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Swindon's Oldest Businesses - Hillier Funeral Service
In the latest series of our business articles, we are exploring Swindon's oldest businesses and finding out the secrets to their successful longevity. In our first episode we speak to Hillier Funeral Service who have been open in the town since 1923.
When did your business first open?
The business was established in 1923 by Harold Hillier, Harold had a building company based at The Broadway, Rodbourne Cheney. He had a workforce of 60 men and built many of the houses in the area and was best known for William Bowles Hall in Cheney Manor.
However, the depression days arrived and contracts dried up so his cousin Jack suggested Harold started carrying out funerals. Today the business is still based at The Broadway and is still owned and run by the Hillier family.
Michael, Harold’s son, joined the company in 1944 and was followed by his son Mark in 1980. Mark’s daughter Rebecca joined the business in 2014.
Today the business is run by Mark and his daughter Rebecca. The family are proud to still operate as an independent, family funeral directors.
Has your business changed in any way since it opened?
In our 98 year history, the business has needed to change to adapt to the needs of our customers and the different services available. However a strong family presence has remained throughout the years, and the ethos and legacy that Harold started, has carried on.
Funerals have changed in many ways since we first opened. There was no crematorium in Swindon until 1966. Any families wishing to have a cremation would need to travel to Oxford, however, wartime petrol restrictions prohibited such a journey by car so families travelled in our Rolls Royce hearse instead.
Up until 1990, all the coffins were made from scratch using butts of oak and elm at our Broadway workshop. Nowadays this is uneconomical, so all our coffins are purchased as a shell from a local supplier and hand finished with handles and linings.
Today the business has 3 branches, The Broadway, Victoria Road in Old Town and Lechlade Road in Highworth. The Broadway has 5 spacious and refurbished chapels and our Highworth branch has 2, enabling families to spend undisturbed time with their loved ones.
How has your business had to adapt over the years?
There are so many different options available to families today which wouldn’t have been an option 20 years ago. Wicker and cardboard coffins have increased in popularity in 6 years since I joined the business. Every funeral is unique and can be personalised to the families requirements.
With the current pandemic, most families are opting to have the service live-streamed for anyone unable to attend in person. We’ve spent quite a lot of time updating our website to include our full range of products and pricing. This is so important at the moment where we are unable to meet with families face to face.
It also enables families to make informed choices, being upfront and open about pricing is so important. Our pricing is competitive and representative of the service we provide.
Charity donations are very popular at funerals in lieu of flowers and in recent years we have seen a surged in people wanting to donate online. We have therefore created online memory pages on our website where people can make donations, leave messages and light virtual candles.
What has been the key to your longevity?
As the fourth generation business, we continue the family tradition of helping families at their time of need, with a personal and dignified service. Customer service is incredibly important, our families have come to expect a certain standard from us. That goes for our premises, vehicles, and staff members.
We are constantly looking at the changing needs of our families and making changes to our service offering to meet these requirements.
What has been the biggest challenge for your business?
There are seasonal variations in our business which can cause problems with ensuring we have enough staff members available.
Changes in recent years to the Health and Safety regulations and staying compliant by keeping our staff safe. There have been many changes in legislation, and we receive regular updates from our trade associations advising us of best practices.
The coronavirus pandemic has been a big challenge for us, but with a great team of staff we have come up with ways to provide socially distanced funerals which still meet our high level of customer service. We have continued age-old traditions of shoulder bearing coffins into the crematorium and churches and always use a hearse.
Initially, it was very difficult to get hold of the correct PPE to protect our staff members but now the supply seems to be plentiful. We have carried on dressing and preparing people who have passed away from Covid for chapel visits and have hygiene screens fitted in our limousines.
Would you like to add anything else?
It is a great privilege to have supported so many Swindon families in our 98 years. We often have families come back to us where we have conducted funerals for all the generations in their family.