The drive which founded a chain of stores

TODAY we conclude the hitherto unpublished autobiography – begun here last week – of Olive Harvey (nee Gillingwater), a novice who courageously founded Olivettes, a chain of wool and needlecraft shops in the Great Yarmouth area in 1931.

Despite the shops prospering in their first decade, the business had its downs as well as ups.

When her old car became dilapidated, she borrowed money to upgrade to a �124 Morris 12, only to use it as security for a finance house loan when “things became so bad financially.”

Husband (Alfred) Harvey claimed she had effectively pawned his pride and joy, to which she rejoined that her shops enabled them to buy the vehicle, for they could not have done so on his wages as a Post Office clerk.

By the early 1950s the difficulties of war-time trading were gradually being forgotten; but having an enlarged family made it difficult for Olive to run what was becoming a thriving business again, even with postwar shortages; so Harvey quit his job – sacrificing his pension and wages of under �4 a week – after 26 years and joined her as a partner to handle the paperwork.

Also at that time, Olivettes was being supported by customers who were the daughters and sometimes granddaughters of the firm’s original Thirties customers, the younger ones then knitting as steadily as their mothers and grandmothers before them.

Reflecting on that postwar era – when coupons were still needed to buy clothing, drapery, fabrics and knitting yarns – she says: “The herring fishing was still quite strong, with the Scottish fishermen following the fleet here in the autumn. As they would not fish on Sundays, they came into port on Saturdays and...would purchase presents for their families and loved ones.

Most Read

“A favourite was navy sailor coats, made in a nap fabric, which sported an appropriate badge. On Saturdays the staff of Olivettes children’s department would sell 20 or 30 of them.”

Next came expansion into two neighbouring Market Row premises, formerly a bakery and shoe shop. In one, Olivettes sold wool and haberdashery, another babies’ wear, and the third children’s and school wear. Soon the staff was augmented by three women who became important to the development of the business: Mrs Flo Wilson, Mrs Ada Fuller and Mrs Mollie Turner.

“With this trio, my three musketeers, supporting me, we were a formidable team and helped to put Olivettes on a firm footing after the war and through the period of postwar shortages.

“People would queue when they heard that Olivettes had had a delivery of ‘whatsoever’. The queues were so big and the crush in the shop so great as customers jockeyed to get served that Mrs Wilson organised a system whereby young teenager Michael (Harvey) would stand at the door of 31 Market Row and allow people through in an organised way, then letting them leave by the door in 32.”

Despite the demands of the business, the Harveys still managed a full family and social life, and took their children on holidays. The couple also found time to attend trade functions and to enjoy the hospitality of their suppliers, and at some of these events Olive Harvey campaigned to persuade manufacturers to have dye lots stamped on wool bands so knitters no longer found their garments were of slightly varying shades.

Another hobby-horse was insisting that her shops’ staff wore something hand-knitted at work: “I always wore a hand-knit or crocheted garment in the shop, and also most times when I was out socially”

Michael and his wife Maureen, and his sister Juanita and her husband, George Varley, became directors of what had become a limited company.

Between 1955 and 1964, six branches were opened (Gorleston High Street and Bells Road; Tan Lane, Caister; High Mill Road, Cobholm; Salisbury Road, Yarmouth; and Grapes Hill, Norwich), and “the business reached the pinnacle of its success”.

But then came the beginning of the end.

This started with the landlord of the Gorleston Coliseum branch property wanting to redevelop the site; Olivettes decided not to seek an alternative.

Then the Norwich lease was not renewed, and the Cobholm branch closed. In the 1980s the Market Row main shop in Yarmouth had structural problems and relocated to Broad Row.

Although the knitting wool trade had been buoyant, it went into severe decline in the late 1980s, with manufacturers amalgamating or closing. Many small wool shops ceased trading. Cheap imports stocked by cut-price general retailers were a factor. The outside competition turned the former personal and friendly wool trade into a fierce rat race, according to Mrs Harvey. No single reason was apparent for the sudden drop in the number of knitters.

Olivettes pruned staffing and advertising, “but the killer was that, all of a sudden, many customers with wools laid aside for the specified period of one month to collect to complete their knitting decided against doing this. They just never appeared to collect their ‘lay-bys’, causing the trade to seem to disappear instantly.”

So in 1994, a 63-year era came to an end with the closure of the last shop, that in Broad Row: “Sadness as long-established wool shop is recession victim,” said the Yarmouth Mercury headline.

Many of her friends wept, and it was also a sad day for the firm’s loyal customers. Long-serving staff had become like family to her. But Olivettes was no more, after six decades consigned to being part of Yarmouth’s retailing history.

Its founder reflected: “As I look back on Olivettes early years, I am surprised that the business became so successful so quickly and prospered so well.

“I am also surprised that it helped make me become so well known in the town, with my name becoming synonymous with that of Olivettes – even to the extent of posters advertising a bazaar I was once to open for a charity reading, ‘To be opened by Mrs Olivettes’!

“It surprises me when I think back to the early me, that a young girl who was only in her twenties, with a background from probably the poorest part of town, and at a time when women were still expected to ‘keep their place’, had the ambition, energy, enthusiasm, drive and tenacity to open and sustain this venture and yet was still able to maintain some semblance of family life.”

Mrs Harvey died in 2000, aged 93, 10 years after the death of her 84-year-old husband.

In last week’s first part of the Olivettes story, I said founder Olive Harvey had worked at the Star Hotel. In fact, she worked for the Star Supply Stores in King Street.