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Weatherheads: History of a family firm

Weatherhead's advertisment
In these days of superstores, and their bulk purchasing power, there is little prospect of small, family-run shops surviving in the commercial world. Yet during the times when individual service and a community spirit were regarded as normal, Bletchley provided an environment where such businesses could thrive, and one still well-remembered firm was that of Weatherhead's, the last branch of which closed only a few years ago.

Around 1900, Fanny Isobella Alderman, from Swanbourne, married Edward Weatherhead and, having lived in Kent and Wen-dover, prior to World War One the couple moved to Bletchley.

Here, Mr Weatherhead became a gardener at Elmers, a school that was situated near St Mary's Church. Then, as one of the earliest commercial developments in that part of the town, in the mid-1920s he converted two houses, nos 71 and 73 Bletchley Road (now Queensway), and began in business as a florist, fruiterer, and seedsman.

At no 71 a confectionery and cooked meats shop was started two years later and, after employment in the greenhouses at Bletchley Park, Mrs Weatherhead's niece, Miss Elsie Alderman, began work in the new family business.

Tragically, in 1929 Edward was knocked down by a car and killed at Water Eaton crossroads but his widow continued the business and, on October 17 1931, replaced the greengrocery business at no 73, (now 103 Queensway) with a music and radio shop. This would be successfully run by her younger son Herbert (Bert) and her daughter Gertrude (Trudy).

In addition to Bert and Trudy there were three other offspring: Edward Cecil, (popularly known as Cecil), Leslie and Elsie. Leslie had a senior position with the Post Office and Elsie married George Morgan. (Their son, Paul, would become senior organist at Exeter Cathedral).

Becoming 'a reasonably able' carpenter, during his early teens, Bert had helped Fred Higgs, his close friend and cabinetmaker, in Fred's workshop at 19 Regent Street (no 17a has now been built on the site of the garden). And in 1931 he asked Fred to help him run the radio and music business.

The friends duly started working together, and with Bert having obtained the Murphy dealership in 1931 (at the age of 16!) for the radios Bert had made from kits, Fred made the cabinets.

As for the confectionery and cooked meat shop, in July 1940 Mrs Isabella Weatherhead retired from running the business and, thanking customers for thier loyalty, announced that her eldest son, Edward Cecil, would now continue the shop. Married to Madge Thurlow in 1928, Cecil had begun his working life at the Co-op Bakery but later joined the LMS Railway, where he stayed for seven years. For a year he then ran a poultry farm in Stoke Road before purchasing a grocery store at the corner shop, 79 Victoria Road.

His mother died at her home at 1 Leon Avenue in 1941 aged 66. Although the funeral took place in March 1941, the month also witnessed a less sombre event when her youngest son, Herbert, married Gladys Hurst of 35, Leon Avenue. Gladys was the daughter of Albert Hurst, who had been the manager at Randalls engineering works in Bletchley Road until it closed in 1926. At the age of 45, he then not only designed his own home - on his former allotment - but also began a general engineering works in Denmark Street, which in fact continued until recent years.

Following the outbreak of World War Two, with military requirements now obviously paramount, by 1942 Weatherheads Radio business was engaged in fitting radio apparatus into American tanks, and on joining the RAF Bert Weatherhead was involved at Potsgrove on wireless work for the Secret Service.

Fred Higgs also joined the RAF and, although he was initially involved in servicing the radio equipment fitted to American Liberator bombers, he was later also posted to secret broadcast duties at the radio station at Gawcott, near Buckingham. The story of this secret wireless is told in the book Bletchley Park's Secret Sisters.

As for Cecil, by the direction of himself and the personal representatives of his late mother, the freehold smallholding known as The Poultry Farm, on the outskirts of Water Eaton, came up for auction at the Park Hotel on Wednesday February 25 1942. Comprising 28 acres, which were currently let at £61 pa, it would be purchased for £1,075 by Mr Valentin, of Stoke House.

Also on an agricultural theme, in early 1943 a greenhouse was offered for sale - 49ft x 12ft complete with heating installation - at Weatherheads, 73 Bletchley Road and, although the nearest offer to £5 would secure, the purchaser had to arrange the dismantling and removal. Then at the same premises in September half a ton of rockery stone came up for sale, ar perhaps the proceeds helped Mr I Weatherhead to buy Tudor House in Western Road the following month for the sum of £340.

With the continuing call-up, Ron Pearson, and John Oliffe, two former employees of Weatherheads, were now serving in the RAF and around the beginning of 1944 they had an amazing coincidence when they met in a Glasgow street. Not only did they discover that they were taking the same course, but also that they had been assigned billets at the same house, an old warehouse!

John, of 9 Leon Avenue, would later be attached to Radio SEAC which, as well as producing the Forces Radio Times from studios in Colombo, Ceylon, also broadcast programmes to the British Forces in the Far East. In fact, during 1946 thoughts of home were kindled for Signalman Ken Buckingham, serving abroad at Ahmednagar, by a programme for which John held responsibility. As one of a series of programmed entitled Sunday in the Park, this was a selection of brass band music which had been played one Sunday afternoon by a band in Central Gardens, Bletchley.

Long since demolished, Central Gardens was a pleasant local amenity, the site of which is now partly covered by Princes Way, opposite the Leisure Centre.

