Breward, Judy – Griffiths’ Footwear Centenary

Joyce Barry: Good evening everyone, and welcome to 2014. It is a great pleasure on behalf of the Landmarks Trust, thank you for coming to our talks again.

Judy Breward’s come up from Dunedin early because her family is celebrating a hundred years naming of their shop this weekend. And she will tell you about it. We’re so grateful that you’ve put yourself out, Judy, to come, and I just know you’ll enjoy it. There’s not many shops that last a hundred years even if it is in name. So congratulations to your genes [chuckles]  there, Judy, and over to you. Thank you.  [Applause]

Judy: Well, thank you for having me to talk about my grandfather and his shop. We loved Grandad very much. I also want to thank Joyce Barry for organising all this for us, and Madelon who has been very helpful with the archives department and has got us quite a lot of documents. We didn’t have a lot of records because my grandfather died suddenly. In very old age we got my father to write a rather sketchy set of dates and occurrences, and then we discovered what has been the most useful – a book of carbon copies that my grandfather was writing in the last year of his life. And in one of these, he describes how he started off and in another he gives quite a good account of their home life to some of the relatives in Wales.

So I was seventeen years old when Grandad Griff died, and I was the sort of kid who was very interested in what the adults were saying, so I’ve been strong on oral history. My younger sister who was five years behind was only twelve, but she works as an archivist and she has put a lot of effort into documenting things. She’s a bit suspicious of my recollections. But in 2003 … 2002, I wrote a memoir of my grandparents and that was very carefully checked out by my older sister who’s four years older again, and she okayed was I was saying. [Chuckle] She died very suddenly in 2010 … she would’ve loved to’ve been here, but… we miss her greatly.

All right. First of all, our Welsh grandparents. They were very Welsh – they spoke Welsh to each other all their lives. And this is of an age as we remember them – Grandad with his little watch chain and his fob watch, and always shiny shoes! Good advertisement for the shop. My grandmother by this age always wore lace, and this brooch … I’ve put on a lacy blouse, so I can … you know, look a bit like her. And it’s a very unusual cameo which is pink and white, not the brownish tones that many cameos get.

But they of course, wouldn’t ever have been addressed by their Christian names. And I don’t want to call them Nana and Grandad all the way through, so … Grandad was known as Griff around town. That’s fine. And I’ve decided to call Nana by her Christian name, Bessie, because otherwise she’s just a sort of ‘his wife’ and ‘Mrs Griffiths’, sort of thing.

But anyway Charles Griffiths was born in a little rural town in north Wales, and his father was killed in the mines when he was two years old, so he was brought up by his grandparents. And they couldn’t afford to keep him at school, so at twelve years old he had to go out and try and find work. He often told this story, that he went uptown and a man came out of the boot store and said, “Hey Sonny, I need these boots delivered to such-and-such an address really quickly.” And he used to – Grandad used to recount how he ran all the way there and ran all the way back. And the boot store man was pleased and offered him work. And that was how he got into shoes, boots – because he didn’t have a choice of occupation.

However, he went to an apprenticeship in Rhyl, which is on the North Wales coast, and we know at one stage he was working in Crewe, which is the big railway junction just over into England. And there’s a lovely story about that, but I’m limiting stories or I’ll go on too long. You can ask at the end of this time.

But he must have been pretty enterprising because at the age of about twenty-three or twenty-four he set up his own shop in the Welsh mining valleys near Cardiff. There he met and married my grandmother, Bessie Davies. [Shows photo] I like this because even Griff looks handsome. [Chuckles] And this is their engagement photo – we don’t have a wedding photo. But he was able to set up his own shop, and here it is – ‘The Booteries – Charles Griffiths’. And Charles here, and my grandmother holding their own child, Rhys, who became my father.

