Bennetts Irongate, Derby celebrates it's 275th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 12:47 19 November 2010 | UPDATED: 16:31 20 February 2013

On the occasion of its 275th anniversary, Helen Whalley looks at the history and faces behind one of the county's finest stores

With its sweeping staircase and its long-standing Ironmongery, Derbys and one of the UKs oldest department stores is steeped in local history. Customers describe Bennetts Irongate as an Aladdins Cave, and its not hard to see why. There are three staircases, two balconies, and numerous secret corners, harbouring treasures and gifts. Every time you duck through an archway or stroll down a ramp, theres something different to see: jewellery winking from glass tables; a cabinet of locally-made, exotic-looking Royal Crown Derby; or a forest of bird tables and garden tools.

Irongate is a street of beautiful old buildings, curving between the towering cathedral and the buzzing market place. Bennetts stands proud among them, with its recognisable blue front and golden logo, telling us it was established as early as 1734. The store started small, however, taking up only half the space we see today. Its unusual layout can be attributed to the fact that it is actually two buildings joined into one. It started life at number 10 Irongate now the right-hand side with an entrance into the Cookshop as Weatherhead Walters & Son, a modest Ironmongers on an aptly named street. But the company soon began to grow, expanding into agricultural goods and gaining the titles of Gun & Silver Smiths, and Oil & Colour Merchants.

George Bennett, a retired Master Mariner, bought the company in 1864. He lived on North Parade, a Georgian terrace in the Strutts Park area of Derby, as steeped in local history as Irongate. Bennett lived at number 13, a house with four storeys, high ceilings and a garden that stretched down to the River Derwent.

He expanded the company even further. Goalposts, tennis nets, cricket bats and croquet sets were sold alongside farming tools and guns. Being an old sea dog, he had the store laid out like a sailing ship. Wrought iron stairways climbed up to nautical-style landings throughout. Examples of these can still be seen above the Ironmongery Department, which retains a ship-like quality, as if in memory of George.

Bennett passed the company down through his family. He had five daughters and four sons, but only one grandson, who was killed in the First World War. The last remaining Bennett sold the company in 1937, when it became Bennetts Irongate Limited, but continued to thrive as an independent family business.

It was so thriving, in fact, that the company bought out the other half of the building, number 8 Irongate, in the 1980s. This part of the building has a varied history. It previously belonged to the Electricity Board, and was once a theatre. The imposing split staircase and balcony are a nod to its theatrical past. It has also been a pub named The Black Bull, reported to have been a highwaymens haunt, with a bolt hole in the back wall disguised as a safe.

The story of Bennetts in the 20th century can be traced through a store of memories and anecdotes. The earliest of these can be found in an interview with former employee Ivan Rhodes, who started at Bennetts in 1921 on 30 shillings per week. In his 1976 interview, he recalled the old Wolsey van run by the store in the 1920s, with wheels like cart wheels. He also told how, during the Second World War, the painting of the staff canteen had to be finished using a job lot of custard powder, due to a shortage of white wash.

It has also been said that, during the 1960s, being an assistant at Bennetts was seen as a 24/7 responsibility, and any behaviour around the town which was deemed to be not in keeping with ones position, was punishable by dismissal. One such unfortunate was, allegedly, dismissed for being caught eating chips out of a newspaper while walking across the market place at lunch time!

The rules are not quite so fierce now, and Bennetts is proud of its close knit and loyal staff, many of whom have remained there for decades. Andrew Tobolkowitz, manager of the Mens Department, has been with the company for over 30 years. He has seen countless changes, from store layout to staff uniforms. He recalls the brightly coloured nylon overalls the assistants wore in the 1970s, often sporting a tell-tale print after an ironing disaster. When Andrew first started, there was a cobbled yard and block of stables around the back of the store, and the Ironmongery Department sold thousands of types of nails and screws, most of which are no longer made.

Mark Rowland, Sales Manager at Bennetts Trade Centre on Stores Road in Derby, has also been with the company for nearly 30 years. Mark came to Bennetts in 1974, as a fill-in job for the summer holidays and, as is the way with Bennetts, the temporary job lasted 15 years. After a break away, he was tracked down and persuaded to come back to head up the Trade Centre Sales team. Thirteen years later, he is still there. It is interesting to note that Bennetts still specialises in architectural ironmongery, selling throughout the UK to the construction and house building industry.

Mark recalls: During my time working at the Irongate Store in the 70s, we sold paraffin, meths, and white spirit by the pint, if customers brought their own containers. These materials were stored in what was called the oil warehouse, sited in the cellar underneath the ironmongery department. Nothing unusual in this, except that the 40-gallon drums were stored next to the steel bins containing shotgun cartridges and, in October/November, fireworks! Health and Safety would have a field day nowadays!

There are many more directors, managers and members of staff who have been loyal to Bennetts for years. David Imeson, a manager at the Irongate store, has worked there for 22 years, and recalls how he started on April Fools Day. He was asked to start work the day after his interview but, as Bennetts was closed on a Wednesday then, he had to start on 1st April, a date that has stuck in hismind ever since!

Mark Rowlands colleagues Craig Sullivan (technical representative) and Michael Redfern (housing supervisor) have both received their 25year long service awards, with two other members of the trade centre team (Tracey March, senior estimator, and Clive Stevens, contracts supervisor) having amassed more than 50 years service between them. Jane Williams, who started on the shop floor and now works in accounts, has been with Bennetts for over 30 years, and Rodney Bird, who clocked up 25 years service before he retired in 2006, has now come back for one day a week, unable to keep away!

However, the staff members are not the only ones deserving of a long service award. Many customers have been coming to Bennetts for years, some arriving as regular as clockwork each week; others calling in for gifts or special purchases. Some claim to have been coming since the store opened! Others have stuck in the minds of the staff for their colourful personalities: walking miles to get here, arriving on horseback, or lighting up the store with their flamboyance.

All these long-serving staff and customers have seen great progressions in the store, such as a new electronic till and stock control system and dramatic layout changes. Recently, Bennetts gained a new managing director, former army captain Simon Ingham, echoing the military influence that Bennetts was founded on. Simon is quoted as saying: The reason Bennetts is so unique and diverse is testament to our customers, the people of Derbyshire and beyond, who need more than just the sanitised high street offerings and demand something individual.

Amongst the contemporary brands and stock, many echoes of the past remain in the store, which George Bennett himself might still recognise. The name Bennetts is still cherished. After all, where else could you possibly buy a bag of nails, a Radley handbag and a Barbour Jacket, and then sit down for a well earned lunch in a contemporary brasserie, all in one very historical store?

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