At the end of May 1945, Mr William Johns took over the grocery business from Cecil Weatherhead at 79 Victoria Road, which had now been established for nine years. Persons who had been registered with Cecil were automatically transferred for their rationed goods to the new proprietor, who would continue trading at the premises until his death in 1950.

Cecil died one Thursday in early December 1945 at the age of 39, leaving a widow and two young boys, Terry and David. After his father's death, the latter would for many years carry on the grocery business at 71 Bletchley Road, with his mother and Sam Whitlock.

Claiming that they could provide a service "in the shortest possible time", with the end of the war Weatherheads Radio shop could now direct their priorities to the retailing and repair business. In September 1945, they purchased a small supply of domestic appliances, which not only included a small number of bowl fires at 26s 3d including Purchase Tax, but also some of the first post-war Murphy radios.

Although televisions were not available, the firm realised the potential for their popularity and, duly declaring that the technology had made great strides, stated that "after the war a set will probably come within the means of many householders. Then of course they will turn to Weatherheads, pioneers of Television in Bletchley.'

And indeed, Weatherheads held the first public demonstration of television in the town in 1946 at St Martin's Hall, where Fred and Bert erected a 40ft pole to pick up the relatively poor-quality signals from the Alexandra Palace transmitter. With only one channel, and within limited transmission times, initially these demonstrations were in black and white on a 9-inch screen. But to prepare for the anticipated demand, in addition to their shop at 73 Bletchley Road, from Monday May 27 1946 they would also trade from premises at 33 Aylesbury Street. Here, to coincide with the re-opening of television programmes, television sets were demonstrated on Friday June 7. And on the following day at the Assembly Rooms of the Conservative Club, the company held further viewings which, watched by an audience of around 600 people, featured the Victory Celebrations in London.

Apart from televisions the firm also dealt in many other electrical goods and in February 1947 they were appointed as agents for Hoover vacuum cleaners: 'Supplies are limited but demonstrations will be given and orders taken for early delivery.'

Nevertheless, televisions remained the predominant novelty and, in the company of around 50 other people in May 1947, a young David Higgs (the son of Fred Higgs) remembers sitting cross-legged on the floor in Weatherheads showroom from midday to 5pm., watching the first-ever television transmission of the Cup Final, between Burnley and Charlton. (Charlton were the winners, with the winning and only goal scored by Duffy).

In 1950, David then joined the firm, which at this period was still providing a service charging the two-volt lead acid cells (accumulators) needed to power radios, since many homes did not have mains electricity. The firm operated a van service to collect and deliver accumulators for customers in the surrounding villages. A high standard of technical knowledge was of course a prerequisite for the engineers of the company, as proved by Philip Tandy of 7 North Street who, during a competition held in 1947 by the Radio Society of Great Britain, had been recognised as the second best radio 'ham' in the country. Having held his licence since 1933, from one Saturday night to 9 am the next morning, via his home-made radio set, he had managed to communicate with 86 other 'hams' - a feat that the winner could beat by only 12 contacts.

That same year, on Saturday May 31, the wedding took place of Pam Tricker, the only daughter of Major and Mrs Tricker, of Maida Hill, London, and Neville Bedford, the youngest son of Mr and Mrs J Bedford of 1 Model Cottages, Newton Longville. The couple had met during the war when Major Tricker was stationed at Bletchley Park, and both had been employees at Weatherheads.

In fact, on Saturday, November 9 of the previous year, Trudy Weatherhead had married Edgar Bedford, of Newton Longville, who having been an army staff sergeant during the war was now employed as chief motor mechanic by the Bletchley Co-op. Among the wedding gifts had been a Pyrex dish in a silver stand, given by the staff of the Weatherheads shop, while in recognition of Trudy's musical talents a congratulatory telegram was sent from Stanly Riley and Margaret Rees, the BBC singers who had often sung to her accompaniment in the Baptish church.

An accomplished organist, in 1947 Trudy sat for the examinations for Associate membership of the Royal College of Organists and after her assessment at Kensington she would be awarded an ARCO degree. As the resident organist at the Spurgeon Memorial Baptish church in Aylesbury Street, Bletchley (now the site for a new development of retirement homes), she had written many songs for the church including Bedford, so named because the BBC Singers, who lived in Bedford, had once especially come to the church to perform a concert. In fact, after the war the tune, now renamed Bletchley, would be accepted as a hymn in the new Baptish Church Hymnal, published in 1962. As for her other works, a well known firm of music publishers accepted compositions submitted in 1946 and 1950 for inclusion in Sacred Children's Songs.

Due to the increasing competition from supermarkets, at 71 Bletchley Road the established retail grocery business of Weatherheads was finally closed in July 1961. The premises were then incorporated into no 73, and, after a major refurbishment, formed an additional and more spacious display and retail area for the radio and television shop.

Weatherheads Television continued to expand throughout the 1960s and the 1970s and eventually became a group of 15 branches in the Bucks, Beds and Herts area.

Sadly, Bert Weatherhead died in 1971 after unsuccessful heart surgery, and, due to pressure from supermarkets and national companies, the business closed in December 2001.

It had finally become too expensive to provide the personal service for which the firm was deservedly renowned.