Remembering the Smail’s institution

A display of some of the items sold by Smail's and photographs of key events in its 150-year history that Rob Young showed at Morpeth Rotary Club.
A display of some of the items sold by Smail's and photographs of key events in its 150-year history that Rob Young showed at Morpeth Rotary Club.

Morpeth Rotary Club

Rob Young, of the Smail family, told Morpeth Rotary that the company had been a passion of his for over 45 years. He went every Saturday to help his aunt, Isobel Smail, who ran it and sold ironmongery.

He brought with him examples of stock from the 150 years of the company. He thought they would be a wonderful illustration for “a history of the world in 100 objects”.

Smail’s was an internationally-known institution that started before the Boer War and prospered until after World War II, but then began a decline that ended on Saturday, March 26, 2016.

The purpose of the company was to serve local business and industry, like Swinney’s Ironworks and Jenning’s Motors.

It was started by his great grandfather John Smail. John became a commercial traveller, supplying hunting, shooting and fishing tackle, arms and ammunition. His grandmother talked of how he carried a blunderbuss in his open trap. He decided to settle in Morpeth in the 1880s and had a shop at 9 Newgate Street, where he planned to sell furniture. He moved to 14 Bridge Street in 1894. Rob’s grandfather bought a house in Kings Avenue.

Smail’s sold diverse products, ranging from fishing and shooting to sports equipment. They sold the first football bladders. When they moved to Bridge Street they began to sell more agricultural equipment.

The birth of the railways brought real opportunities. The Morpeth to Rothbury and the ‘Wanney’ lines brought large numbers of farmers into Morpeth every Wednesday for market day and they bought things. They would be taken on a handcart to the station and put on the next train so the farmers could pick them up.

There were still lots of old products in Smail’s riverside warehouse from those days. The warehouse even had fishing rights on the Wansbeck, although the family never fished.

In World War I both Rob’s grandfather John Smail and his great uncle Thomas, sons of the founder, were mobilised. John was in the Northumberland Hussars and they galloped around Morpeth Common to train. Thomas was in the Northumberland Fusiliers and was sent to Ripon for training. The family has photos of both in uniform and postcards they sent back.

Thomas had his leg shattered and became a sleeping partner in the business after the war. John kept the shop going in the 1920s.

Smail’s was regarded as a great employer. There was an annual shop dance, where 100 to 150 used to attend.

In the 1920s and 1930s they sold a lot of furniture to farms, estates and homes. The business expanded in the 1930s, but the brothers had been constant smokers and his grandfather got emphysema. He died in 1941 and his aunt Isobel, who became the icon of the shop, was recalled from Royal Signals training at Aldershot.

The shop supplied farms and was an essential service. She did her best to pick up the pieces. Many bills had not been paid. They got to the point where they had only 13s/6d in Lloyds Bank and there was pressure to close, but his grandma refused.

John Smail had four daughters and it was thought there would never be a male in the family to take over the business. His grandma and aunt got the shop moving again, but in the 60s and 70s there was a decline in farming, with rapid mechanisation and competition from other businesses leading to dwindling sales.

The biggest contract they then had was with schools for catering equipment, but again methods changed and they ended up with massive school steamers, enough to cook a field of cabbages at one go, unsold.

The 70s, 80s and 90s were prime times for Isobel, but the shop became more of an institution than a business. If there was anything that you could not find at other shops, you could find it at Smails. It was truly an Aladdin’s cave.

A critical event was the Morpeth flood of 2008 that closed the shop for months. There had been floods in 1963 and 1969, and a fire. If it had not been for the occasional natural disaster then the shop would have looked even more like Beamish Museum. Neither Rob’s aunt nor his brother John, who became proprietor, wanted anything changed. When they cleared the business, there were display cases for the first Rawlplug fibre system.

One employee worked in the shop since he left Goosehill School aged 14 until he died four years ago. Apprentices would be sent from Swinnney’s and Jennings to ask for joke items such as “a set of skirting board ladders”. He always told them to say they were on order. He eventually had to go into a care home, but would often ‘escape’ and come to stand behind the counter.

It was an authentic place that had outlived its ability to survive and his brother’s family had different ambitions for their lives.

Rob kindly presented the club with a brochure and photographs of the Morpeth Rotary Club Charter Founding Dinner in 1937, his grandfather’s Rotary badge and two Rotary magazines from 1938. Morpeth Rotary Club has its 80th anniversary next year and John Smail was one of the founding members. Rotarians were very moved by the gifts.

Aunt Isobel, who died in 2010, had been a member of Morpeth Soroptimists and a founding member of the re-launched Morpeth Chamber of Trade. She was Mayor of Morpeth twice.

The vote of thanks was given by Alan Clark.