recalled by Jean Norfolk
the mid 1950s, shortly after I was married, I began working as a shop
assistant in a ladies wear shop in Ropergate, Pontefract, which was
owned by Miss M.L. Jennings who I believe lived in the Mill Hill area of
Although the owner lived quite near to the shop I very rarely saw her
except on a couple of occasions. The business was run and managed
entirely by a wonderful lady by the name of Miss Huddlestone who, if I
remember correctly lived in Northgate.
smaller than me, she was dark haired and very slightly built. I could
have easily picked her up and carried her under one arm! Her warmth of
personality combined with a wealth of charm and a wicked sense of humour
however, more than compensated for her lack of physical stature. I was
often gob-smacked and doubled up with laughter at her, sometimes risqué
was always immaculately groomed and invariably wore a smart two-piece
suit with a tie-necked blouse underneath, and high heeled black lace-up
shoes. She loved a cigarette, although she never ever smoked in the
shop, always in secret and out of sight of customers.
the rear of the shop was a large stockroom which, amongst other things,
was filled with dozens of hat-boxes all containing ladies hats of every
description. In those days hats were the biggest selling item in the
shop and the name ‘Jennings’ was synonymous with hats in Pontefract.
There was no need to travel to Leeds or Wakefield, you could always be
sure to find a hat to suit any age or occasion at ‘Jennings’.
behind the shop was the small black and brass fireplace in the
stockroom. With a tiny grate surrounded by a high ornate brass fender,
this was Miss Huddlestone’s favourite resting-place whenever there was
a lull in trade. She wasn’t one to ‘pull rank’ and always treated
me as an equal, even though I was simply a mere shop assistant.
wouldn’t hesitate in taking on the most menial tasks herself if I was
serving a customer. She thought nothing of cleaning the fireplace or
stoking up the fire, and of course, putting on the kettle and making
tea! How she loved her cup of tea!
on, let’s retreat while it’s quiet" she would say, "I’ll
put the kettle on!"
my minds eye I can still see her perched on her high wooden chair with
her skirt hitched up over her knees and her high-heeled shoes resting on
top of the fender. She would grasp her cup between both hands, savouring
its warmth when the weather was cold outside and puff away at the
inevitable cigarette that rested between the first two fingers of her
right hand. Her shins were badly scorched through months of exposure to
the bright red fire. But she didn’t seem to mind. Her skirt was fairly
long and hid her burnt legs from view.
shelves and the floor of the stockroom were simply awash with hatboxes.
Working there was much better than a trip to the hat department at
C&A or British Home Stores! Trying on hats was our favourite way of
relaxing. She would sit on her chair, puffing away on her cigarette
(being careful to blow smoke up the chimney!) and would then point to a
box saying "Try the pale blue one with the daisies", or
"Put on that navy one with the large brim," etc.
spent hours between us trying on hundreds of hats in front of the
battered old stock room mirror, especially when we had just received a
new delivery. It was most exciting when the van driver dropped off a
dozen or so long hatboxes, each containing about ten or twelve hats.
Huddlestone always wore a hat herself and sometimes kept it on all day.
I got used to arriving at work to find her making tea wearing a posh
hat. She would enter the shop to greet customers personally with her hat
in place, and hair immaculate. Sometimes if the weather was warm she
would remove her jacket but she always wore a smart long-sleeved blouse
in either satin, silk or crepe de chine. She didn’t think it was
decent to expose bare flesh so always kept her arms covered, even in
baking hot weather. I often used to wonder what reaction her customers
would have shown if they could have seen her enjoying her cuppa and a
cigarette in the stockroom!
influential business people or indeed anyone of distinction would always
be served by Miss Huddlestone personally. I didn’t mind in the least,
in fact I was relieved and grateful – some of them could be quite
intimidating. I was left to deal with the ordinary ‘run-of-the-mill’
customers who were simply looking for a hat for the first and only time
in their lives, or perhaps someone buying gloves or stockings.
Huddlestone had lots of regulars in those days; usually people of means
with ‘charge accounts’ who would buy not one, but perhaps three or
four hats per visit along with various other items of clothing and
accessories. Although known specifically for hats, Jenning’s sold
every item of ladies wear from dresses and knitwear right down to
stockings, underwear, gloves and handbags.
she was small in stature, Miss Huddlestone worked like a Trojan. She was
always there long before I arrived at 9 o’clock each morning, and
without the aid of a cleaning lady, she kept the shop immaculate. She
cleaned the carpets each day and dusted, not to mention cleaning out the
fireplace in the stockroom and having the fire burning brightly and a
cup of tea waiting for me when I got there.
told me once she did it because she loved it. The shop was her life and
she didn’t see it as a place of work. I suppose she must have been in
her fifties then, and I could never understand why such a vibrant
loveable lady had never married. I remember how she was meticulous in
everything she did. She took immense pride in her window displays, which
were changed every couple of weeks and had to be perfect. She sometimes
spent two whole days completing her latest ‘creation’. Deciding what
she was going to put on show, and then would take ages to find the
correct hats and accessories to complement it. She would open and close
the shop door at least a dozen times as she went outside to stand on the
pavement to check and re-check, how it looked. I loved working with this
tiny eccentric wonderful lady. She was a joy to know.
one day I began to feel ill and couldn’t face my morning cup of tea
anymore. I took a few days off work, at Miss Huddlestone’s insistence
because I felt so terrible. I never even considered the fact that I
could be pregnant, but I soon discovered I was. When I began having
blackouts and passing out in the shop, it was decided that it would be
better if I left.
was told that my job would still be there if I wanted to return later
but after the birth of my daughter I realised that I couldn’t go back
to work and leave her, so I never resumed work again at Jennings.
went back a couple of times to visit, but by this time a new assistant
had taken my place. I can still recall how I envied her so much.
whenever I walk along Ropergate, I can’t help looking across at that
same shop, M.L. Jennings, and remembering the little lady who used to
run it so efficiently and so lovingly, and the laughs we shared whilst
trying on hats!
Further articles by Jean Norfolk:
Holmes Printers, Gillygate
Tribute to Gillian Lesley