Cambridge journalist Chris Elliott included my plea in his regular Memories feature and I keenly awaited the calls. I distinctly remember picking up the phone just a day or so later and hearing a gentle and cultured voice saying,
“Good afternoon, my name is Criddle. I understand you are seeking memories of Heffers.”
Subsequently, I spent many happy hours in the convivial company of Mr Criddle – Gerald – as he looked back upon his fifteen years at the firm. Before establishing his own Cambridge gallery in 1970, Gerald worked as an artist based at the Heffers Sidney Street stationery shop from 1955; a shop once aptly described by another former employee, Sarah Burton, as a “tower of treasures” (now a librarian, Sarah writes an interesting blog). Gerald’s office at Sidney Street was on the top floor, alongside the art gallery and boardroom, and he himself recalls the building as having, “a quality about it, you nestled into it.”
Award winning window displays
At Heffers, Gerald focussed on promotions, displays and greetings cards. His artistic talents were employed in putting together many inventive and award-winning window displays. Over the years he earned a total of £998 in prize money for the firm. Often, he would go up to London for the presentations. On one occasion he was presented with a cheque by the publisher Sir George Harrap, made out to him personally and not to Heffers. Sir George insisted that Gerald should have the money as he had done the work. However, the Heffers directors did not view it that way and insisted the money be set aside for purchasing window display materials.
This is Heffers, not WH Smith!
Gerald was also involved with greetings cards and calendars. For many years, Heffers had stocked a wide range of cards from suppliers such as J. Arthur Dixon and Valentines. In the 1950s and ’60s the industry was beginning to change with greetings cards imported from US companies such as Hallmark and Hanson White.
Gerald recalls answering his phone one day to John Heffer, who wanted to see him immediately in the boardroom (known among the staff as ‘Mr John’ to distinguish him from other members of the family working in the firm, John was a grandson of the firm’s founder and in charge of the stationery side of the business).
Whenever Mr John wanted to show someone something, he would slip it into a large notepad and fling it across the table. If the person on the receiving end side-stepped in order to avoid a collision, Mr John would exclaim, “butter fingers! On this occasion, Gerald caught the pad and inside were two Hanson White greetings cards, known as ‘slim-jims’, with black and white illustrations. One depicted a vicar at a sale saying,
‘Oh Miss Smith, what a lovely pear you’ve got!’,
to a very glamorous female holding up some fruit. The other also featured a vicar, this time standing behind a stall which held a large vegetable marrow and a lady saying,
‘My goodness, vicar, you have got a big one!’
Gerald thought they were funny. However, Mr John did not and exclaimed, “they are disgusting. This is Heffers, not W.H. Smith!” He asked Gerald to speak to Mrs Webb, the buyer responsible for cards. On doing so, Gerald discovered that whilst being pleased with the new stock of up-to-date designs, poor Mrs Webb had no clue about the innuendos.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Different Heffers shops approached sales of the new unexpurgated edition of Lawrence’s controversial novel in very different ways. Gerald recalls that at Sidney Street, it was deemed that each sale would be individually handled by Mr Hobson, the store’s book buyer. Customers were to be shown the cover and then the book placed in a plain bag. After it had been on sale for a few weeks, Miss Dudley-Hay, in the Church Supplies department, had a customer enquire after the book. Her most emphatic response, heard by everyone right across the floor, was a loud cry to Mr Hobson,
“this gentleman wishes to purchase a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, will you attend to it?!”
Lunch at the Dorothy, visits to the theatre and a flight to Boulogne
While Sidney Street was undergoing another refurbishment, staff were given a voucher to buy their lunch at the Civic. Mr Court, manager at Sidney Street, one day asked Gerald for assistance during the lunch hour, and offered to pay for his lunch by way of compensation. Seeing this as an opportunity to dine somewhere nice, Gerald popped to the Dorothy Ballroom next door and had a three-course lunch for 6s 6d. Unsurprisingly, the firm refused to meet more than half the bill. (Gerald would often attend trade fairs at Earls Court in London or Birmingham, with Mr Court or Mr Biggs. These also involved dining out but, as Gerald recalls, he would be the only one drinking as both his managers were teetotal.)
Although shop-floor staff frequently worked on Saturdays, the Thursday half-day early closing had its benefits. Together with colleagues, Gerald would attend theatrical performances in London on these afternoons. These were paid for by a subscription of one shilling a week and organised by Miss Star on the Pen Counter and Mrs Snell. In the 1950s and ’60s it was possible to travel to London, go to the theatre and have dinner, all for twenty-five shillings (£26 at today’s value). I was not surprised to learn recently that Gerald was a member of the St John’s Players in Cambridge for many years.
In 1961 Heffers was feeling adventurous and scheduled an outing by air to Boulogne, France, with a charge to employees of £10 (£208 at today’s value) per head. Many had never flown before. Gerald (who went on fifteen staff outings in all), recalls the firm were so anxious about safety, that husbands and wives were asked to travel on separate planes. Some of the older ladies were full of trepidation but in the end thoroughly enjoyed it. At Boulogne they lunched in a casino and took a walk along the sea front. Dinner on the way home was at Stowmarket in Suffolk. As everyone disembarked the coach at the end of a long day they were reminded not to be late for work in the morning.
Gerald sadly passed away in January 2019.
These are a few of his Heffers stories and I’ve enjoyed revisiting them as I fondly recall our conversations. Gerald’s son, Tim, kindly told me that his father had been most impressed with ‘This Book is about Heffers’. My hope is that the book and my illustrated talks which include some of Gerald’s stories, will in a small way contribute to his legacy.
It was my privilege to meet such an interesting, talented and convivial gentleman.