Jane and Peter Gascoyne ran Ponds Foot Fitters shoeshop in Norwich from 1947 until 2004. Jane tells us the story of the historic Norwich shoe firm.
I was born in Southampton and came to Norwich in 1941, for three months and have been here ever since. We came here for my brother to be born and whilst we were here our house in Southampton was flattened so we had no home to go back to. My father died in the war, he was shot down and my grandmother said that ‘I don’t think that you need to go back to Southampton’ so we continued to live with them.
I went to Notre Dame High School and left when I was sixteen. I had already got a place to do my nursing training at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, and I needed to earn money for two years so I worked at a dentist in St Giles for two years.
I did my training to become a SRN [state registered nurse] starting in 1955 and worked in the operating theatre, which I loved, we even did a television programme ‘Your Life In Their Hands.’ I worked there until I got married in 1960.
I met my husband as he lived next door to my aunt and uncle. Whilst nursing I also ran a brownie pack and did not have much time to do my accounts, so I used to take them round to my uncle for him to do. One day I was passing my husband -to-be’s house and he was cutting the hedge and I commented that it was not very straight, he knew who I was and I knew who he was [Peter Gascoyne of Ponds Footfitters] and when I came out he asked me out and we were married just over a year later.
Initially I did not work for the company but as the children got a bit older I went back as the company secretary. I worked part-time.
When we had the Cromer shop I used to go there twice a week. Peter and I covered four days a week there ourselves so he did two days at Cromer too, the rest of the time he was in the Norwich shop. I only went to the Norwich shop if they were short staffed.
We had the Cromer shop for about twenty one years, we sold it before we sold the Norwich store.
History of Ponds shoe shop
In 1861 James Pond had the shoe factory in Bank Street, and then the building was going to be demolished to make way for a hotel to be built. He bought 21 Castle Ditches, or Castle Meadow as it is known now.
He built the factory up and then bought numbers 22 and 23 Castle Ditches and had the factory there; eventually he had two hundred people making shoes for the factory there. There was no shop there at that time.
It went through to London Street which was at that time called Cockey Lane, and it had five floors for people working there and in 1900 it was the largest shoe factory in Norwich.
By that time James Pond had his son Herbert working for him, he joined in 1891 and by this time they were also making shoe supports, but they did that in St George’s Street. These supports were sent out all over the world, except for America where they had Mr Scholl as their agent. Mr Scholl was not a doctor he worked for Mr Pond, and he went and sold these Norwich produced supports in America.
Mr Pond had the patent until the First World War, when due to his son dying he forgot to do the patents and they lost it and Mr Scholl took it over. Mr Pond was heartbroken about this and due to losing his son he had nobody else to carry on another generation.
My father-in-law Reginald Gascoyne was working in a shoe factory, on the site that is now the Bridewell museum. His father was one of the directors and knew Mr Pond, and was asked if his son would like to go and work for Mr Pond.
So in 1919 my father-in-law went to work there. He used to go to London selling the shoes made by Ponds, even selling them to Harrods.
At this time there was still no shop in Norwich. In 1927 Mr Pond died and my father-in-law took over and, he was only in his twenties and along with the secretary Bessie Bone they ran the factory for his widow, who went to live in London.
In the 1930s they turned the ground floor into a shop and began to sell shoes, it was only a small fronted shop but they managed it and built up a very good business. When they started the shop they had about five members of staff.
In 1945 Mrs Pond wanted to sell the shop and Reginald Gascoyne and Bessie Bone bought the business. The name Ponds was kept because it was so well known and had goodwill attached to the name.
The street changed over the years as well, at the beginning of the 1900s it was built up to make it Castle Meadow. By the 1950s it had cherry trees and plants down the middle, there were fewer buses and you could park on either side of the road. Eventually the plants and trees were taken away.
Next door to Ponds was a driving school, and then an opticians and a building society on the other side.
Elizabethan building, tunnels to the Castle and window tax
The building was originally an Elizabethan house, and has still got the window frame in it. In 1890 Mr Pond had a window built in the basement, but as it was not his air or light he was taken to court and had to pay a shilling a year window tax for the use of other people’s light.
This went on until 1971, when decimalisation was introduced there was no shilling left and so they had to stop the payment because by law they couldn’t pay something that no longer existed.
There is a tunnel underneath the building, from when it used to house prison officers and they used to go through the tunnel to the castle. When it was sold to Mr Pond they bricked up the tunnel, but it is still there.
Later Ponds history
Once they had bought the business from Mrs Pond, Reginald and Bessie decided to rebuild and redo the front of the shop, they were both active within the company and both retired at ninety, Bessie two years before Reginald.
The shop expanded in the 1930s and 1940s and they rebuilt it in 1959 to make it as it is today.
My husband was going to go to university, to study science, but he had to do his two year service at eighteen, so he went in the RAF, but because of the Berlin uprising he had to stay in longer and missed three years of university.
He finished his service at Christmas 1947 and his father asked him if he wanted to come to the shop until he went to university, and when he got there he enjoyed it very much.
He went to the Norvic shoe factory for a year to train how to make a shoe, and then decided that he loved being his own boss, and he loved meeting people and so he stayed there rather than go to university.
Post war shoe fitting and styles
Ponds had a machine that measured feet, children liked to stand in it and you could see the shoes on and see if they were fitting properly and giving them enough room for growth as children’s feet grow so quickly. The machine was used right up until the 1970s and it is now in the Bridewell museum.
We always sold good quality British made shoes, including, Ks, Clarks, Equity, Elmsdale, Rieker, Diana and Hotter. We were the biggest stockist in Norfolk and they opened their shop the following year and told my husband when they opened.
