The Lost Cornershops






One of the names on the Summerstown war memorial really caused us a few problems but he’s been worth the wait. For three years we thought ‘F Townsend’ was a Canadian soldier with an Earlsfield connection called Frederic Beckles Townsend. Then Chris Burge came up with the much more likely candidate in the shape of Frank Townsend, the greengrocer’s son from 49 Alston Road. There were seven children, four boys Frank, Jack, Jim and Harry. Three girls, Grace, Nellie and Cissie. Frank was 29 when he died of his wounds on the last day of March in 1918. He is buried at Doullens, not far from Arras.

For many years the Townsends ran this shop on the corner of Bertal Road, just across from the home of gallantry medal winning stretcher bearer William Warman. It would appear Frank also worked at William Watson’s fruit and veg shop at No65 Smallwood Road. There is really only one cornershop in the Fairlight area now. The last place standing is Kamal’s Local Express at No24 Pevensey Road at the junction of Rostella Road. The family took on the Alston Mini-Mart about seven years ago when it was in a very run down state. You could also include H’s Cafe on Blackshaw Road, and any number on Garratt Lane, but they are on the perimeter with a lot of traffic, I’m talking strictly Island of Fairlight. This is across the road from where future star of stage and screen and St Mary’s Church Sunday School Teacher, Veronica Hurst used to help out in the family sweetshop and grocery. Although the windows are blocked up, its bright and cheerful and seems to be crying out to be reopened as something.



In the short time I was in Local Express having a chat, about a dozen people came in to stock up on their provisions or buy a newspaper, so it would appear to be thriving. In 1916 it was William Stickley’s grocery shop, next door was John Lane’s butcher and across the road on the corner of Worslade Road, were Thomas Buree’s grocers and Thomas Henry Ragg the tobacconist, which considering his name and the nature of his business, fittingly looks rather shabby and nicotine-stained.


Ernest Hope ran a sweet shop at No1 Alston Road. On Smallwood Road, David Powell was in charge of the grocery store on the corner. This particular shop at No101, facing Smallwood School and looking down Hazelhurst Road only closed about five years ago but its understated ‘Smallwood Stores’ signage remains an evocative indicator of the past. A few doors along was Charles Palmer’s dairy and at No93 was another sweetshop owned by Albert Manley.



No65 Smallwood Road was demolished in a compulsory purchase order in the early seventies. There’s now an open space with a couple of trees to commemorate where once was William Watson’s greengrocers store. I spoke to a resident of the block next door and by an amazing coincidence she told me that someone had visited this spot only a few weeks previously making enquiries about the premises. At No67 the shop on the other corner of Thurso Street once run by William Cocks only closed about ten years ago. So many other corner premises look slightly misshapen, have odd doors or bricked-up entrances and over-size windows that betray their former existence. In many cases it lends them a rather covert appearance making them look like a bit like mini-fortresses or surveillance units.



It was once so different and the street indexes of one hundred years ago show a lot of commercial activity in this area which would seem to contradict Alfred Hurley’s description of the poverty stricken ‘Fairlight’ in his book ‘Days That Are Gone’. There clearly seemed to be enough money around to sustain several shops offering basic foodstuffs to the local residents, possibly at prices that undercut those elsewhere.


The Townsend family roots were very much, like so many other Summerstown families, in Battersea. James Townsend was born in Kelvedon, Essex in 1860, the son of a gardener. He married Ellen Ann Grace, a dressmaker from Marylebone at the parish church of St Marylebone on 19th August 1883. He was 23 and working as a milk carrier and they lived in 3 Paradise Street, Stockwell. She was the daughter of William Grace, the house painter, not the cricketer. By 1891 they lived in Ethelburga Street, the road and the estate near Battersea Park still bear the name.



He was still a milkman then and there were three children, Grace, Frank and Jack. Frank was born in Castle Street, Battersea in 1889. A few years later with the family address now 69 Sterndale Road, Nine Elms they appear on the register for New Road School in the Wandsworth Road. In 1901 they were still at this address. The street is gone, but given James and his eldest son’s future calling, it was appropriately very close to what is now the New Covent Garden Fruit and Vegetable market. The site of this was then home to a ‘London and South Western Railway Works’ yard where James, now a railway carman possibly earned his living. It is also close to the Patmore Estate where Wandsworth Council have announced ‘Edward Foster Close’ will emerge as a tribute to our illustrious Dustman VC, Tiny Ted.

All the children are listed in the 1901 census and 16 year old Grace was working as a dressmaker. As some stage over the next few years they took the well-trodden step to the open spaces of Summerstown. James needed more room for his growing family and perhaps hankered to run his own business. The Townsend family were first in Summerstown by 1908 when Grace, then aged 24, married Henry Paget at St Mary’s Church. They were living at 25 Worslade Road and Henry, a commercial traveller was just around the corner at 69 Pevensey Road. By 1911 the Townsends were at 49 Alston Road where James was running a greengrocers shop. The photo with the horses below dates from 1905-07 and was taken on the other side of Alston Road from the junction of Rostella Road, just outside Local Express. The door with the ‘Glass Cut’ sign is No33, the white house with the sunflowers in the front garden. James Townsend’s greengrocery is a few doors down on the left, just out of the picture. Frank, now 22 was working as a gas stoker and there were five children still at home. The Townsends would remain here until 1936. James died in 1937, Ellen in 1922.


