All About Wadhurst

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THE BUSINESS COMMUNITY

 

During the 20th Century the number of shops and businesses in Wadhurst has fluctuated enormously with the 'heyday' being the thirties. In 1997 the Wadhurst and District Business Association had 59 members on its records and the map and names of those in the Association will show how diverse the business community still is, also how proud Wadhurst can be of what it offers its inhabitants and to those it draws in from elsewhere to shop and use the service sector. Businesses other than those shown as members of the Association form part of the working community too.

The numbers of public houses nearly equal those of ecclesiastical denominations within the parish. At one time eleven pubs were in existence and even now we can boast eight, which shows that the demand for drinking houses is as great, albeit most of the present establishments also offer food and/or restaurant facilities. These still draw people, other than the locals, into the town. Over the past 100 years some of these public houses have offered accommodation but in 1997 only two did so. By far the largest of these was the ancient timbered Queens Head Hotel, a coaching house in the centre of the High Street, but this was destroyed by a flying accident in 1956 and has since been replaced by a row of shops with flats above. Beer was brewed in Wadhurst, the last brewer being Wright and Sons, formerly the Holmesdale Brewery in Durgates. Apparently beer was sold at one shilling (5p) a gallon to carters awaiting horses being shod at Bassets Forge opposite.

Other eating houses have included the present National Westminster Bank premises which had the title of the 'Coffee Shop'. Mr. and Mrs. Reed offered overnight lodgings to the drovers on their way to Wadhurst market, having left their livestock in the field at the bottom of the Lower High Street, or in the field behind the new houses in Blacksmiths Lane. The story goes that Mr. and Mrs. Reed had an Airedale dog which allowed patrons in, but was reluctant to let them out again. The Reeds moved in around 1897 to the Toll Gate, Lower High Street, from where the family cobblers then operated. Mrs. Hemsley was the next occupant of the Coffee House, by now serving light refreshments and confectionery. One of her sons could be seen returning from Tunbridge Wells each week wearing a yoke and carrying two tins full of sweets ready to stock the shop. A home made cake shop and a Swiss Restaurant has also been on these premises before the present Indian restaurant, Both past and present Wadhurst is served by many choices of eating and drinking houses.

With the horse playing a major role in transport and agriculture, it is not surprising that Wadhurst had five forges in the town at one time. This, coupled with the documented history of the part Wadhurst played in the old iron industry, has meant forges and blacksmiths have had a prominent place in the community. Often the blacksmith's forge was close by to a coaching inn, such as The Green Man (now a farm) and Three Chimneys in Cousley Wood. Old Mr. Bassett's forge closed in 1989 but his protege Andy Powell carries on as a blacksmith in another location close by. So even today, we can boast one forge which deals in ornamental ironwork and repairs.

Local people had the choice of ten grocers in all areas of the parish at one time and many of these offered a delivery service by bicycle and later by van. Now the town has three outlets, one in the High Street, one in Sparrows Green and one in Durgates, all self service. The last of the old style grocers closed in Cousley Wood in 1992 on the death of Miss Benge.

Whilst mentioning food shops, six butchers supplied the populace's needs and they too delivered, opening at about 7 am. and closing early evening. Marble slabs displayed the meat and kept it cool before refrigeration became widespread and sawdust covered the floors; all now have given way to glass covered cabinets, refrigeration units and to tiled floors and walls for reasons of hygiene. Today only two butchers remain, one in the High Street and one in Sparrows Green. Bakeries too were in demand with all three baking on the premises. The 'Old Bakery' in the High Street (now closed) still retains the name and is occupied by an optician, a dentist and complementary health practitioners. But fresh bread can still be bought in the parade where the old Queens Head Hotel stood and from Wealden Wholefoods opposite. Two long standing fish shops gave way to the mobile vans of the late 70's and 80's selling from the roadside, but more recently one has opened in the High Street again. Fresh greengrocery has long been part of the Wadhurst retailing scene. The present greengrocers now occupy premises once used as a Baptist Church.

When turning to financial matters these have been looked after by two banks and four post offices covering the full parish area. Now two banks remain and two post offices. Several accountants now work from Wadhurst and there is an insurance broker who too offers financial advice. The legal profession has several representatives in different locations within the town boundary.

