Tally-man, Tailor, Soldier, Peace  – Tales from Tailoring

by Sally Scagell (great grandaughter of James George Peace, Tailor and Outfitter)

(An abridged version of the following appears in Ottakars Local History of High Wycombe)

James George Peace, born in 1838, and one time resident of Castle Hill (Wycombe Museum) began his career in the drapers trade in London when he became an apprentice at Lewis’ Silk Market.  This was apparently the forerunner of the John Lewis Partnership and it appears that James struck up a friendship with John Lewis himself.  (This claim is not fully supported by recent research into the history of the John Lewis Partnership so it remains unresolved at the present time). When he was twenty two he decided to look for fame and fortune in High Wycombe and took a job as a shop assistant at William Redington's shop in Frogmoor.  Redington had started out as a pawn broker but it is believed that he branched out into the drapery trade and James was appointed to work in the new drapery store.

It was here that he had his first bit of good fortune for he met and married Mr Redington's ward, Emma Ellen Gibbs, who had a sizeable inheritance.  When Mr Redington died James branched out on his own and set up a drapery store in White Hart Street in 1864.  This was later consumed by Murrays department store and, later still, by the Octagon Shopping Centre.  Although bolts of cloth, from London, could be purchased from the street market held regularly in Wycombe town centre James stocked his shop with goods supplied by his old colleague, John Lewis.

Drapers’ stores were very popular at this time for clothes were still made at home or by local professional dressmakers and tailors.  These were cut to meet individual customer specifications for the days of mass produced clothing were yet to come.  Thus local demand for fabric and haberdashery was constant.  James later moved to premises in Queens Square and the first building appears, from early photographs, to be a somewhat dilapidated affair.  His business expanded to become J.G. Peace Wholesale and Retail Clothiers which included on-site tailoring.

When the shop was rebuilt, in 1888, it allowed James to have the words ‘Hen and Chickens’, the tailor’s mark, to be incorporated in the design beneath the eaves and the name Peace to be written on the side gable.  The building still stands today (now occupied by Wallis) and on close inspection it is possible to see the size of the earlier shop beneath the upper extension.  In 1899 James George Peace went into partnership with his son William, George Jones (a local grocer), and George Darvill  (a local baker).  Thus the Peace clothing shop and the Jones grocers store became known as Peace Jones Ltd (Darvill only having shares in the business).

A tailor's life was a hard one, working long hours for little pay.  To aid their impoverished circumstances the tailors may have resorted to popping their possessions in the pawn shop next door – if indeed they had anything of worth – since their pay would have been very meagre. The shop had an alleyway running between it and the pawn shop which led to a boarding house where the tailors lived. This was run by a widow of one of the men, a Mrs Hinkley, and she knew only too well the hardships that they suffered.  In earlier days one of her husband's colleagues, overwhelmed by the pressures put upon him, cut his throat.  The causes for this were probably many – long hours with insufficient rest, poor health and safety, a seasonal trade leading to intense workloads followed by no orders at all, and wages that left very little for luxuries or entertainment.

His replacement, Walter Ballantyne, is recorded as being employed by the shop as early as1903, if not before, and became the shop's principal tailor.  He purchased twenty shares and thus became a shareholder in the firm until his death.  He lived in rooms above the shop itself – the very rooms where his predecessor met his demise. Determined not to let the work lead him to the same sort of suffering he planned a strategy for keeping regularly employed whatever the season.  Thus he became a sort of tailor's tally-man, hiring a pony and trap from the Bull Public House in Bull Lane, and travelling the district in search of new orders.  These would then be made up by the tailoring staff during slack periods when trade was less brisk.

Walter Ballantyne saw much of Wycombe life from the windows of his upstairs rooms.  The shop was opposite the Lion in the Wood Public House which was a popular drinking spot for working men.  Many were Irish labourers employed on the construction of the new main line Wycombe to London railway line.  Before the licensing laws were changed it was common for drunken brawls to spill out onto the pavements late into the night and Walter would often be awakened by the din.

The working conditions of the time created a great deal of discontent within High Wycombe and, along with the rest of the nation,  the workers began to protest.  Frightened that this would lead to riots the authorities passed a Riot Act in 1906 which put a curfew on the town.  Unfortunately Walter was slightly deaf and, unaware that his evening stroll had over-run the allotted time, took to his heels when he suddenly found hmself being chased by the police.  He took refuge in the Parish Churchyard where he hid all night, fearful of what crime he had committed.

