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160 Years at Williams of Audlem

2nd January 2022 @ 6:06am – by Judy Evans
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This year at Williams of Audlem, we are celebrating a very special anniversary -- 160 years in business in the same family!

Williams of Audlem was founded in 1862 by Eli Williams, who was from an established family of drapers in Tarporley, Cheshire.

It's thought that the Williams' connections with the Baptist Chapel in Audlem was the reason for their arrival in the village of Audlem. The previous owners of the shop, the Kirkhams, were fellow Baptists, who sadly had no surviving children. The then minister of the Baptist Chapel in Audlem, also served Tarporley Baptist chapel -- so it would seem likely that it may have been he who may have relayed the opportunity of taking the shop in Audlem, to the Williams family in Tarporley.

Over the years, the shop variously changed hands, and product ranges:

Starting as a drapers, selling fabrics and haberdashery, Eli, took on a printing business situated in a building at the rear of the shop. The printing office would produce posters and programmes for local events, business letterheads, chapel & church publications and mourning stationery. Whilst in the back rooms of the shop, Eli also employed seamstresses to make up clothes for the wealthy. The shop would be open until 8pm, in the week, to allow for the (largely agricultural) labour force to shop after their working day. As retail customs dictated at the time, the shop would be closed for the afternoon on a Wednesday, and was also shut on a Sunday, in line with both religious thinking, and the legislation, of the day.

From Eli's hands it passed to his eldest son, George Williams, who was a major character in village life -- from being part of the very first Audlem fire brigade, to being instrumental in the founding of Audlem Town Hall and not, forgetting, playing for both the Audlem cricket and football teams of the day. It is George who purchased the old cash register, famously seen on the BBC's Repair Shop (series 2 episode 11)

Before the turn of the last century, as the canal (and then the railway), in Audlem was established, the shop was selling newspapers, acting as a dyeing agent for a company in Perth, selling made to order corsets from Manchester, and sold pottery from nearby, Stoke on Trent.

By the time the next generation came to the shop counter, the motor car had been established and George's eldest sons chose to own and operate garage businesses in Audley and Audlem, and, as a consequence, the shop would pass on to his eldest surviving daughter, Hilda Dutton. Meanwhile Hilda's husband, Joe, and her Uncle (Albert C Williams), were mainly employed on the printing side of the business. Both men were heavily involved with, the, back then, enormous (for such a small village) Audlem Annual Horticultural Shows.

By all accounts, Hilda was a formidable business woman who had, rather unusually in her day, been able to drive (including a motorbike) -- no doubt led by her older brothers' influence.

In the 1930's, Hilda began to develop a vehicle based delivery round for her shop's products -- visiting the outlying rural farmsteads around Hatherton, Hankelow, Aston and Wrenbury, where people would not have had ready access to transport (who thought home delivery was a new thing?!) Hilda saw the shop through the Second World War -- using every penny of her money to buy stock from Manchester on its outbreak, declaring that the business would either "sink or swim" -- fortunately it swam! The end of the War saw the end of the printing business, and a steady move towards off the peg clothing. The sale of knitting wool however, was still a strong seller with over the counter sales booming in the post war era.

Next to take the reins in the 1950's, was Hilda's youngest daughter Megan, who married a dashing and accomplished rock climber, Derek Mckelvey, a cost accountant by weekday, from a City of Salford, council estate. Derek took to both shop life, and village life, like a duck to the river Irwell. Megan and Derek modernised the shop interior using the local building firm, Moseley's. Fortunately for the present owner, Megan and Derek were War Babies, and simply stored most of the old fitments and fixtures in the garage, rather than throwing them out! They continued the news agency side of the business, whilst also developing 'off-the-peg', quality clothing ranges, with brands such as Woolsey, Ladybird, Ridella and Humphrey Lloyd. Alongside which, they also sold toys from the established British brands of Brittains, Meccano and Tri-ang. However, the next few decades were difficult times for village shops: the 1970's oil crisis and inflation and increasingly more residents working (and shopping) outside of the village. The 1980/90's saw the rise in car ownership, adding to this, the rises and rises of supermarkets, and inner, then outer, city shopping centres. These factors eventually forcing the shop to drop many clothing lines, and the previously established rural delivery round. This also meant that both the giftware, and the growing canal tourist trade, were becoming ever more critical to the business. Thus, the greetings cards, and gift side of the business, began to expand significantly.

Derek's contribution to village life was just as impressive as his stint behind the counter. During his tenure at the shop, his community contributions included: a founding member, and long-time Chair of Audlem District Amenity Society, the Audlem History Society and also the Audlem Education Foundation Committee, along with being a long serving Chairman on both the School Governors and the Parish Council

In 2013 Megan and Derek officially retired, leaving their middle daughter, Judy Evans, to run the shop. The first decision to be made was whether to modernise the shop once again, for today's era or to retro refit the shop (with the bits and pieces still in the garage) to celebrate the shop's genuine heritage. It was an easy, and cost effective choice -- to recycle rather than renew, as the shop's history is part of its overriding appeal. Nearly 10 years later, and new challenges of COVID, internet shopping and declining news trade, the shop remains in Judy's, and husband Brian's, hands, More recently, highlights for Judy and the shop, have included: national TV appearances on two BBC programmes, a national award for gift retailing bestowed in 2019, and being invited to join the judging panel of the national Giftware Association. However, in early spring 2022, Judy is fulfilling a particular life time ambition- the completion of an indoor staff toilet! No more trips across a cold, wet, yard to the old wash house -- what progress... and what a relief !

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