Fifty years of Fashion - 1898 – 1948
Years of Change 1948 – 1973
This booklet records in brief the story of Chopes of Bideford, from the establishment of the firm in 1898 to its 75th Birthday in 1973. The first 50 years until 1948 are covered in the first sixteen pages under the title “Fifty Years of Fashion”, and this is an unaltered reprint of the booklet of that title, produced by A. K. Chope and N. H. Chope in 1948. The remaining pages entitled “Years of Change” bring the story up to date. Chopes has always been a “family business”, both from the point of ownership and from the happy relations that have existed between the customers, the firm and the staff. That these relations may long continue is the hope of the present owners. We take this opportunity of thanking our customers, our staff, and also our suppliers, for their valued support and help in building up our business and in making this record of achievement possible.
W. H. Chope & Sons Ltd
13, 14, 15 High Street, Bideford
Fifty Years of Fashion
Fashion may be a narrow term applied only to apparel, but the draper is well aware that it has equal significance in relation to everything he sells. The changing habits of people empty his shelves of some kinds of fabrics and force him to increase his ready-made stock. It contracts his workrooms and expands his showroom. It depresses his sales of millinery at one time and boosts his sales of hosiery at another. If he is unready he will be asked for things he has not got while he puzzles over an accumulation of goods that nobody seems to want. This ever-changing demand, this bewildering disregard for tradition, this thing called Fashion, can be a trap for the unwary, but for a trader of initiative and enterprise it can also provide an opportunity for profitable service – to offer the public what they want when they want it. This, at any rate, was the sphere of activity chosen by Walter Henry Chope, born at 17, Buttgarden Street, Bideford, on September 9th 1871. His father was a saddler and his elder brother, Sidney Redclift Chope (Mayor of Bideford throughout the 1914-18 war) continued the business in the shop now occupied by Mr. Johns. Educated at Brook’s School in High Street and later at Shebbear College, Harry Chope chose the drapery trade as his career and was apprenticed for four years with Messrs Vellacott, Trapnell and Merefield, of High Street, Bideford. Finishing his time in 1891, and furnished with an excellent testimonial which is still a proud possession of the family, he wasted no time in going to London for further experience.
In those days a certain standard of height was demanded of their assistants by the best West End stores and young Chope was nearly rejected on this score by the Staff Manager of Marshall and Snelgrove. However, a bold, possibly truth-straining rejoinder that he hadn’t stopped growing yet got him in and he spent five years learning the fickleness of fashion in a hard school.
About this time he made the acquaintance of a young lady, Grace Elizabeth Lock, who held court at Little Weare Barton, at Gammaton, near Bideford, at a distance from the town convenient enough for young men who lived there to pay frequent calls in the course of an afternoon’s walk, but heartrendingly remote from the metropolis. To facilitate his wooing, young Harry Chope obtained a position with Colsons of Exeter, where he could pursue the enlarging of his experience and at the same time by dint of hard cycling over forty miles of 19th century roads, keep in somewhat closer touch with the lady of his choice. This was in 1896, and two years seems to have been sufficient for the furtherance of his courtship, for in June, 1898, we find him marrying Bessie Lock in the little chapel at Gammaton, and on August 4th of the same year, he opened the door of No. 13, High Street, Bideford, as a Draper and Costumier on his own account.
The history of the premises he took over can be traced over a period of some years. In 1827 it was occupied by Bryan Bartlett, painter and glazier, and then in 1859 it passed to Samuel Short, watchmaker and jeweller. Two years later Mr. Short evidently found the premises larger than he needed and sold them to Gilbert Babbage, draper, who traded in No, 13, while Sam Short, and later Richard Bailey, continued in the business to occupy No. 14.
Gilbert Babbage died in early 1864, but his widow continued in the business for thirty years until in 1894 she sold the business and premises to Thomas Richards. Richards did not last long. Unable to cope with the fickle goddess and lacking the somewhat subservient deportment necessary to a country draper at that time, he soon lost the “patronage” of so many customers that he was willing to sell out when an offer was made to him in 1898. In the best traditions of property dealing this was effected in devious ways, and by second and third parties. But it was Harry Chope who was seeking a livelihood for himself and his bride, and , though he himself was sent on a holiday to keep him off the stage, his brother, Sidney, negotiated and brought the premises, mortgaging his own house to do so, to set his young brother up in business. The purchase price of £2,000 seems reasonable enough by present standards, but it represented a considerable undertaking in those days and involved a fairly heavy responsibility for a young fellow of twenty-seven, with an enviable bride but little capital, and only his own brains and industry with which to encounter the well-known pit falls of his trade, the best efforts of his competitors and the baleful eyes of his creditors.
