The London postal service once had to deliver a letter from India addressed as follows:
“The tool shop
opposite the Woolwich Ferry
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.
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!