|A REMARKABLE MAN IN OUR POST OFFICE
Our current shop, a centre of village life as it has been for over a century.
In looking at the old shops of the village it is often the owner who is as interesting as the shop itself. That is certainly so as we reflect upon the only shop still remaining in the village – the Post Office and Village Stores, now run by Helen & Jeff Smith.
Here in High Street is Cromwell Terrace, built sometime in the last century and consisting of eight small cottages (now nos. 51 – 65). The end one, at some point joining forces with the one next door, has served as post office and stationers, grocery shop, boot repairers, shoe, strong boot and Wellington boot retailer. For much of the century it combined other supplies with that of post office before that service moved across to nearby Crabtree Lane in the early 1960’s, returning to its earlier home some four years ago.
1925 The Post Office in Cromwell Terrace was initially a boot and shoemakers run by William Throssell. His son John took over in 1919 and later ran the Post Office. The first public telephone was installed here in 1923. There were complaints to the Parish Council about a lack of privacy together with requests for a more private phone. As a result, in 1931 a public call box was installed.
The longest serving occupant was John Thrussell, Chairman of the Parish Council and School Governing Body, special constable, war-time food controller and chairman of the invasion committee, French and Greek student, shorthand specialist, international astronomer, geologist, staunch supporter of the village strict and particular Baptists and champion of gypsies rights. John wore easily all these mantles as well as running the post office and shop for forty years until the 1960’s.
At the turn of the century the end cottage was the home of the Thrussell family and across the yard, in what later became the washhouse, boots were made and repaired. The house was first occupied by John but around 1909 his brother, William, became the occupant and he established the boot and shoe workshop in no. 63 His son John, who was born in 1885, helped his father repair shoes and keep the small room given over to repair in some semblance of order with its array of lathes, tools, leather and bits and pieces. John was a contemporary at the village school with George Abbiss, later to become Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
John served in the First World War and took over the premises from his father who died in 1919. John and Ethel Thrussell, remembered by Irene Burton of Danefield as ‘a very small, sweet lady’, raised a family of seven children and when John brought the post office to Cromwell Terrace along with many stationery lines, space was by no means plentiful for the Thrussells. The family wash-house was out the back. John no longer continued the boot-making business, although still making footwear for himself and family, but boots and shoes continued to be sold from the shop. Villagers paid John 6d. a week for footwear. Many remember that John carried a wide range of shoes and boots and that there was always ‘ a lovely smell of leather in the shop’.
The post office area was much smaller than the present shop for the end section served as the family’s lounge (The door into the lounge from the street is still there but no longer an entrance to the shop). At 6.30 each morning the mail bag arrived from Hitchin; unsorted, needing to be put into streets by John before being delivered to individual houses. John himself delivered the post, an important service in the village, later the job was splendidly taken up by Wilf Lake and then by Roy Burton.
John’s son Marcus, now living in Langford, remembers much of these days when his father’s shop was one of the several in the village. In addition to the shops there were other individual villagers who served the people in Pirton, not least John (Jack) Lawrence who supplied and repaired shoes from his hut on Great Green (where his son Geoff and Pat Lawrence now live at ‘Springfields’) It was a village with much more daytime bustle than nowadays, but John Thrussell always closed the post office and shop from 2pm to 3pm. As a youngster he had built a telescope out of disused tins and other oddments. Later he constructed a much larger telescope for which he built an observatory with a rotating dome. This was situated on the strip of grass near Little Lane. Running the shop was certainly not to cramp his many interests and if the sun or particular cloud formations attracted his interest then he called on his wife to ‘run the shop for a few minutes’.
He fascinated many in the village with his tales of the solar system bringing many to his telescope. Joy Franklin remembered with affection how ‘ he ‘tried to educate the rest of us about the mysteries of the heavenly bodies’. He became a member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers and sent the results of his observations to Harvard University and the British Astronomical Association.
When main supplies of water, along with sewage and electricity, came to the village in the 1930’s the water board decided to set up a pumping station at the junction of Priors Hill and the road to Shillington (there’s a small copse there now). John who kept bees on his half-acre plot of land adjacent to the meadow behind Cromwell Farm, owned by Weeden’s, often used to chat with Cyril Furr who lived in West Lane over the fence. Cyril, who now lives in Three Closes, remembers John telling him that he had warned the water board that the site of the pumping station was ill-chosen. And so it turned out. There really wasn’t much that John Thrussell didn’t know about the natural world round Pirton – and beyond.
John, like his father William before, was the life-blood of the ‘Providence Baptist Chapel’ built in 1848. Described as Strict and Particular Baptists it was next to John Lawrence’s shoe making shed on Great Green. One of John’s most remarkable feats was his gift in self-teaching. He had learnt Greek, French and shorthand and would often translate fluently from a French bible. His long-hand writing was fine, too. Eva Chamberlain remembers him using a long quill pen with the most beautiful writing.
During the war John was appointed food controller which meant that he was empowered to take control of all village food supplies in the event of an emergency – a power he never had to take up. There were the sad times in the war for from the same post office telegrams bearing tragic events of the war arrived and had to be delivered. Marcus, no more than a schoolboy at that time, recalls his father telling him to deliver a telegram, ‘but just knock at the door and then quickly leave’. Marcus also helped deliver the post and relates that around that time a fifth of Pirton houses had only one occupant. Addresses were not always clear and postcards would come addressed to ‘Walker, Royal Oak Lane’, at a time when many Walkers lived in that road. ‘But my father would look at the card and know for whom it was intended’.
In 1944 the bomb fell on the Bury destroying John’s beloved Baptist Church and damaging many properties in the village. John advised many on claiming war reparations for damage, especially to windows. During the war he added to his many community responsibilities that of chairman of the invasion committee – fortunately a task he never had to fulfil. He also acted as rent collector for all the properties in the row of cottages known as Cromwell terrace (now nos. 51-61 High Street). They were all owned by a Mrs Needham who lived in Luton and John collected the five shillings a week rent from each. Later the ownership of the terrace was split up. In the early 1960’s John retired and the post office moved to the shop in Crabtree Lane. In 1966 both John and his wife Ethel died and they now rest in St. Mary’s churchyard.
The properties formerly run by John Thrussell were bought by Ernest Hallworth. As well as a shop the premises were the centre of the building and electrical businesses run by Ernest and his son in law, Keith Pamphilion. During their time the shop retailed a generous supply of electrical and decorating supplies. In 1983 the shop moved into the safe hands of Doug and Chris Crawley. Then in 1989 to Janice Mellett although Christine Crawley continued to work there for a while, and then to Jim and Margot Monk; now to Helen & Jeff Smith. During Doug & Christine’s ownership, the post office moved back to Cromwell Terrace. When Derek and Betty Cook retired from delivering newspapers in the village, the shop took on the newspapers, too.
The shop, and its owners, is central to much in the village – as post office, store and a place to exchange news. John Thrussell, who ran the shop for forty years, was a remarkable, eccentric, learned and memorable character in many fields.