West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Memories and Recollections


recalled by Jean Norfolk

In 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 the town.

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.

Much 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 jokes!

She 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.

At 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’.

Just 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.

She 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!

"Come on, let’s retreat while it’s quiet" she would say, "I’ll put the kettle on!"

In 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.

The 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.

We 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.

Miss 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!

Local 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.

Miss 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.

Although 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.

She 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.

Then 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.

I 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.

I 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.

Now, 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!

Jean Norfolk

Further articles by Jean Norfolk:

Holmes Printers, Gillygate
Tribute to Gillian Lesley Askew


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