End of a century of service and ironmongery

Smail's, a business that has served Morpeth and the surrounding district since Victorian times, has closed.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 10th April 2016, 10:30 am
John Smail and Sons, Morpeth. Picture by Roger Hawkins.
John Smail and Sons, Morpeth. Picture by Roger Hawkins.

By chance, as I was waiting for the Newcastle bus last Saturday morning (March 26), a gentleman happened to mention that it was Smail’s last day. I arrived back in town just in time for the last hour of trading.

Fred Moffatt, in shopping with Great Grandma, says that John Smail came from Kelso and was a commercial traveller, presumably in ironmongery.

From top left: Hiatts self-piercing bull-ring, ditto pig-ring, bull pliers and a packet for bull-ring.

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Searching in the old files of the Morpeth Herald, I find that on September 6, 1863, it reported on the prestigious Alnwick Show. There were many entries from the Borders, and amongst the prize winners was Mr John Smail, of Hendersyde, Kelso, who received a certificate of merit for a seedling hollyhock.

Whether this was the John Smail who later opened his shop in Morpeth, I doubt, but it could well have been a relation.

His first shop was in Newgate Street. I don’t know when he opened it, but in March 1894, having received notice to quit, he advertised a Great Clearance Sale of Ironmongery.

This was confirmed on April 14 when Mr G W Middlemiss, furniture dealer, invited the residents of Morpeth to visit him in “the shop lately occupied by Mr Smail”, at no. 9, Newgate Street.

The hardware department at Smail's, where it all began. Picture by Roger Hawkins.

Three months later, on June 30, we have this announcement: “Births. In This Town...14, Bridge Street, 23rd inst., the wife of Mr John Smail, ironmonger, of a son.”

Mr and Mrs Smail evidently lived over the shop.

An advertisement appears in the same paper for a “Large Assortment of Fishing Tackle and ironmongery. John Smail, No. 14, Bridge Street, Morpeth”.

By 1898 he had diversified out of ironmongery, and in August was advertising to rabbit catchers for things like wire, traps, cartridges, long and short nets, etc. Also a “Large assortment of Footballs, Bladders, &c.” There were similar adverts addressed to farmers, and the business was still in the name of John Smail alone.

From top left: Hiatts self-piercing bull-ring, ditto pig-ring, bull pliers and a packet for bull-ring.

By 1925, diversification had gone a lot further.

In July, John Smail and Sons had a handsome advertisement for furniture, curtains, etc, at 14, 40 and 42, Bridge Street.

By September they were trading from numbers 40 and 42 alone, and were offering HMV records and gramophones, Silver Cross prams, Tan Sad pushchairs, mattresses, bedsteads, washers, wringers and Levis motor cycles. The agricultural and ironmongery business, however, was still going strong.

How the business fared after that is much better known to our older readers than it is to me.

The hardware department at Smail's, where it all began. Picture by Roger Hawkins.

So what about Smail’s last day?

The stock, though thin, was still there, and all departments were functioning. The present proprietor, Mr John Young, kindly allowed me to take photographs.

I bought a few things in the household department upstairs, then went down to the hardware department, where the business began, and asked Mr Robert Young, who presides there on Saturdays and what the oldest piece of hardware in the shop was?

After a moment’s thought, he reached up and took down something that would have looked at home in a medieval castle. He explained that it was a pair of bull pliers.

You remove the locking screw, which is flanged like a key, open the pliers, slip the rounded ends into the bull’s nose, close the pliers and reinsert the screw. Simple.

This type of ring is only a temporary expedient, such as for a show or a sale. The same kind of thing is still in use, but it’s usual to have a stick with a clip at the end to engage the ring so the bull can’t get too close to his handler.

It’s beautifully made, and works very smoothly. The price was 14/6, and Robert thought it probably dated from before they left 14 Bridge Street.

A further search produced a Hiatt’s self-piercing bull ring, made of wrought copper.

The picture on the packet shows the locking screw with an L-shaped top, which I believe was meant to be snipped off, but the ring itself has a grub-screw with a tapered head, which houses flush with the outside of the ring when fully screwed home. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, and I couldn’t get it back in again. The price has been partly rubbed off, but was probably either 12/11 or 13/11.

The pig ring is similar, but goes in the top of the animal’s nose, rather than in the septum. This allows it to rootle out of doors in a natural way, but stops it from digging. It’s usual to use three or four at a time. Price, 5/3.

Robert also found an iron curry comb, with three sets of teeth, that could have been used for horses or for stock when going to a show or a sale. There was no price, but it is probably dating from the 1920s.

The sale notice in the window cautiously said, “Most stock half price”. You can see why. The total price of my hardware, making a reasonable allowance for the curry comb, would not have been much above £2, though I did pay a little more.

Thank you, Smail’s, for more than a century of service, and goodbye.