Looking back, which experiences, jobs and personality traits do you think have really helped you? As a journalist I have been trained to spot a good story and conduct interviews, as well as following up new leads and unexpected twists. That happened many times with The Shop Girls. I am a naturally curious person and genuinely interested in other people’s lives. I was able to use that passion in my interviews and research and sourced many fabulous tales about this hidden gem of a ladies department store in Cambridge which had all but faded from living memory, and was not even archived in the local history library. I also enjoy social history and was able to write the shop girls’ true stories in context with life in Cambridge during the 1940s-60. Like thousands of other women, I was glued to the TV screens watching Mr Selfridge and The Paradise. I thought it would be wonderful to write about a Cambridge department store covering the vintage years between 1940s-60s which people enjoy reading about, a golden age of retail that has long gone and is sorely missed.
What was the best thing about writing this book? Meeting so many lovely shop girls and enabling their fabulous memories to be published so they will be remembered forever. Writing The Shop Girls was like bringing a ghost to life and it was gripping for me to discover the true story about the entrepreneurial Heyworth family, who sadly have no direct descendants to keep their stories alive. How many retail bosses today would fly their shop girls to Paris for the day to see a fashion show? This is what the store boss Herbert Heyworth did, a complex man who the shop girls either loved or loathed, and it was something he did regularly for his friends, chartering private planes from Cambridge to take them to the French capital for a spot of shopping and to see a show. One day he also treated his shop girls to a trip to Paris to see a fashion show and leading department stores such as Le Bon Marche and Galeries Lafayette – can you imagine the thrill of it, their first trip abroad, Paris in the spring. It was exhilarating!
What were some of the most important moments when writing this book? I was thrilled to learn about Harry Selfridge’s connection with Cambridge. I was told by Lindy Woodhead, author of the book which the TV series is based on, that the American retail magnate could have met George Heyworth, founder of my Cambridge store, during a visit to the city in the 1920s to inspire retailers, a city which his wife Rosalie’s family had once had close links with. It was fascinating to speak to close family friends of the Heyworth’s who gave me a scintillating snapshot into Herbert’s extraordinary life and generosity, which included shipping over fresh strawberries to Cambridge from Italy out of season for his carpenter’s son’s 21st birthday. All this has made The Shop Girls so much more than a story just about girls behind the shop counter, there were so many joyful revelations, such as this. Having the support of a great literary editor was crucial, and I had that with Hannah Boursnell, from Little Brown, who said after reading my synopsis: “I’m delighted to be writing with news of an offer for Ellee’s lovely book, which has been such a hit here. It’s such a treat to read material like this which fits so nicely into the current vogue for all things nostalgic, and yet feels fresh and exciting. I adored Mr Selfridge and The Paradise, and I think people are genuinely fascinated by how elegant and refined these stores were (at least on the surface!) and by the characters who worked inside them.” Without Hannah, and my terrific literary agency, Diane Banks Associates, The Shop Girls would never have been published.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? I made many interesting discoveries, but the most poignant was a big family secret that Herbert Heyworth took to his grave with him – the revelation that he had been married to another woman before the elegant Marjorie Bass, the widow of a Cambridge law academic who died in the Far East, who everyone regarded as his only wife. I discovered that Herbert abandoned his first wife, Pamela Coyle, shortly before she gave birth to his son, his only son and the only child he ever had, a man called Paul Hales. Paul, along with my researcher, Paula Jeal, a genealogy expert with Ancestry.com, was trying to discover background information about the Heyworth family, the reason why they gave up their cotton mill roots in Lancashire and ended up running a thriving business in Cambridge. Paul and I arranged to meet and for the first time ever in his life, at the age of 70, I was able to show him photos of his biological father and tell him about his father and grandfather’s extraordinary lives. Paul’s mother refused to talk about Herbert, and, as you can imagine, it was a very emotional moment. We wonder if the abandonment was because Herbert’s family had become snobs and didn’t thank Pamela was good enough for him, compared to Marjorie, who often swept into the store wearing expensive long fur coats. You can see the resemblance between Paul and Herbert, and you couldn’t meet a nicer man than Paul, who was very supportive of The Shop Girls and happy for his story to be included in the foreword of the book. I have no doubt that Herbert would have been a great father to him, and I wonder if he transferred his paternal love on his carpenter’s son as there is only a month’s difference in their age as he took a great interest in his life and was very generous to his family. The one grain of comfort I could offer Paul was a heart rending account about how one day Herbert suddenly burst into tears when driving past a church in Hove, Sussex, he was inconsolable, he sobbed and sobbed. It was the church where he married Pamela and where Paul was baptised, it’s the only sign that Herbert did had feelings for them both. One other fascinating discovery was the discovery of a café in Cambridge called El Patio’s which Herbert started with his best friend Richard Tothill, just down the road from his store; it was the first café to sell frothy coffee from a Gaggia coffee machine and a terrific success. Herbert loved all things Spanish and the cafe was decorated with posters of bull fighters, had sweeping grape vines hanging on the walls and ceiling and served little tapas dishes and continental food in oval shaped Pyrex dishes. Teenagers would screech up there each Saturday morning on their Vespas, girls riding pillion, before heading into Cambridge to hear the latest hits in a record booth. I’m told Pink Floyd were regulars there, and that the first manager had been an aide-de-camp to Churchill and was gay; this was at a time when gays, like Alan Turing, were being castrated.