Nothing daunted by the prospect, we find that his very step was to install a new shop front. Even this modest effort was considered revolutionary at the time, because the glass was taken down close to pavement level. Wiseacres predicted that it would not long survive contact with the feet of passers by. No photo of the original shop front seems to exist, and the one on Page 10, taken in 1900, is the earliest we can find. Even before this front was in, the first baby had arrived, and Harry had to work hard to meet his added responsibility. What with interviewing travellers, dressing the windows, keeping the books, shop-walking and general supervision, his time was fully occupied.
However, a foundation was being well and truly laid, and by 1907 with two boys now added to the family, we find him taking in No.14, which had for some years been Thornby’s sweet shop. No doubt the children disapproved of this step, but it evidently paid, for two years later Mr. Chope was in a position to buy the stock of Messrs Sawtell, of Ilfracombe. Besides being a profitable deal, the sale of this stock had immense advertising value and really put the little shop on the map. From then on Chopes was almost a household name in Bideford and district and that intangible asset “goodwill” was really worth something, though the item never figured in Mr. Chope’s balance sheet.
No attempt was made to make a quick fortune during the 1914-18 war, but on the other hand no crippling losses were sustained when prices eventually fell. So it was possible when the opportunity offered, to buy the next door premises Nos. 15 and 16, then in the occupation of Mr. G. W. Fluck as a bookseller and stationer. At first the only use made of the acquisition was to knock a hole through the wall and occupy a portion while Mr. Fluck continued as a tenant of the remainder.
Meanwhile the family had been growing up. The eldest boy, Arthur, had completed his education, served his apprenticeship with Colsons of Exeter and put in a couple of years obtaining London experience before coming to enter the business in 1924. Norman, the younger son, had started in the business in 1922, but as soon as Arthur came home he was packed off to London for his spell of outside experience. He was to return in 1928, which was a momentous date in the firm’s history, a year of great decisions and spectacular advance.
Mr. Fluck had given up business in 1926 and Chopes had moved in and occupied the whole of the premises, but only in a makeshift manner and without utilising fully the possibilities of the extensive building. To do so properly would entail re-building and it was doubtful if trade would justify the great expense involved or whether the existing departments could possibly expand to fill adequately the considerable space available. But something had to be done. The family had moved out of the living accommodation upstairs to a house in Abbotsham Road (another sign of the times) and the vacated space was only partly occupied by a tenant, a ladies hairdresser. The living rooms of Nos. 15 and 16 were not being used at all.
A solution was found by the sale of twenty-three feet of the frontage to the Midland Bank and a complete rebuilding of No.15 which also included excavation to the floor level of No. 13 and 14, and making the three properties into one unit. This was very skilfully done on the steep hillside by Messrs John Cock and Sons, under the direction of Messrs Oliver and Webber, architects. To finish the job many hundreds of pounds were spent on glass counters and quick serving fixtures and, at long last – a carpet for the showroom.
And so, in September 1928, Bideford people found a really modern shop created in their midst and it was the talk of the town for some months. Mannequin parades were held for the first time ever in the town; Betty Sparling, a model well known just then, showed off to advantage some of the latest creations; a skilled embroideress was kept busy putting customers’ initials on purchases of underwear; the new windows were a blaze of light after dark; people flocked to see the new Chopes and marvelled at the change the little shop had wrought.
The initial success of the venture was not a flash in the pan. Sales increased fifty % at once and continued to climb steadily even through the depression of 1929-31. From a little shop dealing mainly in fancy goods with a small trade in household linens, the business was transformed to a fashion centre which attracted custom from a very wide area.
The two sons were taken into partnership on August 15th, 1930.
Nothing succeeds like success and within two years we find Chopes buying No. 17 High Street, occupied by another draper, Mr. H. B. Kemp. There was some hesitation about how best to use this but at last it was decided to make it a Bargain Shop, where the cheaper drapery goods would be displayed on the Woolworth principle, and a cash and carry policy would justify really cut prices. This also was an instant success as it happened that the depression had flooded the market with some remarkable values. Mr. Chope revelled in the new experience of ordering goods in grosses instead of dozens and his new shop would be so packed on a Saturday afternoon that it was difficult to make a way through the crowd.
