The photograph on the right was taken in 1914 and shows the hardware shop built by Charles Symes in front of his house on the corner of St John Street and Gloucester Road. There is another photo shown below.
“Up until the 1980s there was also an extension to the house – ‘the shop’ – which in one way and another governed much of our lives. It was built in about 1900 and from its appearance was never the subject of a local government planning application. Had there been a small yellow notice on the gate, circa 1899, declaring the owner’s intentions and had it been officially approved then surely there would have been a demand for a public inquiry. Unless municipal tastes have totally changed in the last 100 years, no one in 1900 could possibly have opted for the addition of a yellow and red monstrosity to a Georgian house of fine proportions! From what I know of grandfather, I imagine that a few strings were pulled, a builder friend or perhaps a relative had drawn up the plans and the whole thing was completed before any serious objections could be mustered. All in all, it was a frightful construction which in its original pristine condition must have been even more hideous than the building I first saw some 30 years later. Had it not been for an impossible chronology, I would have suggested that it had been modelled on an old-style Bristol Aeroplane Company hanger and miniaturised.
The roof of the shop was made from curved sections of corrugated galvanised iron bolted to a wooden frame. It was regularly painted with the best quality, ‘ship’s bottom’ red lead paint and was hidden from public view at the front of the shop – but not the sides – by a low parapet. It drained into black cast iron downpipes which unloaded into ‘boxed in’ open drains which as far as I know did not contribute to the bathroom water supply! The main structure was of yellow brick, which was commonly used for late 19th and early 20th century buildings on both banks of the Severn; the bricks were probably made in Wales or perhaps Somerset. The shop with one of its large windows fronting on to the Gloucester Road, looked as though it had been deliberately placed there to attract the people who walked up from the ‘council houses’. However, once again, the chronology does not support the theory as the estate had been built about a half mile to the north of the town at least 10 years after the shop. It is always possible or even likely, of course, that Charlie Symes had been forewarned of the development and had built in advance but, unfortunately, to no avail: most of the passing potential customers emptied the residues of their pay packets in the ‘down town’ shops in the High Street.
The entrance to the shop was via a double glass door only one of which was normally opened and its status was announced by a battery-operated bell inside the house. A porch covered the area immediately in front of the door, held up in part by two wooden pillars which were in danger of rotting because of frequent attention by the many urinating dogs which roamed the streets and the occasional late-night drunk. The compound verb ‘to put out the things’ was in common use in our family: “I’ll just put out the things”, “He’ll put out the things”, “Will you put out the things?”, and so on! This narrative was all related to the porch which needed to be filled with goods for sale – “things” – at about nine o’clock and then cleared again at about half past five on six days a week with early closing on Thursday afternoons. The “things” were varied and often seasonal: peck and bushel baskets were highlighted in the autumn, for example, and brooms, canes, garden tools and hardware were usually always on show. Bundles of raffia were displayed provided the weather was dry and heavy storms sent everyone rushing outside to “bring in the things”.
The interior of the shop was a veritable Aladdin’s cave. Its backbone was a long wooden counter, uncluttered, except for what appeared to be the top half of a desk at the far end and two or three bags of pea and bean seeds at the other. Near to the desk was a scales which sported an attractive brass pan/scoop resembling a mediaeval soldier’s helmet which was used as such in moments of play. The scales was attended by quarter, half, one and two ounce brass weights for use with the smaller seeds – onion, carrot, lettuce and the like. The weighed sample was dispensed through a funnel into a seed packet, hand-labelled “Webb’s Wonderful Lettuce”, or whatever, and dated to endorse a printed guarantee of good germination rates. The larger seeds, such as peas and beans were sold by volume, pints and half pints, and occasionally, with field crops such as mangold, in seven and fourteen pound (one stone) bags. The old scales in the corner of the shop which would take up to 28lb in weight had a steel pan shaped like a knight’s breast plate which when worn together with the brass pan, allowed easy passage into military fantasies. Sacks of potatoes and human beings could be weighed on the cart house scales!
Spring evenings brought the whole family together working on a seed packing production line in an endeavour to be ready for the gardeners who were about to emerge from winter hibernation. Flower and vegetable seeds also had to be planted in our garden at this time of the year so that bedding plants would also be available for the eager tillers of the land. People would come into the shop and order a dozen Brussels sprouts and two dozen antirrhinums which demanded an immediate response for someone to go down the garden, in all weathers, to lift the plants. They may have had the odd leaf that had been chewed by a caterpillar – but they were fresh and what service!
