A St Helena History Lesson Through Small Shops | Sharon Henry
Welcome to part two of St Helena’s small country shops, pillars of St Helena community. 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 and district pillars within the St Helena community. Recognising that the world is ever changing and today’s ordinary will be tomorrow’s reminiscence, we’ve documented a few shopkeeper stories in this special four part series.
See links at the end of this post for shops covered in the other three articles.
Patsy Greentree’s Shop, New Ground
Patsy Greentree, Over the Counter, open circa 1997.
“I’ve been going for about 20 years now,” says Patsy, smiling at a happy customer who is nodding her approval. “I started out very small because I was still teaching school at the time, but I wanted to start a shop as I wasn’t planning to stay. My late husband, Tony, got the place ready for me. We started with grocery items, customers suggested things like corned beef and they said don’t forget toilet roll because people always run out! But we’re still not big. Customers don’t only come from the neighbourhood they come from all over. Especially the guys and girls working down there in the business park, they mainly buy chocolates, Cokes and chips (crisps.)
“What’s the best thing about the shop? Well there were some really bad days after Tony passed on and I could not open for weeks on end. I couldn’t go back to teaching. It went on like that for about six months. Eventually I thought, I have to open, people came into the shop and believe me it really helped, just talking and meeting different people.”
Zero Shades Of Grey in St Helena Community Shops
“I put groceries on account for customers. Sometimes I order stuff from UK so I have a few different items that you won’t see elsewhere (milkshake mix, Moirs baked cheesecake mix and milk tart) but mostly I buy from the wholesalers here.
“The only local products I sell are Stevens’ Butchery’s fresh meat and sometimes vegetables from any gardeners who ask.
“What items are must haves? Oh that’s hair dyes! Also must have cigarettes and must have beers! L&Ms (cigarettes) are the most popular I sell them for £5.20 a pack, they’re £5.55 at Thorpes; I try to help the people out.”
Thorpe’s Shop, Sandy Bay
WA Thorpe & Sons, former Over The Counter, opened 1970
“The shop is actually called Mill Cottage,” says Nick Thorpe, retired owner, of Thorpe’s. “It was built in the 60s by a Mr Knipe. We started renting it 47 years ago.
“Those days bread used to be delivered by the van load to Sandy Bay from Benjamin’s Bakery in town. There were big bread orders; I think people used to eat bread with everything.
“We weren’t the only shop in the area, Solomon’s had opened before us but they decided to close last year.
“We are currently running on a one year lease as the owners want their property back.”
Save Thorpe’s Shop
“We have tried, and are still trying to find other premises but nothing’s worked out at the moment. Sandy Bay is riddled with rules as it is a National Park so it’s hard to find land. We have identified a plot within the car park area of the community centre. It doesn’t get much use and is ideally situated for us to build a shop.
“There is a petition going around at the moment by a resident to ‘save’ the shop.
“Sandy Bay is a small community and we do make a small profit so it’s worth keeping it going. And we don’t want to leave Sandy Bay on the lurch.
“We were robbed once, a while ago at Easter time. They took the safe, a beautiful one – that really annoyed me, and they took £800 worth of cigarettes and booze.”
Thorpe’s – A Longstanding Family Business
“Before days Government used to do a price control on certain imported goods through Crown Agents and supplied paraffin, marg, sugar, flour, Carnation milk, cheese and rice to merchants. These were sold at a fixed, no-profit price at the Government Store in Ladder Hill. In the mid 70s we started competing as we could get goods cheaper. The government store eventually closed.
“We used to have a ration book system, so people would have their weekly rations on ‘tick’ and then pay for their previous week’s goods. We don’t have ration books anymore but formal customer accounts that are paid monthly.
“The first Thorpe shop was opened in 1868 by my great grandfather, William Alexander Thorpe in a property opposite the playground on Market Street in Jamestown. There used to be a lot of shops at the turn of the 19 century for all sorts of things, silversmiths, goods from the Far East…”
Almost a century and a half later, the Thorpe business remains strong in retail on St Helena. Alongside the Sandy Bay shop, WA Thorpe & Sons have three shops in Jamestown; The Grocery, Tinkers and Emporium.
There are over 50 signatures on the ‘Save Thorpe’s Shop’ petition of Sandy Bay residents, lobbying St Helena Government to release the car park plot to Thorpe’s for development. “The car park is hardly used,” says Wanda Isaac of Elder Cottage, “mainly on Bonfire Night. We need the shop for 365 days. Thorpe’s have supported us for all these years and we want them to stay.”
Country Shops on St Helena, other articles in series