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Helmdon Historical Articles

Shops In Helmdon

an article by Ross Vicars

  Village shops have long been a key feature of rural life, offering much more than just groceries. They can be a source of information, a place to meet and chat, a focus for the village, a safe place for children to visit by themselves. It is argued that in addition to offering the benefit of convenience shopping to all, they are vital for those without cars (especially where there is a paucity of public transport) the elderly, and for anyone who spends a good deal of time at home – indeed, many more people work from home these days and that trend is likely to continue. A good shop, like a good school, is seen as an asset to a village and can even add value to the local property market.

For many of today’s generation, the concept of ‘village shops’ is often one of a struggling ‘post office come general store’, desperately hanging on to declining trade in the face of ever more determined competition from urban supermarkets. Even the argument that village shops meet a local need is being challenged by on-line ordering and home delivery services.

But it used to be so different – and really not so long ago.

Helmdon would have been typical of many villages throughout the country in that it was virtually self sufficient when it came to household needs. Whether it was a loaf of bread, a new bicycle, a bag of coal, wet fish or even a coffin; all could be obtained without leaving the village.

Today, shops tend to specialise and shopkeepers will ‘keep shop’ and little else. But years ago, it was different. Francis Whellan’s History, Topography and Directory of Northamptonshire of 1874 gives an example, as follows:

Edward John Jeffrey - Butcher and Victualler

The same volume of Whellan also gives an example of a ‘multi-skilled’ shopkeeper:

John Franklin - Baker and Grocer

Looking at the occupations attributed to the Helmdon worthies of 1871, it is interesting to note the number providing a service that would be of value to fellow villagers. And remember that the Census of that year gave the highest ever to that date, no doubt inflated as a result of the 15 railway workers (no doubt plus families) who had moved in to build the ‘Nibble and Clink’, and the village wasn’t to reach that level again for one hundred years. At that time, the village could boast:

2 Bakers
1 Baker and Grocer
1 Baker Journeyman
1 Coal Merchant and Carter
2 Grocers
1 Licenced Victualler
1 Publican
1 Publican, Coal Merchant and Farmer
3 Blacksmiths
5 Carpenters
5 Dressmakers
1 Glazier
1 Mason
1 Mason Labourer
3 Shoemakers
1 Smith and Instrument Maker
1 Tailor
1 Wheelwright
69 Lacemakers1
1 Linen Weaver

Whilst all the above could not be classified as ‘shopkeepers’ and some, especially the lacemakers, were probably ‘out workers’, there is little doubt that their skills would be turned towards providing goods for villagers if requested – and of course there were many in surrounding villages that could add to the services provided in Helmdon.

You might have thought that the coming of the two railways in 1873 and 1901 respectively would have had an adverse effect on local shops and services, providing as they did, the opportunity for people to travel more easily to Brackley, Banbury and Towcester. Maybe there were some souls who ventured further afield but for the villagers the railways brought new goods and the opportunity to more easily ‘export’ their own produce.

Suddenly, there was fresh fish from Grimsby arriving daily on the milk train – the same train that was taking churns of Helmdon milk to be sold in the surrounding towns.

Helmdon’s last surviving shop is the Bungalow Stores (known affectionately by most village residents as Secky’s), owned by Harold Seckington and now run by his daughter Pat and son-in law, John. Starting at Harold’s home at 10 Station Road (since re-numbered 40) with the sale of papers, a demand for provisions soon followed. For a while the business was run from their front room but in 1957, Harold and his late wife Jean moved to The Bungalow Stores – the storerooms being added by Eddie Franklin.

The Bungalow Stores, Station Road
The Bungalow Stores, Station Road

Some years ago, Harold assisted the Women’s Club in producing a map of the village as at approximately 1930 (see inside back cover). The places and names detailed on that map give a tantalizing glimpse of what was available in the village at that time. Among the names that appear are:

Hillcrest Stores (known to everyone as ‘Top Shop’)
The Bakehouse
Buckingham’s the Butchers
‘Tailor’ Brown
The Steam Bakery
The Post Office
The Forge
The Wheelwrights
Petrol Pumps
Builders and Undertakers
Tom Pitts the Carrier
Bottom Shop

A look at Kelly’s Directory of Northamptonshire for the year 1931 includes the following under Helmdon’s Commercial section:

Arthur Starmer - boot repairer
Norman Victor Watson - Grocer
Wiggins & Co Ltd - coal merchants
James Berry - boot polish manufacturer
Charles Brown - tailor
Charles Buckingham - butcher
Charles Russell Gibbons- coal merchant
Arthur James Humphrey - egg dealer
Aug. Jones - fruiterer
Miss Peggy Learmouth – newsagent
Fredk. Chas. Oakey – baker
Mrs. Caroline Rose - beer retailer
Fredk. Geo Shrimplin - grocers
John H Smith & Sons Ltd. - grocers and Post Office
Sam Walters - hawker

Many of these names will be familiar to villagers of middle to later years, but will be a mystery to those of us who have settled here more recently. So hopefully the remainder of this article will provide a further trip down memory lane for some and for others, an insight to a way of life that we shall not see again. I am indebted to Marjorie Watson (no doubt assisted by Ken) for providing me with some of their memories. Rather than attempt to paraphrase or rework Marjorie’s splendid notes, I thought it appropriate to reproduce them as written:

...“Mrs. Pittam lived at the top of Field Lane and sold salt by the block – 1d a slab.

Mr. Thomas, butcher from Syresham, brought meat round on his motorcycle in the 1920s.

Lathbury’s from Brackley also brought meat to the village.

Kings of Syresham came with a travelling shop once a week with groceries, etc.

Mr. Holton, a saddler, came round once a week to a cottage in Magpie Row and did harness repairs.

Mr. West and later Mr. Courtney did bicycle repairs and would sell bikes to order, also in Magpie Row. Mrs. Courtney could be called on to help nurse people who were ill, also to ‘lay out’ those who had died. Later the Courtneys moved to Robin Cottage and a Brackley doctor held a weekly surgery there.

In the early 1900s Mrs. Emma Hearne ran a dressmaking workshop and employed several girls opposite the school in Ivy House. In the late 1920s and early 30s, there were at least two dressmakers in the village (Mrs N Gibbons and Miss K Templeman) who had trained there. Mr. Samuel Hearne made trousers for the Irish navvies that were building the railway. Their son Norman did shoe repairs after the First World War.

Mr. Arthur Taylor was carpenter, wheelwright and coffin maker in the premises later taken over by Mr. Harry Wilson.

The Old Post Office in Station Road.  Drawing by Neill Morris.
The Old Post Office in Station Road. Drawing by Neill Morris.

Mr. Ted Campin was a stonemason and provided headstones for graves.

Traders, who had to get their supplies from towns, were usually willing to bring in other things by request. For example, Sam Walters, who sold fish, fruit and veg besides his paper round, brought ice blocks from Northampton, needed to reduce the temperature in a very serious case of illness. Sam’s wife was the district nurse.

In the early 1920s, the only public telephone was on the Post Office, and as children we were very impressed when the hunt ended near Helmdon and pink coated huntsmen used to go to the Post Office to ‘phone for their grooms and chauffeurs.

Mrs. Jessett of Luke’s farm sold farm produce and garden fruits at the door and her son Jim delivered milk around the village….”

- - - - -

Some years ago, the late Lesley Ward, formerly of Wappenham Road, spoke to some of the ‘more elderly’ residents and asked them to recall their memories of the shops, shopkeepers and other traders of Helmdon. The recollections noted by Lesley are shown in quotation marks – the remaining comments are mine. There are no notes to say whose reminiscences these are, so unfortunately I am unable to attribute them.

“Bob Buckingham lived in The Old House and his shop was the small building just past the Chapel on the Wappenham Road. He took on the business from Ben Humphrey and travelled the surrounding villages selling his meat.” If that sounds like someone we see today, the similarity does not end there. Villagers that were not around when Bob was expected would leave a bag on the door handle and Bob would put the meat in the bag for their return. Seems Dave Mumford is carrying on a tradition. Buckingham’s ceased to trade in the late seventies although the building that served as his small shop continued to be used by others for some years.

“Mrs. Betty Acton kept the shop as “The Spice Pot” selling a wide range of pots, spices, cards and preserves, etc., and was followed by Browns of Blakesley with their bread and grocery.” Although no longer used as a shop, the small building remains in front of The Old House.


The long abandoned shop in the front of The Old House
The long abandoned shop in the front of The Old House

“Mr. Tom Pitts started as a Carrier in the 1920s with a horse and cart and was later succeeded by son Alec and wife Ethel. Old Mrs. Pitts had a ‘shop’ in the front room but later moved it into a next-door cottage. They travelled the villages with a high motor van. Ice cream was made with dry ice in a wooden bucket – wonderful stuff. In the ’39–’45 war when oranges were scarce, we all hurried up to Pitts when we heard they had fruit in.”