I have to see what else we have to say at this stage. Oh, I know – having a child made Griff think very seriously about bringing up their boy in the Welsh mining valleys where miners were very much oppressed and there was hardship everywhere. Bessie had an older brother – she came from a very big family – who had migrated to Westport in New Zealand, and they decided that they would migrate to give Rhys better prospects, and further themselves. Older brother Davy invited them to Westport. Griff had moved around quite a bit, you know – Rhyl, Crewe, South Wales – but Bessie belonged to a big and close family and had never moved, so it was a big wrench for her. But in addition to the hardship of the miners, and things like Bessie’s father was dismissed as a mine engineer because he became secretary of the Miners’ Union.

[I] want to tell, because they’ve got a picture down there in the display of my grandmother with her sisters, all being beautiful ladies. They were very keen on their looks and so on, and they made themselves those gorgeous Edwardian picture hats and wore them to chapel. But after that service, the coach from the manor house came round; the girls were called outside and given a public dressing down. They were ‘dressing above their station, and it was to stop!’ So that’s another sort of situation that they got away from by coming to New Zealand.

Big brother Davy recommended that they bring their boot stock with them. So they set off and set up shop in Westport. But they British boot stock was not a good idea. New Zealand miners’ feet were all much bigger [chuckles] than Welsh miners’ feet. I think a lot of it has to do it with the nutrition of the working classes in Britain. Griff himself was a very small man, about five foot five. So it just didn’t work out – he had to close the shop, got work on the wharves to make some sort of income. And in the weekends, he would hump his boots out to various remote mining settlements. And I know this … I’ve just been telling these people … because of Dr Bathgate’s biography, ‘A Doctor In The Sticks’. Dr Bathgate was in Hastings here quite a long time – he’d been in Westport earlier, and he recounted how my grandfather knew that they had pianos up on the Denniston Plateau, when the only way they could get them there would be by coal truck and so on, because Grandad had been trying, you know, all the way out there.

Well, things were pretty bad and pretty low. And they got a letter from a Mr Martindale in Hastings who knew that they weren’t doing well, and Mr Martindale invited them to Hastings. He said he thought it would be good prospects and they could use his orchard house while they got set up.

He found a partner in a Mr Caughey, and they set up a shoe shop in Heretaunga Street Hastings – and Madelon found this for us. It is the opening advertisement – ‘Griffiths and Caughey have opened a boot’… but it’s the most gorgeous thing you’ve … I don’t know whether you can be bothered reading all the funny old print. But they have these high-quality boots, ‘IRIS’, and they say that ‘they are so superior to local boots, it’s like one of the local tenors comparing himself to Caruso’. So that’s the original approach, but it opens the shop up for us. We know from that book of letters I referred [to] before that they started on the 14th of March, 1914. And so on Friday night there’s a celebration around at Griffiths’ Footwear, that being the centenary of the shop.

So they – with the Caugheys – they bought this house, 607 Hastings Street and lived there forever afterwards. At that stage it was a wooden villa and it was shared by the Caughey family and the Griffiths’ family. My father seemed to recall enjoying having the little Caughey girls in the house when he was a boy. But for some reason, and we do not know, in a year or so, Griff bought Mr Caughey out of the business and out of the house. He took over the business completely himself, and we don’t know why. Apart from any business difficulties, I can imagine that the two women might have found sharing a three-bedroom house and one kitchen a bit difficult. My grandmother was quite an emotional woman, but she had grit. And they must’ve had to borrow enormously to buy Mr Caughey out. They had a loan, and so they had to pay it off, and she went to work in the shop. In the 1950s Grandad wrote of her, and I’ve got the quote here – ‘By her keen business ability she soon won the admiration and the confidence of the buying public, and from that time until now, we have continued to do better every year.’

Now, Nana never sold any shoes, but I think I know what he was talking about. I’ll tell you about the bantam eggs. I had two grandmas. One said, “Oh well, the children can have the bantam eggs – they don’t need a full size and we’ll use them up that way.” But Nana Griff said, “Look what I’ve got … some dear little eggs for some dear little girls. Look how lovely and brown they are. That means they’ll probably be rich inside.” So if she sold you shoes in a similar vein, I can imagine her success.

Rhys was at school of course, and she did finish late in the afternoon because she had another reason. She was keeping boarders, also, to raise money. So she worked very hard for those few years to get them free of debt and off the ground, as it were. Her husband very much appreciated it.

