Life from behind the counter

I became Branch Manager of Hancock’s in Grindleford in 1933 after an interview with the founder and head of the firm “A.F.” It took place at The Knoll, Bamford, the imposing Victorian residence of the Boss. My fiancée was with me, as the post required a married couple we were to tie the knot if the job was favourable. We must have created a favourable impression as I was given the job on a three month trial.

“A.F.” was a benign old gentleman, very shrewd in all he did, but also a fair man to work for. His initials stood for Aaron Frost and his brother had been christened Moses Shaw. Some of my older customers could remember “A.F.” going round the district with a pony and cart selling hardware goods and paraffin. From that small beginning he built up a small empire of twenty grocery and hardware shops, a bakery, a chemists shop, a fleet of coaches – “Hancock’s Tours”, a heavy haulage firm known as Vickers Transport and three garages and filling stations. His favourite saying was “Plenty is too much” and in the 1930’s there was precious little plenty for most folk. Although “A.F.” had done quite well for himself due to his hard work and keen business brain.

The shop in Grindleford was in a very run down state when I took over. I can recall that my first week’s takings were £45. Our joint wages were £3 per week plus living accommodation, which was rent free. We soon found ourselves in the swing of village life, indeed we found that as shopkeepers in Grindleford it was impossible to by anything but!

1935 – Elsie, Charlie Pennock (our ‘errand boy’) and Mary Nicholson neé Davies. The shop windows have just been dressed in red, white and blue for the Jubilee of George V.

Grindleford was a fairly quiet, rural place, but each weekend during the summer there was an invasion of visitors from Sheffield and Manchester. The little railway station was a hive of activity dealing with this influx. Being the nearest station to Sheffield on the Hope Valley line, and therefore the cheapest fare from the city, the morning trains would bring swarms of trippers into the valley. Of an evening the platforms would be crowded with the returning throng, and this would provide the villagers with some weekend entertainment. Many families, couples and youths would walk up the hill to find platforms overflowing with the returning hikers awaiting their train’s home. While waiting, the visitors would pass the time by doing turns; squeeze-boxes, ukuleles, mouth-organs and comb-and-paper would accompany their songs and dancing. It provided free entertainment for the villagers and without any of the modern-day troubles of vandalism, these visitors were made most welcome to share the beauties of our countryside.

In addition to the weekends the station was also a busy place during the week. The days of the commuter had already started, and many residents in the village travelled to Sheffield to work, nearly all of them by train. In those days every train was met by at least four motor buses which provided connecting services to all the other villages in the area not on the railway. A great deal of freight was carried by rail and the goods yard was a bustling place.

Although some people commuted to Sheffield to work, the majority of the villagers worked locally, either on the land or in the quarries. Stone quarries abounded in and around the village, some small one-man operations, others employing many men. Grindleford took its name from the stone quarried hereabouts. Grindstones were carried across the ford over the river Derwent before the bridge was built, hence Grind-le-ford.

The largest of the village quarries was Stoke Hall Quarry, which is still operating today. When I came to Grindleford it was owned by Mr. Percy Turner, who always carried a walking stick, which he would poke into the ground and rest his ample seat on whilst he surveyed the scene in the quarry.

The main product of the quarry then was huge round Pulp Stones, many of which were exported to Scandinavia for use in the paper-making industry. Stoke stone was especially well suited for this use, as it retained its roughness and did not glaze, essential qualities in the pulping of timber. The stones would be around six feet in diameter and were transported to the docks at Hull by steam wagon. Smaller stones were also made for use in a variety of milling processes. The stone was also used, of course for building. Stoke stone was used throughout the country on many prestigious buildings, including Sheffield Town Hall built between 1891-97. Around fifty men and boys were employed at the quarry. There was a very strong family tradition for son to follow father and many local families had two or three members working together.

Another large employer of local labour was the Grindleford Model Laundry, which employed around twenty five workers, mainly women. The laundry was on the site of an old tannery, which in its day had been a very prosperous business itself. The laundry would collect and deliver over a wide area of North Derbyshire and had many of the Halls in the region as customers.

Two small country ‘mansions’ were very close to the village, Stoke Hall and Leam Hall. These also provided employment for the villagers. Both estates farmed and kept land and moor stocked for shooting. This meant that there was quite a number of staff employed as gamekeepers to rear the birds and keep the woodlands in order.

In its heyday Stoke Hall must have been a very grand place. It was built in 1757 by William Booth of Stoney Middleton for the Reverend John Simpson. The estate of Stoke has quite a history. Lord Grey of Codnor sold it in 1473 to Robert Barlow. In 1581 it was purchased by that voracious landowner Bess of Hardwick, from whom it descended to the Earl of Newcastle. Jacinth Sacheveril bought it in 1656, from whom, the father Rev. John Simpson inherited it. By the late 1700’s the 5th Earl of Bradford, Henry Bridgeman was the owner.

