When I think of Johnson’s Ironmongers my mind automatically replays the iconic Two Ronnie’s, ‘Four Candles’ sketch, and I feel a similar sense of fondness for both. In my mind it could just as well be Phil Johnson serving me!
I didn’t know Phil Johnson well, although I’ve visited the shop numerous times over the years, but I know it as the kind of place you can go and pick up just the quantity you need, of whatever it is you’re after, get good advice and great service!
Many of you will know that Phil is no longer with us, having sadly passed away in January this year, and it’s with a heavy heart that his daughters, Liz and Jenny have decided to close the business.
As a business Johnson’s Ironmongers has been trading since 1888, that’s 129 years. When Samuel Johnson started trading, Queen Victoria was on the throne, in the same year the Financial Times published its first issue and the English Football League was established. It was also 60 years before the establishment of the NHS!
Samuel Johnson (originally from Mansfield) started as a tinsmith (or a tinker as they are also known) and brazier, this involved making items out of tin; milk churns, galvanised buckets, shovels, dustpans etc. The business was situated on the North side of Chatsworth Road a few doors up from Johnson’s & Co. The building has since been demolished, but you can see it on the picture opposite, Samuel wasn’t a giant – it just had a really small door! The nickname for the shop “Tinny Johnson’s ” comes from their origins as tinsmiths and braziers.
Retirement was a dirty word in the Johnson family and Samuel worked into his later years together with son Edward Palmer who learnt his trade under Samuel Senior’s watchful eye.
“By 1898 they needed more space and moved to the present location (above), leasing 298 Chatsworth road from the Robinson’s Estate” explains Liz. “At the start they lived in the flat above and our Grandfather, Edward Johnson was born, above the shop, in 1898”.
The original Ironmongers was just the end of the property that cornered Chatsworth Road and Mill Lane as shown in the photograph, but it didn’t take long before this entrepreneurial family needed more space and expanded to the additional premises at 296, previously a Corn Store. Brazing took place behind the shop and business was good.
“In 1903 Edward purchased the house next door, ‘Briarfield’ for the princely sum of £300. The house, again sadly gone today, was rented out until 1911 when the family moved in” says Liz.
“Edward Palmer Johnson continued to be involved in the business, and he was still cashing up until he was in his eighties. The side window was, and still is, partially obscured to stop Great Grandfather keeping an eye on proceedings in the shop!” explains Liz. At this time, they were still manufacturing most of what they sold, but started to expand their range of products to cover most household ironmongery.
Throughout the First World War Robinsons was manufacturing bandages and Johnsons was involved in creating clean tin lined boxes to keep the bandages clean to send to the Front Line.
In 1916 Edward Johnson (Liz and Jenny’s grandfather) served in the army as a skilled and essential tinsmith. He was positioned behind the front line repairing equipment.
“Edward was also a keen photographer, and with the entrepreneurial flair started taking photos of the lads for them to send back home, an act frowned upon at the time” explains Liz. “We recently found his medals and buttons from his jacket plus various letters in an old radio valve box in the loft, the medals still in original packaging.”
Grandpa had his own interests and he started branching out during the 1920s, creating window displays of Meccano sets of Blackpool, Hornby train sets and radios. In fact in the 1939 census he describes himself as a radiosales man and service engineer, “he had a real interest in radios and loved to take them to customers and demonstrate the valve radios” says Liz.
Edward Palmer worked until his death in 1947 and left a complex will that turned Johnson’s into a Limited Company. Phil was included in the detail of the estate but was required to do a three year apprenticeship outside Chesterfield. “Dad had wanted to be a dentist or join the RAF but travelled to Nottingham to Thomas Dank’s by motorcycle in the summer and by train in the winter to gain his apprenticeship. In 1952 he took over the reins and started running the business.”
Grandpa slowly reduced his hours but kept in touch with customers through the business. He died in 1975 leaving Phil to run the business until he sadly passed away in January this year.
Phil and Myra married on Easter Monday in 1955, they chose this particular day as the shop was shut, allowing himself five days off for a honeymoon – returning to open the shop on the Saturday.
“Mum worked alongside Dad from the mid 1970’s until she was unable to work; she unfortunately had to finish due to Alzheimer’s – and is now in a care home”. “We were always busy” remembers Liz. “Jenny and I worked in the shop from a young age helping to deliver ladders and repair lawn mowers. Although Dad gave up the lawn mower repairs as he got too many call-outs from old ladies wanting their broken lawn mowers repairing on a Sunday afternoon (above).”
“We always did well in national disasters”, remembers Liz, “strikes and power cuts were good for business. The shop had a generator that we’d use to light the shop, we were often the only one lit along the road, and we’d hire it out to the car auction when the shop was closed.We also did well selling Davy lamps, candles and paraffin during blackouts” says Liz.
“To Phil Johnson the shop was his life. He loved it and carried on working at the shop full time – he even worked on the day he passed away in January this year. With Mum in care, this was his focus and his knowledge was second to none, so it was always good to have him around” explains Liz.
“He said he always enjoyed buying something for 50p and selling it for a pound.”
We’ve talked a lot about the 129-year history, but what of the future for Johnson’s?
“Closing the shop has been a really hard decision. The building and business have been a part of Chatsworth Road for over a hundred years, but after a lot of heart searching we have decided to close the shop.”
Both Liz and Jenny have been brought up to understand that the shop comes first, but with national chains slowly eating away at profits and with the internet enabling us to order goods and have them delivered to the door the next morning – it’s difficult for Johnson’s to compete with the convenience.
“We’ve had some fantastic customers over the years” explain Liz and Jenny, “the support they have given has been hugely appreciated and many remain with us, so it will be with a very heavy heart that we will close towards the beginning of August. We would also like to acknowledge the long service of all our loyal employees in particular the late Fred Davenport and the late Peter Witts and our current employee Richard Tann who is the husband of Jenny.”
“We’ll be having a final closing down sale throughout July to help clear as much stock as possible and say goodbye to our customers before we close our doors for the last time.”
An ideal time to see this local treasure before they close their doors for the final time. Not just a sad day for the family but a sad day for the community. S40 Local wish the Johnsons all the very best for the future and thank them for the service they’ve given over 129 splendid years.