Other minor alterations and extensions took place nearly every year. In fact it was said the Mr. Chope was not happy unless he had the masons in. Several lumps of masonry were done away with in the original shop, and the floor taken up to the level of the new portion. An area at the rear of No. 17 was rented from Mr. Burton and the space used to sell rugs and mats. The first floor was gutted, supported on girders and used further to extend the selling space. The huge windows were cut down in size and the space thrown into the shop. Each extension justified itself and the business was a thriving concern, catering in its two shops for a large clientele drawn from far and near.
Mr. Chope was now able to indulge in his passion for travel and with his two sons in the business he could spare the time to visit America on two occasions, Canada, Greece, Turkey, Italy and Norway. Alas, he was not to enjoy for long the fruits of his labour as an attack of angina pectoris in 1933 led to his death in 1935 at the age of 63, to be followed, almost exactly a year later, by his widow.
But the tradition of the business, one of steady expansion, was maintained. As has been noted the first floor of Nos. 13, 14 and 15 had been let for some years to Mr. Cutcliffe, a ladies’ hairdresser. In 1936 Mr. Cutcliffe sold his business to Chopes, who ran it for twelve months in the existing accommodation. The experience thus gained showed them the possibilities of the new department, and in 1937 a considerable sum was spent on gutting the first floor, using some of the space for increased showroom accommodation, and fitting out the remainder as a first class ladies’ hairdressing salon. This latter work was carried out by Messrs Serventi and resulted in a salon second to none in the provinces, and with few better even in London.
Hardly had any benefit been reaped from this latest extension before war broke out. After dealing with the hectic rush of business in 1940 resulting from the evacuation to Bideford of many thousands of people from London and elsewhere, both partners went into the forces, Arthur into the Navy, and Norman into the Air Force, leaving the business to the care and management of Mr. R. S. Grose, who proved a faithful trustee for four long trying years. Both returned unscathed in November, 1945, being among the early release groups, and Mr. Grose stayed until the following March to enable them to find their feet in a strange new world of coupons and quotas, licences and vouchers.
Fifty years after the opening of the business comes a pause. Not for eleven years has a mason been inside the shops except for repair work. One floor of the Bargain Shop is still idle for lack of supplies and many fixtures are still empty or only half full. The future is uncertain in many respects, and nothing is likely to be undertaken in the way of expansion for some time to come. However, the spirit of the firm remains young and vigorous and a revival of Fashion Parades this Spring showed that the public still appreciates enterprise, so that Chopes can enter on the second half of their century with every hope of retaining the confidence of the good folk of Bideford.
Years of Change
It can be said that the word “change” is synonymous with “FASHION” but in relation to the story of Chopes over the last twenty-five years, the word takes on a different meaning. Fashions in clothing and textile goods have indeed continued to change frequently and in bewildering ways. Fashion has reached into areas of merchandise not before affected to any marked degree. Once a sheet was White and it was cotton; today we slumber amidst fields of daisies printed on Nylon or Terylene. Children’s clothing reflects current fashion right down into the tiny sizes. Even so the spread of television and magazine advertising has enabled manufacturers to dictate fashion to a degree and make it more predictable.
Change has come more significantly in the way in which goods are sold and presented to the public, and in the importance which modern retailing attaches to shop siting and interior layout. Economic factors have led to a need for very much higher productivity and this has been achieved at the expense of some of the personal contact in shopping. The great achievement at Chopes over the last twenty-five years has been that this change to more modern retailing methods has been achieved with the retention of an atmosphere of personal and friendly relationships between the shop and its customers.
In 1948 it was noted that the post war years brought a pause in the activities of the firm. 1949 saw the end of clothes rationing and two years later the Hair-dressing was leased to be run as a separate business. The Bargain Shop Top Floor was re-opened in 1955 and quickly became a successful selling area for keenly priced ranges of Ladies Outerwear and Underwear.
During these quieter years, with the business running smoothly the partners devoted a great deal of time to work outside the firm and in 1949, after some years’ service on the Council, Arthur became Mayor. Norman continued his work on the Bench to which he had been elected as a J.P. in 1938.
In 1956 the Partnership was dissolved and the firm formed into a limited liability company.
In the closing years of the fifties changes occurred that were to speed the march of events and bring about further swift changes in the firms story.
In 1960 Roger Chope, Arthur’s son, returned to work in the family firm, after years away at school followed by an apprenticeship to Colson’s of Exeter (the third generation to have learnt his trade there) a spell of National Service in the Army and a further year’s training with Jones of Bristol, a Debenhams Store.
