The pub with no beer...

9th January 1998 at 00:00
A converted inn houses the creators of innovative programs for primary pupils. Chris Abbott visited the village whose other industry is knicker elastic.

WILTSHIRE villages have many claims to fame - sheep, sausages and skittles, to name three - but only one is the source of two vital commodities: most of the knicker elastic used by Marks Spencer and innovative educational software for primary schools. Mentioning the name of the village, Sherston, is enough for the smile of recognition to appear on many primary school teachers' faces.

Bill Bonham hadn't heard of Sherston in the mid-Eighties, when he was teaching in a newly opened primary school in Thamesmead, east London. Bill was a maths specialist. He left three years later to be a deputy head in Gloucestershire, at which point Bill and his wife, Lou, bought a house in the village.

It was at his Gloucester junior school that Bill first came across computers in the classroom, when an early BBC micro arrived one day. Not all was well, however, as he explains. "The software didn't suit my needs or style. I thought I could do better. I suppose I got the computing bug, and I soon started to write software for the kids I was teaching."

This wasn't Bill's first experience of computers; he had enjoyed working on a terminal at college, creating simple programs on punch tape. Now, his program-writing activities had to fit in with his main outside-school task of restoring the semi-derelict cottage to where the Bonhams had moved.

It is at that point that the first example of what Bill calls Sherston luck struck him, for living just down the road in the same village was a computer programmer. "I mentioned my BBC to George Keeling in the pub; he said why don't you start writing programs for it properly. We soon went into partnership, I found someone who could program a BBC and I designed the first few programs. We were in business."

That was in 1983. It was a business, however, without premises - apart from sharing the cottage with a growing family.

Early marketing decisions were left to Lou, who came up with the idea of offering programs on approval, and some test mailshots suggested that schools liked the idea. With support from the bank manager, mailings to schools around the country produced plenty of orders, which were then made up by outworkers around Sherston.

Within 18 months Bill gave up teaching and Sherston Software was growing quickly, although still being run from the Bonhams' attic.

Bill knew that further expansion would depend on getting more people involved. "Authors sent us ideas for programs: some of them went on to work with us for many years.

"The real turning point was when Simon Hosler came on board. He taught near me in Gloucester, although we didn't know each other then. Wizard's Revenge was produced as part of his work for a course he was taking."

Another big step was the decision to employ more people and that the company could no longer be run from the Bonhams' cottage. The former doctor's surgery became available and that building, together with a garage next door, is still used by Sherston Software. But the site wasn't big enough, and soon the top floor of the new doctor's surgery across the road was taken over, with a network cable linking the two sites.

The next expansion would have meant a move out of the village, if it hadn't been for the closure of the Angel Inn. Although a large village, Sherston couldn't seem to support three pubs and it was clear that the 17th-century premises would have to be found a new role. A consultation exercise backed the plans and Sherston Software moved in, but not before throwing open the pub to the entire village for one last night, with all the drinks free.

Angel House's interior was purpose-designed for the software company after it was gutted. "It was a good exercise for us: we had to plan our working environment. We were able to think about things like staff showers, meeting rooms and networking." The property has a walled garden, which is used for barbecues and staff football.

It was opened by a pair of celebrities - two pupils from the village primary school opposite. "We hired a Rolls-Royce, drove them around the village, then they walked in on a red carpet and declared the building open."

Staffing has never been a problem": "One PC developer left and almost the next day someone from three doors away walked in and said she was a programmer looking for a job."

As well as the 20 staff working in Angel House, there are six authoring teams. New titles sell in very large numbers: Tizzy's Toybox has sold almost 4, 000 copies since it was launched last year. The company's software is sold in New Zealand, Australia and the United States, and there are Norwegian and Danish versions of The Crystal Rain Forest.

Last year was an important one for Bill. He was elected chair of the Educational Software Producers Association (ESPA) and he resigned as managing director of Sherston Software, a decision he reached after a fortnight on a Greek beach. He appointed Sherston stalwart Dave Eccles as MD, and created a role for himself as creative and project director.

"It's a huge relief. I can concentrate on educational matters. I've become a governor of a local primary school and I spend a lot of time going into schools and seeing what is really happening."

It has been a hectic period of growth, so where does Bill want his company to be in another 12 years? "I would like Sherston to be a major force. In the USA there are six companies which fill that role. But it would be a brave person who would make any prediction in this field.

"Whatever happens, I hope we're still here and making a contribution."

BETT Connection

Sherston Software stand 260Tel: 01666 840433

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