Friday, 6 September 2013

C.R. Birch & Son

I’ve been shopping in Birch’s since the week I first became a home owner.  I’d bought a cottage out at Worthen in need of repair, with a large, sprawling garden. It was to Birch's I came for hammers, nails, buckets, brooms, paraffin and garden tools. I was a young woman then, without any children, and now I’m a grandmother. It’s thirty-seven since I first shopped in Birch’s, and to me it hasn’t changed a bit. But that’s not how Margaruite Birch tells it. 

‘The day the cattle market closed,’ she said, ‘everything changed, the whole town - and that included Birch’s. Tuesday was always the big day. The highlight of the week. There’d be coach loads of people coming in from the country. The town would be heaving. We had the exit to the market opposite our shop. The farmers wives would come in and leave their baskets with us, then go off up Pride Hill to enjoy themselves. At the end of the day, they’d collect their baskets and go round the back of the Raven Hotel to be meet up with their husbands and get a lift back home.'

Back in those days, C.R. Birch & Son primarily served the farming community. It sold TVO [tractor vaporizing oil, to you and me], diesel and paraffin. Its tanker went around the farms. In the shop at the bottom of Roushill, it sold hay forks, pig troughs, soft soap in buckets, mothballs [for keeping mice out of the combine harvesters and protecting the leather seats of vintage cars] brummocks [look ‘em up on Google if you don’t know] and thistle podgers.  It also sold leather horse gear and saddlery.

Charlie Birch bred champion trotting horses. In the Birch’s inner sanctum, at the back of the shop, the walls are dotted with photographs of Charlie and his horses.  His favourite, Countess Dewey, became Champion of Great Britain for three years, 1933-35, and over twenty years later, in 1957, Charlie won the GB championship with Miss Azoff on a trotting race-course near Edinburgh. For many years, the magnificent silver cup he brought home with him resided in the front of the shop for Birch’s customers to see.

Charlie, known in the family as Pop, started C.R. Birch & Son in 1909 – in other words a staggering 104 years ago - renting what had been the blacksmith’s business of Messrs John and Thomas Jones [which in its turn went back to the early 1800s at least] and turning it into a shop.  Interestingly, the shop stands on the site of the old town wall, one half on what would have been one side of the wall, the other half of the shop on the other.  

By 1922, so successful was Charlie’s business that he was able to buy the property outright, and it’s remained in the family ever since. His sons Richard and Gordon joined him in the business. When Charlie died in 1959, Gordon continued with it until his own unexpected death, at the age of 52, in 1972.

‘Charlie was my father-in-law,’ Margaruite said.  ‘I married into the family and Gordon and I had two sons, Peter and Christopher. Gordon ran the business with the help of Arthur Dixon, Pop’s half brother, who had worked alongside him for many years. The business didn’t feature domestic hardwear and garden products, like it does now, until the Sixties when the cattle market and auction yard moved to their new site at Harlescott, taking the farming community with it.  Gordon was a wonderful man. Wonderful. After he’d gone I took over the business.’

Gordon would be proud of what Margaruite has achieved, still working in the shop forty-one years later, and so would Pop.  Margaruite said that, at first, working in Birch’s was a matter of being thrown in at the deep end.  ‘There I was with Peter and Christopher,’ she said,  ‘knowing next to nothing about running a business.  But the boys came in with me as they finished college, first Peter and then Christopher. And the customers were wonderful.  I don’t know what I would have done without them. Particularly the old farmers - they knew where everything was, and they told me. And then, of course, there was Freda.’

According to Margaruite, Freda Middle is an ‘honourary Birch’.  She came straight from school in Bishop’s Castle in 1960, and works in Birch’s to this day.  There was a sense of harmony about the business, she, Freda and Peter all agreed, and it was to do with how well they all knew each other, and knew the business.

‘We have some wonderful memories,’ said Margaruite.  ‘Like the time a pig got out of the market and came rushing through the shop.  It crossed Smithfield Road, leapt into the river, swam across it - which is how I know that pigs can swim - and tried to get away across the grazing fields of Frankwell.  I’ll never forget the drovers chasing after it.  There was no footbridge then, so they had to go round by the Welsh Bridge.  That wasn’t the only time, either, that we had animals in the shop.  It happened a number of times.’

While Margaruite was talking, a little man came into the shop and asked for a glass of water. Peter fetched him one.  They shared a few words about the weather. The man drained his glass. ‘Do you feel better for that?’ Peter said.  The man nodded and left, Peter extracting the glass from him on the way out.  ‘He comes in sometimes for chocolates,’ Margaruite said. ‘I don’t think he has a clue where he is. But then over the years we’ve seen so many funny people. Only the other week we had a man come in asking for a chamber pot.  We didn’t have one, and he’d already tried Rackhams with no success.  His bladder was weak, he said, and his feet didn’t work, so we sold him a bucket with a lid.  It would hold more than a chamber pot, we said.’

Margaruite’s a great mimic.  When she tells a story, you can hear the voices as she remembers them.  Like the man who had a mouse come for breakfast every day, grapes and digestive biscuits.  He was a very nice mouse, the man said, but now he was bringing his family with him and plainly the man couldn’t feed them all. They had to go. Could Birch’s help?

