Proprietor: Albert “Harry” Henry Francis.
Location: Wells Road, Glastonbury.
Years of Operation: c.1935-1961.
Sold: Various (including: National Benzole, BP, Cleveland).
Interviewee(s): Mrs. Sheila Thyer and Mrs. Brenda Bisgrove, daughters of Mr. Francis.
The 1930s was a time when not many people had jobs. “You’d do anything to earn something…” Mrs. Thyer tells me. Indeed this seems to be an accurate description – her father, Harry Francis, having done a number of jobs in his time. His parents had been hauliers in an age before the motor car – using a horse and cart to deliver their load – and his brother owned a farm just opposite the cottages that would one day be his home and business. Harry worked for one Mr. Merrick doing odd jobs, such as painting the railings up around the summit of Glastonbury Tor. “You go on up there my son and I’ll come up and see,” Mr. Merrick would tell Harry after he’d finished one side. Mr. Merrick was the owner of the brickworks on Wells Road – a site that would later itself be a petrol station – and Harry was registered for a Reserved Occupation making bricks, tiles and other supplies for the war effort – a service so essential that he was forbidden from conscripting into the military.
Before the war, in around 1932, Harry moved from his family home on Old Wells Road to the cottages a few hundred metres away, with his new wife, Doris. His daughters believe he moved there with the intention of building a garage. The exact date when that garage was opened is a little uncertain, but the petrol tank was installed in 1935, by local builder Tom Dowden – who was in fact responsible for most of the developments on the site. When the young married couple moved there, the buildings were a pair of fairly unremarkable, two-storey cottages, but soon there was a large garage with a pitched roof and three gleaming petrol pumps.
Mrs. Francis opened up a general store in the cottages, selling groceries. Business was good in the pre-war years, but once rationing came in it soon proved impossible to turn a profit, and most of her customers turned to the Co-Operative in the High Street (which by coincidence was itself next to Hodge’s Garage, a petrol supplier). Doris did manage to keep the business for some years, however, selling conveniences such as cigarettes, sweets and lemonade. A vigilant eye was needed at all times, particularly when school closed for the day, as the local children had a habit of stealing sweets. Under the rationing regime every sweet had to be accounted for with the relevant coupon, so it was no laughing matter for Doris, who would warn, “You steal those sweets and I’ll end up in Horfield [Prison]!”
Wells Road was a lively community. Sheila and Brenda recall their childhood days making dens, playing marbles in the gutter and attempting to complete the military assault course which was erected behind the brickworks. “We could do most things, apart from we couldn’t do the [zip line]”, Sheila tells me. “Officially we weren’t allowed on there,” Brenda interjects, “Oh, no, they’d chase us off if they saw us!” continues Sheila. “We used to go on a Sunday to the pub, the Wagon and Horses… The American soldiers were there, and they’d make a fuss of all of the children, and if they gave you an orange – oh, that was fantastic, you didn’t know what an orange was! You’d eat the skins – or at least I did.”
Relations between local businesses were friendly and intertwined. Further up the road Arthur Hembrow opened up a cane furniture shop in 1952, and the sisters remember watching him and his wife weaving; the business is still open today. Norman Ruddle also set up business next door to the cottages around the same time. Harry had a reputation for helpfulness, and, much to Doris’s consternation, Norman had a tendency to come asking to borrow tools just as they were closing for the day.
The Francis family were good friends with Reg Harris and Fred Palmer, fellow motor tradesmen. Fred was a little older than the rest and finished his years in business at Tor View Garage, Edgarley. When he wanted to sell his business and retire, he struggled to find a buyer, and Sheila recalls that it was her mother, Doris, who eventually found a solution. Reg Harris was just starting out when he met Harry, and it was Harry that encouraged him to make a go of it. Some time later, established as a successful businessman who came to own four garages, Doris begged him “Reg, I wish you’d buy Fred and Dora’s garage…”, and this is precisely what he did. Documents found among Mr. Francis’s remaining possessions prove that he witnessed the legal side of the sale himself.
“You wouldn’t find a more genuine man in this world.” Sheila tells me. Brenda: “Up in the midlands there were definite fortnight’s holidays, all the factories used to close… year after year the same people used to stop… Fill up with petrol, do it coming back, Dad would remember them from the year before… The times he was leaning in to wound down windows like this… He got a lot of satisfaction from the people that came.” Harry was always dedicated to the needs of his customers, Brenda tells me, “The number of times someone would break down, in the middle of the night… and they’d’ve walked so far and left their family in the car…. there’d be a knock at the window. ‘All right, I’ll get on, I’ll find you a can.’”, Sheila, interrupting, “You wouldn’t get it today, would you?”
Harry rarely lost his temper, and took a laid back attitude to life. However, he did eventually lose his motivation for helping strangers – one small event ending his good deeds. One day, a car full of hippies broke down and came to Harry for his assistance. Brenda: “He put his whiskey on the floor at the back to give this person a lift, and when he got home to take his whiskey out it was gone!” The two women laugh as they remember the ocassion. Sheila: “… And he went hunting, didn’t he, but he never found his whiskey.” He was furious, and vowed never to give another person a lift.
Toward the end of his career, Harry developed chest problems and the doctor warned him: “if you go under those cars this winter, you won’t live ’til the spring.” So scared was Harry by the doctor’s prognosis that he was forced to retire two years early, at the age of 58. He never looked back, though, and kept himself busy with his allotment and garden, always taking care to share his cabbages with the neighbours. Harry died in 1992 and his wife followed him four years later. He is survived by his two daughters, six grand-children, seventeen great grand-children and one great, great grand-child.