44. Basil Palmer's saddlery

Basil Palmer and his shop at 45 Newland Street in the 1920s
Basil Palmer and his saddlery and harness-maker’s shop at 45 Newland Street

I was recently shown this splendid photograph of Basil Palmer and his shop by Stephen, one of his grandsons. The picture was probably taken in the late 1920s, at 45 Newland Street (aka High Street) (now rebuilt).

Gerald Palmer, Basil’s son and Stephen’s father, was born in 1910 and brought up at the shop. He had vivid memories of it, of which these are only a fraction.

In the windows there were dog collars, hedging gloves, coloured braids for horses, stirrups and “buskins” (leggings for farm labourers). And suitcases, satchels, footballs, brooms and rabbit nets. Indoors there were carriage lamps in glass cabinets, and horse brasses and buckles in drawers.

A large side room was known as “the other room”; it had a Georgian fireplace and cobwebs. Here there were racks with “hides of new leather – cow-hide, horse-hide for rough work, calf, pigskin, sheepskin, and shiny black patent leather for show jobs”.

Also “rolls of white serge for horse collars, and red serge for cart saddles” In this same room, the harness for repair was labelled with the name of the farm, and piled on the floor. There were numerous tins and jars and pots of necessary potions, some left open for convenience. “Somewhere underneath all this, there was the occasional scuffle of a rat”.

Gerald also remembered that “the shop had two plate-glass windows and you stepped down into the shop and a little bell rang. And the family lived in the room behind the shop and in the bedrooms above. And there was a little window in our dining room – or living room. And so we could look through from our living room and see if anybody was in the shop”.

Basil himself was born in 1882 in Kelvedon, left school at eleven, and was apprenticed for seven years in Braintree. When he first came to Witham in 1907, he, managed the shop for Mr Crickmore till he became the owner in 1927. He and his wife Minnie were very involved in the Congregational Church (now URC), which involved constant meetings, a cycling club, and a travelling concert party. They retired to Collingwood Road in 1949 and died in the early 1960s.

Basil at work, photographed by John Tarlton. He never usually wore his jacket for work, but his wife insisted that he should do so for the photo
Basil at work, photographed by John Tarlton. He never usually wore his jacket for work, but his wife insisted that he should do so for the photo

Basil was very skilled, and he and his apprentice worked constantly unless a customer came in. Shops did not actually make saddles, but a few skilled craftsmen like him were able to carry out the complex work of relining them, using several different materials.

Although the backbone of the business was repairing farm harness, Basil even benefited from the new motor trade. To quote Gerald, “motor cars were all with hoods and the hoods were canvas. And screens, transparent screens, celluloid screens. And he went into that business, with my mother’s help, who had a big sewing machine in the room next door. And made – re-covered car hoods. And replaced celluloid screens.”

Another sideline was sports goods. Ted Mott of Trafalgar Square in Maldon Road was born in 1913 and became the errand boy in about 1924. He told me, “Oh yes, see, you weren’t allowed to work until you were thirteen. Because I started at Palmer’s the saddlers, I was only eleven, running errands, cleaning the windows and sweeping the front. Taking out the tennis racquets. They used to string tennis racquets. Take them down to the Motions’ house at the Lawn [in Lawn Chase]. They used to have big parties there. I knew what the toffs were up to. [laugh]. Oh they used to have tennis parties, cucumber sandwiches.”

A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in April 2015

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