Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The man whose memories spanned 100 years

Father and daughter: William Cole and Wendy
ONE OF the pleasures of research has the been the friendships I've made with people who have shared their letters and stories with me. In particular, William Cole whom I first met one bitterly cold afternoon in January when I visited him at home in St George, Bristol.
His daughter Wendy had already shown me the postcards his father had sent him from the Western Front when he was a boy. And that should give a clue as to one of the reasons William was so special. He was 103 years old.
Not that you would have known it. His quick mind, excellent memory and ready laugh made him charming and entertaining company. I visited again in the spring and he chatted about what it was like to grow up in in the early 1900s, recalling stories in wonderful detail.
Most recently I visited William - better known as 'Sid' to his friends - on July 4th for a wonderful party to celebrate his 104th birthday. Sadly, he died in his sleep a couple of weeks later.
I feel privileged that he and I were friends, and as a tribute to his long life and wonderful memory, here is a lovely account of his early working life in the retail trade...

WILLIAM Sidney Cole grew up in Salisbury and left school at the age of 14. 'I wasn't ambitious, I just took the first job that came along which was as an errand boy for a shop that sold groceries and provisions,' he said. 'My first job in the morning was to go into a little room at the back and put a pot of water on to boil, then I would have to scrub the shop floor and dry it before the customers came in. I remember the floor was tiled black and white.'
Can we help? A branch of the Home and Colonial Stores
Later in the day came the grocery deliveries which William made on a tricycle with a box attached to the front, rather like an ice cream seller. One particular trip was five miles. 'It was hard work!' he smiled. Next door was Boots the Chemist, where William's sister Ivy worked, and the pair used to run a mile or so home for sandwiches each day during their half-hour lunch break. Their sister Rosie worked nearby at the Penny Bazaar, which was later bought out by Marks and Spencer.

The business William worked for was the Home and Colonial Stores, one of Britain's earliest retail chains with branches all over the country. 'Everything we sold was produced either at home in Britain or in our countries around the world like Australia and New Zealand.'

At the age of 20 William's loyalty and hard work were rewarded and he was sent to stores around the country as a relief manager or assistant during holidays. One part of the job involved window dressing: 'Every Monday there had to be a new shop window and headquarters in London would tell you exactly what to put on display.' This often involved some rather delicate balancing of tins and packets, and every item had to have a price card.

Those prices still tripped easily off William's tongue: 'Twopence farthing for 1lb of sugar, twopence and three farthings for sugar cubes, 4d for a 1/4 lb of tea, and 7d for best tea.'

  • More of William's wonderful memories - and Great War postcards - will be included in my book 'Letters From The Trenches', to be published next year.

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