Alexander and May Wilkinson moved to Leamington from Birmingham in 1946, to open a garden and flower shop at No 9 Spencer Street.
May had always loved working with flowers, having started at the age of 12 helping in her auntie’s florist’s shop in Birmingham. It was hard work. Saturday meant starting at 6 am and finishing at 10 pm, – all for 3d a day. On leaving school in 1914 at the age of 14 May worked full time in the flower shop. She developed a passion for flowers, their beauty, their colours, their freshness. Handling them became a real joy.
Ten years later, May married Alex Wilkinson, a policeman. However in those days for a policeman to have a working wife meant instant dismissal from the force, so May renounced her beloved flowers for the kitchen sink. Over the following years Alex and May had four children, three girls and a boy. Their first daughter Margaret, was born in 1925 then came Pat. Son John was born in 1930, followed in 1932 by Daphne. May dreamt of one day having a shop of her own and longed to get back to her beloved flowers.
Alex retired from the force after serving 30 years and at the age of 46, May believed that her dreams were as far off as ever. When she confided to a friend, a Birmingham Flower shop owner and Chrysanthemum grower, Mr. John Woolman, about her burning ambition to have her own flower shop, he offered to help her financially.
With the financial backing of Mr Woolman she searched for a shop. She found one in Leamington, at No. 9 Spencer Street. (Then the Antique Shop of W H Shakespeare.)
Life in Leamington from 1946
Mr & Mrs Wilkinson moved their family from Birmingham to No 9 Spencer Street, naming the shop Woolman’s Florists. At the age of 46 May’s dreams were coming true. She started to build up her reputation as a florist in the town and worked long hours, often starting work at 2 am if she had important jobs to do. She travelled to Birmingham three times a week, first with daughter Margaret and later with son John, to buy fresh flowers from the market and be back in Leamington by 8am ready to open the shop where she stayed until 10pm at night. She was also one of the first florists to have flowers delivered from Holland.
May prided herself in supplying high quality fresh flowers. She also gained a reputation as a flower arranger, decorating a variety of local buildings and supplying fresh flowers for many festivals and important occasions. She decorated Warwick Castle, where she met the Earl of Warwick, and was congratulated on her displays by the Queen Mother. Her arrangements could always be seen at the Leamington Flower Show in the 1950s and 60s. The flower show was held in the Pump Room Gardens and the whole area was filled with the scent of fresh flowers as all the local florists and growers turned up to show off their blooms and displays.
Mrs ‘W’s Girls
May employed girls to help in the shop, training them for up to four years. They started by learning to handle the flowers, and then graduated to making bouquets, wreaths and displays and learning salesmanship. They learned the skill of decorating churches and homes for weddings or hotels for parties, dinners or receptions. May’s views were that if a girl had an eye for colour and design she would do well as a florist and as her girls developed their skills they were entrusted with more and more responsibility, like daily decorating the dining rooms of large hotels. The girls helped her to decorate Spencer Street Church, the Parish Church and the Manor House Hotel, providing fresh flower displays daily or weekly. Many Leamington brides carried Mrs W’s bouquets.
The shop became known as ‘THE Flower Shop’ of Leamington. The girls were very loyal to “Mrs W” as they affectionately called her and loved working for her, although she was very strict where her flowers were concerned and every one had to be perfect.
May threw flowers away rather than sell them if they were not up to her standard. Chedham’s baker’s was next door to the shop and the girls would sneak out to buy hot rolls and crusty bread. Mrs W would then go round and knock on the window and shout ” Get out of there! ” – but would then join them and enjoy some herself. She was loved by all her girls. When they were very busy the girls slept above the shop, ready for a 5 am start the next morning. They could look forward to breakfast at 7.30 cooked by Mrs W’s sister Doris, who did the shop accounts.
By 1968 May employed 15 full time and 5 part-time girls and orders came in from as far afield as Shrewsbury, Chipping Campden and Leicestershire. Eventually, the back garden of no 9 was covered over to make a workroom for May and the girls. Occasionally flowers were supplied to the shop by the Minister of Spencer Street Church, whose hobby was growing sweet peas for flower shows. The ones that were not shown were sold in the shop, and these sweet peas were thought by the girls to be better than some they bought in. The shop girls also had an interesting ‘perk’ which came with working in the shop. More boys than girls attended the dances at the Palais de Danse across the road, so the manager allowed the girls to go in free to provide dancing partners for the boys.
The family lived in the roomy high-ceilinged flat above the shop at No 9. From the balcony looking out over Spencer Street they could enjoy the smell of fresh bread from the bakers next door and ground coffee from Harris’s Grocery store on the corner. Alex helped May in the shop. He looked after the seeds and supplies while May tended her beloved flowers. It was hard work for their son John: coal was delivered into the cellar three floors below and he had to carry it upstairs to keep the fire going. When John married Cicely Healey in 1952 he and his wife lived above no 9 and worked in the shop. When Smiths Electrical shop at No 7 came up for sale the Wilkinsons bought it and Alex and John opened it as a separate garden supply and seed shop. Both shops were now Wilkinson’s (Leamington) Ltd. May and Alex then made their home above No 7, with John and Cicely and their children Christine, Jenny and Roger living above No 9.
John Wilkinson had worked with his father in the shop since the move from Birmingham and continued to do so with wife Cicely after he was married. Margaret married Eric Pattenden. They had three children, David, Nicholas and Judith, and ran the Rusina nursery in Charlotte Street, where they grew carnations and tulips, supplying May with fresh flowers for the shop. The nursery has now been replaced by Rusina Court, a block of flats. Pat married Derek Neath and they ran a nursery near Broadway in the Cotswolds, and also had a smallholding where they grew tomatoes, mushrooms and Chrysanthemums for the shop. They had three children Caroline, Pauline and Elizabeth.
Mrs Wilkinson achieved another ambition when she travelled to Finland to watch her youngest daughter Daphne swim for England in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Daphne was later awarded Sports Personality of the Year and appeared with Randolph Turpin on a Television Show. Two years later Daphne married Spencer Harrison and they had four children, Rupert, Simon, Victoria and Charlotte.
The Big Move
Alex, May, John and Cicely continued to run both shops until 1975 when the lease on No 9 ran out. Rather than renewing the tenancy, they moved the entire contents of their shop from no 9 into No 7. John and Cecily moved to Whitnash, taking with them some stained glass from the workroom which was put into an outbuilding at their new home.
No 9, owned by the Bone family, was sold and became a Spanish Restaurant. Alex and May continued running their business from No 7. Times were however changing and once double yellow lines appeared, stopping parking on Spencer Street, many of the small shops in Spencer Street began to suffer. In the case of Wilkinson’s Flower Shop, the blow fell when petrol stations and supermarkets began to sell fresh flowers. Previously people bought flowers from a florists, bread from a bakers, and so on but when supermarkets and garden centres started to sell speciality products, small retailers were hit hard.
After the death of Alex, when May was 78 she gave up fresh flowers and started selling exotic silk flowers from the Far East and Pacific Islands. Economy was the main reason combined with a decreasing variety of flowers available from market gardens. The price of fresh flowers had gone up so much that to keep ahead of the increases May would have had to raise her prices. This was too much for May who prided herself on giving good value to her customers. The flower shop no longer had the heavy scent of freshly cut flowers but instead was full of brightly coloured roses, poppies, zinnias, sweet peas and lily of the valley, all in washable silk.