[Shows photo] Here they are when Griff was called up well towards the end of World War I. This is three or four years after they started the shop; my father at eleven years old, and Bessie as the businesswoman she was. She kept the shop going in the time that Griff was in the Army. She was able to do the books … she’d walked [worked] in a publisher’s office and we’re pretty sure also the Welsh Post Office before her marriage. Griff didn’t ever go overseas – he caught the pandemic flu and he wasn’t expected to live, so she must’ve faced carrying on alone. However, he did recover.

And the next big thing in their lives coming up was that Rhys was coming up to high school age. Now my grandmother was a very warm sort of woman, absolutely devoted to her [my] father, and even my father admits she was smothering him. So Griff sent Rhys off to Napier Boys’ High School as a weekdays boarder. He came home every weekend. And after an initial adjustment Rhys did very well there, but his father said, “No, you’re not to come back into the business. You should be qualified as a doctor or a teacher.” This is common among migrants generally, that they want their children to do particularly well, and I suppose he was aiming for something professional for Rhys. So Rhys went off to teacher’s college and university in Wellington and became a secondary teacher … ultimately a headmaster, so he fulfilled their ambitions for them [him].

All of that boarding school and university would leave Bessie even more free to work in the shop, but I think she probably stopped in the mid twenties. They began to do really well, and there was that feeling that a man should support his wife; that women shouldn’t have to work. All we know is that by the time of the Napier-Hastings earthquake, she had a very modified role that I’ll come to.

But I want to go briefly to their Christian commitment. They were both very active at St Andrew’s Church here, and I’ve just been talking to St Andrew’s people there. But it’s more particularly … although I will say, Griff taught Sunday school for thirty-four years or something … but it was his work as a Christian businessman, because I’m concentrating on the shop in this talk.

All through the twenties, there were very needy people – returning soldiers were often in difficult circumstances; there was a drastic slump in primary produce that threw some farmers; there was increasing unemployment up until the ‘29-’30 crash, and of course the double blow for this area of the devastating earthquake. All through that time, Griff made sure that needy families had winter shoes for their growing children – children will grow out of shoes – and that workmen had boots that enabled them to do their jobs properly … all on very generous terms. And he was known for saying to people he knew who were still struggling, “Look, you don’t owe me anything.” And so his generosity and his care for people like that was well-known, and I think very much part of his Christianity. He did a lot in the Church but that’s for Sunday at St Andrew’s.

Now we come to the earthquake …

Question: Is that shop still there? Is that facade the same?

Judy: There’s still Griffiths’ Footwear downtown on Heretaunga Street, but not this one.

Look, I feel a bit awkward because you Hastings people must know much more about this earthquake than I do. But these are our stories … you’ll have other stories.

Bessie was not in the shop that morning, but she walking up town with morning tea and cut lunches that they provided for the shop. That’s very typical of their attitude towards their staff. And she was thrown off her feet by the force of the ‘quake, and actually, ‘til the Christchurch earthquake I didn’t quite believe that, but now I do. [Chuckles] She got up and tried to go to her best friend in the neighbourhood, Mrs Briggs, and was thrown off her feet by the second shock – you know, there was a little gap and another shock. So she and Mrs Briggs did what they could to support each other. Both their houses were wooden, but of course the chimneys were down and there was lots of broken crockery and preserves and everything. After a while they could see that there were fires in the town, and they did not know if their husbands were safe, and it was a long, long, anxious wait for them.

In the shop, as you can see, it was destroyed. But what we were told was – actually, Griff had a [an] advertising riddle about this shop: ‘Why is Griffiths’ Footwear like a river? Because it is between two banks.’ This is the BNZ [laughter] and the other one is the Bank of New South Wales. Up the top here on the BNZ – you see this … big stone parapets? Now we were told that the side parapets particularly were thrown off, and they crashed through the roof of the building. The shop was brick anyway and it crumbled – but this brought the roof structure … brought it down.

