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Tale from a bygone era of Willenhall front room shop

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: January 21, 2014

  • Some of the clothes Edith Hodson sold

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THE annual mayhem of Christmas shopping and the sales are over - so grab a cuppa and put your feet up - as we look at the story behind a Black Country shop from a bygone age.

The story begins in 1920, when young Edith Hodson, from a well-known Willenhall lock making family, decided to start her own business at home.

In those days, it was quite common for people to set up small, front room shops, especially if the only occupant of the front room was an aspidistra!

Young Edith and her sister, Flora, came from a family well used to working from home.

Their brother, Edgar, a skilled lock maker, had his own factory in the yard behind the family home at 54 New Road, Willenhall.

The Hodsons were well-liked, respected members of the local community, so Edith must have been quite confident about her new venture.

The girls were always doing their bit locally.

Edith had a fine singing voice and often performed in local concerts, while Flora involved herself in charity work, raising funds for the Royal British Legion's Poppy Appeal.

From the outset Edith felt the area lacked a shop selling everything that busy local families might require, like women and children's clothing, haberdashery items and men's undies.

It seems wives and mothers back then also bought their menfolk's smalls!

Spotting a gap in the market, Edith decided to go ahead with her venture.

And, in 1920, she transformed the family front room into a "General and Fancy Draper Shop".

From the start it was an Aladdin's cave, stocking everything busy housewives could possibly need – from essential sewing, crochet and knitting supplies and soft furnishings to beauty products and toiletries.

The Hodsons' front room shop would eventually serve Willenhall and Walsall folk for 50 years.

For the first seven years, Edith ran the shop by herself, then Flora joined her in 1927.

The sisters made a good team, but it was Edith who was the real driving force.

She was always happy to chat to customers and let them buy on credit, or pay for goods in instalments.

They had a savings club scheme, too, so women could put a bit by for special occasions like birthdays or Christmas.

The sisters took great care of their customers, letting them browse the wholesalers' catalogues to their hearts' content.

And, once the orders were placed, Edith made the weekly Thursday trip to Birmingham wholesale warehouses, such as Wilkinson and Riddell or Bell and Nicholson.

Customer service was definitely more leisurely and personal back then. But, as time went by, it wasn't enough to bring Edith and Flora much profit.

After the Great War society was in upheaval and times were changing.

Increasing numbers of women were now working outside the home and had little time or energy to make clothes for themselves and the family.

So the sisters began to lose their traditional clientele.

At the same time, women going out to work, also needed affordable work clothes.

So, for the first time, the large stores began to address this.

It was a combination of bad luck and bad timing that, just as Edith and Flora were starting their haberdashery and clothing business, large stores like Marks and Spencer began selling well-made skirts for under five shillings.

And, for ten shillings, you could buy a whole outfit!

Before long, Marks and Sparks and other similar outlets had cornered the market for well-produced and affordable clothing.

In comparison, the clothes Edith and Flora sold were expensive.

Even their cheapest "tub" – or wash day frocks – cost 4s 11d. Cost wise, the sisters just couldn't compete with M & S and the other big players.

As the years went by, Edith and Flora also struggled to keep up with the changing fashions. Local residents recalled noticing how dated the stock looked, appealing mainly to much older ladies.

On top of this, Edith suffered from a lot of illness and Flora had to take a more active role.

In 1955 Edith died, and Flora continued running the shop on her own until 1970.

As locals had long noticed, the Hodsons' shop and stock had remained virtually unchanged since its opening.

The window display grew more and more dated.

And Flora took to selling existing stock to a few, loyal customers, from the back door of the premises.

She left the shop itself totally unchanged.

After Flora's death in 1983, Walsall Museum staff were called in to sift through the shop's contents.

They discovered a fantastic treasure trove of women's and children's clothing from the 1920s to the mid 1950s.

It must have been the fashion history equivalent of opening Tutankhamun's tomb.

A cornucopia of everyday clothing had been preserved, items that aren't normally considered worth saving for posterity.

It was truly a rare find for Walsall Museum, and the unsold stock is now the renowned Hodson Shop Collection.

The Hodson's property, including the buildings housing the shop and lock works, went on to become the Locksmith's House Museum.

With a staggering 2,800 pieces, the Hodson Shop Collection is a resource of national importance.

As the sisters kept virtually everything, including all the business paperwork, it offers a fascinating snapshot of everyday working class life in the Black Country from the first half of the 20th century.

It's of vast significance to fashion students and social historians and a wonderful part of our Black Country heritage.

With so many pieces, it's impossible to display the collection in its entirety.

But, over the years, Walsall Museum has featured many of them in various exhibitions and displays.

As Edith and Flora kept so much of the everyday paperwork, there are bills, invoices, bank statements, period catalogues, advertising materials and manufacturers' leaflets.

In our modern world of the ever-shrinking High Street and internet shopping, the whole collection gives us a brilliant glimpse of a vanished world and its habits.

Highlights of the collection include a range of women's dresses from the 1920s to 50s.

There are also intricate pieces of jacquard knitwear from the 1920s and 30s, as well as lovely blouses in muslin, cotton and rayon.

Some have crochet or embroidered decoration, while others have fabulous beading and hand-painted decorations.

From the sublime to the more mundane, the collection also includes a wide range of undies, from woolly vests, navy knickers and slips to corsets and bras.

Hats, gloves, scarves, shoes and stockings also tell a story, many of the items still in their original packaging.

Some of the prettiest pieces are found in the children's wear category. There are long, white embroidered gowns and romper suits for babies. And, among the dresses for little girls are two, lovely velvet frocks from the 1920s.

But, what is most unusual about the collection, and of great value to social historians, is the wealth of everyday items that would normally have been thrown away when past their sell-by date. Such items, like women's work overalls, would never have been considered worthy of being saved, let alone put on display for future generations.

But, times have changed dramatically, and today we are far more interested in the minutiae of our forebears' daily lives. It's a similar story with the amazing range of haberdashery and everyday household items in the collection.

All of these, from hair nets, safety pins, shoe laces, cosmetics, household cleaning products to cushion covers, tell the story of everyday working class life in the Black Country.

Walsall Museum is in Lichfield St, Walsall ,WS1 1TR. Items from the Hodson Collection can be seen in the 'Red' exhibition, showcasing 150 years of red party dresses. It runs until January 18 so you'll need to be quick.

But, Hodson Shop items are often displayed in the Changing Face of Walsall Gallery on the Museum and Library's first floor. Open 10 – 5 Tuesdays to Fridays and 1 – 4 Saturdays.

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