Death of a local shop
The death of a local shop can bring an incredible opportunity to local historians. Recently in Youghal a shop closed. This was 91, North Main Street. It was likely to be gutted by the new owners when sold. As part of Youghal Celebrates History ( a group formed almost twenty years ago) we asked for permission to visit and photograph the interior of the shop. The family selling the shop were the Owen family . One of them, Brian Owen, married an aspiring young politician called Nora O’Mahony. Nora was very gracious in granting permission to us. The visit was led by David Kelly, co-author of the Historic Town Atlas of Youghal and whose knowledge of the town’s history is second to none.
The front of the shop is very bland and gives little indication of what lies behind. Like many shops in Youghal there are two doorways. One leads to the shop, often the second leads to an enclosed alley or lane, as in this case.
The shop section has a step down into it – indicating a lower ground level in the town eight hundred years ago. With global warming and rising tides all floor levels in Youghal have had to be raised. This is the final shop floor at the original level.
The door on the right hides an access to a covered laneway. It is an extensive premises, leading to the rear of the Moby Dick pub, but when built originally led to the water’s edge. The little Barber shop next door was a slip way on the old maps. One side of the shop still retains a semi-circular tower staircase, indicating , said David Kelly, the building was once a castle or fortified tower house. Many rooms we could not enter as fallen roof beams and dodgy flooring impeded access. Inside the rooms the new owners could be heard flapping their wings and making their presence heard.
For generations the Owen family had served the people of Youghal as chemists. They mixed their own tablets, dispensed whatever was prescribed. There were also hygiene products and some beauty products as you might expect to find in a chemist today. When the Owen family ceased to trade from it, the building became idle and was used for a number of purposes, most recently a hairdressing salon.
As the building is extensive, successive owners simply pushed old items to one side. Quite a lot remained. There were old ledger books, some medicinal products, invoices and receipts.
In themselves the accounts paint a picture of life in a small town during World War II and also tel us the way business was transacted before mobile phones, the internet and social media. Typically a “commercial traveller” would call to the business and take orders, accept payments and returns. The orders would later be “phoned in” to headquarters and deliveries arranged. Business was very personal. You got to know your “traveller”. And they were always welcome at Christmas when little gifts appeared for the chemist.
The “paperwork” left behind gives a fascinating insight into the life of a small town as seen by the chemist. The items ordered, the quantities sold, the goods returned all tell a story. The cost of items is also detailed. The invoices in beautiful copperplate writing are a delight to read. The receipts were on a single page – on one side there was an envelope cover, on the other side a receipt.
Strange to see that tobacco was sold in a chemist! They also sold a product , guaranteed to cure people with that annoying little cough associated with smoking. Guaranteed! Of particular interest were the years of World War II – when – “because of the current difficulties our agent may not be able to visit you in person”.
There were some books. One book was in three parts – the first being a series of prescriptions, the second part a transcription of the first section and the third part was a translation of the transcription of the prescription (if you are still with me!).
Apart from the orders and sales there are also account books – detailing the monthly medical orders for the various account holders. You can estimate popular ailments and remedies of the time. There seemed to be enough paraffin oil to move the bowels not just of Youghal but of the entire nation while there was little demand for toothache oil. Perhaps during the war there was less access to sweets. It is a story waiting to be told, a picture to be painted.
We were glad to be able to gather some papers, they may prove of some use to someone sometime. Better than being dumped in the skip! We did contact a local chemist about the medical products on the shelf and had them moved to a safer location.
In the family quarters we found old comics which changed as the children grew up…. Dandy, Bean, Topper . Bruce Grobelaar and Anneka Rice were big favourites. The comics were given to the family . The doors were 18th century as were the locks.
In the old shops there are countless stories waiting to be told.