The first Watford Peace Hospice shop opened in July 1991 at 174 High Street. Use of the premises – which had formerly been occupied by an estate agency – was donated to the South West Herts Hospice Appeal. A charity shop was opened on the ground floor, while the first floor was used as offices and became the Appeal headquarters.
The current shop building may look unremarkable, but the building is listed Grade II and the shop front conceals a late seventeenth century timber-framed house which was re-fronted in stucco in the early nineteenth century. Neighbouring houses of similar age were demolished in the 1970s for the coming of the ring road, and nowadays the traffic thunders by. Fortunately, the shop is also close to Watford High Street station, which encourages footfall.
Charity shops are a largely British institution, run by charitable organisations to raise money and awareness. They first became widespread during the Second World War, when the Red Cross opened some 200 shops around the country. Oxfam were also charity shop pioneers, opening their first shop – in Oxford – in 1947. Nowadays charity shops are a familiar sight in Watford, but back in 1991 there was only the Oxfam shop in the Parade and a Sue Ryder shop in Langley Road. So the new Hospice Appeal shop was something of a novelty. Importantly, it also offered the public a valuable chance to become involved with the Appeal – by donating items to sell (and to buy) and by volunteering to work in the shop. Local shops and businesses also played their part by donating shop fittings and unwanted stock.
The new shop was run by Appeal organiser Helen Ellis and Chairman of Trustees Gill Holland, plus a group of eager volunteers, headed by Margaret Redding. Margaret recalls being recruited by Gill as an “expert in jumble sales”, while Gill remembers the first fitting room was made out of copper piping, string, a curtain and a mirror. The local Townswomens’ Guild supplied a team of volunteers. The shop suffered some early setbacks. Two weeks after opening, intruders broke in and stole cash and goods for sale. Two months later, a brick was thrown through the front window and some brass ornaments were stolen. The window had no sooner been repaired than it was smashed again. On another occasion, Gill thought the till had been stolen, only to discover that Margaret had taken it home for safe keeping.
Nevertheless, the shop was such a success that in July 1992 the Appeal advertised for a full time salaried shop manager. Lucy Barber, who had worked for Clements department store and was later to become Receptionist at the Hospice, was appointed and the opening hours were extended to six days a week from 10am to 4pm. In 1993 a second Hospice shop was opened in Chorleywood. Later that year the two shops combined to stage a fashion show at the Harlequin Centre. Shop volunteers strutted their stuff as models, showing off garments that had been donated to the shops. A second show was staged at Watford Grammar School. The two fashion shows raised £500, and by the end of the year the shops had contributed a combined total of £114,000 towards Hospice funds.
Lucy Barber soon moved on to other roles at the Hospice and was replaced by Jean Darke, who was to stay until 1998. By 1996, when the shop celebrated its fifth anniversary, the shop had raised £300,000 towards the Hospice. 21,000 customers were visiting the shop each year and being served by a team of 24 regular volunteers supported by a group of “floaters” who acted as holiday cover. Many of the customers called in regularly, contributing to the friendly atmosphere. Jean recognised the need to keep stock turning over and held regular half price sales. She also specialised in providing costumes and props for local drama productions. Once the first floor had been vacated by the Appeal staff, she also kept a stock of dinner suits, ball gowns and wedding dresses with special occasions in mind – a service much appreciated by impecunious students and brides.
A couple of those volunteers from 1996 still work in the Watford shop today. Eileen started volunteering on her retirement from West Herts College. Living just around the corner from the Peace Memorial Hospital, she had been saddened to see the building deteriorate after it had been “abandoned” by the Health Authority, as she put it. She had also become a supporter of the Hospice movement after seeing the excellent care received by her mother in a North London hospice. So volunteering for the Peace was an obvious step for her. After 20 years, she remains in touch with some of her former colleagues and looks forward to her weekly afternoon in the little Watford shop, which she likens to a “Tardis”. She enjoys the opportunity to meet up with fellow volunteers and serve customers who have become regulars over the years.
25 years on, there are about a dozen charity shops in Watford High Street and an estimated total of 10,000 charity shops in the UK – testament to their continuing popularity as a source of retro and vintage items and good old fashioned bargains. They are also regarded as ecologically sound, as goods are recycled and unsold clothes sold on for textile reprocessing. Most importantly, the Watford shop – and the other 13 Hospice shops – continue to raise awareness and make a significant contribution to the charity’s income.
This post is part of information gathered during Peace Hospice Care’s oral histories project 2014-16. The project captured 25 years of Peace Hospice Care and explored the legacy of the Peace Memorial Hospital. It was funded by the Heritage Lottery Foundation.
Find out more about Peace Hospice Care by visiting www.peacehospicecare.org.uk or the online project archive http://ourview.peacehospicecare.org.uk/ Oral histories from the project will be deposited with Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies by end 2016.
The Peace Hospice Care shop photographed in 2016