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The closure of a 500-year-old ironmonger’s marks the death of something in our national soul

Gill and Gill traded under 20 monarchs and 76 prime ministers: now we are living in a new and impersonal world

By on Thursday, 26 August 2010

Gill and Gill sold everything from tools and tin tacks to scythes and wax candles (photo courtesy of the Oxford Times)

Gill and Gill sold everything from tools and tin tacks to scythes and wax candles (photo courtesy of the Oxford Times)

A rather awful thing is due to happen this month: the closure of perhaps the oldest (certainly one of the last) of a kind of small shop which used – before large chain stores – to be all there was. There are still some independent butchers, bakers and greengrocers left on some of our high streets; there are almost none left of the sort of ironmongers which, when the two Ronnies performed their now classic sketch Fork Handles (in which when Ronnie Barker asks for fork ’andles he is given four candles, watch it on YouTube), were the norm.

Now, Gill and Gill, founded in Oxford a staggering 480 years ago – that is, in the reign of Henry VIII and before the Reformation – is to close. The point about shops like this is that you could get almost anything in them. My eldest daughter used to live on a narrow boat, in which was installed a specially designed woodburning stove: she bought a flue brush (also specially designed) for it from Gill and Gill: they just had them in stock.

The shop has sold everything you could think of, from tools, tin tacks, lightbulbs, compost, charcoal and rat repellers to chimney sweeps’ brushes, scythes, hay rakes and, yes, fork handles and wax candles.

It is not simply that Gill and Gill are now closing having traded successfully through the reigns of 20 monarchs, 76 prime ministers, the English civil war and two world wars that is so depressing: everything comes to an end some time; they have had a good run for their money. It is the reason for their closure, which is nothing less than the final death of the England of my boyhood. As the Oxford Times explained, Gill and Gill “has been unable to survive the rise of mega-hardware chains like B&Q and Homebase, as well as the recession”.

Forget the recession: Gill and Gill survived the 1930s.  The real reason is, as its manager says, that “younger customers seem happier these days to drive to B&Q and other out-of-town stores”.

It is one more example of the replacement of the small, the local, the independent by the vast, the universal, the impersonal and therefore untouchable. GK Chesterton would have hated it: remember in The Napoleon of Notting Hill that row of small shops, threatened by a road scheme dreamed up by the rich neighbouring boroughs: “They were a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop, and a toy-shop that sold also newspapers…. If Notting Hill was the heart of the universe, and Pump Street was the heart of Notting Hill, this was the heart of Pump Street. The fact that they were all small and side by side realised that feeling for a formidable comfort and compactness which… was the heart… of all patriotism.”

Chesterton loved what was small rather than what was large: remember that EF Schumacher’s first idea of a title for his influential book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered was “Chestertonian economics”. Chesterton’s essentially anti-imperialist patriotism was one which respected the patriotisms of other people: it was based on the quasi-sacramental notion (quasi-sacramental because in it the universal was contained in the small and tangible) of a patriotism which begins, as he put it, “the praise of the world at the nearest thing”.

If the desire of the large and powerful succeeds in sweeping away Pump Street, says Chesterton’s protagonist, Adam Wayne, “if the gold-hunters prevail”, it is not only Notting Hill but everyone who “also will lose all their ancient sentiments and all the mystery of their national soul”. Now, the gold-hunters have indeed prevailed, and Gill and Gill has been swept away; and with Gill and Gill gone, I very much fear, some small but essential part of “the mystery of [our] national soul”. I do not think it is pompous to say that we are all diminished by their passing.