Dalesman Aug 2010: Spence’s Ironmongers, Richmond, and Beck Isle Museum, Pickering

For Dalesman this month, I met Dennis Edmondson, who recalls Spence’s Ironmongers of Richmond in the 1940s and 50s.  I also visited the Beck Isle Museum in Pickering, the local ‘family attic’, with a collection of tools, household items, and family memories from the local area.

Dennis Edmondson and Spence’s Ironmongers

Dennis Edmondson has written a book recalling his years with Spence’s Ironmongers, of Richmond.

When I visited Dennis, he reassured me that the scone he brought with my tea was fresh – unlike the one described in his book, that he bit into eagerly, only to find the bottom covered in green mould.

It was a rare mishap in a book full of happy memories, recording his years as the travelling representative for Spence’s Ironmongers, supplying hardware, ironmongery and household goods to people who rarely, if ever, travelled away from their Dales homesteads.

In those days, without telephones or cars, people used different methods of keeping in touch. For instance, “In every house Arkengarthdale,” Dennis told me, “there was a pair of binoculars on the windowsill, so they could see what their neighbours were doing. It wasn’t malicious: it was a natural connection. They’d see their neighbour preparing for haymaking, and know that they’d better get ready too.”

Between Arkengarthdale and Tan Hill, he had to walk the last mile across the moor to the farmhouse. Fog came down while Dennis had tea there one November afternoon – and the farmer, fearful that Dennis might get lost on the moor, escorted him back to his car.

It was typical of the kindnesses that Dennis reciprocated as he became a carrier of messages between relatives in different districts, who rarely saw each other.

Tramlines in Friars Wynd Richmond

Tramlines in Friars Wynd Richmond

His book solved a mystery for me. I’d always wondered why there were tramlines in Friar’s Wynd, Richmond. They were installed, explained Dennis, by Spence’s in 1894, to facilitate moving goods from warehouses in the Wynd to the shop in the market place. Parts of the tramlines were removed, he said, when the pavements were re-laid.

Dennis remembers pushing trolleys in those tramlines, carrying stock from the warehouses to the shop. The motive power was men: often, the trolleys were so heavy that it took two or three men to push them. At the time, said Dennis, the theatre was semi-derelict, but the area at the back of the stage was used as warehouses. Spence’s also had a steel warehouse in Finkle Street, where they produced hand-made nails and horseshoes.

Dennis Edmondson with his book

Dennis Edmondson with his book

Dennis showed me the chair by the fire where he sat, writing his book longhand, from memory. “It was a different world, and the book gives a glimpse of it. It was only the 40, 50s and 60s, but the quickness of change since the War has been tremendous,” he said.

“When I began travelling, there four drapers’ stores in Richmond, and they sent out representatives too. Sometimes I’d bump into the drapers’ travellers, having meals at the same house as me. But gradually, they all disappeared. As cars came in, people were able to travel more.”

Travelling caused many changes. People would go to Darlington for cheaper goods – but then, lost the service that Spence’s provided. Dennis comments, “In effect, Spence’s financed many small tradesmen, as we’d supply orders, and they were paid for on my next journey, six months later.”

Spence’s had a delivery network that would be a model of environmental good practice today. As an apprentice, Dennis was often sent to put goods onto the bus to Gunnerside. He said, “Percival’s – who ran the buses – had a shop in Gunnerside, and people went there to collect their goods. There were also people in the Dales called Carriers. For instance, Yore Mills was a flour mill then. They brought the flour to Richmond station, and when the empty wagons went back, they called at Spence’s to see if anything needed to go back.”

For fans of Dennis’ writing, there’s hope of a ‘prequel’. He says, “I’m thinking about writing about growing up in the 30s, in Ravensworth. I knew everyone in the village: eccentrics, tradesmen etc. Probably only one or two of them are left now, but I remember them all.”

To buy Dennis’ book, call him on 01748 822692

Beck Isle Museum, Pickering

Dennis would recognise many of the exhibits at the Beck Isle museum, especially the recreated ironmonger’s store. The Museuem is a treasure trove of what was once ordinary but is now extraordinary. The bulk of its collections are what Chairman Roger Dowson describes as ‘everyday objects from local life.’

So it is here that you will find a Grandmother’s knitting needles, a Grandfather’s chisels – and somebody’s stone axe, the basic household tool of the Stone Age.

The strength of the museum lies in its depiction of the lives of people who didn’t make it onto the national stage, but were treasured by their own families. In this respect, the museum acts as the ‘family attic’ of the townspeople of Pickering and its area. Many volunteers see their own families in the photographic collections, and visitors come to research familiy histories.

Roger says that the museum has a regionally important collection of photographs inluding a large body of work by Sidney Smyth, depicting life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

There are also two guardsmen, painted by artist Reg Whistler, whose life was tragically cut short in Normandy in 1944. Roger says, “The guardsmen were painted as stage props for a children’s Christmas party in the Memorial Hall in 1943.

But it’s the everyday objects, used daily within living memory, that bring history to life; the grocers’ shop; the dairying equipment; the sewing needles; and the toys.

The history in the museum lives anew as volunteers use the tools to maintain the artefacts, and teach new volunteers how to use them.

There is always room for more volunteers. In a recent foray into the stores, Kim Shoobridge says she sorted 55 boxes of ephemera relating to local people, businesses, and events. It is a treasure trove for family history researchers, and visitors come from as far afield as Canada and Australia to learn more about their families and the area they lived in.

Even without family connections, the museum is a fascinating insight into the everyday lives of people living and working in a Yorkshire market town.

For more information about the Beck Isle Museum, visit www.beckislemuseum.org

To read more, see the Yorkshire Dalesman

Dairying equipment at the Beck Isle Museum

Dairying equipment at the Beck Isle Museum

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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