PRESERVING THE TRADITIONAL COUNTRY SHOPS, Part 3 | Sharon Henry
Welcome to part three of small country shops on St Helena. These rural establishments quietly provide a vital service to their communities, many from home premises trading over the counter. Besides being grocers St Helena shops are the off-licence, the local grapevine and for some, the casual creditors putting groceries ‘in the book’ until payday. On the face of it these shops may seem ordinary or even old-fashioned, however, they are an intrinsic part of our cultural heritage. Recognising that the world is ever changing and today’s ordinary will be tomorrow’s reminiscence, we’ve been documenting a few of the shops that continue to serve. See links at the end of this post for shops covered in previous posts.
Blue Hill Shop, Sub Post Office, Blue Hill – Audrey Yon, Over the Counter, opened May 1974
“We opened this shop in 1974 so it has been going for over 42 years now,” says Audrey glancing at the blanket of rain falling just outside her shop door. “It wasn’t the only one at Blue Hill at the time, there was one at Red Gate and one at High Hill, but they have closed down.”
“Blue Hill is a small district and we don’t get all the Blue Hill people coming in here because since they have their own transport and things they go the other way (town), but we get by. There are no big profits but we’re still hanging in there!
“We do have our regulars but not as many as there used to be.”
The Bread Provider
“Twice a week I drive to Half Tree Hollow to collect bread orders from the bakery. It doesn’t pay us but we do it for the sake of our customers, they have to have their bread. Solomons (bakery) say it’s not profitable for them to deliver this far, which means if it doesn’t pay them it won’t pay us but we do it for the sake of the people.
Great Vats Of Lard in Shops on St Helena
“What kind of things used to sell 42 years ago? Oh goodness! Marg used to come in big tins, and rice and sugar used to come in bags so we had to weigh them out. We were everlasting weighing out things. We used to get lard, you hardly see lard now, but we used to get it in big tins. Even flour came in big bags. Very messy. We had an old-fashioned scale then, that I still have but now only use for animal feed. I use a digital one now, it’s so much easier.
“We didn’t have a fridge at the time. We used to keep the marg and lard in the buckets they came in. But we had more customers then so it got used up quickly. It never melted and used to keep well in the buckets.
“This building was put here especially for the shop. My husband Frank was alive at the time and he had someone build it, he was a carpenter so him and my son did all the woodwork. From all those years ago it’s still the same shelves that was put there then. I suppose they will collapse on me one day (laughs) but they’re still there. We opened the shop in May 1974.”
Age Is Just A Number
“Nowhere along the line did we have any help or money from outside, we did it all on our own, twice I asked for a bit of help, a grant but they said I didn’t fall into that category. So I don’t think I will worry anymore now. As long as I can hold up to it, I will carry on.
“My daughter Cicely (Williams) helps some days, she’s been my assistant ever since we opened the shop. She was quite young then – so was I! I’m 81 now and yes I still drive (bread orders). I don’t drive in town anymore, my children say it’s too busy, although I feel I could do it but I won’t go against them.
“At one time we used to sell paraffin oil from a big drum. Frank made a stand for it and hooked up a tap. Oh my goodness the trouble to get the drum inside! People used to use paraffin for lamps, maybe cooking but they came with gallon cans. Then I guess rules and regulations came in and we stopped selling it. I don’t know if it’s still sold nowadays.
Electricity Won’t Come This Far
“That’s before we had electricity. Back in the 70s we never thought we would have such a thing because they said we were too far out. Even piped, running water. Each house had to have their own tanks and drums because we didn’t have running water. We caught rain off the roof and we’re still alive! When there wasn’t any rain we used to fetch water from the spring. That was the way we used to live and we didn’t think too much about it. Electricity? That was never going to be out our way we thought, but now of course we’re fortunate to have it. Even TV, internet and mobile phones.
“We been a sub Post Office for a couple of years now, so we give mail out and people can post mail from here. But not a lot of mail come and go nowadays because people have email, Skype and Facebook. People tend not to write a lot anymore, I for one! I’ve got a Galaxy tablet and it lets me do all that I want to do to stay in touch. I also check out What The Saints Did Next, it’s very enjoyable, good stories!
“If I didn’t have something to do like the shop, I would be very bored. I still like doing this, it keeps me busy, keeps me motivated.”
Longwood Store, Longwood Avenue
Simon Francis, over the counter, opened circa 1970s.
“This was originally Mr Maddie Crowie’s shop,” says shopkeeper, Cynthia Green, “then it went to Laura Francis (deceased), now it’s in her son Simons’s name. Laura wanted me to carry on with the shop, it was her wish. People always say ‘don’t close it down, it’s a friendly shop, we have ’nuff’ laughs and jokes in here.’
“I still use the balance scales and we’re keeping it an over the counter shop. We do bread orders, sell local vegetables and stock the main household items.
“You don’t get much profit out of it, just enough to put the main things back on the shelf of what people buy. I keep it open for the sake of the people coming in for a chat and socialising. Shop wise there is quite a lot of competition around here, but I don’t worry about competition. As long as we have the main things on offer.
“We pass on ideas, ask each other what they’re cooking tonight, it is friendly and you meet different people and hear their views on different things. That’s the reason why I keep it open.”
Country Shops on St Helena, other articles in series
Part 1: Yon’s, New Ground – Phillip John’s, St Pauls – Delray’s, Cleugh’s Plain
Part 2: Patsy Greentree, New Ground – Thorpes’s, Sandy Bay
Part 4: Andy’s, Half Tree Hollow – The Anchor, Kunjie Field
A beautifully told story Sharon showing that in any changing society there are acts of altruism needed to ensure that the most vulnerable aren’t abandoned.
Thanks Roger. True all of the shop owners we featured have that characteristic – long may they survive.
This has been a lovely series SHARON – a real peek into the heart of the community.
Thanks Chris – Look out for the final part coming tomorrow! 🙂
Delightful! particularly Mrs Yon’s story – much of which i relate to growing up at smith point cottage on another side of the island. Clearly the people who refused she and her family a grant to support the business failED to see the sterner stuff they were made off – true salt of the earth people who you would want to help. Still, she is still there and stoically carrying on…so heart warming to hear her story.
Totally agree Nigel. We had a wealth of stories from Audrey but we couldn’t fit them all in! Her commitment and drive to continue serving the Blue Hill community over the last four decades is truly commendable. 🙂
What a brilliant story Bring back so many memories from my child hood days. well done to all who keep our little shops open, may they continue servicing forever.
Thanks Patrick! It’s fascinating listening to the stories of times gone by – so much has changed in a small space of time. To keep these little shops open we could all do our bit in giving them our custom. 🙂