Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Uppingham, Rutland

Four candles

“Four candles,” says Ronnie Barker, starting off a chain of misunderstandings with his comedic partner Ronnie Corbett in one of the funniest sketches in British comedy. Corbett, behind the counter, is soon climbing stepladders, opening drawers, shifting boxes of goods, and sorting through a seemingly endless stock to find what his customer wants.† He is also evoking the world of the old-fashioned ironmonger.

Going back a few more decades, the Victorian ironmonger was one of the key people on the High Street. You could see his shop from far off because of the arrangement of buckets, bins, and brooms on the pavement outside. Coming closer, you would be able to make out rows of lamps in the window, a range of metal items such as kettles, pans, jelly moulds, and all kinds of other kitchen equipment. Then there would be tools, from hammers to saws, and all kinds of fancy work, like bell pushes and bird cages. The cavernous interior would be full of drawers and shelves, and in the gloaming beyond the front of the shop were larger items, such as tin baths and baby carriages, kitchen ranges and stoves. Somewhere in the rear would be a doorway leading to an outhouse full of farm equipment, such as the kind of plough that was often the ironmonger’s sign, and a forge where some of the stock was manufactured and where the proprietor would repair metal goods.

D Norton and Sons in the middle of Uppingham was probably like this once upon a time. It is still a cornucopia of gardening equipment and household goods and still has its 19th-century shop front, with a plough above the door and elegant classical columns on either side. I would like to ask my Uppingham correspondent to go up to those columns and tap them next time he passes by. When I was there I forgot to give them a tap to see if they produced the dull thud of stone and plaster or the ring of iron. I have posted before about an ironmonger’s shop with an iron facade, and I did wonder whether these were metal columns, but a commenter on this post says that he has tapped them, and that they feel like wood.

A lovely feature of this shop is the stained glass panels in the upper sections of the windows, advertising some of the goods and services on offer when the window was installed in the 19th century. The one on the right tells us that the proprietor was a “FURNISHING IRONMONGER”, which I take to mean that his stock was aimed mainly at the domestic market – whether fitting a kitchen range or supplying a canteen of cutlery, he would be your man. And on the left, there’s more: “GAS FITTER & BELL HANGER”. Does that mean church bells? The business of fitting door bells and the kinds of bell systems that Victorians with big houses used to summon their servants was more the usual line for ironmongers, but who knows? When the interior gleamed with oil or gas light, these stained-glass panels must have glowed, drawing the eye of passers-by on winter evenings.

Now shops like this also sell more up-to-date items such as bulbs and batteries. Part of a stick-on sign for the latter, a bygone of a more recent period, survives on this window, the blue suggesting the Ever-Ready brand. Its presence reminds me once again that there is so much more to look at in shop windows than the goods on display.

* *

† Or what he doesn’t want. What Barker is actually after, he soon reveals, are “Fork ‘andles. ‘Andles for forks.” And so the dialogue goes on.


Stephen Barker said...

I was in Uppingham on Saturday and remembered your blog. I gave the columns a quick tap, they felt like they were made of wood. There is a good plaster ceiling rose on the first floor and attractive iron banister posts on the stairs.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Stephen: Thank you so much for tapping the columns – and for the information about the interior.

Anonymous said...

I bought a can opener in here, I think in 1978, which I still use on a regular basis. It was for a project in my design and technology course to 'design' a can opener, and I wanted to point out some things couldn't be improved. I probably didn't get a good mark, but hey I was right!

Made in France by R-C, it is a simple bit of bent steel with finger grips and a hardened steel cutting point. No moving parts, and needs the occasional sharpening.

Not much good for a left-hander though.

Charles Boot

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Charles. I love the look of those can openers...even though I'm left-handed!