My Saville Row Best Suits (11 January 1974)
A recent event of special interest to myself has been the retirement of Mr Mansell Thomas, the Victoria Road draper and clothier. There are people who have been in trades in Bletchley longer than his 23 years. My interest in Mr Thomas is that I have seen him both set up in business and eventually retire from it.
For about two years I knew Mr Thomas as an insurance man and I well remember raising my eyebrows when he told me he was taking over the business which Mr Ralph Bell had run for fifty years. All was clear when he explained that he had been brought up in that trade. Some time later I needed an article of clothing – I think it was a sports jacket. As usual, I was not so much concerned with style as with durability and therefore sought something which by the feel of it had been made at one of the mills I had formerly known in Yorkshire.
Off the Peg
For once in a way my wife and I went to Bedford, where we thought we would have a better chance of finding what was wanted off the peg. First I encountered a parking difficulty there. Then we spent a long time in various shops seeking the right article without finding it. So back we came to Bletchley. On the way home I remembered Mr Thomas and in less than five minutes, after having wasted hours in Bedford, I had an article which was right in every respect. After that I always went to Mr Thomas for single items of that nature. For “best” suits – of which I have had only two or three – I have had suit lengths from a Yorkshire relative in the piece trade and then made up locally – a Savile Row article at a Coronation Street price, so to speak.
As a boy I knew men who had bought only one suit in their lives. They had first put in on for their wedding and were still wearing it on Sundays, frock-tails cloth-covered tin buttons and all, 50 years later.
25 year Suit
However, I do know a man in Bletchley, not yet of retirement age, who bought a suit for his wedding and wore it to “give away” his daughter about 25 years ago later, though I cannot say how much he has worn it between- times.
Mr Thomas’ predecessor, Mr Bell, was aged 76, and his wife a few years younger when he retired. Both were then in remarkably good health despite many years of the sort of shop hours which at one time had to be kept. They attributed this to spending most of their spare time on long walks.
When Mr Bell was preparing to sell his business he went to look at his new home on the other side of Leighton Buzzard. He walked there and back by different routes and did not sit down from leaving Bletchley to getting back again.
He remembered when he bought flannel at 2 –and-five-eighth pence a yard and sold it at 2¾d. He also bought shirts at 9s 11d a dozen and retailed them at 1s 3d each.
In all this time in business he slept no more than six nights away from his shop-cum-home, and those were all separate nights. He never had a day`s holiday nor a day`s help in the shop except from his wife, but neither did he have a day`s illness.
“When we could have enjoyed a holiday we couldn`t afford it, and by the time we could afford it we didn`t particularly want it,” he told me.
I was reminded of that remark fairly recently when another Bletchley couple retired after many years` shop-keeping with very little time off. “Silly people; they could have had plenty of time off, so why swank about not having taken it?” was a comment I heard – and not from a youngster either. But could they?
1 felt that for much of their time until it was almost too late to change their ways, they could very well have been in the same position as Mr Bell and others knew of.
No Tick then.
There must be thousands of flourishing businesses up and down the country today which began with a main and his wife noting down every halfpenny spent for shop and home alike.
There was no possibility of running to the bank and the building society or obtaining any other form of tick. Their grandsons, comfortably off both in income and time from the same business, have grumbled about the old man still being round switching unnecessary lights and that sort of thing. They have wished he could get out completely instead of still hanging around. But why should he, when having begun it all from scratch, he finds it the best way of keeping an interest in life itself?
Too many of my friends and acquaintances are departing one way or another, so I was pleased when Mr Thomas, a Welshman, told me he intended to remain in Bletchley.
When retirement age arrives and finds you a place where you have spent less than be thinking half your life you feel a strong pull for your native parts. If you are like me, you know you cannot afford to go. But that is not all.
On visits you have found your birthplace changing almost as much as Bletchley. Just ahead you see the back of a balding, grey-haired man you think you recognise as an old schoolmate. You tap him on the shoulder and ask Howatta Bill? (How art thou Bill?) He turns round and you see you have made a mistake. He is Bill behind but not in front.”
Sorry, ”He says with a hint of-a BBC plum in his mouth “, ”you must be thinking of my father; he died ten years ago.”
Which makes you feel even older and more of a has-been than you do among Bucksmen, Scotsmen, Welshmen, Cockneys, Geordies, Lankies, Yorkies and Yarsiders who are friends of yours and make up the place called Bletchley 150 miles down south.