Ann Clough has a pile of customers’ letters waiting for me on her desk. She hands them over one by one. They celebrate the wonder of Whiteley’s, a Bridlington drapers shop little changed since it opened in 1901.
The letters praise the range of garments for “ladies of mature age” (most customers are over 70): bed jackets, quilted housecoats, camisoles, corselettes, though there’s bad news coming up for lovers of liberty bodices.
They praise the shop’s friendly, efficient service and its continuity: a rock of tradition buffeted by a storm of retail change. They praise it for stocking overalls-with-sleeves and net curtains called Monica (for reasons we’ll come to). And one of them, from a man in North Yorkshire, praises its ladies’ knickers.
“I am looking for a few pairs of what I would call good old-fashioned nylon/polyester knickers,” he writes. “Not directoire – straight and knee-length – but full-waist panties size 16/18.” Turned out he wanted them for himself.
“Another customer told me he was going to a party dressed in a white mini-dress, purple wig, thigh boots and black tights,” says Ann, the shop’s owner. “He came to look at nighties and tried one on in the changing cubicle. You’ve got to be broad-minded. It can be very disconcerting when you hear a man zipping up a corset.”
On a misty Brid afternoon, you don’t necessarily expect to be talking about transvestites with an 82-year-old woman. But Ann Clough transcends expectations. A sort of Duchess of Drapery, she has been described as “a lady of strong views and powerful presence”. With her anecdotal outlook and wry turn-of-phrase, she could have been created by Alan Bennett, with extra script by Victoria Wood.
Unsurprisingly, she’s a still-active stalwart (and ex-president) of Bridlington Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society – specialising in “battleaxe parts”. She’s also a much-in-demand after-dinner speaker (she mentions “Filey Rotary”).
Ernest Whiteley & Co, its name proclaimed in sturdy, formal capitals on its frontage, was founded by her grandfather. It’s on a corner site on the Promenade, which is confusingly not on the sea front but one block back.
The shop has its own little 1930s arcade, though the business has actually been here since 1906, after moving from next door (now the admirable Taffy’s Tea Room).
A framed Edwardian photograph at the back of the shop shows Grandfather Ernest, with his fob watch and pocket handkerchief, standing proudly at the door, alongside a window crammed with merchandise. Ann peers closely at it. “There are some Two Steeples pure wool combinations there,” she notes approvingly.
Whiteley’s window displays are less crowded these days. They change every week or fortnight, but they preserve the gentle sepia charm which is so much a part of the shop’s appeal.
The mannequins, rather prim, rather formal, have been here since the Thirties. Their classic “sensible” outfits, along with much of Whiteley’s other stock, can be hard to find these days, luring regular customers from all over Britain.
Browse the displays. There are linen scrims, dusters, tea cosies, bed socks, chair arm caps, Jolly Molly oven gloves, thermal vests, lavender bags, crocheted doilies, winceyette nighties, chef’s aprons, tea towels, bed socks, dishcloths, floorcloths, face cloths, cloths of every size and shape, and the sort of frilly white aprons worn by French maids in farces.
Near the door are cardboard boxes of second-hand Mills and Boons, 20p each, proceeds to charity. And on the door there’s a sign: “We care with a chair.”
They do, with slim, elegant chairs that Ann Clough reckons have been here since the shop opened. But it’s the other fittings that make the biggest impression.
Here is a 1960s till that goes ding when you press the keys, converted from pounds, shillings and pence. Here is Ann’s grandmother’s Singer sewing machine, still used for alterations.
Here are brass-edged counters and mahogany cabinets that would have seemed “vintage” even at Grace Brothers’ store in the Seventies TV sitcom Are You Being Served? They would have been perfect for the shop in Kipps, HG Wells’ Edwardian novel about a draper’s assistant. Other businesses have embraced the internet and credit cards; Whiteley’s is tip-toeing tentatively into the 1980s.
“Our strength is that people say ‘Oh, it’s lovely in here’; nostalgia reigns in our shop,” says Ann. “I was offered a Mary Portas programme a good few years ago, but I said no. One of the salesmen said he’d have brought a coachload from Leeds to see the encounter. I imagine she would have wanted to get rid of all grandad’s display cases from the 1930s. We dithered in the Sixties about getting rid of them, but didn’t have the heart.”
Ann, famed for her bra and corset fittings, has worked here for 54 years. She came to help out for a few weeks as a break from her job as a domestic bursar at a school in Grassington and has been here ever since.
“Mum was here then,” she says. “And there was Miss Cox and Miss Welbourn and Miss Stork from Flamborough – she was with us 33 years; she could have married a Pole in the Second World War but she didn’t want to go to live in Poland.
“My mother was horrified when she heard customers calling me Ann. It was always ‘Miss Clough’. In the shop’s heyday in the late 1920s and 1930s, there were nine staff. I once asked my granddad: ‘Where did they all stand?’ He said: ‘Lovey, we had no time to stand!’”
Staff have dwindled over the past few years. Apart from Ann, there’s just Sue Walker, here 30 years, with Joan Clubley part-time. “Trade in Bridlington has gone down like that,” says Ann, with a swooping roller-coaster of a gesture. “There’s no footfall at this side of town now.”
She admits that the shop isn’t making much of a profit, so the future looks uncertain. “I’ll keep going as long as my health permits,” she says. “But as soon as I die, all this block will probably be demolished.”
A customer who told her “I don’t buy much from you but I like to know you’re here” summed up the dilemma of selling good-quality goods in an age that all too often makes cheapness its top priority. Warm affection doesn’t pay the bills.
Whiteley’s needs more customers like the hugely satisfied one from Selby who has written to Ann: “What is possibly not to like in these quality-rich curtains?It is somewhat reassuring that the same shop that sold my mother a beautiful mid-blue winter coat in 1948 is still providing the same quality of goods all these years later.”
Part of the problem is customers’ mortality. At a fashion show Ann staged a few years ago, seating was limited. People had to be over 88 to qualify for a chair. “Our oldest customer, clad head-to-foot in Whiteley’s, has just died – aged 111. And we’ve lost the lady in America we used to send net curtains to.”
Ah yes, the net curtains. Swathes of them cover one wall, labelled Monica, Daisy, Andrea, Vicky or Sarah. “The names were chosen by Sue,” says Ann. “It’s a lot easier for people to say ‘I want Vicky, 36 deep’ than ‘the one with the squiggly flowers’, or to remember the manufacturer’s number.”
Whiteley’s now specialises in corsetry and underwear, stocking 40 different sorts of knickers (some in surprising sizes). “But the liberty bodice has bitten the dust. There’s no-one supplying them, although there’s a demand; there’s nothing more comforting for an old lady.”
And bowling skirts look touch-and-go. “There’s only one supplier, but then, women are allowed to wear slacks for bowling now. The dress code isn’t nearly so strict.”
Sue leads an elderly man across the shop. “This gentleman is looking for ladies’ pyjamas,” she says. “Not for myself,” he says hastily. “For my wife.”
He buys a pair – cotton, size “a generous 22”. “Are you taking them on appro or do you want to pay now?” asks Ann. He pays.
We’ve finished going through the letters. Among them is a postcard (of three Pekinese dogs) apparently left by Hinge and Bracket after popping round in 1999. “Beautiful shop,” it says. “Shame you’re closed.”
On top of one of the cabinets is a quote from a Chinese proverb: “To open a shop is easy. To keep it open is an art.” Whiteley’s hasn’t done too badly, so far.
For the record, I bought an Everwarm brushed cotton flannelette sheet set (king size), two tea towels for polishing glasses and three face flannels (assorted colours). But no knickers.