Working conditions were to remain poor for a good number of years to come and it wasn't until after the First World War that life was to show any real improvement.  The war, however, kept Peace Jones Ltd in business for where there are soldiers there are uniforms. It appears that the shop made all the uniforms for the Royal Artillery who were stationed in the town and also made the breeches for the Bucks Yeomanry, the tunics being sent to Simpsons, then in the East End of London, to be made up. Simpsons was at that time just starting out in business and J.G Peace became not only one of their earliest customers but, in time, one of their oldest.

After the war there were many changes, not least in mens and womens fashions.  Walter Ballantyne, although a good tailor, found it hard to move with the times and his designs for suits and jackets quickly went out of date.  Unable or unwilling to change his style the firm was forced to send its orders 'out of house' to be made up.  These were produced by their old ally, Simpsons, but it remained a well kept secret for many years as James Peace did not want to let his customers think that he was no longer able to provide the full tailoring service on the premises.

In 1919 Howard Goodwin was employed at the shop as a sales assistant.  He had advertised his availability in the Menswear Magazine of the 8th February, 1919, stating that he was 32, married, had the highest references plus fifteen years worth of experience.  James George was sufficiently impressed to engage him.  He was to remain with the company until after the Second World War.

The customers of the shop were varied, but all were seeking a quality product.  Butlers, footmen and chauffeurs would be sent by their employers to be 'kitted out'.  Each house would have its own insignia pressed into the metal coat buttons using a special die or mould. One chauffeur was known to pocket the money for this saying that his employer would never notice!  The house owners themselves were also good customers, such as the Disraeli's of Hughenden Manor.

Weddings always brought in their fair share of trade since it was imperative for the upwardly mobile to be appropriately attired.  When William Peace, son of James George, got married his best man turned up in the wrong suit.  A wedding outfit, just completed for a local customer, was hastily removed from its hanger and given to the wayward friend.  Immediately the ceremony was over it was stripped from the best man and returned to the shop forthwith.

Undertakers also needed to be well dressed and were always a good source for orders.  Funerals, themselves, generated a demand for mourning coats which, by necessity, required a quick turn around of only three days.  Tailors would often work late into the night to complete the orders in time.

"One of my first jobs as a junior with the company" John Godfrey Peace, James' grandson recalled "was to go to the pub across the road at 10 o'clock at night to get pints of beer to give to the tailors.  It was probably their only perk for working late since overtime pay would have been unheard of.  It was far more likely that you would have been given the sack if you did not comply".

Fortunately for the Peace family themselves it was not all work and no play. William Peace was a keen theatregoer and had a clever plan for marketing the shop. He would drop into the local theatre to meet the performers before the show and promise them a free shirt, tie or similar if they gave the shop a good plug in their act.  Naturally he would have to watch the show to check that the agreement had been honoured.  One of his customers was a theatrical producer in Drury Lane and this also gave William the opportunity to acquire theatre tickets for the whole family to see the shows.

William died in 1926 from cancer, his father James George outliving him by four years. William is shown in the middle of the photo at right, along with his son Jack and his father James. When James died, John (Jack) Godfrey Peace, Walter Ballantyne and Howard Goodwin formed a partnership and called themselves Peace, Ballantyne and Goodwin Ltd.  Surprisingly they let the Queens Square premises to John Colliers, a mens outfitters and potential rival, and moved to Town House in Castle Street in 1933.  Jack Peace was by far the youngest partner but had trained for this moment by working alongside his father for several years.  He had also served an apprenticeship at Barkers in Kensington, travelling regularly up to London by train.  In 1936 Ballantyne died leaving just the two remaining partners. However, in 1939, with the outbreak of the Second World War Jack joined the RAF and left the shop in the capable hands of Howard Goodwin.  He returned, from India, in 1946 and being a partner in the company was immediately able to step back into familiar surroundings.

It should be noted that the firm made suits for women as well as men and these became particularly popular during and after the Second World War.  The firm thus had a large workforce which also included workroom girls who worked in the alterations department and women's section.  Men, however, were still seen to be the more experienced workers and commanded the greater pay. Paid holidays for staff did not come into being until after the Second World War and the working week remained long and arduous with Saturday working expected, but half day closing on Wednesdays seen as a perk.  Jack Peace recalled one of the shop staff asking on the Friday for the following day off.  When questioned for an adequate reason the shop hand sheepishly explained it was in order to get married but in all the excitement he had forgotten to book the day off work.

