Reminiscences of Mrs Anne Boxer, Peter Jones Partner 1929 – ? , from a letter sent into the Partnership in February 1993 after the Partnership responded to a request for a photograph of Peter Jones for her 80th birthday.
I was Anne Westcombe, aged 17. It was 1929, with the slump much worse than the present recession. Fortunately my Mother knew Mr Young, the then general manager of Peter Jones. So I got a job as a junior in the gown department. Jobs were not easy to get in those days, but having achieved my matric [school leaving certificate], they took me on. So I lived in the hostel above the shop. It was all pretty sparse. We shared rooms, had hard iron beds with little luxury. Two matrons, one was Miss Lord, the other Miss Stallibrass. We had to be in by 10.30pm. Otherwise we had to get a pass. An old watchman on the door, who said “If you girls want to go to the bar I can’t see why you do not do it before 10.30pm!”
Audrey Fancis was one of us, she was in the umbrella department. Molly Atherton also a junior in the gowns. Clare Newcombe was a model with Elspeth Fox, who had a separate boutique leading out of gowns. In those days P.J was very exclusive, and had beautiful bridal and ball gowns. The workrooms were in the attic over the hostel.
And so I started my job, packing, and sent to deliver debs’ [debutantes’] dresses to rich households, where I always went to the front door, told to go round the back by the footman, but I refused. Also I was sent matching to some of the textile suppliers. All of this of course, was very exciting, and life in the hostel tremendous fun, but very hard work all day, and we were completely broke.
But so time went on, and I was elevated to the position of saleswoman. There was an enchanting woman called Mrs Mott whose husband had been the architect of London City Hall, died suddenly and left her penniless so P.J took her on, to bring all the socialities of the era. She was hopeless financially and got into awful muddles, and I was given the job as her assistant.
There was a fierce Fitter called Mrs Covery, a buyer called Elsa Dunkerly, and one Norah Maunsell, an enchanting woman called Midge White who was in charge of the first floor, also Miss de Winton.
Mr Young had left and gone to Owen Owen of Liverpool. Followed by Sir Algernon as General manager, Mr Radamacher, somehow Captain Fitzroy, Geoffrey Snagge, Sebastian Earle, Sammy Miller are all part of the history, but of course you will have got the proper sequence in the archives.
Continuing my own story. One day a very nice man and woman came and asked for me saying that Mr Young had advised them that I would find them some clothes, which they wished to buy for an elderly relative. So, after about half an hour I had produced this and that, they stopped me and said that they did not want clothes, but had come to offer me a job at Owen Owen in Liverpool, to buy all the inexpensive clothes. You can imagine I was dumbfounded. They invited me to stay, and go up and see what I thought about it. So I got time off, and went to stay in Liverpool, to stay in an enormous mansion in Sefton Park with the family (I suppose the Owens?). It was all very rich and rare, champagne for dinner, butlers etc. Next day they took me to Owens. I was horrified at the standard of clothes, very cheap and shabby, and I knew that I couldn’t do that standard of buying, so regretfully I refused the job. Returned to London and went to see Seb Earle, and explained that I had turned down a job with very much more money, so could P.J not raise my salary? He said “If you were prepared to go to Liverpool you would obviously go to Jessops of Nottingham for us”. I really hadn’t a leg to stand on and so off I went to Jessops, which was part of the Selfridge Provincial that the John Lewis Partnership had just bought.
So I became the Department Manager of Gowns, which was a lovely job. I used to come to London every three weeks, and stock up with all the stocks in the department and special orders.
Molly Atherton had also come to Jessops, and shop girls of our ‘ilk’ were quite a rarity in a County town. She is now Molly Collingwood, and her son is a well known actor, Charles Collingwood as ‘Brian Aldridge’ of The Archers!
One day, one of the new staff Leila Every called me across to the lace counter and said “I remember you from Peter Jones where you sold me all my clothes when I was a debutante”. It transpired that she had got engaged to a man of whom her parents disapproved, and said that if she must leave home the only place where she could work would be Peter Jones, where they employed ‘ladies’. There was no vacancy at P.J, but they offered her one at Jessop, which was perfect, as her fiance lived in Derby. So we became great chums, and got a flat together. She married and is now Leila Ward and lives near me.
In 1936 I married, and whenever I was back from Africa I would return to P.J like a homing pigeon, always with a job, firstly as DM of gifts at Christmas, then next as DM of inexpensive dresses.
Then the war, and all the disasters and horrors. The bomb on Sloane Square station and not one piece of glass broken. You must know that the Architect was Hans Singer, a Viennese. What a beautiful modern building.
I was just about to get remarried in 1946 when the phone rang and it was Geoffrey Snagge offering me a job as Deputy General Manager of Bon Marche, a job I would have adored, but opted for marriage as I had a small daughter to bring up.
Clare Newcombe, the gorgeous mannequin of the hostel days, now Clare Woodford and sadly like myself a widow. She lives near me, and was entranced by the photograph. She says the windows on the right are those of Elspeth Fox Pitts Salon, with a small door, behind the trees, which went straight up from the street. I reminded how she once returned from work in a fury as Elspeth had said “You are nothing but a bleeding old cart horse!”.
This is all, of course, a very personal story. Perhaps the ‘Saga of a Shop Girl’. But there was a wonderful sense of camaraderie in those early days before P.J became so famous and international…and I’m sure it still exists.
I wonder how many of those early people are still alive. For myself, many have become life-long friends, and I am so grateful for all that P.J taught me. Self-discipline, financial acumen, and so much more. Really one of the cornerstones of my life. So when my family handed me that wonderful and most touching picture that you gave me on my 80th birthday I nearly burst into tears.