The Langport Stores building occupies a prominent site in Cheapside, opposite the Langport Arms.
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H C Norton, the first owner
The earliest date on which we have found a grocery store mentioned on this site is in 1889. The entry in Kelly’s Directory of Somerset reads: Norton, Henry Charles, grocer & draper, & Agent for W & A Gilbey Ltd, wine & spirit merchants, Cheapside, Langport.
Henry Charles Norton was born in 1851 in Poole, Dorset. His father Thomas was a boatbuilder in Poole, and his father in law, George Best, was a timber merchant in Wareham. Perhaps they got to know each other in the course of doing business.
In 1871 the census records that Henry was a grocer’s assistant in Poole , where George’s daughter, Mary Jane, worked as a draper’s assistant. They were both 19, and five years later they got married in Wareham – the perfect partnership as far as their future business life was concerned. Henry went on to develop his own grocery business, and later expanded it to include drapery and china.
He seems to have moved to Langport in late 1875, around the time of his marriage, and started advertising his grocery business on The Hill. In 1880 the grocery moved to premises in North Street, where the census in the following year states that he employs one man. By now Henry and Mary Jane have three children, Charles, age 3 and Jessie, age 9 months. Their oldest child, Ethel Gertrude, age 4, is living with her grandparents, Thomas and Dinah, in West Street, Poole.
In 1888 the grocery is advertised as being on The Hill, but the Kelly’s Directory of the following year, 1889, lists the business as a grocery and drapery, and the address as Cheapside. The Langport Stores have arrived! However, it was to be another 50 years before they were actually named ‘The Langport Stores’.
The census of 1891 records that Henry and Mary Jane are living in Cheapside with their three sons, Charles, Henry and Frederick, and two daughters, Jessie and Winifred, all of whom were born in Langport. By this time Ethel is a boarder at a Girls School in Weston super Mare. Also in the household are 5 lodgers and 2 servants, which shows how much the business has expanded. Ten years later the household is much the same, although Jessie is no longer there. Moving forward another ten years, in 1911 Henry and Mary Jane are living in Virginia House, next door to the business premises. There was an overhead communicating passageway between the two buildings which can still be seen above the walkway to the side of the chemist’s shop.
Miss Norton, the schoolmistress
Ethel, now aged 34 and unmarried, has come to live with them and is described as ‘Principal of Private School’. Local knowledge has it that ‘Miss Norton’ used to teach local children in the upstairs room of the stable block at the rear of the premises, which would have been the stable lad’s accommodation. When the property was bought by Paul & Sonia Rendell in 1978, this area had two rooms, a living room and a bedroom. It had been used for local functions, but the stable block has now been converted into two cottages, known as Norton Mews.
Ethel is listed in Kelly’s Directory of Somerset 1919 as running a ‘girls’ day school’ in Bow St, Langport (although Bow St is possibly a mistake for Cheapside – one that is often made). At a later stage she moved to Martock and ran a preparatory school there. She appears there in the Kelly’s Directory of 1935, followed by the words ‘preparatory school, Church St’. She died at Bristol Royal Infirmary on 20 May 1935, when her address is given as Ivy Lodge, Martock.
The business passes from father to son - Freddy takes over
Henry died on 26 April 1918, and the business was taken over by his third son Frederick Turner Norton, known as Freddy. He and his new wife, Letitia Maud, probably moved in to live over the shop. They were to remain in charge of the Langport Stores for more than 40 years, until they sold it in 1959.
Their reign lived long in the memories of staff and customers alike. When Paul and Sonia Rendell bought the stores in 1978, they retained the services of Mrs Muriel Gaylard, who worked as a sales assistant. Mrs Gaylard had worked for the previous two owners, Malcolm Slater and Reginald Haycock, and she continued to work for the Rendells until she retired in 1988, well into her seventies. Mrs Gaylard and other elderly customers would talk of the “Nortons’ days”. Apparently the section of the building to the left (now Boots the Chemist) used to house the china goods: cups, plates, tea services etc. Foods were sold in the same area now occupied by the Stores. Halfway into this room a recess can be seen in the left wall, which was the doorway into the china department. The Rendells were told how Mrs Letitia Maud Norton would walk about the sales floors wearing a fox fur about her shoulders, and with an air of aloofness, suggesting that she was now a lady of means. She is said to have spoken in a ‘posh voice’, although what she had to be superior about is a bit of a mystery, since her father was a carpenter in Cardiff.
Towards the rear of the shop on the left hand side was the raised cashier’s desk that looked down on the sales area. Sales assistants would place the customer’s payment and sales dockets into screw-top containers. These containers were then sent via a type of rail line around the walls just below ceiling level to the seated cashier in her counting house. The cashier would then receipt the sales docket and place it back in the container, together with any change, and send it back to the sales counter it originated from.
Freddy was born in Langport in 1888, and had grown up in the shop, so to speak. In 1911 he was working in Cardiff as a draper’s assistant. Rumour has it that he only came back to help his father in the shop as a means of avoiding being called up to serve in the First World War. Around this time, and into the 1920s, the shop was called ‘The Supply Stores’. Freddy was a Chapel man, and is remembered as being a nice man, with dark hair and a loud voice. In 1938 they renamed the shop The Langport Stores. During the Second World War Freddy used to breed rabbits for food, in the ground floor of the old stable block. He and Letitia used to spend their Christmases in Weston-super-Mare. They had two sons who helped to run the business, and at least one daughter. In later years when the sons married, part of the family moved next door into Virginia House.
Langport Stores under the Rendells
The following photographs show how the Stores looked in the late 1970s and the1980s.
The Grocery Book
This grocery book belonged to a Mr Phillips, of Bow Street, and then Low Ham, and the entries cover the period from 29 August 1903 to 8 February 1904. It is interesting to see what he (or his wife) bought at the grocery store, and to marvel at the price of things. One pound of grapes cost 5d then; half a kilo now costs about £2. The best purchase listed above is a box of Sunlight (soap) for 7½d– if only we could buy a box of sunlight to see us through the grey days of winter.
The book is now on display in the Langport Stores, where it belongs. You can see a copy here.
List of owners
This list is incomplete and may be inaccurate. Any further information would be much appreciated.
1889-1918 Henry & Mary Jane Norton
1918-1959 Frederick Turner & Letitia Maud Norton. Renamed The Langport Stores in 1938.
1959-1973 not known. Possibly Mr & Mrs Sexton or Saxton?
1973-1975 Malcolm & Valerie Slater
1975-1978 Reginald & Doris Haycock
1978-1989 Paul & Sonia Rendell
1989-1996 David & Betty Smith
1996-2003 not known
2003-2013 Sue (surname not known) Renamed Sue’s Pantry; Annie Jackson
2013 – Jason & John Rice-Lewis. Renamed The Langport Stores
The Langport Stores building
The building was listed in 1986. The English Heritage listing text states: “Two shops with house. C18, modified C19. … Primarily included for group value in streetscape, and completion of a row.”
This history was hugely facilitated by Paul and Sonia Rendell, former owners, and by John and Jason Rice-Lewis, to whom we are extremely grateful.