Miss Burling Drapery Shop


Miss Burling’s shop at the corner of Little Lane & High Street

At one end of Cromwell Terrace stands the present Village Stores and Post Office. At the other end, on the corner with Little Lane, there is another of these late Victorian cottages, but look carefully and you can see a bricked in door on the corner. Just after the turn of this century, a Mr. Westwood was running one of the several shops in our village from this corner site.


When Mr. Westwood left the village, probably in 1927, Miss Rachel Burling took over the shop and, as an advert in the parish magazine of that year proudly states, she was the proprietress of a general stores selling drapery and fancy goods. While she was to run this same shop for well over twenty years she remains something of an enigma – we really don’t know from where she came or where she went!


Even the longest memories in the village cannot recall her having any relatives or visitors. She was a big lady who suffered much from ill health having much difficulty with walking, especially in her later days in the village. She had previously been in service as a cook in a big house, although no-one recalls where. She lived above the shop and Gordon Burton remembers when, in his schooldays, he delivered milk for Weeden’s Farm, that he seemed one of the few who went into her back room where she lived. ‘Her small living room was stacked with items which were later transferred into the shop, or which she fetched out if specially ordered for her customers, as she was a very obliging person’. Maurice Goldsmith, now living in Pollards Way, lived next door and he can still remember the other occupants of Cromwell Terrace in the ’30’s: ‘Harold Titmuss, John Lawrence the bootmaker, Harry Reynolds, Hubert Roberts and then, of course, John Thrussell at the post office’.


If you look at the corner of Cromwell Terrace and ‘put in’ the front door where it is now bricked up and imagine the large enamel advertisements, the external appearance was not so very different when Miss Burling had the shop. The small window onto Little Lane displayed a variety of goods and the big window at the front many items including jig-saws. Much to Miss Burling’s consternation, the window sill in front was a popular sitting place for three or four children to sit and gossip. As you entered the shop, measuring only about eleven by twelve feet in total, a loud bell rang to attract Miss Burling’s attention.

1929 Rachel Burling’s shop at the end of Cromwell Terrace, High Street. She sold “things you could not buy in other shops” including drapery, ladies’ vests, men’s socks, shampoo, cold creams, threads and papers of pins. Much to the children’s delight, she also made ice cream in a churn and sold gobstoppers, vinegar flats and liquorice root. Later the shop was run by Hilda Cheshire followed by Lil Gazely. It closed in 1963.

Haberdashery items of all kinds; wool, cottons, buttons, sweets, tobacco, soft-drinks, shampoo, simple medicines, men’s socks, ladies stockings, aprons, vests and tinned goods like cocoa contested each other for space. Eva Chamberlain, now living in Shillington Road, remembers with some affection the violet cashew nuts ‘which made our breath smell nice’. Marcus Thrussell who lived with his parents in the post office at the other end of the terrace, remembers that before the war she used to make her own ice-cream for sale. His brother, Tom, recalls that she used to have a large block of ice delivered to the shop and that he and Maurice Goldsmith used to chip away at the ice to break it into small pieces. She would then mix it with sugar and cream and whatever else went into her recipe for fine ice cream. As a reward for their labours they were given a cup or two of this lovely ice cream.


As with most of the village shops at that time, paraffin was a big seller. She kept it in a special tank in a shed at the back. This tank had a vertical handle and, Marcus Thrussell recalls, ‘She perfected a somewhat graceful action at the pump. As children we used to watch her pumping the paraffin and mimic her action – much to her annoyance if she spotted us”.


Before the war conditions were very different to now. There was a huge tank sunk into the ground round the back of Cromwell Terrace into which the water from the house ran. Indeed, the tank may still be full of water, but has been concreted over and is now decorated with many pots of flowers! Water did not come to the village until 1935 and then only to standpipes, so water from the communal tank was collected in buckets and transferred to individual coppers for washing clothes and other uses. And by the back door, as with many cottages in the village, was the ‘privy’. When the bucket was filled it was emptied on a communal site for the houses around. Maurice Goldsmith could remember the exact spot!


It is reputed that Revd. Winkworth owned the first car in the village, but Miss Burling was not far behind. Her Trojan was a well known local sight., she kept it in the nearby large barn belonging to Frank Shepherd, bus owner and school caretaker. The shed was later pulled down to make way for the bungalow on the corner of Little Lane where Jessica and Rodney Ashwood now live. Stories about her car are part of local folklore. One villager walking up from Holwell was offered a lift by Miss Burling and as he went to get in, the car shot off without him. She often seemed to have trouble recognising the difference between brake and clutch. Others remember that when reversing out of the shed, she would shoot backwards across the road and embed the exhaust in the far side road bank! No doubt the car helped her to get around for she suffered much with ill-health. She relied heavily on a walking stick, but later even had to give up driving. “I think she may have had an accident in her car which forced her to give up’, a villager recalls.


She was certainly a forceful lady, though remembered by many with affection She had a reputation for being grumpy ( or more!), but Clare Baines remembers ‘her bark as being much worse than her bite’. Children were often the bane of her life. One child on the way to school was reported to Miss Farris the school headteacher, for knocking on Miss Burling’s door and running off (This seemed to be a not infrequent children’s pursuit). Faced by Miss Farris, he was offered a choice – the cane or a visit to Miss Burling to apologise. He chose the cane! Her windowsill was a popular perch for groups of children and many elderly villagers now recall how annoying they must have been to her.’ We used to tie her door knockers together with string and bang on her wall to annoy her and I expect she did get fed up when lots of us congregated outside her shop and finally went in just to get a halfpenny’s worth of dolly mixtures!’


Whilst she is not remembered as having close friends in the village, she certainly involved herself in local activities. She became a member of the St. Mary’s Parochial Church Council, just a year after it came into being in 1926. Six years later she took over from Revd. Winkworth as church treasurer and although ill-health seems to have kept her away from PCC meetings between 1942 and 1945, she remained church treasurer until 1946. She was keen on music and as well as being a member of the church choir she played with the Herts Rural Music School set up by Mary Ibbotson to promote orchestral music among rural communities. Miss Burling played the viola along with Betty Huckle on the violin and Betty’s mother, Edith when they met regularly at Pirton school. She was also a regular participant in the weekly whist drives at the Village Hall, to which she was taken by car.


In 1949 she resigned from St. Mary’s PCC after a spell in hospital. By this time she was quite an elderly lady and having run the shop for well over twenty years, she left the shop and village. It seems that she went to live in Arlesey for the rest of her life, but this remains uncertain. (Does any reader know?). The shop continued until 1963. On Miss Burling’s departure it was run jointly by Kath Watts from Holwell Road and her sister, Hilda Cheshire. Then after Kath and Hilda, the shop was taken over by Lil Gazeley who lived at Great Green. She also delivered the newspapers in the village until that was later taken on by Derek and Babs Cook. Lil had a boxer dog that used to sit up with its paws on the counter. By this time the shop was probably selling fewer lines, although Norah Lake certainly remembers a wide range of haberdashery and sweets on sale, with paraffin still a popular line and jigsaws in the window.


In 1963 the shop finally closed and Ernie Hallsworth converted it into a private house. Internally, the house, now David Britnell’s home, bears no evidence of its former history. However, stand in High street and see the now bricked-in corner door and one can imagine some of the very sober, elderly villagers of today knocking at Miss Burling’s shop door before running off!


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