Country Shops of St Helena – Part 1

Inside Yon’s shop, also known as New Ground shop. Lily has kept the ‘over the counter’ traditional layout style.

The Shops And Keepers Behind The Counter | Sharon Henry

Something most of us can appreciate is how fast time flies, blink and before you know it – we’re living in the future and an ever changing world.  Take for instance shops and the way we shop. 

As a young child I remember running errands to buy hot, fresh bread from the town bakers, waiting for a quarter pound of cheese to be cut and balance-weighed to order and buying single cigarettes over the counter (bad mummy!)  Even, watching the cobbler do repairs holding nails in his mouth.  Those bakers have closed, cheese is now pre-packaged, cigarettes are only sold by the pack (so I’m told) and certainly not to minors, and that cobbler is but a distant memory, people these days don’t repair shoes they buy new ones.

Those shops formed a part of our cultural heritage, some now long gone and undocumented.  The retail environment and our lifestyles have evolved a lot since, with self-service, more choice, deeper pockets, refrigeration, technology and even mobility.

Given that yesterday is already history, we’ve decided to blog about St Helena’s small country shops of today and the shopkeepers who contribute to our island culture.  Steadfast in serving their communities from either home or custom-built premises, many still operating over-the-counter.  Besides being grocers they are the local grapevine, the off-licence and for some, creditors until payday putting groceries on account, providing a convenient, convenience.  Here are three stories.

Yon’s Shop, New Ground Point (sub post office)

Lily Williams [Charlie H Yon] Over the Counter. Opening date unknown.

On the Point – Yon’s New Ground shop and sub Post Office, St Helena.

“I think this shop could be about 100 years old,” says owner, Lily Williams (61) sitting behind the counter with a calculator at hand as she doesn’t use a till.  “My nanny started it and if my daddy was still living he would have been 100 now.  I reckon it might be one of the oldest shops still in operation on the island.

“We’ve always sold groceries, the main essential stuff and have always been an ‘over the counter’ shop.  I won’t change that, even the shelves because it’s historical.  They were made by my grandfather and daddy from flattened petrol drums, it has sentimental value.

“All I’ve changed is the counter and put a ceiling up.  They say I’m old fashioned but it’s not that, it’s keeping traditions or you feel like you’re letting your parents down.”

The historic shelves inside New Ground shop – these were made from flattened petrol drums.

Putting Money In The Store Room

“My main customers are from New Ground and I get people from Cleugh’s Plain.  As long as I can I’ll help the district so they don’t have to go anywhere else for groceries.  More or less we have everything here.  I tell anybody if there’s something they want I’ll go and get it for them, that’s the service you’re supposed to provide.

“What I normally do is when the stocks come in (imported by local wholesalers) I try and get as much as I can, it’s very rare I run out of stuff.  Trained by my father.  Daddy taught me; ‘you must get the things in for the people, don’t worry over money,’ he used to say.  ‘Put the money in the store room.’  So I just carry on with what he used to do.

“I mean it’s no use having money if you can’t buy anything because the wholesalers have run out.  As long as you have stuff in the store room you always can make money off it.”

Lily Williams serving the district customers on a busy afternoon inside Yon’s Shop (New Ground shop) on St Helena. Note the battery jars being used on the counter.

Packets of biscuits displayed in antique ‘battery jars’ which were once used to house a conductive solution of acid. This is displayed on the counter inside New Ground shop on St Helena.

Eggs-cellent Service

“This is also a sub Post Office so I distribute local mail and overseas post when the ship comes in, I also can do parcels and mail for posting.  Mobile phone cards are new and I sell plenty.  Funny how things change.

“There used to be lots of little country shops, they’re all closed now, Charlie Thomas up Knollcombes, Caswell Francis up country and Ronnie Duncan, all those little house shops and I think we are the only one still going.

“Any funny stories?  Before days people used to be so poor and one we do still laugh about is when someone took mummy’s eggs from her fowls and sold them to her to sell in the shop!  Some stories will have you in fits.”

