From the title, you might expect this to be the recollections of an early train spotter but it is far more unusual than that, being the memoirs of a W.H. Smith bookstall manager, later District Superintendent. Boring? Even the author concedes that you might think that, for an early chapter heading quotes a Punch cartoon. Customer at Country Bookstall: “Have you a ‘SportingLife’” Manager: “Not very, Sir!’”. At a small station, the “Manager” was usually a youth and the sole employee, although there might be a bit of casual labour for pennies, when the London papers arrived, which depending on the distance from the metropolis, might be anything from 2am onwards. When they arrived, it was in the form of bundles containing unfolded, uncut sheets, which had to be opened on what was a stall open to most of the elements (although some did have a cellar), folded, cut and collated into individual papers, then fresh bundles made up for each of the wholesale clients in the area, and single copies for private subscribers. All this had to be done before the first passengers arrived.
When I first read this book, the style was oddly familiar “The Good Old Firm!” or some notable personage “…always exchanged a few pleasant words when buying hisTimes”. When managing the stall at Euston “I had the great pleasure of selling Mr. Rudyard Kipling an extra travelling rug on his departure for America, and telling him how much I had enjoyed his latest book. Names are dropped left, right and centre, and Mr. Vincent has his “enthusiasms”, some of which are short lived. Then it came to me. Charles Pooter! “Diary of a Nobody!” Yes Mr. Vincent could have slid into Pooter’s Office, and “Good Old Mr. Perkup”, would hardly notice the difference.
Vincent was widely read, and during the course of the book provides a running commentary on the development of English literature during the second half of the 19th c. One of his enthusiasms, was giving “Schoolroom Lectures” in the evenings, on topics like “The Weather”, “Geology” and “Petroleum”, all of which were carefully prepared. Where on earth did he find the time? He took careful note of all kinds of events – the expansion of the railway network in South Wales, between which years was the Crinoline in fashion? When was the first private house lit by electricity? The first telephone installed in a private house? All grist to Vincent’s Mill.
He is particularly good on the events succeeding an absolutely disgraceful breach of commercial confidentiality between the Chairmen of the LNWR and The GW when Smiths were negotiating new leases for the stalls on these lines. Quite illegally, the Chairmen consulted each other, and came up with demands which were presented as “take it or leave it”. Smiths left it, giving three month’s notice of termination. The railways tried to backpedal, but Smiths would have none of it, this not being the first time that they felt badly treated.
Vincent describes how the three months were spent in leasing, buying or in one or two cases building shops on the approach roads to station, or in market places or High Streets. Over two hundred premises were ready to open when the lease expired – a mammoth task which as a side effect introduced a W.H. Smith house style of polished oak, tiles and leaded glass shop fittings, which lasted into the 1960s. It also saw the transition of Smith’s from being merely bookstall lessees to High Street retailers.
Wyman’s took over some of the former Smith’s stalls, and on the last day of the lease, a Wyman’s manager made a late evening visit, quite illegally, to check the place over. The W.H. Smith manager, who had returned from the new shop to check nothing of value had been left behind, heard him moving about in the cellar, so dropped and bolted the trap door. The unfortunate Wyman’s employee was released by the early turn porter at seven the following morning. This is an engaging book, full of all kinds of surprising information.
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