Charles Richard Burgis was descended from a line of traders in Oxfordshire going back to the late 17th century. Some of our Burgis ancestors were millers in Benson, and I have a certificate of Indenture of a James Burgess, dated 1761, from his apprenticeship to Henry Goodwin, a Tallow Chandler and Soap Boiler in Benson. Born in 1831, Charles Richard Burgis was apprenticed to his uncle, a grocer in Henley-on-Thames, but in 1855, at the age of 24, he decided to work for himself and moved to the Regency town of Royal Leamington Spa.
The Spa was growing quickly, with many wealthy residents and great-grandfather rapidly established himself as a successful grocer. Twenty years later, he joined forces with another grocer, James Colbourne, to buy premises fronting the Parade, the main shopping street. This joint venture prospered and as adjoining premises became available, they bought them and expanded both along the Parade and along the street behind, Bedford Street. The business was made into a limited company with £100,000 capital in 1874.
C R Burgis had a family of 11 children. The second child and eldest son, Charles Coles Burgis, born in 1858 and my grandfather, James Frederick Burgis, the fourth child, born in 1861 were the only two family members who maintained any interest in the business. James Frederick founded an accountancy practice, Burgis and Bullock, and became Secretary to the company and Charles Coles was the wines and spirits manager for a time. The ‘old man’ was a stickler for good business practice. He was the first in for work, sitting on a high stool at the entrance and woe betide anyone who was late. He hated waste. There was no adhesive tape in those days, and string was an expense to be kept as minimal as possible. If an errant packer cut off two long ends he was made to pick them up and tie them together. That packer soon learned to master the ‘slip-knot’!
There was one old-timer who had begun work as a cellar boy, whose first task of the day was to clean the boss’s office, known as the ‘holy of holies’ in the depths of the cellars. He then had to place a silver salver, with a crystal tumbler, a bottle of whisky and a bottle of Malvern water on the desk there. C R Burgis arrived for work at about 7:30am and went into his office. At 11am he would go up to the café to join other professionals and traders, (aka the “Cads’ Coffee Club”) who gathered at that time for coffee and a look at the newspapers. It was then the cellar boy’s job to go and clear away the dirty glass and the ‘empties’ from the office.
Burgis and Colbourne Ltd, were marketed as ‘General Providers’ and had built up a very good business in wines, spirits and beers between the world wars, helped by their delivery service by motor van in the 1930s. The cellars were quite extensive and I remember traditional un-pasteurised Guinness, Worthington and Bass beers being bottled in them. The Guinness was not brewed in Park Royal, London, but was shipped in wooden barrels from Dublin. Good wines were bottled by hand from original oak casks shipped in from France.
I first worked in the ‘Bedford Stores’ during school holidays in WWII. I spent the mornings in the Grocery packing warehouse, weighing sugar (rationed then) into small blue 1lb bags and washing soda into 3lb. grey bags. I was taught how to ‘flat-wrap’ loose tea by one of the counter assistants. The wrap was secured purely by folding. When the time came to return to school for the new term and the General Manager presented me with a 10/- note I thought I was a millionaire!
In 1955 I officially joined the company, as Manager/Buyer of the Provisions Department. One day as he sat at a high desk working out the week’s bacon prices, George Wass, an employee of 55 years’ standing, remarked: “Seeing you there, Mr. James, reminds me of your great-grandfather. That was his stool you know”. I considered this a great compliment until George added, “Miserable old b…r he was!!” (C R was a typical employer of his age and under the ‘miserable’ countenance he was actually a kind-hearted man and a considerable benefactor to his adopted town.) Indicating a customer one day, the aforementioned George dug me in the ribs and said: “Mr James, – see that woman over there, you watch ‘er — nothin’s too ‘ot nor too ‘eavy for ‘er!” – Shoplifting is not new!
I greatly enjoyed managing a department, and just like C R, going to Somerset to select fine cheddar cheeses from the farms and to Leicestershire for blue Stilton. I progressed into junior management and things seemed so rosy. Then a family and directors’ dispute resulted in my father being forced to take early retirement at the age of 58. Soon after that the business was taken over by the Army & Navy Stores of London, marking the beginning of another story.
James Burgis (Charles Richard Burgis’ great-grandson)