The centrepiece of Sowman’s business was the imposing three storey ironmongery shop, the front of which can still be seen on the south side of the Market Place. Their china shop was to the left of this building and to the right, the garage entrance and then the radio shop, all in all a very large shop front. One of Sowman’s sales slogans was “We sell everything from a tintack to a combine-harvester!” and another, “If you can think of it, Sowman’s probably sell it!”
The name ‘Sowman’ was inlaid in mosaic on the porch floor in front of the main door of the ironmongery shop. This mosaic is clearly visible today. On opening the door, the air was redolent with the smell of dusty iron fittings, seed potatoes and other corn products indicating the agricultural nature of this rural town. On entering, a particularly long counter dominated the right hand side of the shop. Behind this counter the wall was covered with wooden drawers containing all manner of items for sale. At the far end of the counter was the staircase (which is still there today) leading to the other two floors.
The ironmongery shop sold household goods such as saucepans, pudding basins, baking tins, cutlery, glassware, dusters, shoe polish, washing baskets, irons, kettles and thermos flasks. Miscellaneous items included pen knives, tennis racquets, cricket bats and balls, wallpaper (which had to be ordered from sample books), paint, fireplaces, Pedigree prams, shotgun cartridges, fishing rods and tackle, garden equipment, screwdrivers, hammers, saws, lawnmowers, calor gas heaters and toys, electric fires and hair dryers. Many of these things could also be repaired in the workshops at the rear. Sowman’s could supply the town with just about anything, including the kitchen sink!
On the left hand side of the shop several glass cabinets were set at an angle displaying goods according to the season. A service lift was located behind the staircase. Desks for the sales staff were also situated at the back of the shop behind the staircase and near the lift. People Jean remembers working in the ironmongery shop were Ray Clifton, Harry Almeroth, Arthur Adams, Lewis Lenton, Reg Soman, Reg Sargent, Roger Hodge and Laurence Tompkins.
Watch the video clip of Jean describing stocktaking ‘treats’ at Sowmans
When Jean started work, the first and second floors of Sowman’s main shop could provide all that was required for the newly-weds’ home. Fireplaces and tiled surrounds could be supplied as could the accompanying necessities such as coalscuttles, paraffin and calor gas heaters. The shop didn’t stock furniture for the home, but Sowman’s were agents for several manufacturers including Lebus, so they could even order your new marriage bed! Pending the arrival of a baby, a cot and pram could be ordered. Then at the end of life, Sowman’s could arrange your departure, as they provided coffin furniture, coffin handles, shrouds and coffin linings. Truly a cradle to grave service!
Behind the ironmongery shop was a large warehouse, where Mr George Alsop and Mr Jimmy Bath could be found, but Mr Bath died very young before Jean started work there.
The garage entrance was immediately to the right of the main shop. Here were sold new Morris cars, commercial vehicles and motor bikes. The garage also serviced the vehicles and did repairs. Mick Orchard, later to be Jean’s husband, started work in the agricultural workshop under Clarrie Coles. Then Mr Lord decided he was too slightly built for that department, and thought the work too heavy for him. Mick was moved to the electrical department on the right hand side of the ironmongery building where he was supervised by Ted Eley. The petrol pumps were outside the Radio, TV and electrical shop, and occasionally someone would go out from the garage to serve customers, but it was usually Ken Nelson or Pete Kitchener from the electrical shop who provided this service. In the late 1950’s Sowman’s extended their shop front even further by taking in Hoddle’s Butchers, No. 31 (now The Olney Furniture Gallery) on the left of the china shop. This building became their car showroom; initially it featured the launch of the Morris Oxford Series V – the Farina range.
In addition to Sowman’s delivery lorries driven by Bob Andrews and Dick Luck, Miss Marjorie Stevens was allocated her own little van. One of her tasks was to go around the villages collecting up accumulators. These were lead acid battery cells in a glass container which needed re-charging frequently and were used for powering valve radios and door bells. When newly charged they would be returned to their owners. She also carried torch batteries and other small items on her van. Back at the shop in Olney there was a veritable rabbit warren of rooms where tasks such as re-charging accumulators could be carried out.
Mick Orchard remembers the Radio and TV shop. The televisions sold in the 1950’s were very heavy and had to be carried up the shop stairs. The models sold by Sowman’s were manufactured by Bush and KB. In the High Street Arch Minney and his son John sold sets made by Murphy and Cossor, and Field Bros and Smith sold Echo and Ferguson sets. Such a variety of models could be bought in the town! Olney was far better equipped for shopping for electrical goods than it is today.
The shop sold a complete range of what are now known as ‘white goods’. Strangely, for some reason, refrigerators, and eventually freezers, were sold in the ironmongery department rather than the electrical department. Hoover Keymatic automatic washing machines weighed about a couple of hundredweight and could be demonstrated in the customer’s home. One day Mick Orchard and the local Hoover rep had to take one down to Luton. When they arrived, to their dismay, they discovered that the demonstration was to be held on the first floor of a block of flats. It had to be carried up the stairs and down a long passage which had only about an inch clearance on either side. Fortunately, the woman was so impressed by the machine that she kept it there and then!
The agricultural department of Sowman’s occupied an enormous space. (It is now the Olney Antique Centre.) It was big enough to house combine harvesters and tractors at certain times of the year. There used to be a large ramp in the old rickyard in East Street opposite the rear of Brock’s garage. Here the lorries unloaded the heavier agricultural vehicles. Jean remembers the combines made by Massey Harris and tractors made by David Brown, but the thing that stands out in her memory was the arrival of an enormous John Deere tractor. When Burgess’s took over, the dealership was changed to the Italian made Laverda.
Central heating installation was another speciality of Sowman’s business. This work was carried out by Clarrie Coles and his workshop team, who installed the heating in Olney Parish Church and some of the large houses in the area. Mick, when a part of this team, remembers laying miles of galvanised piping under the fields to carry water to cattle troughs; these are now underneath the villages of Milton Keynes, Woughton and the Woolstones!
The blacksmith’s shop had a large anvil and forge used by Carl Clifton and Phil Fisher. The machines were driven by large canvas belts which ran all around the workshop. The girls hated going through this shop when the forge was in use because of its roar, which was deafening, and the heat, which was intense.The china shop to the left of the ironmongery shop (now the Willen Hospice shop) was run by Mrs Sanders, whom Jean remembers as a sweet little old lady. In the late 1950’s Jean started collecting china from this shop for her ‘bottom drawer’. The office girls used to love it when Mrs Sanders took delivery of a box of china that they could look through. Beswick china ornaments were stocked but Sowman’s didn’t sell named pottery, mostly just everyday crockery, white pudding basins, mixing bowls, plates, and glassware.
When Mrs Sanders was not serving in the shop she was expected to bag up seeds, including peas and beans, in another little room behind the china shop. She used to weigh them up and seal them in little ‘Sowman’ packets. Some packets were sold in the ironmongery shop but most went out with the reps as orders. Larger packets and bags of seeds for farmers were ordered from the shop’s seed catalogues and were made up elsewhere on the premises. Orders were taken for seed potatoes from January onwards and were made up and delivered in the spring. George Alsop was in charge of that activity. Jean’s husband, Mick, recalls that this was the only time he could earn any overtime, when they had to make up and distribute all the orders for seed potatoes around the area. Aran Pilot and Majestic seed potatoes were the popular varieties. Jean remembers that the steep stairs in the potato barn were horrible to climb as they were almost vertical.