Was there any information that was hard to source? It was sadly impossible to find photos showing the interior of the store, though its lush carpet, sweeping staircase and spotless counters were described to me. However, I had an amazing stroke of luck recently when the local history library told me they had been given negatives of Heyworth’s shop windows – eight months after the book was published. I bought copies, for the first time, I was able to admire the creativity and flair that went into their fabulous window displays which Heyworth’s was renowned for, particularly its stunning May Ball displays and the June in January colourful collection of Horrocks’ dresses, though these were sadly not included in the latest discovery.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? Being invited to speak at literary festivals in Cambridge, Ely and the Lake District and to WI groups in the Cambridge area. It is a nostalgic trip down memory lane for their members, some of whom can remember the store and used to shop there. Those who remember it recall its elegance and glamour. I had an incredible book launch in Heffer’s bookstore, Cambridge, the best place it could have been held as the Heyworth family were good friends with the Heffers. I never imagined anything like this would have been possible when I started writing it. I was also stunned to discover that The Shop Girls was included in The Sunday Times best reads for 2014, ranked number 2 for biography. Writing the book enabled me to reunite the shop girls too, many who had not seen each other for several decades. It was a great pleasure to do this.
What do you love most about Heyworth’s? I enjoyed learning about how the store was run, the formalities and rules that were insisted upon, comparing how different life was then, and better in many ways. Heyworth’s insisted on providing the best customer service at all times – even during the sales when customers were still served on a one to one basis. For George and Herbert Heyworth, the customer was always king. When I saw Mary Portas on TV recently taking about the challenge of revamping a run-down store, she sent in secret shoppers and they all came back and reported the same thing – the staff did not know their products and did not attend to customers. That would never have happened in Heyworth’s time; in fact, one of his unfortunate shop girls who badly needed her job was sacked by Herbert for slouching against the fixtures! She wasn’t given a second chance.
Why do you think the friendships of the women in your book were so strong? Many of them went straight from school to the shop counter and this was the perfect way for them to bond and go out at night together. Cambridge had a terrific night life with several dance halls where they would go at weekends. I loved hearing about my youngest shop girl, Rosemary, and her holidays to Butlins with fellow shop girls when she became runner-up in the Miss Butlins’ contest. The head of children’s wear would often invite her shop girls to her house on Thursday afternoons when the store closed; they had picnics by the river and boat trips together, and this was pre-team building days. They did their own thing, and it worked. They genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.
What do you think were the key parts of Heyworth’s and the customer service there that made it so special? The shop girls were taught how to speak to customers and serve. But it was Heyworth’s millinery department that made it unique in Cambridge, it was the only store that made hats for its customers, and in those days, all ladies wore hats, buying them at the same time as a special outfit, or having one specially made by milliner Mrs Pugh, whose husband made glass eyes at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. The posher customers always preferred being served by the buyers, and Betty, who was the millinery buyer, was always requested for personally by the Marchioness of Cambridge, related by marriage to the royal family. She one day ordered five new hats to be made to match five new dresses (bought from Marks & Spencer), one for each consecutive race day at Ascot where she sat in the royal box. On another occasion, the Marchioness brought in some pheasants from her estate to be used on a new autumn hat for the races. When the shop girls returned after the weekend, the millinery workroom was covered in thousands of maggots on its wall and stock as a result of skin left on the feathers; the hot workroom was a perfect breeding ground for them. A potential disaster was averted by quick thinking staff who bought new feathers, and never uttered a word about the maggots to the Marchioness who was delighted with her new hat and none the wiser. They went the extra mile to keep their special customer happy, not wanting to make her feel uncomfortable about the chaos had caused in their workroom. Gypsy queens who visited Cambridge’s annual Midsummer Fair were given the same best treatment. Shy shop girl Eve felt more comfortable serving them, rather than snooty rich ladies. The gypsies were free spending and bought the most expensive frilly dresses for their young daughters to wear on the fairground, just like you see on My Big Fat Gyspy Wedding. Women also described the glamorous clothes sold by Heyworth’s, which even had its own named label sewn into its gowns. One lady showed me an exquisite suit her mother had bought from Heyworth’s as her going away outfit in 1956, and, 34 years later, she wore it herself as her own going away outfit. She said wearing it felt like “pure Hollywood glamour”. If you are a petite size 10, you could still wear it today as it still looks brand new. I’ve briefly mentioned the sales and the attentiveness given to customers then. The shop girls were assigned one customer to serve who may have been waiting several hours, and it was only after the customer had paid for her purchase and left the store that she could serve someone else.
What do you choose to do in your time off? I belong to a Cambrige walking group and have weekends away with them. I adore walking in the country, visiting the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts and exploring country homes, learning about the lives of the people who lived there. One day, when I have free time, I hope to pick up my clarinet again, dust it down, and start practising. I aspire to play the adagio from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, but I still have a very long way to go before that will be possible! I am also a gym bunny and go to TRX, kettlebells, spinning and yoga classes.
Read my review of ‘The Shop Girls’ here.