Bread orders ready for collection from Yon’s Shop, New Ground, available Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

My Father’s Footsteps

Lily Williams, keeping the little shop on the Point open.

“We do, do credit, ‘grocery books’ is a tradition we carry on.  Everything is written in the ledgers and I keep two books as a check.  Me and daddy used to do this together and see who could add up the fastest!

“Doing this I feel like I’m carrying on the family tradition, although I’m the only one from a family of 10!  I just want to carry on in my father’s footsteps because I think that he knew I would have, so I don’t want to let him down.”

Philip John’s Shop, Nr St Paul’s Cathedral 

Managed by Shana John and Karen Johnson, Self-Service. Opened 6 December, 1984

Phillip John’s Shop (next to the white car) in St Paul’s district on a wet, rainy afternoon on St Helena.

“This shop started as a one room, over the counter shop attached to our house,” says Shana, joint manager and youngest daughter (26) of the shop owner, Philip John.  “We had a refit in December (2016) and opened an extension through the store room in the back.  We needed more space, it used to get crowded in here with customers’ baskets plus we wanted to stock new and different items.  The thing is, being in the country everything is in town and we have a lot of older customers who can’t get to town easily.  They don’t have a car and need to hire a taxi which can be costly if they just want something simple like a present or a card.

“We order from Cape Town and UK to get some different items to what other shops have here.  We try get little bits of everything, household items like wash cloths, clocks, torches and kettles to save people a trip into town.  We have credit accounts for our customers, many who have been with us since day one.”

Baby Business Boom

“Something we sell here that people go crazy for and come from other districts to buy, is baby milk-powder and nappies.  I had my little girl three years ago and found that these items used to run out.  So we started stocking them and they’ve become some of our biggest sellers.”

These old-fashioned set of scales is the oldest thing in the shop, which are now only used for animal feed. The Wonder Bar chocolate bars are a St Helena favourite.
Philip John’s Shop, St Pauls.

As a country shop, Phillip John’s stock different animal feed.

It’s Phillip John’s Shop, but his daughter Shana (pictured) now co-manages the operations along with her sister Karen. Shana first started working in the shop at age 15, so knows it very well.

Phillip John’s Shop recently underwent an expansion (Dec 2016) to create a more spacious environment for their customers.

“Being a country shop we have customers for animal feed (fowls and pigs), so our range covers gifts and clothes to baby, animal and everybody else’s food all in this small space!

“We sell our own homemade cakes, curry puffs, cheese straws and boiled pudding.  People sometimes bring in their produce for us like vegetables and eggs and we sell Solomon’s Bakery bread – Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays by order only.”

Satisfaction Guaranteed

“Because we’re next to the church we’ve added (artificial) flower arrangements for funeral services and gravesides and they’ve been doing well.  Oh and something simple we sell that you can’t buy anywhere else, is ice lolly (pop) sticks!

Ice lolly or lolly pop sticks are a popular item on sale in Phillip John’s Shop.

Artificial flower arrangements sell well from Phillip John’s Shop as they are located right next to St Paul’s Cathedral and graveyard.

“I’ve been working in the shop since I was 15 (11 years.)  I’ve tried other things; worked on the RMS, been on the Police, teaching; none suited me.  I think because I knew the family business was always here and I needed to be there.  Now I’m settled.  Will I encourage my daughter to work here?  I will try!  She already comes in and hands me items for pricing.

“For me the best part about working in the shop is seeing and hearing feedback from our customers, how much they appreciate what we do for them.  We try to please people; it’s their shop, so we try to satisfy everybody.”

Delray’s Store, Cleugh’s Plain

Delray McDaniel, Over the Counter.  Opened 1988

Delray’s Store on Cleugh’s Plain Point is currently having an extension added.

The shop, previously known as ‘Stevie Macs,’ was opened in 1988 by Delray’s dad who saw the need for a convenience shop in the area.  Delray now owns it and started helping out from the age of 12 serving customers and stocking shelves.  Over the last four years she saw a noticeable drop in business, possibly due to migration or customers shopping elsewhere.  But, business has picked up again and an extension is currently being built that will expand the premises.

