IN 1889 my Great Grandmother, Eve Billingham, opened a Cook Shop in Old Hill High Street (now Highgate Street) using the front room as a shop and at the same time raising a family of three girls and a boy by her first husband Arthur Billingham.
She later married Harry Shaw from Hednesford. Eve was the first woman in the family to go into retail business and she set a precedent for generations of strong minded and hardworking women in our family who continued to run The Cook Shop. This is their story.
Eve worked extremely hard through the First World War and the depression which followed. She had to make use of whatever products she could and cooked faggots and peas, chitterlings, ham hocks, pigs trotters and fresh bread for her hungry customers. The three girls, Mary, Amy and Jessie, slept three to a bed and they had to help with the shop and deliver to local customers using a specially made three-wheeled wicker basket. Mary was the only one of the three girls to have a child. She married Joe Priest, one of 13 children and a true hardworking Black Country man. In 1921 they had a daughter, Iris, my mother.
Times were hard with the 1921 and 1926 General Strikes and in 1928, Joe (my Gramp as he was later known), like millions of others, was unemployed. When he signed on at the 'Labour' he was told that they would pay for him to emigrate to Canada where there would be a job waiting for him. When he was settled, he could then pay for Mary and Iris (then 7 years old) to join him. My mother still recalls listening tearfully to the discussion between her father and mother as to whether the family should go. It was a turning point in our family's history and their lives could so easily have taken a very different direction. But Mary and Joe decided to stay in the Black Country and open a Cook Shop of their own in Halesowen Road, Old Hill, in 1928.
Mary and Joe worked hard and long hours, 8am - 10.45pm weekdays and 8am - 12 on Saturdays.
Although this was a partnership, Mary most definitely wore the trousers! Sunday was their only day of rest and they attended St James's Chapel, Old Hill, affectionately known as 'The Rhubarb Chapel' where Joe raised the roof with his booming bass voice. The business prospered, using the old family recipe for faggots and peas passed down by Eve. They also sold other Black Country favourites such as chitterlings, hocks, pork sandwiches, hams, fruit cakes and cups of tea (tay). As things were improving, Mary and Joe decided to pay someone to paint the front of the shop. Unfortunately, at the same time they put up the price of pies (which had remained the same for at least five years) by a halfpenny. This was too much for some of the customers who threatened to boycott the shop.
In general Black Country people's only form of leisure (apart from hop picking) was to walk to the Clent Hills on a Sunday with a bottle of water and a slice of dripping. Mary, Joe and Iris were well enough off to be able to stay in various B&Bs in Clent, such as Mrs Tipton of Walton Pool and Mrs Beddall of Church Farm.
Iris was 8 years old when she first went to stay at Mrs Beddall's and it became a home from home for the family and the beginning of a family love affair with Clent which ended with the entire Brazier family living in Holy Cross.
Iris left school at 14 and went to work at Larkins Warehouse in Livery Street, Birmingham, where she met her future husband, Bill (my dad). The war was looming and by 1940 Bill had volunteered and joined the Worcestershire Regiment, stationed at Norton Barracks in Worcester. At 18 Iris left Larkins and returned to The Cook Shop to help her parents. Romance blossomed and Iris and Bill decided to get married in Old Hill.
However, there was a problem. It was just after Dunkirk and his regiment was confined to within the city boundaries. The only clothing Bill had was his battle dress so sneaking out was going to be difficult. A plot was hatched! Mrs Beddall drove to Worcester to fetch Bill with her husband Bertie's raincoat and trousers concealed in the boot of the car. The subterfuge worked, they managed to get through the checkpoints and the wedding took place on Saturday, June 22, 1940, in Old Hill Church, followed by a one-night honeymoon at The Mount B&B at Adams Hill, Clent.
Mrs Beddall drove Bill back to Barracks on Sunday night, arriving at two minutes to midnight. Bill confessed his sin but was treated leniently, being given seven days' jankers by his Company Commander Shirley Priest who informed him that if he had returned two minutes later he would have been classed as a deserter instead of AWOL!
The Second World War caused many supply problems for The Cook Shop. Most of the Cook Shop products did not require coupons to buy and were therefore in great demand. Mary and Joe were allowed to buy sugar, flour, meat etc., but nowhere near the quantity needed. The shop was only able to open at 8am and was sold out by 11am. The queues began at 6am.
One of Joe's mates was Jackie Brough, a butcher whose shop was 100 yards away from The Cook Shop. He and Joe gave each other mutual help and support and together managed to ensure a reasonable supply of meat from local farmers. They had to be careful not to fall foul of the local inspectors. Somehow Joe and Jackie always managed to be tipped off when the inspector was about to call and many a time Joe and Mary would come down to the kitchen in the morning to find it festooned with carcasses.
One Christmas, Joe and Iris were driving back from a smallholding in Wildmoor in Joe's Morris Coupe with a boot and the back seat full of undeclared meat. They were driving over the Shenstone at Halesowen when they were stopped by a policeman. He put his head through the window and asked to see their identity cards. Of course by now Iris was married and had a different surname - Brazier. The policeman drew his own conclusions, winked at Joe and told them to be on their way. Iris was not best pleased to be thought of as an older man's 'bit of stuff' but was able to see the funny side!
During the war, to supplement the meagre supply of food, every household in the Black Country which had a back yard, or fode as it was known, kept a pig. These pigs were fed on household scraps and when slaughtered every part of it, from the brains to the intestine, was eaten. The saying was that every part was used 'bar the squale!'
Joe and Mary always kept a pig at the back of The Cook Shop and every eight months the unfortunate pig (which was for some inexplicable reason always called 'Queenie') trotted down the road to be replaced immediately by a new piglet.
In 1949 Mary and Joe bought a house in Clent and Mary retired, leaving Joe to carry on working at The Cook Shop, commuting from Clent in his Rover 80.
In 1953, Iris and Bill opened their own Cook Shop, with Joe continuing to work in the original Cook Shop premises six doors apart. By family agreement the two businesses sold different products, Joe continuing with the hot pork sandwiches, pies and faggots while Iris and Bill widened their product range to include 12 cooked meats and sweet pastries. In this way both businesses were able to survive. In 1958 Joe closed his Cook Shop and worked with Iris and Bill.
In 1965 I joined the business after working at The Lyttleton Arms in Hagley for 18 months to learn, as my mother put it, 'to take orders.' For the next five years there were three generations of us working together until Joe (Gramp) retired in 1970 aged 75. My mother was always 'the boss.' Gradually, I was allowed to take over the running of the shop, being the first male member of the family to run the business. For this I was given the title of 'honorary woman' by the customers.
In 1972 I married Anne and we bought a house on Haden Hill. In 1974 we had twin boys, Richard and Matthew, followed by Edward and Joseph.
In the early 90's my parents retired, Mom aged 75 and Dad aged 81.
Today the business is still thriving after 125 years and in spite of competition from supermarkets and out-of-town shopping centres.