Jack Townsend wasn’t with them because in 1909, aged 18, he had joined the East Surreys as a reservist and would have served in India pre-war. He was a milk carrier and gave the address of his employer as 49 Selkirk Road. He served in France and Flanders from 19th January 1915 alongside many thousands of South Asian soldiers. After ten gruelling months in the Ypres Salient he was invalided out of the army with sickness on 24th November 1915 and awarded a Silver War Badge. Like Frank, Jack was a reasonably tall man, at five foot nine, the presence of all that fruit and veg must have done them a power of good.

On 28th July 1912 Frank Townsend married Ethel Jane Smith from 125 Smallwood Road at St Mary’s Church. Coincidentally Abraham Hake from Headworth Road, who we’ve come across before married Eliza Bilyard the previous day. His daughter was the wife of James Luke Tugwell, killed at the Third Battle of Gaza. Frank described himself as a labourer and gave his father’s occupation as a greengrocer. His appeared to have been living at 136 Smallwood Road in which case he was next door to yet another grocery shop run by a Miss Alice Broad. Frank and Ethel had two children, Ronald born 1913 and Grace in 1915. With the family business thriving and plenty of work in the area for a fit strong lad, life must have seemed filled with promise. All would soon change as the lights started to go out in the summer of 1914. As a married man with a young family, working with his father or on his own as a greengrocer, Frank would surely have been in no hurry to volunteer. When he signed up he gave the address of William Watson’s corner shop at 65 Smallwood Road.

Like his near-neighbour Arthur Hutton, Frank would join the Coldstream Guards. He attested in Tooting under the Derby Scheme on 12th December 1915. Looking at the service papers of others, would imply he actually mobilised around March 1917, more than a year after he first signed up. The hold-up suggests he may very likely have appealed against his conscription on the basis of his occupation and gained one or more short exemptions delaying his arrival in France. It may have been because he was married and of a certain age, or he was granted special exemption for grocery and provision shop workers. The small shop owner was still subject to the vagaries of the decisions of local tribunals and accounts of their hearings were published in the local newspapers. Some of them make heartbreaking reading. Ironically Frank would have been mobilised at precisely the time that food shortages were at their most acute in Britain and a greengrocers skills might have been very useful as allotments began to pepper the home front.

In any case, come February 1918, Frank and the 3rd Battalion Coldsream Guards were in France, in the trenches near Ballieul, blissfuly unaware of the storm that would be soon unleashed around them. March started pleasantly with musketry training, football tournaments and good billets. The great German ‘Kaiserschlacht’ attack came on 21st March and the battalion’s first casualties were reported in the war diary at Ervillers on 23rd. The situation became increasingly desperate over the next week as they retreated to high ground but came under fierce attack, especially on 30th when ‘the enemy pushed snipers into Ayette’. Three officers and six men were killed that day, 28 were reported wounded or missing. On 31st the diary recounts that they were relieved by the Lancashire Fusiliers and returned to Bienvillers. Frank’s ‘soldiers effects’ form indicates that he died in the care of The No3 Canadian Stationary Hospital at Doullens. The diary for this establishment noted on 26th ‘this has been the heaviest day so far and has kept everyone busy from morning till night.’ There were nearly 2000 admissions that day and even more on each of the next three days. On 29th March King George paid an unexpected visit and ‘was pleased with the manner in which the wounded are being cared for’. He may well have passed by Frank Townsend’s sick bed.



Frank died of his wounds on 31st March and is buried at Doullens Communal Cemetery Extension No1. This was Marshal Foch’s headquarters early in the First World War and the scene of the conference in March 1918, after which he assumed command of the Allied armies on the Western Front. Doullens was a junction between the French and British and Commonwealth armies and used as a railhead by both. The citadelle overlooking the town was a French military hospital, which became The 3rd Canadian Stationary Hospital in 1916. The German Spring advance placed it under the most severe strain. To add to the family’s worries, youngest brother Harry had also now been conscripted to the East Surreys and was in uniform.

Frank’s widow Ethel, Ronald and Grace went to live at 109 Charlmont Road, Tooting, after the war. Grace Ethel Townsend married in 1939 at Christ Church in Mitcham, but passed away aged 59 in 1974, in Lambeth. Ethel herself died in Merton in 1973. Ronald married in 1941 in Wandsworth, but we can find no trace of him after that. We are glad to finally be able to tell your story, Frank and the light its shed on the history of the corner shops of Alston and Smallwood Road. Funny also that in the end there was a Canadian connection, through the hospital in Doullens that looked after him in his last hours. And what about all those lost cornershops? I like to think of them as a tribute to the hardworking people of the Fairlight who worked long hours in difficult conditions to establish their family businesses, only to see their sons whisked off to the front in spite of their protestations at the tribunal.



With thanks to Chris Burge for his research on Frank Townsend and his family.


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