This photo kindly supplied by the family of Keith Green. It was taken for Sawyer’s Summer Sale in 1907. The folk in it are from left to right: Tom Higgs, Frank Sawyer, Joe State, Freddy Cocks, Edgar Sawyer, Fred Wilkins and Walter Blake. Below, Don Chapman interviews William Saywer as he shuts up shop in August 1971.
Life and death of a village store
William Sawyer will bring to an end the 125-year history of his family business when he hangs the closed sign in the window for the last time tomorrow night. To the younger Eynsham housewife, used to breezing round the supermarket with her wire basket, used to serving herself from the shelves, the shop’s passing probably won’t seem all that important. But to the older generation of villagers it will mark the end of an era.
Eynsham Stores was in its day the area’s biggest emporium and offered the same amazing range of goods as the huge cash-and-carries, which are now threatening the position of the supermarkets. in fact, White — to give William the name a lot of folk still know him by — got his nickname because in his youth people referred to the shop in Newland Street as a miniature Whiteleys: the department store in Bayswater, London, which opened in 1911 and enjoyed the same reputation as Harrods of being able to supply anything.
‘Departments,’ it says at the front of the price list William Henry Sawyer issued in 1891, ‘vegetable and flower seeds, bulbs and horticultural requisites, patent medicines, groceries and provisions, British wines, ironmongery, china, glass and earthenware, drapery and outfitting, boots and shoes, lamp and other oils, wall papers, stationers, newsagents.’ And if he had had room on the cover William’s grandfather might also have mentioned among ‘the largest and most varied stock in the neighbourhood’ wicker and wood basinets and perambulators, pipes, pouches and tobacco, trunks and clothes boxes, violin strings, music paper and all kinds of musical instruments at short notice and — not long after — bicycles, printing, coal and motorcycles.
William Henry’s father came to Eynsham from London in 1846 and started in business as a cobbler, but from repairing boots and shoes he quickly progressed to better things and his son continued the process, constantly adding and extending, so that by the turn of the century W. Sawyer and Sons was a booming business.
William Henry met his death on 1 March 1903 as a result of stepping on a rusty nail while examining a hive of bees in the back garden. Walter Blake, who was a 17-year-old lad` in the shop at the time and now lives at Hayes in Middlesex, recalls him hobbling in on sticks one Thursday and joking: ‘Ah, Buster, sure enough I’ve got the foot and mouth disease.’ But by Sunday he was too ill to speak to his wife and he died the same night from tetanus.
William’s father, Edgar, inherited his grandfather’s drive and business acumen and William’s own happiest memories of the business are of the period when he was growing up, working for his father in the evenings and at weekends, playing truant more and more often from Witney Grammar School, then taking his place as assistant in the shop.
By this time Walter Blake, who was to end his working life as a branch manager for Sainsbury’s in London, was doing a 101/4-mile, eight-bob-a-week postman’s round before clocking on at E. Sawyer’s as it had become at 11am each morning and he has vivid memories of the period. ‘We worked every evening until 8pm except on Fridays and Saturdays when we closed after the pubs shut. Very often it was after midnight and I used to feel fagged out on five-bob a week. But it was a case of be thankful for small mercies in those days as work was not to be had in Eynsham and there were always men waiting on the corner for the chance of a job.’
‘Yollopses Corner,’ William called it, the corner of Acre End Street and Mill Street, and the men hanging about there increased in number as the century progressed and Eynsham felt the pinch of the Depression But it wasn’t the Depression that started the decline in the store’s fortunes. Though money was short, prices remained cheap. It was the accelerating pace of progress in the 20th century. By the time William took over from his father in 1949 the days had long since gone when the shop could manufacture Sawyer’s Cornaline for ‘all epidermal growths’ and folk would walk — corns and bunions permitting! — for miles to buy a bottle.
It was no longer possible to weld a bicycle together from the spare tubes and brackets in your own workshop, enamel it, bake it and apply your own transfers, no longer necessary to hire out whole canteens of crockery for local feasts and functions, And the sale for paraffin, which they used to keep under the butter and cheese counter and sell at ten pence and a shilling a gallon had shrunk to almost nothing by comparison with what it used to be when scores of people used it for lighting and cooking.
To the end William, who remembers performing chores like slicing up Seville oranges for marmalade as a lad when he wanted to be off playing football, has tried to stock a wide range of items and serve as many customers as possible, though what errand boy today would deliver to Sutton, Stanton Harcourt, Northmoor, Church Hanborough, Long Hanborough, Freeland, Cassington and Swinford by horse and cart or Shank’s pony? But he says: ‘Business these days isn’t a pleasure. All these supermarkets and things have mucked things up. I offered the shop to my daughters if they wanted it, but they didn’t, and I can’t say I blame them.
‘Some people say I’m tight never taking a holiday, but I’m not. I’ve had to put in the hours to keep it up to scratch. Looking back, I think that’s been the trouble with it. Instead of being run, this business has always run me. It was true in my father’s day. It was often one o’clock in the morning before he left the shop, and I think it was true in my grandfather’s day. I’m 66 and I’m packing up while I’ve still got a few years left.’
Anthony Wood Column, Oxford Mail 27 August 1971