Sid O’Neill, who later became manager for many years, told us he was talking to a customer at the door and they both shot out, but Griff was trapped inside, and most tragically, the office girl turned back after the first shock to see if she could retrieve the cash … they didn’t think the cash should stay inside a ruined building … and she was caught in the second shock by one of these stone parapets, and killed. So that was their tragedy – there were many tragedies that day, but it was very hard.

Griff was trapped inside the shop but we were told that the debris fell a bit like that [demonstrates] … a sort of lean-to effect. And he was … you know, stuck underneath some stuff but not really crushed, he was only bruised and not badly injured, and he was able to crawl out. And ‘course, he was a very long time coming home because they had to find Gwen, and find if there was anything that could be done for her. Gwen Butler died there.

So in this shot you see that the Bank of New South Wales a bit better, because the sailors from the SS Diomede, was it? Were blasting to bring the debris down, [shows photo] and here workmen are clearing the debris away from the site.

Now, downstairs they’ve got a lovely image of this, which Madelon tells me was in National Archives. Very often for this Powerpoint which Glenys made for me, we’ve had to blow up tiny little Box Brownie photos, you know. You can see them at work there. Once the roof structure and the building debris was largely out of the way, Griff went to see if he could find any business records. And I understand this was a newspaper photo of his pleasure when he found an account book or something.

Now salvage people took lots of shoes around to his house. Now my father and mother were living in Hamilton, and they got there as quickly as they can [could]. They had to borrow a car and they drove through Taranaki, but they went to Taranaki at night and then on to Hastings next day. The Napier-Taupo road was of course completely impassable. Dad used to show us how the Esk Valley had flooded. So they got there very quickly. As I said, we tried to get Dad to write, but his account of all this was: ‘Borrowed a car, drove at night, found Mum and Dad all right, slept on lawn.’ You know? [Chuckles] So anyway, they must’ve got there before the tent.

Now I understand the Army issued these tents. This is Griff and Bessie, Rhys and Mary. Rhys and Mary stayed a while to help sort the lorry loads of shoes that were being brought from the shop to their garage – you know, all jumbled and having to be sorted into pairs. I’ve been reminded here that there was of course a reasonable amount of looting, and Grandad found that people were coming to his house asking if he had a shoe for a ‘one-legged man?’ [Laughter] And he was even more amused that they would say, “Oh well, no – not a brown one, we want a black one.” Or, “Oh well, really? Have you got one with a welt?” or something like this, you know. So he used to say, ‘Well, how about you bring me the one that you’ve got, and then we can …” And some of them did! [Laughter]

So anyway, they set up selling shoes from the garage in their backyard, and this is Bessie and Griff and some customers there, selling shoes in the backyard. [Showing photos]

And this is the notice that they put in the paper … you’ll see Madelon got this for us: ‘Carrying on business at the private residence on 607 Hastings Street North, and all at ridiculously low prices.’

So they began in the backyard, but by the end of February they were in corrugated iron structure. There was of course, tons of corrugated iron around from ruined buildings and this was their temporary sort of store … ‘Griffiths’ Boot Importer.’ I think there’s some other shop next door, but that that’s how they were encouraged – I think they were given a bit of help from the government – to carry on with business while the shop was rebuilt.

Now, hopefully [shows photo] … you remember this wooden villa that they bought, way back in 1914? It was somewhat damaged, but not badly damaged in the ‘quake. With the insurance money and with a fair bit of their own money, they modernised this house – because I never saw that one at all – it was after the quake. They put shutters on the sash windows; they enlarged the front door; they built the sitting room out with a bay window; and there’s another bay window on the dining room here. This is the house that we remember, and it’s still there, which would be a marvellous side-track of what’s happened to this area of Hastings Street, because this is about the only residence left. But I mustn’t go that direction. They also brought an inside toilet, and various things, you know.

