Keith and Mary Miller behind the hardware counter on the day of the handover.
The hardware shop at 22 Benedict Street, believed to be Glastonbury’s oldest business, has changed hands as a going concern. The only visible difference is that till receipts now say Miller’s Hardware instead of “G. Miller & Son”.
Keith Miller, 77 on St George’s Day, retired on March 24 just before his date for heart surgery. The operation was a success and he came home within days, but complications set in from an ulcer and he is back in intensive care at Bristol Royal Infirmary, slowly improving.
The new owner is Steve Rowse. He too is a familiar face as a Glastonbury trader: he ran the healthfood store in the High Street from 1989 to 2001.
Keith Miller was the fourth generation of Millers to run the hardware shop in Benedict Street. The founder was his great-grandfather, George — in 1872, the year after his marriage to Sarah Ann Dickinson (although an advertisement in the 1909 Homeland Handy Guides says it started in 1840).
The couple purchased four old cottages in Benedict Street, according to the 1931 newspaper report of their 60th wedding anniversary — “picturesque thatched buildings, with walls six feet thick built of Abbey stone” — and replaced them with the present brick building.
Later in life, they had nine children and lived at Glencoe in Fishers Hill. George was a Temperance supporter, stood for Liberal MP, and died in 1937 at the age of 86.
He owned one of the first cars in Glastonbury — a photograph shows it with a chauffeur. He also had one of the town’s first telephones. Old advertisements show the shop’s number as Glastonbury 92. More and more digits were prefixed: it was Glastonbury 2292 for decades, became 32292 in the mid-70s, and the 92 is still there in today’s 01458 83 2292.
“I met him when I was a nipper,” Keith said. “He used to give me a penny — an old penny — and I had to save a ha’penny of it. One time I spent the whole penny on two big marbles, and that got me into trouble.”
George’s son Harold took over the shop, and in his time there was also a scrap business: sheds extended behind the shop into what is now the public carpark. George’s other two sons also had hardware businesses: John (the eldest) at Keyford near Frome, and Willy (Keith’s grandfather) at Shepton Mallet and then Street. And two of his six daughters married into hardware families, at Bridport and Burnham. Francie, the youngest, was prominent at St Benedict’s Church and in the Red Cross.
About 1929 Keith’s father, George Jr, came to work for his uncle Harold. The time came when he had either to leave or to buy the business, so he went to Lloyds Bank, where he knew the manager well, and borrowed £2,000. It took him until the war to pay it off. Meanwhile the manager, who lived at Baltonsborough, spent his dinner hours sitting in a chair at the shop to keep an eye on his investment.
Jack Miller, 13 years younger than his brother George Jr, helped in the shop almost up till his death last April at 94. Another brother, Mac, was a famous Frome footballer.
Keith, George Jr’s only child, was born in 1930. He left school at 15 and worked at Clarks for four years, helping in the shop and yard when his father was unwell. Coming fulltime into the business with his father in the 1950s meant a cut in wages: from £15 a week on piecework to £10 at the shop. George Jr died at the age of 81.
Benedict Street used to be much busier, Keith recalls. “People used to flock up from the railway station on Tuesdays for the market. I remember my father saying we had to be prepared for the trade.
“Of course when I came into it, he didn’t sell anything but china, glass and lamps — and lots and lots of chamberpots. Ladies would come in, see only me, and say: ‘Is your mother here?’ That was still a big market in the 1950s.” He recently turned up a receipt in his mother’s handwriting for an entire dinner set, probably Staffordshire: £2 and 10 shillings.
The sheds behind the shop were the scene of Keith’s most famous wartime exploit: hacksawing into a bullet he and a friend had found in a German aircraft that crashed at Coxley. The cartridge exploded, shrapnel whizzed past his ear (he was lucky), and his mother fainted cold when she saw the blood.
The outbuildings stored lamps and wicks that arrived from Czechoslovakia packed in straw. When Keith took over the business, he sold off all that stock as a job lot to a woman from Shepton Mallet, and diversified into electrical goods, kitchenware, ironmongery and paint.
At that time the High Street had two hardware shops (besides A.W.G. Curtis & Son farther down Benedict Street, started by Gilbert Curtis in 1924 and still thriving under Roderick and Anita). E.G. Wright was opposite the post office until 1970. “Stan Palmer came to work for me when it closed. He was a jolly good salesman: if someone came to buy paint, he would always ask if they also needed sandpaper, white spirit, and all the rest.” Checkley’s, which traded until around 1975 in the premises now owned by Glastonbury Experience, stocked more ironmongery than Millers at the time. When Keith branched out into tools, “Jack Checkley didn’t like it very much.”
Keith also started selling fishing gear — rods, reels, bait, maggots. “That saved our bacon in some lean years.” He was also one of the first to sell DIY goods — timber, hardboard, plywood, tools — and further introduced telephones and videos.
Among the Saturday boys who worked in Millers Hardware over the years were David Titchener (now the photographer) and Max Thurgood, besides Keith’s sons Matthew and Jonathan.
Will Keith miss the shop? “I certainly will, after 55 years. I walk up the town and people speak to me, and I scratch my head: ‘Who was that? They must have been in the shop.’”
Somehow Keith also found time over the years for two stints as St Benedict’s churchwarden and to play bowls regularly in Street. He looks forward to more relaxed bowls when he is out of hospital and no longer has to watch the clock and worry about the shop.
Steve Rowse, the new owner of Miller’s Hardware, lives in Roman Way. The hardware shop “is a fine business”, he said. “I don’t intend to change a thing, other than maybe a coat of paint.” Warren Chapman and Jamie Allen will carry on as staff.
Property development is Steve’s main business. He plans to make two flats above and behind the shop after Keith and Mary move to their new house in Tythe Street, on the Actis estate.