In the meantime the pattern of shopping in Bideford had been altered by the removal of the Post Office from the High Street to the Quay, the closing of the cattle market near the market place and its re-siting at Bank End. Trade appeared to be moving away from the Grenville Street, High Street area and the shops remaining in Grenville Street quickly found premises in lower parts of the town. Bromley’s Cafe closed and some of the smaller shops in High Street changed hands several times. However despite the air of uncertainty prevailing, Chopes renewed the lighting in their windows and inside the shop. The Co-op opened a fine new shop on the site of the old Post Office and the situation was restored. In fact trade was so buoyant at this time that it was decided to embark upon a considerable expansion to take advantage of the feeling of optimism and also to give Roger Chope something “to get his teeth into”.
Behind the shop was the derelict site of Tardrews Iron Foundry. In 1961 this was purchased from Messrs Timothy Whites and a new structure to house the fashion showroom was planned by Mr. F.Whiting, of Whiting and Wickham. Work was started in 1962 and despite the terrible winter that year Mr. Roy Glover’s firm of Builders was successful in completing the building on time for an opening in the Spring of 1963.
The mystery and excitement of shop-keeping lies in the unexpected way in which plans seldom mature as intended and forecasts and estimates are frequently awry. In this case it was not the Fashion Departments that showed the greatest benefit from the new extension, but the other sections of the shop which were re-arranged in their old locations with extra space, that made the great advances in turnover that immediately justified the money spent and the risks taken.
1965 was a sad and disruptive year for the firm. In September Arthur Chope succumbed to his third attack of coronary thrombosis at the age of 62. In October Norman died suddenly from the same complaint, aged 59, and thus within the space of a month the company was shorn of the accumulated experience of these two men. Both brothers had contributed a vast amount of time in their lives to being involved in the affairs and interests of the Town and District of Bideford; both had a great regard and concern for their fellow men; both were widely mourned by a large circle of family and friends.
Within two years Chopes had settled back to normal under the sole management of Roger Chope. During this time growing competition and the introduction of selective tax on employment tax on staff put the firm under pressure to re-examine its trading methods. The outcome was a decision in 1967 to condense selling space and aim for higher sales with fewer staff, and the first step towards the fulfilment of this policy was to bring the underwear and corsetry down to the showroom and demolish the staircase to the first floor thereby opening up the ground floor. No staff were ever made redundant in the furtherance of this policy, but numbers were reduced by not replacing staff who left in the normal course of events.
In 1968 a consultant from the Drapers Chamber of Trade was called in to run a critical eye over the business and his findings reinforced the decisions towards change: departments were re-arranged and re-fixtured to introduce an element of self selection the shop front was thrown open by the removal of the arcade island windows, at the same time reducing display costs. These measures had an immediate and dramatic effect on sales, and staff and customers enjoyed the vitality and bustle of a modern store.
Finally in 1970 the Bargain Shop was closed and leased to a local firm to be run as a restaurant. Great care was taken to incorporate the Bargain Shop goods into the Main Shop ranges in a manner which would ensure that the Bargain Shop customers were encouraged to shop in the Main Shop. This combining of the two shops was successfully achieved and the fact that a full price range of goods was carried under one roof proved to be of enormous benefit and a further large increase in trade was recorded. At the same time the lease was taken of a small lock-up shop in Westward Ho!, one of a block of three new shops erected by Mr. Laws, next to the Post Office in Nelson Road. Open only during the summer seasons this shop was an immediate success catering to the visitor trade. It is often noted that on sunny days, when Bideford is quiet, Westward Ho! will be busy and the reverse is true on rainy days. The best of both worlds.
Frequently the best business decisions are made on a hunch” and this would seem to be true of the decision in 1971 to make an offer to the Methodists Trustees for the freehold of the Bridge Street Methodist Chapels sited behind the shop and reaching back to Bridge Street. This was done without any really clear idea as to the purpose which the property would be put to, except that it seemed a good idea to have some control over the area. It seemed a good idea a little later to demolish the Chapels and establish a car park at the back of the shop with direct access into the showroom and a way through into the High Street.
The only certainty about the future is that further changes will come. A new shop front is planned incorporating wider doors and less window space. This was planned for 1973 but planning problems have now put it back to 1974. Change is interesting, it is usually fun and it is certainly the stuff of life in Shop-keeping.
Chopes enjoy being independent in an age that is becoming more and more stereotyped and the owners and staff look forward to the changes and challenges of the next 25 years.