him.