Clothing until recently was readily available either from the many local tailors, or dressmakers (including the well known Miss Drew and Mrs. Smith), as well as several retail outlets over the decades. Baldwin and Watts had a prominent position in the High Street in what is now referred to by many as Hobbit's Corner, but for years this corner has been called after the old firm, by "true" locals. The shop supplied clothing for gentlemen, farmers and workers alike, offering an alteration service on site. Mrs. Tunbridge (in premises in Sparrows Green now occupied by a veterinary practice) stocked clothing for women and children, as well as haberdashery. The other half of the shop was grocery. Today there is a home service for dressmaking but the retail sector for gentlemen and ladies' clothing no longer exists with the closure of Rings and Jackies in recent years.

The Clock House has an interesting history especially when it was owned by Harry Newington who repaired time pieces and sold tobacco, snuff, home-made cartridges and confectionery. His shop had a smell all of its own - a mixture of various tobaccos and snuff. Mr. Newington knew what blend most of his patrons smoked without them requesting it by name. He was also responsible for winding the church clock.

Until the 1950's two saddlers worked from the High Street and several cobblers operated within the parish, Ebbie Goldsmith in Durgates, Mr. Arthur Parkes in the High Street, Mr. Baker in Sparrows Green and Miss Reed from her premises at the Toll Gate, Lower High Street, renamed by her father The Wonder. The town has had one or two shoe shops but since the closure of the last one in the parade the only service offered was an agency through other outlets.

Even one's tresses have been looked after over the years by the many barbers and hairdressers and today there is still one barber and three hairdressers in a half mile stretch of the High Street with still others offering a mobile service.

The farmers many agricultural needs were supplied by Cheesman and Newington from their mill in Washwell formerly Sheepwash Lane, just off the High Street, where they milled grain for cattle feed. Their lovely old storage barn was burnt down in 1979 and replaced by the present Atcost building from where Greens now operate.

With the advent of the motor car it is not surprising to find Wadhurst has had seven garages with Baldwins in Durgates also dealing with steam engines. Today four survive and one of these is for petrol and not sales. However, several individuals offer, in addition to the other garages, a repair service. Mr. Dodman ran a garage at Fair Glen, Best Beech and in his spare time he built a single seater aeroplane, of French design, called a 'flying flea' which became obsolete when the Ministry of Aviation realised it was too dangerous to fly! As a boy, 60 years ago, Bob Hemsley remembers carrying various components into the field alongside the garage and helping Mr. Dodman 'assemble' his plane ready for take off.

At this point it is worth mentioning that with the pressure in the town for car parking, the Wadhurst Business Association was formed to keep 'yellow lines' at bay and has succeeded in doing so as far as double lines are concerned. Also by two members selling land cheaply to Wealden District Council, the town now has a large central car park but the parking spaces at St. James' Square will soon disappear under an environmental improvement. Alongside this, the Association has kept up its pressure with Wealden to retain free parking in the town.

Two undertakers have had representation in the town but often this job was done alongside another, as in the case of Mr. Ashby then Mr. Bloomfield, both of whom were builders operating from premises in the High Street. Mr. Skinner, another undertaker, had premises in the Marlpit area also working as a carpenter and joiner. Mr. Godden was the last in the profession operating in Durgates.

We must not forget the presence of medical practitioners over the decades and indeed our current doctors' practice, now with extended premises and services. Throughout the century Wadhurst has had pharmaceutical representation and a parish magazine advert of 1919 for F. Filmer de Morgan is worth a read. Thomas Couchman, at the turn of the century, had the present Health Food shop from where he practised as a pharmacist and veterinary surgeon. The old canopied building was quite a town landmark and horses could often be seen tethered to the wooden poles supporting the canopy. Mr. Couchman's daughter Gertie followed on from her father selling glass and china ware and 'all sorts of pills and potions' up until around the time of the second world war. Now we have two dental practices and a physiotherapy clinic, an optician and several alternative and complementary health practitioners working within the parish boundary.

To summarise, both past and present, the needs of the people of Wadhurst have been met within their community without the need to leave the area. Sadly, the widespread ownership of the motor car spelt the decline for so many businesses in rural areas, with people travelling away from home to work and to shop. While there are fewer retail outlets the service sector appears to grow. Despite all the changes Wadhurst continues to flourish into the 21st century.

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