Wight Life

Curtains for the Drapers

by R Bowyer

DRAPERS HAVE DISAPPEARED. They went out with gaslight and broughams and similar Victorian delights. For example, at the turn of the century, Hill's of Ryde, now specialists in furniture and fabrics, were known as Hill and Company, Cash Drapers. It isn't only the name that has changed, but the whole style, for here is an Island firm that epitomises permanence within change.

There is a photograph in existence, with a sometimes disputed date of 1850, of a partnership of Hill and Devereaux at Ventnor. The Arthur Hill of that partnership was the effective founder of the present firm, for three of his four sons joined him in the business, and branches were opened in Freshwater and Wroxall. It was not until the 1890s, however, that the property was bought on which the present store stands.

Arthur Hill leased 150 High Street, Ryde on January I st 1890, bought it outright on October 19th 1894, together with six adjoining cottages, 29 — 34 Newport Street, all for the sum of £3,000. It isn't only the drapers that have disappeared; it's the cash as well.

Two years later, on November 20th 1896, the house next door, 149 High Street, was bought for £812 and on August 23rd 1899 the one next door to that, 148 High Street, for £1,185. So inflation was running fairly high even then.

In January 1905, a new company was formed with the name Hill's Stores Ltd, by which it was known until 1965 when it was changed to its present title: 'Hill's of Ryde Ltd.'

Before the death of Arthur Hill in 1925, the business was carried on by his two sons Wellesley and Bertram, joined by Wellesley's two sons in 1919, Herbert and George Leslie. There were thus four Hills in the firm during the inter-war years; now there is only one male, Mr John Hill, son of the late George Leslie who joined oined the company in 1954 after training with such mainland firms as Hubberds of Worthing, Derry and Toms, and the John Lewis Partnership.

His mother, Mrs Hill, can reminisce on the old days when the top floor of the shop was used for the bedroom of the living-in staff, when there was a stable of horses used for delivery vans, and a whole catering department for the staff during the first world war. Although she cannot remember these things herself, she can evoke the atmosphere of H G Wells' 'Kipps'. A lady, she tells me, approached her not long ago and said: 'My mother used to walk in from Bembridge to work here every day'.

.Now the bedrooms have been changed into display areas for modern and reproduction furniture as the store moves into the final quarter of the twentieth century. In 1969, departments selling fashions, knitwear, millinery and ladies' and childrens' underwear were closed, followed in 1972 by the china and hardware department. The firm was thus able to expand and specialise in carpets, furniture, soft furnishing, linens, bedding, dress materials and sewing aids. Although numbers 148 and 149 have been sold, the very extensive alterations over a period of ten months have resulted in increased window and sales areas. At the back of the store where once was stabling for delivery horses now stands a modern delivery bay and warehouse.

In 1964, Mr Peter Jones joined the company as a buyer of carpets and furniture and he joined the board of directors in 1973. Both he and Mr Hill have travelled widely to study store designs and lay-out in the USA, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Austria.

Walking through the store is like walking through a colour supplement: all those elegant pieces of furniture, those strangely shaped chairs, that cling to you rather than you to them, settees specially designed for watching TV (so comfortable you can't switch off), carpets that stroke your feet. It's a long way, I bet, from the gas-lit bedrooms of those late Victorian shop-assistants, but it's a road this Island firm has travelled and travelled without being taken over by a big mainland group. And in a way it's a story of what is happening on the Island, as our Victorian image slips with the cliffs into the sea, and a new land, with no clay in it, is being built.

Picture of Hills draper shop