Skillman & Sons: The Tool Shop Opposite the Woolwich Ferry – and Traditional Britain Reborn

The London postal service once had to deliver a letter from India addressed as follows:

“The tool shop
opposite the Woolwich Ferry
London”

The original Skillman's of Woolwich in 2002. Chris Skillman,former MD, is on the left of the group
The original Skillman’s of Woolwich in 2002. Chris Skillman,former MD, is on the left of the group

It arrived safely at its destination: A.D. Skillman & Sons, 108 Woolwich High Street, London SE18.
Skillman and Sons of Woolwich (founded by my grandfather Alfred Daniel in 1900) was a byword throughout south east England for generations. A sign used to hang up outside the shop:

“If you want it, we’ve got it. If we haven’t got it, you don’t need it.”

Every member of our family worked there over the years; I used to do holiday jobs selling packets of loose nails from the pigeonholes at the front, or stocktaking at the back, or peeling potatoes for my aunt in the flat upstairs or collecting stamps for her from the Co-Op in Hare Street, Woolwich.

Now of course Woolwich is seeing regeneration, not least through the beautiful Royal Arsenal Thames Riverside, together with the Greenwich Heritage Centre and Firepower, the Royal Artillery Museum very close by, and the wonderful Thames Barrier and Visitor Centre. All this regeneration is fuelled by the extension of the DLR from Docklands to Woolwich.

My grandfather Alfred Daniel started the business in 1900 further up Woolwich High Street and later moved it to number 108. My father Ken took over after the war. He was later succeeded by my brother Chris until the business closed in 2002.

But now Skillman and Sons has re-emerged. Not in Woolwich, but in Kensington.

That traditional tool-merchants business now has a new life, through the enterprise and imagination of another hardware store owner, Manish Vara, who is hoping to revitalise the Good Old Days of English service and quality – popularised of course through the current wave of nostalgia and euphoria generated by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympics. A different manifestation of Skillman’s, more hardware than tool-merchant, has emerged. My brother Chris Skillman, MD of Skillman’s of Woolwich, wishes Manish well.

The new manifestation of Skillman & Sons which has emerged in Kensington
The new manifestation of Skillman & Sons which has emerged in Kensington

Perhaps some time the story of the shop opposite the Woolwich Ferry, and its 102 years of history, may weave its way into my fiction. The River Thames has strong resonance for me – not least when I took the ferry across from Woolwich at the age of twelve or thereabouts, supposedly on a round trip. But I got confused, and disembarked in North Woolwich, across the river, and wandered around lost for about an hour though to me it seemed an eternity!

If you have an interest in the history of south London, and you’d like to know more, I have published a full article about Skillman & Sons in Family History Magazine, which is re-published on my official website under the heading “My family background.” Do click here to read the article.

Are there any traditional shops or longstanding family businesses in your town or area which are part of the landscape of your life? Has the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the tide of patriotism attendant on London 2012 opened up traditional Britain to you again? Please consider leaving a comment!

Author: scskillman

I write contemporary thriller/suspense fiction. "Mystical Circles" is psychological suspense and "A Passionate Spirit" is a paranormal thriller. Both are available as paperbacks and as ebooks. To buy signed copies, go to my website www.scskillman.co.uk where you can order either or both using a secure PayPal link. I've also published a short non-fiction book "Perilous Path: A Writer's Journey", full of helpful tips, insights and reminders for writers.

19 thoughts on “Skillman & Sons: The Tool Shop Opposite the Woolwich Ferry – and Traditional Britain Reborn

  1. I grew up in the area and went to Woolwich Polytechnic Secondary School in Macbean street. I loved the shop. I would go round at lunch time and spend hours just starring at the tools in the window. very fond memories for me a big part of my school days

    1. Thank you for your comment. How good to hear your memory of Skillmans. I can understand you gazing in the window for hours, as it was in its own way an Aladdin’s Cave of ironmongery (as I wrote in my original article about the shop).

  2. I worked in Rope Yard rails,as a 16 year old apprentice,for Wheeler and Clinch ltd tool and mould makers.We used Skillmans all the time in the 60;s .I remember my boss sending me over for a 3/4 whitworth nut. and a grey haired lady.lifting a sweet jar down and asking me how many i wanted…i said;’ just one please’…and can i have a receipt as well please for the boss…i think it was 3 old pennies !!

  3. I am useless at DIY so rarely used the shop, but it was good to see it continue in business for so long. After the 1970s, Hare Street and that end of town seemed to go into decline. Woolwich High Street was such a characterful place as I remember it as a child in the 1950s- with its various pubs and the old Ferry Approach. Redevelopment did it no favours but into the 1980s it still had the little Italian restaurant next to Plaisteds, and of course, Skillmans! I haven’t visited Woolwich for about 5 years now but it would be good to see it further regenerated, and hopefully keeping some of the character that places like Skillmans gave the town.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Richard. I’ve shown this to my brother Chris Skillman (former MD of Skillman & Sons in Woolwich High Street) who says: “Mario’s was the little Italian restaurant, and Woolwich, like a lot of London south of the river has moved on, as life always has! The Woolwich Arsenal development and new DLR link are all positive, as is the new micro brewery on the Woolwich Arsenal site.” Again many thanks for responding to the post.

  4. Comment received from Susan C: “I enjoyed your blog post about the Tool Shop. I remember my mother saying to me, ‘I need a couple of nails from Skillman’s and for a treat we can have a trip on the Woolwich Ferry.'”

  5. Comment received from Manish Vara by email: “Thanks for that Sheila, I’ve only just come back from holidays so apologies for the delay.
    That’s a great blog; thanks for your comments and positivity.”

  6. I have been thrilled by the responses to my sister Sheila’s blog on the tool shop by the Woolwich Ferry.

    Not only is it good to know we were serving the local community with their needs, Skillman’s of Woolwich also supplied many local businesses, schools and hospitals.
    Not to mention our more distant customers!

    I also take pride in the local youngsters who started their working life at Skillman’s, and then moved on to other opportunities. In later years, we built up a team of early retired folk who brought their own wealth of knowledge to the local community.

    They were good years!

    Chris Skillman

  7. Enjoyed my time working at Skillman’s in the early 1980’s…thanks for the experience! Ken and Chris worked very hard to make Skillman’s the successful business that it was, and now through imitation (the highest form of flattery) the name will live on.

  8. Here is a message I received from Patrick McNamee: “I just saw in the local paper that Skillmans is now an eatery. I haven’t been to Woolwich much in recent years and was so pleased to find your page detailing the history of the shop.

    I used to shop there in the 70’s as a teenager for bits and pieces. One of the men told me how to dismantle my drill and grease it afterwards. Up until a few months ago I still had that grease! Nowadays there would be a ‘best before’ date on it.

    I loved that shop, I dreamed of having some of the tools but never had the jobs to do that needed them!

    As i think back i remember the wooden floor and the window displays. its a shame that we are all B&Q and Wickes, the character has gone.

    So, thanks again for that page, it brought back fond memories of a time past….
    It was places like Skillmans that give a town character. Such a shame it has gone. ….
    My manager at work spoke of the shop in glowing terms yesterday too.

    Best wishes

    Pat

    1. Thank you for your message. It is good to know how people appreciated the
      shop at Woolwich. It is amazing how much a traditional shop like that, with
      character & individuality, can mean to people. I’ve forwarded your message on to
      my brother Chris, the former MD of Skillmans of Woolwich, & I’m sure he too will
      be very pleased to read about your memories of the shop.

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