Getting A Brain Freeze And Sugar Rush

Kelly Augustus has been working there for a year.  “We have a little bit of everything, most people come to do grocery shopping,” she says leaning on the counter, “otherwise we have quite a wide variety of alcohol so people come in to buy that and we also sell ice, our ice sales are pretty high.  Thursdays and Fridays are the main days.

“We get children coming in after school for Slushies and we sell a few local products; homemade chutneys, syrup (juice concentrate) and ginger beer.  Our best syrup customers are people who’ve been abroad for a long time, they come in and get so excited when they see it, they just have to buy some! (for nostalgic reasons.)”

Homemade syrup and ginger beer are very popular items from Delray’s Store.

Kelly Augustus has been working in Delray’s Store, Cleugh’s Plain, for a year .

Delray’s Store, (also known as Stevie Mac’s), Cleugh’s Plain.

Jars of tempting goodies on the counter at Delray’s Store, Cleugh’s Plain.

The top shelf items in Delray’s Store.

14 thoughts on “Country Shops of St Helena – Part 1

  1. The small shops are one of the quaint, unique and enduring features that make Saint Helena such a special place. The shops also add to the strong sense of “community” that is felt here. Thank you for showcasing some of these shops in your article…..well done once again!

    Steve Evans

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love the photo of the liquor bottles in Delrays Shop. Half the price charged in Australia. Savings would almost pay for the holiday from Australia! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well if that’s an incentive to book a ticket go for it! 🙂 Reading the prices labels on the goods is pretty interesting, probably more so in a few years time…

      Like

    • Poor Colin: do you really got twice as dear liquor prices? Come to Germany, there is no other place in Europe (apart may be of Bulgaria) where foodstuff is cheaper than in Germany. Half a litre of beer comes at 35 EURO Cent upwards. A bttle of brandy at 7 EUR (750 ml) and so on. There is no other place in Europe where cometition in retail is as tough as in GERMANY. So: when I go to ST HELENA, it’s always an expensive experience…. Twenty years ago, when I went to ST HELENA, the only things cheaper than in Germany were postage and cigarettes. But the tobacco issue has changed too…
      HOWEVER, I am very much looking forward to the next issue of COUNTRY shops on ST HELENA.

      Like

  3. Great feature indeed. I love it! Very well written. Interesting photos.
    I remember dropping in at Solomon’s Shop in Sandy Bay in December 1997; just for curiosity. I had walked all the way from Jamestown to The Ponds (it’s true). On my way back – very thirsty now – I had to wait for Thorpe’s Grocery Shop to re-open at 2 pm. I also remember a shop in Upper Half Tree Hollow (might have been C&M’s?). And of course I was a regular shopper at John Musk’s Shop where I was served by Irene Harris and Kathleen Shoesmith. By coincidence, I share my birthday (not date of birth) with the late John Arthur Musk…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Manfred. Wow walking from town to the Ponds and back is pretty epic! The Thorpes Sandy Bay shop still operates but the Solomons one closed as it wasn’t viable to stay open. All of C&Ms have closed and of course John Musk’s shops – now just a memory.

      Like

  4. Fascinating words and and images! I have a couple of questions: With such a small population and economy, how many wholesale suppliers are there on the island? And does there exist in Jamestown something that would resemble a real supermarket?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Oliver. There are three main wholesalers, Solomons, Thorpes and Queen Mary Store who import from the UK and Cape Town. There are a few ‘supermarkets’ now but the only one that resembles a ‘real’ one ie with trolley space and level flooring is The Star in Jamestown run by Solomons.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great feature, especially as I remember both Philip John and Stevie Mac opening their shops – good to see them still going. They show the indomitable and enterprising spirit of Saints. And the ubiquitous HP Brown Sauce. Christmas is never the same anywhere around the world, since the days of roast + curry adorned by the famous bottle on Christmas Day dinner tables. Let’s hope those folks in the building on its famous label do you proud!

    Liked by 1 person

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