Upstairs at Albion House in North Cave, a stone’s throw from the Humber, there is a room with 27 dresses hanging in a wardrobe. Not just any old dresses. The label sewn into these is from one of the world’s best couture houses – Christian Dior. They were, the owner confesses, nearly all “bargain buys”. As she puts it: “How on earth could I possibly afford to buy them otherwise?”
The best discovery, she says with a smile on her face, was the one that she found at a car boot sale at York Racecourse. “I’d just about given up finding anything, but on one stall I saw this bit of old black cloth lying on the ground and I picked it up carefully, and there, without a shadow of a doubt, was that unmistakable label. I turned to the guy on the stand and I asked how much he wanted for it? He gave a little shake of his head, and told me, with a beautiful Yorkshire accent: ‘Ay’ll be wanting four quid for that, love, it’s Dior, tha’ knows!’ Suffice it to say, it came home with me! I have always had a love of vintage clothing. I can’t understand why some people still get a big sniffy about ‘pre-owned’ things. I guess that it harks back to the days when it wasn’t done to have ‘second-hand’ or ‘hand-me-downs’”.
We are in the command centre of Caroline Hawley’s operations, an office in an elegantly large Georgian room that was once the front parlour of the Albion Inn. Now it is both the focus for the businesses run by Caroline and her husband John, and the home to the couple and their very excitable brown labrador.
Hawley has been one of the experts on BBC programmes like Flog It!, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, and Bargain Hunt for many years, and is instantly recognisable. You might think that here is yet another TV “personality” who presents one face to the public, and another in private life. But that’s not the case. She’s as charming in the “real world” as she comes across on TV.
Hawley is not only a much-respected businesswoman, but also someone who has a steel-like determination to carry things through.
Having ducked out of school in her teens she went off to London to study drama, and thought briefly about becoming an actress, armed with only a handful of O-Levels. “At school, I was very good at staring out of the window,” she says with a grin, “but there was a lovely teacher called Mrs Atwood, who looked after our Latin education. People say these days, ‘Latin? What use is that?’ but it is, in fact, the root of European languages, and it helps to understand how words were formed. It also opened doors into my understanding of the history of things”.
London was not for her, because she recalls that she spent most of her time “haunting the markets at Camden and Portobello, rather than in classes”. She returned home and joined a small theatre group, The Market Cross Company, in Beverley, “just so that I could get my actor’s Equity card, which was vital back then”.
After that foray into the world of theatre she opened her own shop, Penny Farthing Antiques, in South Cave, and built up a reputation as a savvy dealer. The shop was in one small cottage, the family lived in the equally small one next door.
Then, having had her two boys (James, now 31, and Charles 27) with her first husband Phil, she decided that, since she had always loved French, a degree in the language might be an asset. So she went off to study at the University of Hull, and passed with flying colours, while also managing to raise her family and run a successful business.
Her parents were very supportive. Her father had a good job at British Aerospace and her mum was a secretary in the French department at Hull University.
“I still find great pleasure in visiting the French antiques markets, where at least I can do a bit of haggling in their own tongue, and I love their attitude which seems to be far more relaxed than over here. In the UK, traders will get there early and stay there late, and maybe, when lunchtime comes around, they’ll have a sandwich from a carrier bag under the table. In France, the stall is cleared, a tablecloth is spread, and out comes some wine, and they have a lovely picnic. Who wouldn’t warm to that?”
So where did her interest in antiques come from? “When I went to auctions and bring and buy sales, things like that, in our village hall. I soon began selling little things of my own – but always for local charities. There was also a tip that we discovered, as kids, where people from decades back had just chucked things away – broken bits and pieces, old glass bottles for pop, things like that. To me, it was fascinating because everything told a story. I still love that aspect of the business, when I find something in, say, a house clearance or a valuation day, I always seem to look beyond any potential worth it may have, and I think to myself ‘Who owned this, who loved it, what is it telling me? What is the history here?’”
In the early days of her business she has happy memories of going to big antiques fairs. “We would camp in our van, which conveniently had a roof-rack on top so that we could load up with all sorts of things. I seem to remember transporting a lot of cast iron bedsteads once.”
There was a determination to get what she wanted at an auction, though in one instance Mother Nature took over. “I was heavily pregnant with Charles at one auction, and in fact I went into labour as I was bidding for something or other. I managed to buy it before I was carted off to the maternity unit!” she laughs.
How she manages to pack everything in to a working life is a bit of a mystery to her. “The fact is, I love what I do. I don’t have a hobby, I haven’t a clue what I do to relax, because I don’t. I enjoy every second of the working day, and retirement isn’t even spoken of. I love people, and yes, I really get into the ‘performance’ thing on the rostrum at an auction. The best auctioneers are also very good actors – and so are the best barristers and solicitors. It’s something about loving to parade in front of people.”
She and John have been married 11 years and organise four big auctions a year at Beverley Racecourse, but then they also value items for probate, get asked to put a price on items and collections for sales and insurance, and they advise collectors. She loves “the vibe and the buzz of the saleroom – I am always astounded at the number of people who have never been to an auction. It is such fun! There’s more done online and on the internet these days, but you cannot beat the atmosphere live on the day.”
Hawley enjoys all her TV work and the talks she gives around the country, but is never far away from her roots and is a tireless worker for charities.
So what advice can she give on what to buy at auction these days? “Last mid-century furniture is very collectable at the moment”, she advises, “but let me add something here. Do not buy because you are going to make an investment, and maybe a killing in cash. I’d say ‘buy from the heart’. If you love it, and you know that you have to own it, go for it. Make whatever it is part of your life.”
The next Hawley’s sale at Beverley Racecourse is on June 30, with viewing on the previous days. www.hawleys.info.