But we’ll branch off slightly … Griff as a citizen of Hastings. This I think, is a Rotary conference. He became very, very active in the community. He stood for a … Hospital Board and was elected as a member of the Hastings Hospital Board, as it was then, for twelve years. He used to go every Sunday afternoon and visit, especially people who didn’t have other visitors. And if we were staying, he liked to take the youngest child with him, because a pre-schooler would sort of light up the way a little bit for people in hospital. But he was also not only in the Retailer’s Association, Chamber of Commerce and so on, but in the Licensing Committee, the Patriotic Committee during the war, Presbyterian Social Services Association, which is now Presbyterian Support, [??], Bible Society – I don’t know how he had time for the business, actually! [Chuckles] But he was very much involved in the community. And the Hospital Board paid a lovely tribute to him after he’d gone. They said, ‘For Griff it was not just a matter of going to meetings. He felt he had a responsibility to each organisation, and through it to the whole community. How cheerily he accepted those responsibilities, how faithfully he carried out the various duties he felt were his, is common knowledge.’ So he was a very well-known, active Hastings citizen. One or two of the quotes there. I think I’ve covered most of that.

This is a photo of Griff with some of the shop girls after World War II. There were five of them – I’m sorry this photo somehow or other has managed to exclude some of them. But I was talking earlier to Michael Arbuckle’s cousin, who’s still here. [Chuckles] I said that they had a very good relationship with their staff, and in 1949, is this photo. They had these five girls working, and two men and my grandfather, so there’s a total staff of eight. So they must’ve been doing very well, even though I understand that during the war and immediately after the war, or for some time after the war, with import restrictions it was difficult, because Griff had concentrated on quality shoes. And I think that’s one reason the shop has survived. But a lot of them were imported shoes, and it was just not possible during the war, and then there were import restrictions after the war. And Charlie Davis, who many of you might know, told us that – and it’s quite understandable – that the New Zealand manufacturers trying to get up to speed with the gap left from no importing, naturally attended to their established and larger customers before they attended to Griffiths’ Footwear. However … I mean it looks like the shop was thriving.

[Shows photo] This is the whole shop staff in 1949. Sid O’Neill here, who took over the ownership and operation of the shop after Grandad’s sudden death – he’d been there [at] least since the time of the earthquake. He was called up during the war and was wounded. He came back with a gammy leg that needed attention from time to time. But Grandad made him manager in 1946. And after my grandfather’s death in 1953 my father sold the shares that he had inherited to Sid, because Dad was not a businessmen. And Sid carried on as owner-operator of the shop. I’ll do more about that in a minute.

But you know, we girls – and we’re little girls during the war – were always very welcome in the shop – there was a great family feeling, and they were very kind to us. And we developed, and actually my family have continued a very friendly interest in the shop. Jean Howard’s here, who became Jean Smith – she and her husband came and stayed with us in Taranaki about three or four years after my grandfather’s death, as sort of family friends.

There’s something else I wanted to say there … hmm. I know – the young man there is not Charlie Davis, whom you know. Charlie was discovered by my grandmother, and joined the shop just about the year after, in 1950. Grandma had found him as a grocery assistant with a gift for making a customer feel special, which had been her line. And she urged Griff to take Charlie on, which Griff did, and trained Charlie quite rigorously, actually – and sent him to shoe manufacturers so that he would understand completely the structure of a shoe and so on. And Charlie continued working – when Sid O’Neill also died very suddenly in 1969, Charlie was able to take over… and became the owner. Well, he worked in the shop for fifty years but he was the owner-operator for about thirty years. So many of you will know Charlie Davis in the shop.

We girls used to go to the shop and sit and make … crêpe-paper blossoms. Do you still have blossom parades?

Audience: Yes.

Good, good! We used to help, and the shop girls also made crepe-paper blossoms for months beforehand, and they had this series of different floats, but this one happened to win first prize. It’s parked there beside the official clocktower, as it imitates the Hastings clocktower, and is kind of a little bit of our own work.

