|THE SHOP FOR ‘DOWN TOWN’ PIRTON
Once described as an ‘Aladdin’s Cave’, the shop at the corner of High Street and West Lane closed in 1979
Stand on the triangular green known as The Knoll and face the house at the junction of High Street and West Lane. Look carefully and you will see a bricked in door of what is now known as Trinity Cottage. Until 1979 this was the door into the shop that served ‘Down Town’ Pirton. It’s now the home of Louise and Stuart McConnachie, but the house still bears reminders of its former heyday when it met all the basic needs of that part of our village.
At the turn of the century it was kept by Frank Andrew and his wife who lived in nearby Orchard Cottage, now the home of Angela and Derek Kefford. Frank Andrew was also a churchwarden and Sunday School Superintendent. In the 1920’s the shop became ‘Pirton Cash Stores’, a name it was to keep for many years.
It was an Aladdin’s cave for children, full of sweets and games – sherbet dabs, vinegar flats, blackcurrant jellies and lucky bags; and spinning tops’. When Frank Andrew died in 1922, the shop was soon taken over by Samuel Rushton ‘a large man with a white moustache and a white apron’. Eva Chamberlain, who lives in Shillington Road, remembers his apron as ‘always being tightly buttoned up’. Unlike his predecessor, Samuel Rushton lived above the shop. Part of the lighting for the shop was created by tallow candles hanging from the ceiling, whilst outside there were the large enamelled advertisements for Brooke Bond tea and Force Flakes. In the time of both Frank Andrews and Samuel Rushton it was a provision store and grocers par excellence. The shop was supplied by Kinghams of Watford whose large van only just made it round the corner to the shop.
Samuel Rushton moved on from the shop around 1936. He had not been a local person and he moved right away from the area, but not before a romance had led his nephew to marry Doris Arnold. At that time, Doris lived in nearby Shillington Road, now the home of Irene and Colin Measures. Then the shop was taken over for a couple of years by a brother and sister from London, by name Dewhurst. Copies of deeds held by Louise and Stuart McConnachie show that the ‘parcel of land’ at this road junction – consisting of the shop, seven cottages and surrounding land adjacent to West Lane – changed hands in 1932 for £510.
Years earlier it had been a beer-house and the window still remains at the side of the house from where the ale was sold. Later, it went under the more proper title of ‘off-licence’. Louise and Stuart McConnachie’s house is now a delight to visit. When you go inside it is surprisingly large, for it now consists of what was separately nos. 57 & 59 West Lane, as well as the shop itself. In the middle of Louise and Stuart’s lounge floor there is a trap-door which leads down to a cellar going under much of the premises. This was where the stock was kept. In Samuel Rushton’s and other shop-owners’ time. Eva Chamberlain recalls the cellar being completely flooded.
On 25th March 1938 the shop passed on to Evelyn Tomlin, still living in West Lane, who served the village for thirty-two years. Outside were still some of the large enamelled advertisement signs including one for ‘Reckitt’s Blue’. She was helped in the shop by her husband Len, whilst daughter Molly delivered orders to houses in the village. But it was Evelyn who was the driving force behind the business and the shop’s range of items was extended, even from the ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of former times. Molly’s delivery bicycle was well-known in the village. It had previously been used by Tom Lake (indeed he is pictured with it in ‘A Foot on Three Daisies’). When it was with Tom, milkman in the village, Dick Chamberlain, who was still at school at the time, remembers using it for Tom’s deliveries. At that time the bike was new – so it served two village businesses for a period of many years.
In addition to its busy weekday and Saturday trade, most villagers knew that ice-cream could be bought between 12 noon and 1.00 pm on Sundays by going up the path to the right hand side of the shop. When Evelyn Tomlin had the shop, the late Doris Trussell and then Kit Brett, now living in Davis Crescent, worked in the shop. During Evelyn Tomlin’s time the calm of the village was disrupted by the Second World War. These were hard times for the village and some shop items were in short supply, some impossible to obtain. Norah Lake of Shillington Road remembers lodging her ration book with Evelyn Tomlin. ‘It was to her shop that I would go to get the meagre rations in exchange for the war-time coupons’, Norah recalls.
As the years passed more people owned cars and shopped further afield and the range of goods at the corner shop became a little less. After Evelyn Tomlin retired in June 1970, Mrs Gaynor and her daughter briefly ran things before moving to Letchworth; but during that time the business seemed to become less active. In 1971 Betty and Ted Turner, who live in Bunyan Close, took it over and for six years it proudly carried their name, ‘Turner Stores’. At this time, as in the previous seventy years, most of the trade came from villagers, but Betty recalls that on Sunday mornings, a busy time, many came from other villages.
Whilst the passing years saw a reduction in the range of stock, the variety of goods continued to compete well with any other village ‘corner-shop; groceries and everything from paraffin to sweets. Outside ‘Turner Stores’ there was a very smart awning which remained in place until knocked down by a careless delivery van. A variety of wholesalers kept the shelves well stocked. Betty took great pride in making sure that the shop window always looked attractive to entice people in to buy something. Then Betty made a decision which not only was she to regret, but one which also upset the organisers of the ‘Best Kept Village Competition’!
Betty changed from the variety of wholesalers who had supplied the shop to become a Spar outlet. This chain of suppliers was not only to cause an unwelcome restriction in products available, but also force Betty to cover up the window in the well-known (but desperately boring and unattractive) style of all Spar outlets. Gone were Betty’s attractive window displays and when the judges for the Best Kept Village competition came round they were to heavily criticise the window style. ‘The window was’, said Betty’ most inappropriate to a village shop’.
Betty had two ‘girls’ working in the shop, including Zoe Burton and Joan Bell. The shop was open all day including Saturdays, from 8.00am, except for early closing at lunchtime on Tuesdays. On Sundays the shop opened up from 8.00 am to 1.00 pm. ‘I did more trade on a Sunday morning than the whole of Monday and Tuesday’, Betty recalls. Nor were knocks on the door out of hours all that unusual -sometimes for something as trivial as a bag of sweets!
Home deliveries had long been part of the shop’s activity and Betty recalls calling at many of the homes in the village. One of her favourite customers was Jane Males, then in her 80’s and living in Holwell Road. Jane was still a well-loved character in the village and had previously been a devoted Sunday School Superintendent and manager of the village glove factory until it closed down just after the second world war. Jane’s favourite from ‘Turner Stores’ was a box of St. Ivel cheese but when Betty called at the house, full of home made wines and a wondrous assortment of jig-saws, Jane would delight in reciting poems of Victorian times to Betty!
Slowly, the demand for village shops was declining. Already the many shops of Pirton just after the second world war had declined to three – Turner Stores, one in Crabtree Lane and the present Post Office. Supermarkets were the order of the day. In 1976 Betty and Ted sold up and a Mr and Mrs Colin Bell took it over until the shop finally closed down in 1979. Having finally put up its shutters, the premises were bought and converted into a house. The old shop door was filled in, bay windows added and the garden was most attractively developed by David Willis.
Inside the house, the various levels on both floors, the several chimneys and fireplaces, the ceiling and wall bulges tell of many alterations and additions since these simple cottages were built. Next time you are passing the corner of West Lane and High Street have a look for the bricked-in door which tells of the village past – of a shop which served Down Town Pirton for more than seven decades.