Birth of Yarmouth knitting wool empire, Olivettes

IT began with one small shop in Great Yarmouth, then steadily expanded into chain that became part of our retail fabric...a fabric literally knitted with wool. For decades womenfolk in the borough and beyond gave their custom to a business that originated as a local woman’s brave dream but turned into a flourishing reality: Olivettes.

During more than six decades, that one shop expanded to 12, although all were not trading simultaneously. The dozen included branches in Lowestoft and Norwich.

The founder in 1931 was Olive Gillingwater, then a Star Hotel employee, of Station Terrace in Southtown, who was to marry Alfred Harvey, a Post Office clerk. Both became borough councillors, and were mayor and mayoress in 1971-2. In later life she penned her non-published autobiography, helped by her son, Michael – an old school chum of mine who was part of the family business and passed it to me, confident that it would interest readers.

Olive, who loved knitting and crocheting, had long nurtured a desire to run her own wool shop. She opened her first in Market Row in 1931, despite her mother’s opposition (“far too ambitious – where do you get your big ideas from?”). Her venture faced fierce competition, for local knitters were already catered for by three specialist wool shops and drapers like Tudman’s in Blackfriars Road and May’s in Cobholm.

The Market Row shop’s weekly rent was only �1.50 in today’s terms, but there was a set-back when, seeking money to supplement her savings, her bank manager not only refused her a small loan but also declined to give her a reference so she could obtain trade credit.

“No doubt this was because I was woman, and a young one at that - male chauvinism was rife in those days,” she comments. “Nevertheless I decided to take the plunge alone. For as well as being without the bank’s financial support, I had no moral support from them either. I prayed that my savings would provide sufficient capital to get me through until the shop started to generate its own income and momentum.”

Her dilemma was exacerbated by being unable to afford to advertise her shop’s opening, or to stock many of the qualities and shades she wanted.

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With only �50 to acquire fixtures, fittings and stock, she improvised with a trestle table as a counter and a sugar basin for a till before splashing out six shillings (30p) for a second-hand wooden till from Yerells, on Church Plain, who were replacing theirs with a cash register. A curtain divided the shop from the staff room.

As she prepared for opening, she espied competitor Mr Reed, owner of a new woolshop in the Central Arcade, walking down the row, “probably for a nose, and I am convinced that as he peered at me through the glass he gave me a snigger, followed by a wry smile, as much as to say, ‘Young lady: you will not last very long!’”

She writes: “It makes me wonder how I ever had the courage to start a business.”

The name Olivettes resulted from seeing a French film at the Regent Cinema. Her favoured shop name had been Olive Rose, but a film character called Olivette impressed her into adopting it for her business.

Olive wrote to potential suppliers using her home address. “I can still see the look on the faces of many of their representatives when I opened the door of 5 Station Terrace, for it was not the most salubrious of areas and did not provide an aura of confidence as being the residence of a successful business person.

“To compound this, the door was opened by a very young-looking slip of a girl who had set herself up to be the proprietor of a shop. I still clearly see this credulity on their faces when I said that I was Miss Gillingwater.

“These men, called commercial travellers in those days, were invariably decked out in a smart suit, topped off with a bowler hat and usually arrived perspiring, especially if it was a hot summer day, as they had lugged their huge cases of samples from the nearby station (they came by train in the 1930s).”

These regular visits by bowler-hatted men prompted her mother to wonder: “What would the neighbours think?”. Writes Olive: “Perhaps she thought that they would think I had opened up a different sort of business!”

Yet most of these commercial travellers were kind and helpful and became firm friends, as were businessmen in the higher echelons of some of the manufacturers and wholesalers with which she dealt.

Because she continued to work at the Star Hotel for six months, she hired two assistants, 14-year-old Edith Steele (later, Mrs Smith) and Phyllis Offord (Mrs Tyrrell), both of whom became long-serving employees although taking time off to have babies and raise families. Mrs Smith, was associated with the firm over a 55-year period while Mrs Tyrrell managed 57, both retiring in their 70s in 1986 after a total of 60 years between them working for Olivettes.

That first Market Row shop flourished, and she quit her Star job: “By now I was a 24-year-old businesswoman, an entrepreneur as one would say today! Within three years I had opened a second shop, and others were to follow quickly.”

The first branch, in Regent Road, opened its doors in 1934, just after the birth of Michael, and in 1935 she expanded to Lowestoft but it quickly closed because it was too distant, as she now had husband (Alfred, whom she always called Harvey) and a young son to look after.

The next shops were in King Street and Marine Arcade, this latter also short-lived, shutting after one season as it lost money. In 1937, the Coronation year, four shops were trading simultaneously, although Michael was to beat this in the 1960s with seven.

She delivered to all these shops herself, moving stock between branches in their �17.50 car and with the help of an errand boy. A direct-line phone enabled her to keep in touch with branches, and shops could contact one another. Branch stocks were kept low, but a combination of phone call and errand boy meant a wanted item held by one shop could be delivered to a waiting customer at another within minutes.

Olivettes had become part of the local business scene.

The Olivettes story concludes next week.