Whatever happened to Walter Willson’s?

SHOPGIRLS: May, above, and below with a Walter Willson’s colleague

Whatever happened to Walter Willson’s?

First published in Features

AS with almost everyone else who chose to stay in blighted blighty this summer, the week’s holiday proved weatherwise to be what the euphemists suppose iffy and the realists call miserable.

Perhaps that’s what prompts Martin Birtle to point out that Hartlepool Council is advertising for a climate change officer on £27,000-£29,000 a year plus essential car allowance.

If he’s really going to change summers like this one, of course, he’s probably going to want an awful lot more than £27,000 – the Pied Piper comes curiously to mind – and if Hartlepool Council’s serious about it, shouldn’t the essential car (as Martin suggests) be replaced by a bike?

STILL, much awaited for a rainy day, and particularly an invitation to talk with the splendid Mrs May Pinkney in Ferryhill.

We’d written two weeks about Walter Willson’s, once a familiar name on every North-East high street and now not just disappeared but damn-near vanished without trace. Not even the internet, with which there is precious little meshing, had been able to add much to the shopping basket.

Mrs Pinkney, now 90 and still as sharp as a bacon slicer, worked at Walter’s Ferryhill branch for ten years – the last seven as manageress, the company’s youngest, during the war. There may have been 150 branches, May reckons – and plenty of competition.

Even in Ferryhill there were three different Co-ops – Bishop Auckland, Tudhoe, West Cornforth – plus other long-established names like Duncans, Thompson’s Red Stamp Stores and the Home and Colonial.

“The men had gone to war, they had to leave the women in charge,” says May, eight bob a week when she started, up to 30 shillings when in charge – three or four staff, lots of ration books, couple of errand boys.

“What they really hated on those big old bikes was East Howle bank and we’d quite a few customers down there. Sometimes they’d be gone so long, we thought we’d lost them.

“I remember somehow carrying hundredweight bags of sugar from the back. These days I doubt if I weigh that much myself.”

BASED in Newcastle, Walter Willson’s mostly sold groceries and provisions, though Ferryhill had a hardware department, too. They also seemed to sell extraordinary amounts of yeast, which North-East folk inexplicably pronounced “yest”.

The shops opened long hours, 6pm or 7pm weekdays, 9pm Saturdays with much extra time worked to prepare for the quarterly stocktaking, after which the manageresses were summoned to head office to face Walter Aitchison – May believes he was Sir Walter – the chairman.

“To be honest I was a bit terrified of him, those steely blue eyes on the other side of the table, but if your stocktaking was right there were really good bonuses.

“Once I had a quarterly bonus of £20. I couldn’t wait to get home to share it with my mam.”

AN email from Enid Barr also suggests that Walter Willson’s boss was called Walter Aitchison, which raises the possibility that the fabled Mr Willson may never even have existed.

May Pinkney doesn’t know, but does remember that when the war ended she left for pastures new.

“All the men came back,” she says and then adds an afterthought.

“Some of them did, anyway.”

THE admirable Mr Tom Dobbin, at 80 still one of the Echo’s most assiduous readers – canny golfer, too – rings from Durham to query the inclusion of the word “peloton” on the sports pages.

“It doesn’t exist,” insists Tom, is little reassured on being quoted the rhyme about the funny bird and offers a bet – “5p, from my pension” – that the word has never previously appeared hereabouts.

He loses. Originally French and meaning a small ball or small group of soldiers, it’s now largely a cycling term to describe the chasing pack.

In the last 20 years, it’s been used on 116 occasions in the Echo – 115 of them to help oil the cyclists’ progress and once to describe events in the Wolsingham Indoor Cricket League – but that, one suspects, was our esteemed correspondent keeping ahead of the game as usual.

SOMETIMES, of course, it’s almost as difficult to keep up with the English language as it is with the guy in the yellow jersey.

Returning on the ferry to Northern Ireland from a North-East trip, Brian Weir read in the Evangelical Times – more of which in a moment – that the language has 995,844 words (it had that day, anyway) and is growing at about 500 words a month.

“The average person is said to use about 14,000 words. I imagine I use about 2,800 and you about 70,000,”

says Brian, kindly.

The millionth word – someone’s counting – will stagger over the etymologists’ line on August 29, 2009.

IT may never be said of the Evangelical Times, of course, that it has been hiding its light under a bushel – simply that I’d never heard of it. It was thus something of a surprise to discover on the website – and beneath a specimen front page appropriately headlined “Running the race” – that, like all the world’s great papers, it is produced right here in Darlington.

MOOREEFFOC is doubtless among the 950,000 or so words which most of us would never have known. Chris Eddowes in Hartlepool draws attention to it, nonetheless.

Charles Dickens is said to have coined it, or at least dragged it backwards into life, while gazing gloomily through the smoked glass door of his London coffee room.

Chesterton pursued it, said that it “denoted the queerness of things that have become trite”, Tolkien (no less) took it further in hand.

“The word mooreeffoc may cause you to realise that England is an utterly alien land,” he wrote. He was wrong of course. We just don’t speak the language.

IN pussyfooting around the word “pansy”, the column two weeks ago included a 2001 photograph of a championship-winning Persian cat of that name, bred by Jean Stewart in Darlington.

Her show name, says Jean, is Barleyfields Philadelphus – and as that’s a flower, Pansy seemed appropriate for dog days.

Her kittens are now champions, too, and all with the show-name Barleyfields – because Jean’s originally from Barton, on the old Great North Road between Darlington and Scotch Corner and Barton, she says, was a “Barleytown”.

Ears to the ground, anyone specifically know what one of those was?

THEN there’s a call from Stella Altdorfer, also in Darlington, who still has a 1902 smoking cabinet presented on his return from the South African War to one of her forebears by the “Pansy Assembly”.

Flower power, who were they?

…and finally, the recent little hoohah over attempts by the Monstrous Regiment to infiltrate the 5s and 3s League prompts an email from Fr Ray Burr, until recently vicar of St Hilda’s, South Shields, and now retired back to Darlington.

Ray’s one of those Anglican priests who opposed – still opposes – women’s ordination.

“You seem to have done such a tremendous job with the dominoes,”

he says. “I just wondered if we could persuade you to obtain a place on the Church of England General Synod before further they debate the issue of women bishops?”

Alas, it seems unlikely. That’s a different cloth altogether.

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