Monday, 29 June 2015

Chapter 2 1970

One Saturday morning in the summer of 1970 I found John at his desk in the upstairs sitting room in “Schehallion”.  “What on earth are you doing?” I asked.   “I thought I might try something based on those pencil drawings I did some years ago,” was the reply.
Western Daily Press 5 January 1972
John is a natural artist.  At Sidcot School, he used to design posters for films and plays. 

We have six framed pencil drawings recording holidays in Switzerland (with his parents before he left school), and in Wales, Scotland and Ireland with our young family in the late 50’s and early 60’s.   During those years he had also drawn “The Siege of Mockbattle Castle”, and when he spent a few days in a London hospital while they were trying to find a cause for his migraine, he had amused himself by creating “The Hospital Tree”;  which  the matron had coveted, but John refused to give it to her.   It was those pencil drawings which were the inspiration for a set of 4 posters (A1 size), drawing this time with a Rotring pen – no Tippex in those days.   One of the posters took him 40 hours to complete.   And of course this was achieved in his spare time, as he continued to work at Morlands for a further eighteen months.

We had come to Glastonbury in 1952, the year after we were married, and he had worked his way up from the development department at the factory.   His early training, besides National Service, was at the Leathersellers College in London, so he was a tanner by trade.  Nearly twenty years later, as a Director of Production, he was responsible for sheepskin coats (which he had introduced in 1958 from his own designs), in addition to the long established departments producing slippers, boots, rugs and even pram canopies, which had been introduced to fill the summer market.   He was Chairman of the British Leather Manufacturers Research Association, travelling to meetings at Egham, as well as attending trade fairs such as the Semaine du Cuir in Paris.   For several years he ran coat competitions for students attending fashion courses at the Art Colleges of Gloucester, Bournemouth & Poole and  Plymouth.   

Fashion drawing by john
Fashion drawing by John

I had had secretarial training and a couple of sedate office jobs (including two years at Gould & Swayne, solicitors in Glastonbury), before we started our family.   Neither of us had been on the sharp end of business administration.   Small businesses and self employment was not part of the language in those days, although (as I discovered later), the Bolton Report was published in 1971.  I was occupied with looking after our home and three children, going to coffee mornings supporting the National Trust and the Save the Children Fund and attending West Pennard WI.  I was on the committee of Strode Theatre in Street in my role as PRO, working with the theatre manager, John Lowe, spreading the word by getting friends to help deliver posters in the Mendip area, as Shirley Powell well remembers.  
Photo courtesy of Mid Somerset Newspapers
Photo courtesy of Mid Somerset Newspapers

We owned three ponies – Candy, Misty and Bracken – and a field down on the Godney road, helped in this venture by two teenage girls, Anne Hawkins and Suzanne Vine (we also accommodated her pony, Pip).   The “Cradlebridge Gymkhana”, run by Henry and Joyce Tinney, was a most popular event;  in its first year about 4 horses participated, and we all took turns in entering the competitions.  On one occasion, riding Candy, I nearly won the “Cradlebridge Canter” – which was actually a mad gallop …

Rob and Julie were at Quaker boarding schools by then, Rob at Leighton Park and Julie at Sidcot, where Ruth would join her in 1971.   My diary is full of arrangements to pick up children at the end of term;  travelling to London to visit Deena and Bry; driving down to Bilbrook (near Minehead) to visit my mother and stepfather, Bernard Kinch – who later helped a lot with advice and introductions into the gift trade.

Fortunately I had begun a collection of ephemera in the late 60’s, before this story begins, which I can use to jog my (rather poor) memory of events.   I never did have a good memory and it is even worse now that I am writing this in my eighties ….   It began with a few newspaper cuttings and letters stored in a Clarks shoebox, but later the accumulation has piled up and my “summerhouse” contains large boxes of stuff for each year from 1970-2000, when I had to STOP as I was running out of space.   That part of my collection consists of general news items from local and national newspapers, a Biba catalogue, the Radio Times before it went colour, womens’ magazines and Berni Inn menus snuggled out under my coat, plus letters from friends and family.  And in our spare bedroom/office is another collection, specifically relating to “Glastonbury Prints” and to Morlands.   

Without all this stuff, I would never remember enough detail to be able to paint a picture of what it was like to be self employed in the 1970’s.   Please forgive me if I have got something wrong.

