|HARRY DAVIS: GROCER AND BUTCHER
The village grocers and butchers until 1970, situated opposite our present Village Stores & Post Office. It was run by Harry Davis until 1951 and then by his son, Milner.
To the right of the village pond, with its long garden leading down to the water’s edge stands Peartree Cottage, now 28 High Street and home of Elizabeth and Craig Cameron. Like many houses in the village the original building has been added to at different times, but if its bricks could speak many a story would be told.
In the late 1880’s it was a general store run by Jim Throssell and his wife, Clara. Years later, probably just after the First World War, Ellen Weeden worked in the shop. She lived at no. 1 Royal Oak Lane, later to become the home of Doris Trussell. Ellen met and married Harry Davis, a butcher by trade, who worked for Palmers, the Shillington butchery business. This was the same travelling butcher, Frank Palmer, who had the six terraced cottages built opposite our pond in 1899 (now nos. 81 -91 High Street).
Harry and Ellen Davis together ran the shop which they bought from Jim Throssell in the early 1920’s. The house at that time consisted of the front section of the present much larger house, recognised by its older brickwork. The front door was to the right-hand side with four windows at the front of the house. In A Foot on Three Daisies (page 24) there is a delightful picture of Harry Davis’ original shop. There was the front window displaying mainly groceries and enamelled advertisements around the door advertising Lyons Tea, Brooke Bond Tea, Lyons Coffee and other products.
Harry was both hard working and ambitious and it was not long before he and Ellen had an extension added to the front right-hand end of the house, coming forwards towards the main road (still easily recognisable). This was a considerable extension to the business and also coincided with their growing family, Vera, Lily and Milner. The left-hand side of the new extension served as the grocers, the right as the butchers. Strangely enough an advert in a Parish Magazine for 1927 announces Frank Davis, butcher and general provision stores at Little Green. Editors got it wrong then as well for it was certainly Harry, not Frank, Davis!
Harry and Ellen’s daughter, Lily, loved working in the shop but her sister (now Vera Farey and living in Royal Oak Lane) was certainly not enamoured by the shop; at least not as far as helping there was concerned. Vera worked there at various times until 1951 when her father died. Her brother, Milner Davis, took over the shop until it finally closed in 1970. In the early days Milner had worked at Moss’s, the Hitchin wholesalers in Bancroft (now Steve’s sports shops) and it was from there that most of the grocery provisions came. The meat came mainly from Coopers in Tilehouse Street, Hitchin and pigs that Harry killed. He supplied the most beautiful ham, dripping and brawn. Vera also remembers Harry supplying many with ‘Wally Dasher’ a name for black pudding. Others products, such as those from Brooke Bond and Lyons arrived by rail at Hitchin station and then by van to Harry Davis.
Harry had a pony and trap and Vera recalls lovely trips out to Shillington and Pegsdon. Another experience that Vera recalls with great affection was going out on the shop’s errand vehicle (a bicycle) and riding it through part of the village pond. ‘That was in the days before the present concrete platform at the right-hand end of the pond was built and many rode through the water; cycles for fun and horses for refreshment” The shop also employed a young lad fresh from the village school to do most of the deliveries. He is remembered by Irene Burton as ‘ a delightful little man in a brown smock’.
In front of the house (and still there) was a substantial hedge. This seems to have been a favourite hiding place for village children who would knock or ring at the doorbells of other shops and houses in High Street and then ran away. So many older residents seem to recall this children’s prank (along with others not to be advertised!) that it deserves an article on its own. If all those still living in the village who remember hiding behind Harry Davis’ hedge after such a prank were to stand together, they would virtually fill up the front garden!
The shop sold a huge range of grocery provisions as well as supplying the village with most of its meat. Not that quite all the customers are remembered by Vera with huge affection! ” I can recall my father saying that there were one or two customers who always seemed to make a point of coming in at 1.00 pm on a Saturday (half closing day). He just wouldn’t serve them! And there were just a few who always seemed to be complaining, but I guess it’s still a bit like that today in the village shop.”
During and in the few years immediately after the second world war things were very difficult in the shop. Rationing took up a huge amount of time as Harry and Ellen had to struggle with all the small coupons that were part of the rationing. Some products were in such short supply that business was much restricted. Holidays for Harry, Ellen and family were a rarity. Of course, until around 1961 most things could be obtained in the village at one shop or another. Vera remembers well going over to Ted Titmuss (corner of High Street and what is now Cromwell Way) to get a ‘semi-shingle’ hairstyling!
But, perhaps, the shop will be most remembered for its tales of pigs! Down the bottom of the garden, close to the pond, still stands the slaughtering shed. Vera recalls that some relatives, and others, paid her father for provisions not in cash, but with a pig. This was at a time when many kept a pig in their backyard for as A Foot on Three Daisies relates, ‘ there was an old Pirton saying that you had to have £100 and a pig to live in Pirton. Harry would collect a pig from the person owing to him and lead it up through the village to his property. At this point the story becomes rather gruesome and certainly an experience hated by Vera who often had to assist her father.
“For two days the pig was starved. A hoop was placed through (over) its nose and then its head pulled up by a rope, so its throat was stretched. I often had to hold the rope. Then father cut its throat. The screams and squeals from the pig were awful; everyone around Little Green knew exactly what was happening.” At this point in her recollections of fifty or so years ago, Vera disappeared for a moment and reappeared carrying a poleaxe. “This was used by my father for killing the pigs, but I hated it for sometimes he would swing it at them and not hit them correctly. Later on, he used an automatic pistol” Mind you, Vera added that the poleaxe had subsequently been used for driving in posts and various other jobs. During an outbreak of pig ‘pneumonia’ some thirty pigs were slaughtered in a single day, but it was usually just about one pig a week. In the slaughter shed by the pond you can still see the channels cut into the concrete to take away the blood. Many a bone has been turned up during subsequent gardening activity.
Many a pig was brought from Fred Weeden’s farm just across the road at Cromwell Farm (now Susy Pritchard-Barrett’s home) and Fred Gazeley of Great Green recalls that he was not alone in peeping through the gaps in the side of the ‘slaughter-shed’ to see what was going on.
It was in 1951 that Harry Davis died. Harry’s son Milner continued the shop, in which he worked in all for twenty-two years, assisted by Ellen. The shop continued for twenty years after Harry’s death. Milner and his wife Ruby had one of the first houses built in Cromwell Way, now the home of the Warner family. After Milner died, Ruby moved next door to No. 12 where she still lives. In one of those stories that seems to go full circle, we learn that Ruby was the niece of Jim and Clara Throssell who ran the shop back at the end of the last century! And what a splendid piece of local history was contained in the years that the shop was under Jim Throssell and later the Davis family; pigs and all !