Up to the 1960s they were making shoes upstairs, you could always smell the leather which was lovely. But as the shoemakers died off so the making of them died off and the last ones were made in the mid 1960s.
Post-war there was limited style and colour choice, brown and black and then beige for summer. Because of rationing people had to have points to buy shoes, but that came off in the 1950s. In the late 1950s more colours were introduced, reds were quite popular. My husband always said that styles came back round every twenty five years.
A tremendous variety of customers
Ponds had an excellent reputation and people were coming from far and wide to shop with us. We had a gentleman who came in when he was a hundred. He had had his first pair of shoes from Ponds when he was a baby and he came in to buy a pair for his hundredth birthday.
[Douglas] Bader came in and we always had his shoes for him, although he had false feet he always came in for his shoes. He wore K Skips because they were so light in weight.
As the styles and colours changed over the years there was always a shoe which people liked especially and each season there would be a different colour. People would ring up to find out what the new colour was and then say ‘ooh order us a pair and let us know when it’s in’. Quite a few people used to want the same shoe in a different colour.
We had customers with all sorts of shaped feet and sizes. We sold every width from a treble A right through to a treble E. My husband was very good at managing the stock and he had every fitting in the shop. Sometimes we had to make a special order, Sandpiper did the wide ones and K did the narrow ones.
Some of the staff used to go up to the Norfolk and Norwich hospital to fit people on the orthopaedic wards; they would come back, get what they needed and take it to them.
We provided country people, farm workers and labourers with their footwear, they wanted boots and good strong shoes.
Staff working conditions and Christmas traditions
I think that Ponds was special compared with the other shops because they were very good employers.
My father in law and husband were very keen on sorting out everything that went on and dealing with people. They were very kind people and staff stayed until they retired, which of course meant that they used to know the customers.
The staff was all female except for one male, and they did not have to wear a uniform, they were just supposed to be dressed smartly. They worked nine to five and Thursday was a half day, in line with most of Norwich.
Lunch breaks were spent either out of the store or in the little staff room. All staff had set time off, all the bank holidays plus two weeks. They did have the perk of being able to buy the shoes at cost price.
We lived here so that my husband could walk to the shop in Norwich whatever the weather. To start with he cleared away all the snow but then of course the insurance said that he had to stop doing that because he would not be covered if somebody fell and injured themselves.
We always had someone come in to do the window dressing as there was a lot of window and it took quite a long time to do.
The only window we did, always, was the Christmas window. It always had a Christmas theme in it, with lights and I made a nativity set, a big one, out of paper mache, which we had in the window. It came out every year.
My husband loved window dressing and was excellent at it. We did it on the last week of November, always the last weekend, we would go down on the Saturday morning and start emptying the windows, ready to do it when the shop had closed for the weekend.
Keeping up with the styles of the day – visiting shoe fairs
I don’t think that my husband would have found today’s retail conditions difficult he would have moved with it. He enjoyed the modern styles.
In the early days the shoe fairs were always just in London and my husband used to go with his father for two days.
In later years we used to go to the shoe fairs together. We went to London and sometimes we were invited by K for a meal at the Cafe Royal and then later still we used to go to the Birmingham NEC [National Exhibition Centre] which had big stalls there.
The fairs were good opportunities to make useful connections, hear what other people were doing and if you went there you always knew what the styles were going to be for the next season.
You would go in October for the spring season and in February for the autumn season, always twice a year. In August it was slippers and sandals and that sort of thing.
Whilst there were other shoe shops in Norwich, Buckingham‘s and Bowhill and Elliott’s, people had their favourites we had a lot of regular and loyal customers.
We always had sales in January, never December and then in July as well, and they were successful.
Taking pride in knowing your customer, stock and sales
My husband was very good with the numbers and sizing that at the end of the seasons we had hardly had anything left, he knew exactly what was what.
One year we had one pair of boots left and another year, five pairs of canvas shoes left, that was all.
Every Saturday he did the records of what had been sold that week, he did the same on a Friday for the Cromer shop. He knew every colour and design, they all had numbers and every week he did this, so he knew what sizing and what colour sold.
The one thing he noticed was that if you had red shoes you would always have them in a size eight because people with size eights would always like red shoes, and he never had one left at the end of the season.
We used to have people break in, in the early days we did not have an alarm system.
I remember we had somebody drive straight through the front window of the shop in a van and went down into the basement in the early hours of one morning. They didn’t manage to take anything because they were down there, tipped upside down and had to be got out.
We also had a man break in. He had missed the last train to Great Yarmouth and had to walk so he broke in to the shop, he broke three windows not the door, which would have been just one window, three he did.
He took a pair of shoes but he had absolutely no idea of sizing because he had masses down to try on.
We had a similar incident in the Cromer shop where someone broke in, but it only happened the once there, and they caught the boy, and he had to repay so much each week. They also caught the boy who was going to Great Yarmouth too.
In the end we did have an alarm system put in.
We have four children and none of them have gone in to the same business. Two of them have gone in to horticulture, which comes from my family as my great grandfather was at Hever Castle growing bananas for the family, another son in the Police Service and a daughter who is a partner in a large accountancy firm.
My husband loved his work and was there until 2004, he had been in the business since 1947 and he was very sad when he sold it, he was seventy seven then.
Ponds has been a big part of my life, I was married for fifty five years. It was a landmark in Norwich.
Jane Gascoyne (b. 1937) talking to WISEArchive on 29th May 2018 in Norwich
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