In addition to its many rooms with particularly fine moulded ceilings, there were extensive grounds which included romanticized woodland walks with a mock Roman Bath, grotto and fishing lodge. The Roman Bath is still standing and is fed by a warm spring. Near to it is the tail of a sough which drained the lead mines on Eyam Moor.

Stoke Hall is also known for the legend of “Fair Flora”. This is a statue of a nubile young lady which originally stood in the grounds of the Hall. For some reason it was moved into the woods at the top of Stoke Hill, where it still can be seen. Many different stories are told of why the statue was moved; some of them romantic, some fanciful and others downright scandalous! One claimed that she was a young lady of the Hall who was murdered by a jealous lover. Another that she was erected to the memory who’s husband went away to war and whilst he was away she died having their child. Yet another that it was to the memory of the owner of the Hall’s daughter who was taken away by gypsies and murdered in Stoke Wood.

It was said that the statue brought bad luck to the Hall after a series of accidents occurred there. It was reputed that the ghostly-looking figure lit by the rays of the new moon had so frightened a nervous Lady of the Hall that she had gone insane. The ghost of Flora is said to haunt the Hall, also the road and Stoke Wood.

The reality of the statue is that it originally came from Chatsworth, where it was in Flora’s Temple – Flora was the Greek Goddess of Flowers, and it was a gift from the Duke of Devonshire. Flora has never found perfect solitude in Stoke Wood, for many years she has been visited by the villagers. Alas, the young boy’s game of throwing sticks and stones at her to try and hit the “rude bits” finally led to her decapitation. The forlorn statue was headless for many years, giving fuel to even more speculation about the original demise of Flora. The head was eventually replaced some years ago and she is now back to her full glory.

Leam Hall was the residence of Major Gregory Rose-Innes when I came to the village. The Hall is not as grand as Stoke, but the estate was an extensive one, covering many acres of woodland, arable and moor. It was especially renowned for its shooting, with well stocked coverts and grouse-moor.

The Hall was built in the late 18th Century with many later additions. Part of it was used as a Youth Hostel for some years. Major Rose-Innes was perhaps the nearest thing that Grindleford had to a Squire. He took an active interest in village life and was a kind, considerate gentleman.

1948 – Elsie and Margaret Wilson neé Fletcher on her left, who worked for us. Note the window displays – to the left groceries, canned and bottled; to the right hardware, paint and gardening. If anyone slammed the door too hard it could start an avalanche of tins in the window!

There was a small bakery next to the Sir William Hotel in a property which has now been demolished. I used to supply the bakery with flour, the baker would call on a Monday and order a ten stone sack of flour to be delivered. I would try to arrange for it’s delivery by lorry when one was returning to Hancock’s depot at Bamford, but it was not always convenient for the lorry to do this. If not my errand boy would have to deliver it in a sack barrow. This was a very heavy task for our young lad, Charlie as he had to push ten stones of flour up the steep school hill on his own, and he only weighed about eight stones when wet through!

Charlie was faced with this daunting task one day and I felt really sorry for him, struggling with his heavy burden could easily result in him hurting himself. Having a sudden brainwave I suggested that he wait for a couple of minutes and I would give him a pull up the steep hill with my motorbike.

We duly rigged up a tow rope from the bike to the sack barrow and, with Charlie holding on to the handles of the barrow to steady it, off we went. We set off alright and seemed to be going well until we got to the bottom of school hill, where I had to give the old bike a handful of throttle to get it round the corner and up the hill. It so happened that at this precise moment Charlie’s mother was coming up the road and she witnessed a spectacle which stopped her in her tracks. In her own description of the events afterwards, she likened Charlie to a man wearing ‘seven league boots’, as he disappeared round the corner and up the hill in a cloud of flour and exhaust fumes. When we arrived at Kenyon’s Bakery I dismounted from my bike to find Charlie as white as a ghost, covered in flour, coughing and sobbing from his death defying journey up the hill. The source of all the flour was, I soon discovered, caused by the sack slipping on to one of the wheels of the barrow, which cut through it and let out the flour. The ten stones load had been reduced to around four stones. My errand boy had to go home for the rest of the day, where his mother whacked him with a carpet-beater to remove the flour from his clothes. Needless to say, this mode of delivery was not used again.

We were the main suppliers of flour and animal foodstuffs in the area and during and just after the war they were carefully rationed. All the local farms kept pigs at this time, so did the hotels and also many householders who had room available for a pigsty.