“The Bakehouse – Tom Adams was baking in the 1920s (he made my christening cake and my first birthday cake). He was followed by Mr. Moore then Mr. Fred Oakey (someone else, we can’t recall the name) and Mr. King, when the business ended.” The Bakehouse referred to here is in Church Street and still carries that name.²

“Mr. Jim Berry made boot polish – but it was all ‘exported’ by train.” The ‘factory’ was in Church Street and adjoined the house now called Leeden Tye.

“Mr. Joe Humphrey, also known as ‘Banana Joe’, sold fruit, vegetables and fish, first by pony and four-wheel cart and later travelled with his van.”

“Mr. Charlie Gibbons was our coal merchant, the coal being delivered to the railway stations. Took in doctor’s prescriptions after Mrs. Campin.”

“The Stores was taken over by the Smith family in 1921, run and stocked from the Sulgrave shop by Mr. and Mrs. Bill Smith. They stocked all groceries and sold paraffin and large orders were delivered by van from Sulgrave. The bakehouse alongside was not used after 1921 to produce bread and became used as a store house.” These stores were known as Bottom Shop and are now private houses. The Bakery referred to is the Steam Bakery and is now a private house near The Green in Station Road.

“The Post Office, run by Mr. Shrimplin and daughter Edith. Sold sweets, pop, children’s books, stationery.” Many will recall the Post Office that was next to the Steam Bakery – but this memory refers to its previous location on the other side of the road directly opposite the post box.

“Mrs. Campin and son Jim sold wireless batteries, charged your accumulator for 6d and sold bike bits and lamps. They also took in doctor’s prescriptions.” Ivy House is situated opposite the Old School House.

“The Bungalow Stores was opened by Mr. and Mrs. Seckington (in the 50s) and the hairdressing by Pat in the early 60s. Now our point of collection for prescriptions for many years.”

“Gus Jones (top end of Little Emral) had a paper round, sold ice cream also fruit & veg and fish. Also travelled”. Now part of a larger house, Little Emral is located in Wappenham Road near the Chapel.”

“Jim Courtenay sold bike bits and would get new bicycles to order. Also sold firewood.” Jim operated from the end cottage of the row of cottages opposite the Chapel.”

“Mr. Sam Walters had a paper round and brought catalogues of annuals and books near Christmas for parents to chose presents from Father Christmas. He also travelled with fruit, veg and fish before starting his coach business in the 20s.”

“Mrs. Emily Watson first had a small general shop opposite her later ‘Top Shop’ where she sold all grocery, paraffin and haberdashery. The shop later had several owners, the last being Mrs. Bull.”

“Mr. Bill Duncombe had a paper round, especially remembered for the evening papers and ‘Green Un’. He also sold fish and fruit and vegetables, progressing from an ex-army ambulance to today’s large business.”

“Mr. Jim Jessett delivered milk around the village, brought to the door in a milk can and measured into your jug. Lots of men who worked on farms had theirs from work.”

- - - - -

I am sure there are many other recollections but one of the problems with writing an article such as “Shops in Helmdon” is where do you start. No doubt there have been providers of goods and services since people first settled in this lovely valley but records, if any, must be few and far between.

Even though this article covers the last 130 years it does not pretend to name every shop, every shopkeeper or every person that sold for a living over that period, but I hope that I have been able to provide a glimpse of how the village used to be and how much has changed in what is a comparatively short period of time.

We no longer have a full-time post office and are down to our last public house and our last shop. We are fortunate as many villages cannot boast even that but without the support of the village, how long will it be before we too can only think of our village shop as a memory…


¹ Yes, this figure is correct. Issue 1 of Aspects of Helmdon contained an illuminating article on Helmdon from Census Records, written by Valerie Moir. The number of women employed as lacemakers reached a peak of 94 in 1851.

² The article by Audrey Forgham in the first issue of Aspects of Helmdon gives the history of the two bakehouses in Helmdon, with a list of bakers.

Ross Vicars

[Article published in Aspects of Helmdon 5 (2004), pp 202 - 210 inc.]

The Village Shops of Helmdon

Helmdon - Remembrance of Things Past
(Approximately 1930)
Sketch map constructed with generous assistance
of Harold Seckington
Reprinted by kind permission of Helmdon Women's Club

(click on image to enlarge)

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