The tailors were always a strange assortment.  In the early days there had been one called Partridge, who only worked for the shop during the summer months, disappearing to work elsewhere during the winter.  He would arrive on his cycle each spring, all the way from Buckingham, and leave again in the autumn.  It seemed an odd arrangement but one which suited the firm well since the winter was always a quiet period for trade.  The pressure of the work was still too much for some workers and the firm was to lose yet another tailor who gassed himself in an upstairs room at the Queens Square premises.

Jack Peace recalled "I remember going to find out why nobody had seen him in the shop and found him slumped in his chair, still wearing his hat.  He was carried out of the bulding and placed on a cart, there was no hearse, and I remember his skin being very yellow.  It was quite a shock to a youngster like me – but I don't think that it was just the work that got too much for him, he had difficulties at home too."

Some tailors were from abroad, Poles and Italians, who could scarcely speak a word of English.  There was one tailor who was deaf and dumb.  It was a wonder that they were able to communicate with one another at all.

The business at Town House had fitting and cutting rooms on the first floor and tailoring workrooms on the second.  Some of these workrooms were more like attics with creeking, uneven floors and none of the comforts of the rooms below. Here the tailors worked cross legged on the tables, tacking the pieces of cloth together before being neatly sewn.  In the very early days everything would have been done by hand by the tailor but by the end of the nineteenth century the seams would have been sewn using a hand or treadle sewing machine, considerably speeding up the production process.  Buttonholes, buttons, hooks, eyes, hems etc would still have been sewn by hand and in later years, when the workforce increased, this would have been done by the women seamstresses who worked in a room at the back of the premises.  Before electricity was installed all work would have been done under gas light and ironing the fabric would have meant using irons which were heated on a special coal fired range.  Later these were to be replaced by gas irons.

The introduction of the sewing machine made mass produced clothing possible and although there was still a large demand for made to measure suits after the First World War - they were as much a status symbol then as they are now - the business also began to stock ready made suits.  By the 1950s the Town House premises was arranged thus:  on the ground floor was the shop itself where the sales assistants, all men, served behind long, polished wood, counters with glass fronts.  These displayed a wide range of socks, ties, gloves, shirts etc.  On the walls behind, from floor to ceiling, was drawer upon drawer of vests, pants, garters, braces, cuff links and so on.  The drawers were all labelled with the size and the contents or were glass fronted for ready identification.  To the rear of the shop were the ready to wear suits, hanging on racks, and the shelves of boxed shirts - all well known quality makes of the time.  There was a small changing room with a long mirror, and a curtain for privacy.

If the customer required a made to measure order then they were shown to the first floor where they would be invited to choose the style required and to select the material they wanted from the bolts of fabric lining the walls of the upstairs showroom.  The customer would be measured and the fabric, pattern and measurements taken to the cutting room across the corridor to be laid out on the large cutting table.  Once cut it would be taken upstairs to the second floor for the tailors to tack and prepare for the first fitting. Right up until the early 1960s the tailors still sat cross legged on their tables.  The customer would then return for a fitting which would take place in a little mirrored cubicle off the main cutting room.  When the outfit was finished it would be delivered to the customer by Old George the firms delivery 'boy' or later, when cars were more common, by Jack Peace himself.  Old George was regularly seen around Wycombe on his delivery bike.  He became so much a fixture of the shop that he continued to work for the business long after retirement age since no one had the heart to tell him that it was time to put his feet up.

In 1947 Jack Peace married Ruth (Bobby) Nicholson Skull and her wedding outfit, a turquoise blue woollen suit, was made at the shop.  In fact it had been Jack who had measured Bobby, then aged eight, for her first pair of riding jodhpurs.  In 1954 Howard Goodwin died and the firm reverted back to its original name of J.G. Peace but this time representing John Godfrey Peace, the founder's grandson.  Bobby Peace became a partner in the firm, thus allowing it to stay as a limited company.  Although she did not work in the shop she took an active interest in the welfare of the staff, particularly of the women in the workrooms at the rear of the premises.  Horrified at the conditions in which they worked she ensured health and safety improvements were carried out and maintained.  Unfortunately modernisation was slow to come about and the women were still using treadle sewing machines for many years still to come.  However the gas irons were replaced with electric ones and a rest area and women's washroom were also provided.

In 1964 the firm celebrated its centenary with a full page spread in the Bucks Free Press and an outing for all the staff to London's theatreland.  Unfortunately this event was followed by two worrying incidents and, eventually, to the shops closure.  The staff outing had been well publicised since the shop was to close early to allow the staff time to prepare for their evening in London.  A notice was pasted on the door to alert customers of the early closure.  Regrettably it also alerted the town's 'lowlife' to the fact that the shop would be empty all evening.  Consequently the staff returned the following morning to find that they had been well and truly burgled with little remaining except, somewhat strangely, a bundle of dressing gowns without their cords.  It was believed that the thieves used the cords to tie their ill-gotten gains into neat, tidy packages. (NOTE some details still need to be checked for accuracy).