To aid plants on their way to maturity the shop sold various fertilisers. Some, like ‘blood and bone’ and dried human sewage (which gave the shop an interesting aroma) were ready-packaged. Other sources of plant nitrogen came in bulk and had to be weighed out. There was sulphate of ammonia and either sodium nitrite and ammonium nitrate or ammonium nitrite and sodium nitrate – I can’t be sure. It is salutary to remember, however, that had it been the former pair we could have attracted the attention of the Irish Republican Army as ammonium nitrate is an excellent explosive. Intruders could also have helped themselves to Ely Kinoch Twelve-Bore and Four-Ten cartridges which were freely available on the shelves above the boxes of nitrogen derivatives.
On the staff side of the counter there were various large drawers mostly filled with ‘old lines’ with few takers. The ‘cigarette drawer’ was well used however with its packets of “Star” and “Woodbines” (5 for tuppence and 10 for fourpence) for ‘the workers’ – mainly men who toiled in our cousin, Harry Trayhurn’s, butchers shop on the opposite side of the street. The town’s patricians were supplied with “Players”, “Goldflake”, “Capstan” and the occasional packet of “Three Castles”. We supported Bristol industry by mainly selling WD & HO Wills’ products and the good citizens of Gloucester by retailing their Moreland’s red, ‘non-safety’ matches. Next to the cigarettes was the cash drawer – no fancy till just wooden bowls, one for the coppers and the other for the silver: no records of any sales were kept unless they were ‘on tick’ in which case the event was recorded on a scrap of paper or an old seed packet and inserted in the ledger on the ‘half desk’.
My favourite part of my Aladdin’s cave was the bank of drawers that covered the wall behind the counter. Small ones containing bulk supplies of seeds waiting to be packaged and large ones where almost anything might lurk from ornately carved butter pats, through cider barrel taps, rabbit snares, corks and bungs to dusters and wooden spoons. The drawers had fascinating and varying odours and many had suffered and withstood infestations by wood worm, probably in the previous century: large house spiders occupied drawers that received little attention and they continued to receive little attention!
The Gloucester Road window was the main display area which was rearranged fairly regularly, mainly in tune with the public’s changing seasonal requirements or what we persuaded them to believe were their requirements. It possessed glass shelves supported by brass rods and brackets from which hung a sombre, black and white cardboard notice: “Wreaths & Crosses Made to Order”. This was balanced in the contrasting John Street window by an invitation to buy wedding bouquets. The latter window which was never an attraction, had an almost static display which only changed when Brock’s fireworks arrived two or three weeks before November 5th! There was little that the old firm did not or would not sell. As I remember, the only serious omission from the sales list was catapult elastic but this could be purchased from Savery’s hardware shop on The Plain!
Unlike most sales outlets in the town there were only two shops that made wreaths and crosses – Williams & Son in the High Street and Symes on The Plain. It was not a job that anyone really enjoyed but it did allow the Symes’ ‘W & C team’, all ladies who usually knew the deceased, to gossip at length while they worked and usually, but not always, to stand back at the end of the day to admire their products. On the other hand, it was a stressful occupation – just a few days notice were normally given before a funeral – then there was the need to find the flowers that the deceased‘s family had requested – which was often difficult in the winter – and, finally, having made the wreath it needed constant attention to keep the flowers fresh. Luckily the house possessed a cellar for this purpose. Flowers were normally bought from two cheerful, red-faced ladies with a market stall off Bridge Street in Bristol and transported back to Thornbury by a good friend and servant of the family, Len Smith, the carrier in Gloucester Road with his old blue van. If possible the wreaths and less often the crosses, were made up the day before interment – cremation was almost unheard of in the early 1900s. In the interim, various tricks were used to keep the flowers fresh including putting a penny in the vase or “Aspro” tablets – which were always bought instead of the identical and cheaper generic aspirin. (“Aspro will not harm the heart”, the packet said so elderly relatives felt that they could be used to treat humans safely as well as plants!) Moss had to be found in the hedgerows to cover the wire skeletons of the wreaths, the flower stems were trimmed to about an inch and long, thick wires then inserted into the bases of the blooms and secured with windings of thin wire: the long wires were then pushed into the moss and held in place by bending them over the wire frames. At the end of the day the fingers were black and scratched! I seem to recollect that 5/- or 7/6d was the price of a cheap wreath garlanded with white asters and maidenhair fern. Crosses were more expensive!
The shop was a busy place during the war but after 1945 with Aunt Rose’s increasing health problems and no one else with a particular interest in the business, sales fell off. This was exacerbated by the appearance of seeds in attractive coloured packets in grocers’ shops: the first company to do this in our area was Carter’s, the makers of “Little Liver Pills”! Eventually it was decided to close the business and rent the shop out together with the living room behind it. At different times it housed electrical goods and a video hire outlet but neither concern appeared to be very successful.
Following the sale of the house in the 1980s for about £80K, ownership changed rapidly and I think it was the third tenant (after a fish & chip ‘executive’ and a travel agent) who pulled the shop down leaving the house as it was in Georgian times. The end of an era!