At the Maynard Arms there were large pigsties as there was always a good supply of swill from the kitchens there. To the swill was added balancer meal and many healthy pigs were reared on this diet. During the rationing period, mine host at the Maynard, Arthur Mayger, could never come to grips with the fact that he should use his share of balancer meal carefully. Being a generous natured fellow his monthly ration would be used up in a couple of weeks. He would try to cajole me or Elsie into letting him have extra rations but this was strictly forbidden. I would flatly refuse, telling him to be more sparing with the porkers’ rations.

One Monday when I called at the Maynard to take the order. Arthur informed me that his problems with the balancer meal would be solved soon. He had negotiated with the brewery for a supply of malt grains, which were evidently first class pig grub. The brewery did not use the grains after the ale had been made and there would be an endless supply, so it seemed that Arthur had hit on a winner. The only problem was that Arthur was as generous as ever and was very liberal with the amount of malt grains that he gave the pigs. One day his winning plan backfired on him.

He had run out of balancer meal completely and for once there was very little swill from the kitchen. When salvation arrived in the shape of the brewery wagon with a steaming load of malt grains fresh from the vat, Arthur was saved. The grains however, were so fresh that they were a lot higher than usual in alcohol content. Arthur promptly fed the pigs, including one very large sow and her family of ten piglets. Soon afterwards, coincidental with opening time when some of the local farmers and their drivers were arriving back from Bakewell Market to slake their thirst in the Tap Room, curious grunting and squealing could be heard from the pigsties. The customers in the Tap Room came out to see what the commotion was all about and were witnesses to the antics of one large, drunken sow and ten underage piglets! The grains alcohol content had proved to be too strong for the pigs and they were all as drunk as Lords. Arthur was the subject of much ribaldry and leg-pulling for some time after that.

At one time there was a Girls College in Grindleford. It was situated above the church in the large house which is now Pinegrove Nursing Home. In those days it was called the Home School. There were quite a few staff resident there and along with the girls they made for a large order from the shop.

The Principle of the college was called Miss Ella Phibbs, a small shrew-like woman. Severely dressed in black, hair in a tight bun she was a real Victorian figure. Appearance can be deceptive, for she was a very strong character and was regarded as a martinet by those who knew her.

The college’s resident’s staple diet must have been mainly bread, for they seemed to use a lot of it. It was typical of Ella that she would not give me any fixed order, but firmly insisted that the errand boy should look what was left in the bin when he delivered, then estimate the following days requirements from what was left there. This was done to put the onus if she had any stale bread left over. If she did find any she would demand that I exchange it for fresh or knock it off the bill.

One day she rang up playing pop. She had insufficient bread; it was all the errand boys’ fault, why hadn’t he left her more? It was my fault for employing such a stupid idiot as an errand boy so on and so on. I took Charlie the errand boy to task over the incident. He was sure that there had been a good stock of bread in the bin to carry them over for the next day. I ‘phoned Ella back straight away and told her this. “Yes, thay’s all very well. But today is parent’s day and I need extra bread. Your errand boy should have known that and left me more. You will just have to send me up some more at once. Remember this, Mr. Jacques, always profit by your mistakes”.

My mistakes? I did not argue with Ella for that was impossible, it was far more diplomatic to keep my mouth shut. I got on to the bakery at Tideswell and arranged for the extra bread for her. As there was no scheduled delivery from the bakery, I had to fetch it on my motorbike. I arrived on my machine at the college with the bread still warm from the bakery oven. Ella Phibbs came rushing from her girls parents to give me another ear bashing about the stupidities of errand boys and grocers who should know better. Not a word of thanks for all the trouble I had gone to get her extra bread. Just a further reminder to “Profit by my mistakes”. I had to wait for quite a while to get even with Ella over that incident, but it was worth the delay when it came. A group of college girls came in the shop one day, and I was teasing them about their Headmistress. I was told by them that she was away in Derby, appearing in Court. She had been summonsed for knocking down an AA scout while she was driving her Ford 8. At first I thought that this story was made up by the girls as a prank, but it was confirmed by nonother than Ella herself when she called in the shop on her way home later that day.

When pressed she eventually told me the circumstances of her offence. She had been driving through the outskirts of Derby when she came into heavy congestion. An AA scout was directing traffic (part of the AA’s duties in those days). Ella apparently decided that the AA man had no right to tell her when she could or could not go straight ahead; she had ignored his STOP signal and had knocked the poor chap down in the middle of the road! For this serious misdemeanor she had been fined £10 and had received a severe lecture from the Magistrate. No doubt that had severely injured her pride worse than the fine. She was very indignant that the Magistrate had taken the side of the AA man.

I had listened to her story avidly, desperately trying not to burst out laughing. I just could not resist the opportunity to get my revenge over her for the bread incident. As she turned from the counter to leave I said, “Never mind, my dear Miss Phibbs, we must all learn to profit by our mistakes”. She fixed me with an indignant glare and left the shop, slamming the door with such un-ladylike force that a display of tinned peaches in the window fell over!