The staff were still reeling from the shock of this when the council  made the Town House premises a listed building.  Today one feels that the town no doubt benefited from this decision but in the 1960s it was like a death knell to the firm.  Prevented from any form of structural modernisation the shop appeared, in the swinging sixties, to be stuck in a time warp of traditional, old fashioned values.  Unable to modernise the shop front and display windows the interior remained much the same providing an air of quiet gentility for its increasingly elderly clientele.  These very fixtures and fittings, which would be much admired today, only served to remind the youth of the 60s that the shop was well past its sell-by-date. The firm was thus unable to attract the younger market who were lured to shops like John Colliers and, later, to Burtons.

In 1971, with no sons to inherit the business, Jack Peace retired and the shop was taken over by one of  his assistants under a new name.  When this business closed the premises became let to Milletts.  However Jack Peace retained joint ownership of the freehold of the premises, with Howard Goodwin's family, until the 1980s when it was finally sold.

Sally Scagell née Peace, November 2000

I remember the Town House shop quite well and particularly its smell.  Apart from the damp mustiness of  the stores and washrooms there was always a smell of furniture polish in the shop itself.  It had a red and white chequered linoleum floor and highly polished wood fixtures and fittings which probably account for this.  (It's possible that Old George's wife, Nell Stevens, had responsibility for doing the cleaning.) The polish was obviously a make which is rarely used today for I hardly ever smell it now - but if I do I am sent straight back to my early school days and my weekly after-school ballet class.

This was when my sister and I would be collected by my mother from St Bernard's Convent, along the London Road, and be whisked along Birdcage Walk to the top of Castle Street.  We would stop and buy cakes for tea from the bakers on the corner, sometimes calling in to Gilberts gift and china store on the way.  Then we would be taken along to Town House and up to the room on the first floor next to the secretary's office - we could hear Mrs Paige typing up the invoices.  Here we would have our cakes and a glass of milk before my mother took us to the ballet class held at the Bucks School of Music in the High Street (where I also had piano lessons). My sister and I loved playing in the mirrored cubicle, in the cutting room, where you could move the full length mirrors so that your image was reflected back and forth hundreds of times.

When I became a pupil at Wycombe Preparatory School my father, or one of the workroom girls, would collect me for lunch and I would be taught how to sew in the women's workroom at the back of the shop (above the toilet block).  A lady named May Howard ran this department and I always remember it being a friendly place to pass the time.  She was a good teacher and I made dolls clothes to a very high standard for a child of six!

Other shop staff were Mr Sydney, the shop manager, Mr Howard (May's husband), the shop's outfitter, Mr Gregory, the cutter, Robinson and Austin the two sales assistants and, of course, the tailors and workroom girls.  I was always rather frightened of the deaf and dumb tailor because he could only grunt his greetings and I was too young to understand that he was only showing his courtesy to me, the boss's daughter.  My father who worked in the shop (taking measurements and supervising sales) left any staff disciplining up to Mr Sydney.  This meant that he remained on good terms with everybody and was well liked.

Other vague memories of the shop include being taken up the narrow stairway to the roof,  to look over the parapet at the circus parade passing by in the streets below.  I was rarely allowed beyond Mrs Paige's office and this may have been one of my few peeks at the tailors rooms on the second floor.  I also remember the alleyway that cut between Priory Road and Queens Square - before Marks and Spencers was extended and the Chiltern Shopping Centre was built.  This must have been regularly used by my father and grandfather in the early days as they walked to and from their home in Priory Road to the shop premises in Queens Square.  It was no doubt used by my great grandfather on his way down the hill from Castle Hill.

When the Chiltern Shopping Centre was built there were tales that the security guards on night duty heard strange bumps and bangs and they began to talk of a ghost.  My father went to chat to the manageress to show her the room (with the bay window) above the Queens Square premises, now fronting the shopping centre, where the deaths of the two tailors had occurred.  I have no idea whether this helped in their investigations or not.

NB: Town House was originally a family home and a Miss Weston lived there during or soon after the First World War.  This is where she ran a class for infants and where my mother attended as a tiny child.  (Miss Weston was a great friend of Mr and Mrs Charles Arthur Skull, my mother's parents.)

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