Pat and Alban  Leyshon had opened their shop “Pat Li Shun” at the top of Glastonbury High Street in the late 60’s and were very helpful mentors, advising us about the gift trade and allowing us to use their address, because we weren’t supposed to run a business from our house.   Pat was an artist, designing chopping boards for Taunton Vale Industries and producing her own cards, which Alban printed on ancient Heidelberg machines in his workshop next door.  Famously, she painted their frontage with brightly coloured flowers, horrifying the Borough Council – but Alban had done his homework  and he could not be forced to remove this street art as the decoration did not contain any wording;  it continued to delight visitors to Glastonbury for perhaps another ten years.   In an article in The Guardian entitled “The Hippie Vale of Avalon”, the town was described as “strong magic”.  

Pat is crouched down by the door to finish the painting.
“One day,” Pat said, “I was visited by Alderman Goodson, who complained that this would encourage the hippies to come to Glastonbury.   Alban and I managed to persuade him that this would not be the case, but just then the doorbell pinged and in walked a hippy.   The Alderman turned on his heel and left the shop without another word.”   

“Glastonbury Prints” was itself born from an earlier downturn in trade.   During the slump of 1969/70, Morlands was not doing well.  No doubt there had been several mild winters which inhibited the sale of coats and boots, and there were other economic factors in which I took no interest.   Home and family were all I cared about.  There were rumours in Glastonbury that the firm was about to be absorbed into the Clark empire (these are our Quaker cousins, the well known shoe firm in neighbouring Street).   The town was very jaded and shop keepers anxiously asked me – as a Director’s wife – for the latest news.

Though the crisis cannot have been as bad as feared, John was sufficiently shocked out of complacency and security to wonder what he should do if his job disappeared, so that is why he started drawing the posters.   My step father, Bernard Kinch, was a sales agent in the gift trade and promised to try and sell these for us.   He recommended his accountant in Woking; we found a printer (Bigwood & Staple, Bridgwater), registered the name and arranged our letter-box address.   It was upon a spirit of fun, adventure and devil-may-care that we based our new business.   All those years of silver spoons, conventional behaviour and of being regarded as pillars of society, based not on our personal achievement but on the family we represented, would be swept away.   Alas, the euphoria of the affluent sixties and flower power was very different from the post oil crisis seventies. 

 How could we foresee, as we hesitatingly started on the path of insecurity and self employment, that Morlands’ own demise would occur soon after the collapse of our small manufacturing enterprise in less than a decade.Ten year old and hundred year old firms, large and small, succumbed to the same sad fate.  It was the anger engendered by the destruction of established businesses such as Morlands, producing beautiful and useful things, providing employment for generations of families, creating wealth in small towns, which drove me to tell our little sob story.   The feelings of disappointment, trauma and loss of everything we had achieved  must have been an experience shared by many thousands of people during those dreadful years.   And of course since the credit crunch of 2008, history is repeating itself as I write.

These are photos of Morlands taken by Julie in 2012 - the family firm closed in 1981 and those buildings had been derelict until it was taken over by the Red Brick Building Trust.   Bailys tannery (with the tall chimney) was already on the northern part of the site when John's great grandfather John Morland, who had married Mary Clark in the mid 1800's, built his tannery at the southern end around 1890.

So here we are at the beginning of May 1971, collecting the first price lists from Clarks printing works in Magdalene Street, inscribed with the newly registered Business Name of “Glastonbury Prints”, based at 88 High Street and showing the price of three cartoon posters at 50p each including purchase tax.   Bernard was supplied with a set of samples and on 7 May I sold a dozen posters to Pat Li Shun, value £6.   By the end of the month I had made 20 entries in the ledger.  Some of those first customers were still on our books eight years later.

I even ventured on the road, visiting Tridias, a very illustrious toy shop in Bath.   Struggling with an enormous portfolio, I introduced myself.   “My husband has drawn these posters which will appeal to children right up to teenagers,” I confidently asserted.   The owner of the shop was doubtful and his assistant even less enthusiastic.   “I would consider any of the teenagers in my family who professed such taste to be mentally deficient,” she said firmly.   However, I must have persuaded them to take one of each, because I have a piece of headed paper accompanying a cheque for £1.50 on which is scribbled the words “They sold, dammit – could we have some more.”   (copy)

