So Long, General Woodwork Supplies
Today, the proprietors of General Woodwork Supplies in Stoke Newington High St hand over the keys of the premises where they have been trading since 1946 to the new owner of the building, and thereby ends the story of a family business that began in Curtain Rd in Shoreditch with General Furniture Trade Supplies in 1896. Already, the handymen of the East End are grieving the loss of this celebrated hardware shop and builders’ merchant that stocked everything, where they cut timber to size, and where you could always get advice and even instructions on how to do it yourself.
General Woodwork Supplies was one of London’s great hardware shops, a temple to the art of do-it-yourself, with innumerable drawers stretching up to the ceiling that contained every possible fixture and fitting. The organisation of the interior had evolved over more than half a century through function and requirement, with two long counters facing you as you walked in the door and a capacious wood store leading off to the right. Every surface and corner was encrusted with a display of household paraphernalia and there were a myriad useful things hanging from above. And, like barmen in a Wild West saloon, the staff welcomed everyone with an understated swagger at General Woodwork Supplies, leaning forward across the counter to engage in banter.
From my own experience, I can vouch this was an invaluable place because they did not expect you to be an expert, showing indulgence while you explained what you needed to do in your own words. And invariably, they always supplied what you needed to do it where other shops failed.
Recognising that an endeavour of such admirable longevity and popular repute must not be allowed to slip un-noticed into history, I went up to Stoke Newington in the final days of General Woodwork Supplies and spoke with Jeff Bentley who has been running the business alongside his two brother-in-laws Michael and David Cohen in recent decades. Meanwhile, photographer Simon Mooney slipped in behind the counter to create his own elegy in pictures.
“My father-in-law Harry started General Woodwork Supplies in 1946. His father Mark Cohen was a master carpenter, he had a business in Curtain Rd – General Furniture Trade Supplies – which the old man established in 1896, supplying the furniture trade in Shoreditch. By the twenties, they were making cinema seats and supplying all the metalwork and brassware to go with them. But in World War II they took a direct hit, all they could do was salvage the stock and put it in storage. And Mark retired then. My father-in-law was in the fire service and since he had a lot of spare time, he used to make toys during the day. Then, after the war, Harry had a workshop with his brother Morry, doing distressed furniture and making it look antique for the Americans. Yet Harry wanted to open a shop, he was in this late twenties and his old man was in his sixties, and meanwhile Morry went off the work as a cabinet maker, he was more skilled.
Harry started off at 120 Stoke Newington Rd for a short time, selling ironwork and brassware, until the building was compulsorily purchased by the council to build flats. He and his wife Dora had three little children by then – David born in 1937, Rita born in 1941 and Michael born in 1946 – and they started off with very small beginnings. He managed to obtain a licence from the Board of Trade to deal in timber, and because of his connections in the business he was able to obtain hardwood, but it was a struggle and they really worked hard.
He rented 78 Stoke Newington High St and he sold some of the salvaged stock from Curtain Rd, he did whatever he could to earn a crust. He made things. He would make box pelmets to order and go into people’s homes to fit them, and that was the mainstay of his trade. His son David went into the airforce for a couple of years before joining the family business. Then, David had an accident and cut a finger off, so young Michael got a dispensation to leave school and work with him at fourteen years old. They employed people and grew the business, and the shop next door became available and they expanded into it. In 1947, they bought the freehold in number 78 and then the freehold of 80 became available too and later 76, and they bought both. During this time, Harry had the foresight to take any job. He said, ‘I can do it,’ knowing he did not have the equipment, but over the years he expanded and bought machinery. It was the cart before the horse.
People started to do work themselves in the mid-fifties. Labour was still cheap but in sixties when it became expensive everyone began to turn their hands to doing things themselves. And, by the late sixties and early seventies, everything went ‘contemporary’ with clean lines and people wanting to get rid of mouldings and features. Rather than replacing panelled doors, we would cut a piece of hardboard to size and they would pin it onto the door and create a modern flush door. They would cut off newel posts and box in banisters to hide the spindles, and this continued throughout the seventies. We got a good reputation for quality things people wanted, we could produce the pieces of wood to size and they could do it themselves. Harry was into specialist hardwoods and we could make skirting and mouldings to order. We started a mail order business and sold timber all over the world. The machines were working all hours of the day!
After property in Islington got too expensive, we got the overflow down here. They were gentrifying, and what we found was that these large houses, which after the war had been converted into flats, were being returned to single houses and we started making the mouldings to fit back to restore them to what it was previously.
I joined the business in 1968. I was a television engineer and I worked in retail selling televisions, and I had been doing that for ten years. When I got married, I was invited to join the family firm. There wasn’t actually a gun put to my head, but it seemed the thing to do and they were welcoming. I had no formal woodwork training apart from what I learnt at school and the rest I picked up as I went along. My father-in-law was the boss and, as he got older, Harry decided that his youngest, Michael, was most adept at business and asked him to handle the day-to-day running, while David leaned towards machinery and he took care of that side of things. I fitted in doing what I was told, most of my time was spent with customers. But everybody knew everything, so we could all cover for each other.
Harry died in February 1991, and he came into the shop regularly until January of that year. All this time, his wife Dora – who is now ninety-nine years old – was in charge of the book-keeping side of the business. My wife gave up her work as a legal secretary when our first child was born, but when our second was two or three, she decided to go and help her mum do the book work. Then Michael got married and, after their little girl was born, his wife joined the other two women doing the books between the three of them, and that’s how things were done.
Now, David is seventy-five, I am seventy-three and Michael is sixty-seven, and the thought of the business going into other hands without us is something we would not want. I have a house that’s been neglected for fifteen years and needs some tender loving care, and I shall try to do it myself. “
“Stokey will bloody miss you, it will go down hill!” – “What will we do without you?”
“Good Luck to the three of U” – “Worst news I heard all month! No it can’t be true” – “Thankyou for the help” – “So sad” – ” You will be missed!”
Photographs copyright © Simon Mooney
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