Margaruite has a stack of mouse stories. They all seem to involve people of kind disposition towards the little creatures cosied up in their homes. Take Mr Kershaw of School Gardens, who couldn’t bear to kill the mouse that visited his balcony, so wanted a trap to catch it humanely.  Every day he caught it, removed it as far as the greenery and tipped it out, but then next day there would be another mouse until finally, he admitted to Freda, he was overrun. ‘Have you considered that it might be the same mouse?’ suggested Freda.  The man hadn’t, but next time he caught a mouse he branded it with a dash of paint.  The next time they saw him, he was in a real temper. 'That mouse!  I've caught it forty-five times!' he said.

Then there was the lady, very Welsh, who rang up with a problem.  ‘Oh, Mr Birch,  have you got a piece of wood, 36” x 4”, for the bottom of my bedroom door?’ ‘Do you want a draught excluder?’ asked Christopher. ‘No,’ said she. ‘I’ll tell you what it is.  I was in bed and I felt a wriggling on my back.  I turned over, and it was still there. I got out of bed, and a mouse shot out of my nightie.  Well, I don’t want to kill it.  It has a right to life.  That’s why I want the wood.  To stop it coming back.’  Result:  Christopher drove out to nail wood to bottom of bedroom door.

Driving out to attend to people’s needs seemed to be part and parcel of Birch’s service to its customers.  ‘There was an old couple by the name of Minshall,’ Margaruite said. ‘He was blind and she was dizzy, but they mostly got along all right.'  One time, though, they phoned the shop in a bit of a state. Where’s the lad, they wanted to know.  'We need him, see.' Why did they need him, Margaruite asked. They were locked out of their house, they said.  They wanted him to break in.  But he mustn’t break the glass. And he didn’t. ‘The lad’ undid a latch and squeezed in through a window. All part of the Birch’s service.

‘We miss the old farmers,’ Margaruite said.  ‘For a few years after the market closed, the wives still came in leaving their baskets at the shop. This continued until the older generation had gone. We miss the equine business too. When Pop started Birch’s he used to make cart greases, and embrocation for the horses.  You’d see him in the shop cleaning harnesses. We sold all sorts of riding equipment, both for working horses and leisure ones. Pop’s red, white and blue halters were for full-sized horses, red striped ones for cobs and blue ones for ponies. Some of them are still hanging up in the back of the shop to this day, but the riding schools started selling cheaper gear from India and China and mostly we gave up.’

Back in those days, the area up from Birches towards the Mardol and Pride Hill was a buzzing hive of activity. Next door to Birches, where the new flats are now, stood a maltings. Then there was the Queen’s Hotel, whose large car park was packed on market days. Then up Roushill Bank was Mr Ryden, the saddler. Then there was the brush factory, then the corn people selling seed to the farmers.  Then there were the two pubs, the Sun and the Horshoes on opposite corners. The actors from the theatre [now the Granada Bingo] used to stay at the Horseshoes. Their shows were wonderful, Margaruite said, and the theatre had a wonderful restaurant. But now all of that was gone. So much was gone, she said.

‘I remember the blind man who used to sit outside the row of cottages up Roushill,’ Margaruite said, ‘making wicker baskets. Back in those days, I remember Bythell’s Passage coming out on Pride Hill next to Mac Fisheries.  That got knocked down, like the Old Mint.  And I remember standing on Pride Hill, looking all the way down the Seventy Steps towards the river at the bottom. Then, with the building of the Darwin Shopping Centre, the Seventy Steps went too.’

We both agreed that nobody in their right mind would want to go down the current covered walkway with its nasty blind corners, that replaced the Seventy Steps. ‘I’ll tell you one thing that hasn’t changed though,’ Margaruite said, ‘and that’s the river. It still floods.’

C.R. Birch & Son sits right in the middle of what was once flood plain marshland. Today there are flood defenses guarding Frankwell Quay, but none on the town side of the river. ‘Everything has to go upstairs,’ Margaruite said. ‘It’s a tried and tested routine. We hose the place down afterwards and wait for it to dry, then everything comes down again.’

When Gordon died, he left behind a file on flooding compiled by Pop, detailing the best procedure for avoiding damage.  This perfectly highlights the continuity that is one of Birch’s great strengths.  When Margaruite and her boys took on the business, they found cupboards and files full of fastidious notes, including Pop’s accounting system, which was easy to pick up.

What did Birch’s have to offer that its modern out-of-town superstore competitors couldn’t provide? That’s what I asked Margaruite, and for a moment she seemed stumped. ‘Nothing really,’ she said at first.  Then, haltingly, ‘Well, it’s probably us.  The service we give.  People come to Birch’s because we offer service.  They come because of us.’

I’ve got to tell you something about Margaruite. A few years ago, on a research trip to Belize, I visited the indigenous Kekchi-Mayan people and stayed in one of their villages. One memorable night, the Alcalde [village elder] came visiting, and by candle-light, with the jungle croaking and whistling outside, I heard the story of how he’d founded the village.

That man had the demeanour of royalty. You listened to what he said, and gave him respect.  Nowhere else had I come across a person who ever made me feel quite like that.  But sitting in Birch’s inner sanctum, listening to Margaruite Birch’s account of the long history of Birch’s, and her life in Shrewsbury and all the changes she has seen, I felt it again.  Would it be stretching a point too far to say that this quiet, friendly, smiling lady is Shrewsbury royalty?  I think not.


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