Bernard had been in the gift trade for some years, having arrived there by means of fudge.   My mother made it and Bernard sold it – to the Army & Navy Stores, Fortnum & Mason and Eton College Tuckshop, as well as gift shops across the west country.   Mum made one hundred weight of fudge on her kitchen stove in the last three weeks before Christmas, a year or so before this story begins, and our children nicknamed her “Fudge Grannie”.   This was long before Health & Safety Regulations and fudge shops. 
Bernard & 'Fudge Granny'
By now Bernard had several agencies, including The Russian Shop and some high class cookware called Copco, as well as representing Taunton Vale Industries which produced chopping boards and other items (some decorated with designs by Pat Leyshon).   I have one of their very early chopping boards.   The gift trade consisted of many small businesses (usually husband-and-wife partnerships in fact), involved with manufacturing or with managing retail outlets.   The manufacturers employed selling agents on a commission basis, where the UK was divided up into a number of areas, each covered by a different agent who carried perhaps six or eight companies’ products.   Besides visiting the shops on a more or less regular basis – less often as the price of petrol became prohibitive – the agents usually helped to man their principal’s stands at various trade shows during the year, when retailers put in their main orders and hunted for new lines to stock.   Companies with a turnover of £1M or more however – Dartington Glass and Royal Worcester, for example – could afford full time representation, while the larger retailers and department stores employed professional buyers.

A diary entry for Wednesday May 5 1970 records what was probably our first visit to the accountant recommended by Bernard,  Mr Sayers of Herbert Parnell & Co, Woking, who gave us advice about keeping records of sales.  The first proper ledger is dated from May 1971, in the front of which is a foolscap sheet of detailed instructions from him “on the operation of an analysed cash book”.   Bernard also introduced us to agents in the gift trade – Phil and Dave, who covered the West Country, and the redoubtable Mona Russell from Harrogate.   John was packing up the odd order in our garage by this time, while I must have been writing out the invoices by hand.  

John went on to design a series of black and white silhouettes.   We had been invited to see a collection of Victorian silhouettes by Mrs Cotton, a venerable member of West Pennard WI.   They were farmers and John remembers Mr. Cotton’s workworn fingers tenderly holding these delicate pictures.   He was also impressed by the oval mounts and later commissioned a local engineering firm to produce a metal “forma” which he used to cut the apertures.   This continued for several years until we invested in suitable mount cutting machinery.

Later that summer, through Pat’s generosity, we were introduced to the Jessups of Taunton Vale Industries and John was commissioned to design a set of roses for their tablemats, to be produced in black and white.   This led him to consider designing pictures for Glastonbury Prints in addition to the posters.   He drew five roses, four birds and one butterfly, references 1-10 in a range which finally contained nearly 600 images – the four birds continued to be the best selling pictures right up to the end.

“My customers would preferred the pictures to be coloured,” reported Bernard.   It so happened that I had just taken on a cleaning lady called Rose.   “Would you like to do some painting for me?” asked John.   So she spent the morning in the upstairs sitting room, learning how to colour the roses under John’s careful tuition, while I had to wash the kitchen floor and vaccum the bedrooms.   And this is how it all started.

To begin with, all John’s designs were drawn with the pen and printed in black and white;  colour printing in those days was very expensive for short runs.   And we knew nothing about picture framing – a craft at that time restricted to a few specialists in big towns offering a bespoke framing service, while a handful of larger framers supplied the galleries on a contract basis.   Somehow we were put in touch with a gentleman called Bill Williams, who was an agent for a moulding manufacturer and for Whitehouse, Willetts & Bennion Ltd., Worcester, makers of photographic frames.

The trip to Worcester to collect the ready made frames became a regular run as business built up.   This was my job, in my Ford Escort Estate, taking the best part of a day, as the southern leg of the M6 was still being built and the Avon Bridge was not opened until 1975.   Through Wells, over the Mendips on the Old Bristol Road past Chew Valley Lake, down the steep hill from Dundry with magnificent views over the city, across the river and under Clifton Suspension Bridge along the A4 to join the motorway somewhere near Shirehampton – no falling rocks along this route in those days!   Soon I could see the stilts carrying the road across the River Severn, and thence north through beautiful dying elm country, a foretaste of the devastation which Somerset was to suffer a year or two later.

W.W.&B. inhabited an old three or four storey Victorian Block to the north of the town;  a dusty picture framing shop fronted the main road and access to the loading bay was down a narrow back alley.   There were two Whitehouse directors, one of whom spent most of his time going round the world on Rotary business, while the other worked in the office with the manager, Douglas Lee.   Douglas took an affectionate fatherly interest in everything we were doing.  While the car was being loaded, banter was being exchanged, laced with good advice given in a dialect reminiscent of my childhood in Derbyshire.

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