But this is the family photo, which is about the last photo we have of my grandparents. My mother was five foot three, so you can see that Griff was a fairly small man. At this stage I’m about sixteen; my older sister about twenty, and Glenys is about ten or eleven. The old chap in the middle is the Uncle Davy, who invited them to come to New Zealand in the first place. After his wife died he became quite a handful – he was a fiery old fellow. [Chuckles] They’ve been looking after him which was a pretty full-time job for Nana, actually. This I think I’ll digress … Griff wrote, ‘every morning Davy likes to get a hammer or a saw and goes looking for something to do, and when he finds it it’s something that Bessie doesn’t want him to do.’ [Laughter] But that’s a bit of a digression.

But as I’ve said, the family did keep a very friendly relationship with the shop after my grandparents had gone. When the shop premises was destroyed by fire, probably arson, in 1989, my eighty-three year old father went to visit Charlie to sympathise and encourage him. My oldest sister went with him and was very alarmed at Dad’s driving, but … you know, he had that level of concern, that Charlie had struck great … this is Charlie Davis now … had struck great misfortune, and he just wanted to express sympathy. So we have kept touch like that. I’ve lived generally a long way away, but if my other sisters were in town, they always called at the shop and passed on news, and so on. And now Martin and Kay Pipe are carrying on in fairly difficult circumstances with the recent recession and so on. But we stay in touch, and we will all be there on Friday night having a little celebration.

So we come very much towards the end of Grandad … Charles Griffiths’ took a heart attack at the church door, actually, on a Sunday night. If you know, he used to shake hands with people, and drove himself home, but took another heart attack and died. At his funeral, the minister said something very nice that I’d like to finish on. ‘It is probably true that no man in Hastings had more personal friends or was more widely respected than Mr Griffiths’. This fine Christian gentleman with a loving heart and a helping hand has made a lasting place for himself in the memory of Hastings.’

And one last little … retired – Grandad after bowls with his shiny shoes. [Chuckles] Thank you very much.


Joyce: Judy, that was fantastic. You were very nervous at coming to give this talk, and you’ve excelled. And I think if anything comes up when they hear the name Griffiths, it’s what you said – it sums up quality. And I still think that Grandpa Griffiths’ shop.

Judy: Oh, right from the beginning with those IRIS boots [chuckles] – better than Caruso! [Chuckles]

Joyce: We’re open for questions please, so feel free.

Judy: I’m sorry. I’m … I’m rather hard of hearing, so you’ll really have to shout at me.

Question: Thank you for the memories, because we used to arrive – my mother had six children, I was the oldest, and we’d arrive on the Waipuk [Waipukurau] bus and the first place we went to was Griffiths’. My cousin worked there, and the staff were absolutely fantastic, and they made us feel so welcome. We felt like it was sort of being at home. And because I knew all those people you mentioned as well. Memories!

Judy: Good.

Question: Was it Mr Mitchell, the minister? Do you know who the minister was?

Judy: Alec Mitchell took his funeral, yes. Well the church gave him a sort of dinner and series of speeches to thank him for his work in the Sunday school for so many years, and that was under [?Katinac?] but it was Alec Mitchell who took my grandparent’s funerals.

Question: Could you tell us the story about Crewe?

Yes – yes, now I know we’ve got time. It just shows what an enterprising young man he was. We know he must only have been in his late teens. Queen Victoria was coming to town. She was going to drive through Crewe. And the manager of the shop that Griff was in refused to let the staff to go ‘til the last minute. So Griff ran as hard as he could, but he was a very small man running along behind the crowds lining the route, and quite unable to see over them. He came to a place where there was tiered seating for a choir to sing for Queen Victoria. And he crawled underneath and popped out between the front row of the choir, and with great presence of mind, turned … [demonstrates; laughter] He was very animated when he told us this story, acting it all out. He conducted the choir and looked over his shoulder [laughter] and saw Queen Victoria. But of course there were shouts of indignation. He said, “oh, I ran across the road between the horses and got lost in the crowd.” So yes, he was an adventurous teenager.

I really don’t know he got together the capital to start his own shop in 2004, [1904] but he did.

Joyce: I’d like to give her a round of applause again. And thank you to Landmarks Trust for finding the time.

Judy: I mean I’m just so glad to have the opportunity to tell you about my grandfather.

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Landmarks Talk 12 May 2014

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