I don’t know where I first found out about the traditional hardware shop and heritage museum in Cockermouth – it wasn’t featured in my ‘111 Places’ book so maybe it was on a leaflet picked up from somewhere a couple of years ago – but while I was in town getting the antihistamines for my horsefly bite I thought I may as well check the place out.
Around 1829 John Banks opened a tin smithy business in a building at the rear of what is now the hardware shop, then in 1836 he added a plumber’s workshop to the tin smithy and opened the shop at the front, with the deeds of the property being signed by William Wordsworth’s father who was then the land agent for Lord Lowther. John’s son, also named John, later joined his father in the business which then became J B Banks & Son. As well as being a successful businessman John Banks was also a local personality of some influence and his proposal that there should be proper control over the ownership of guns eventually led to the introduction of the gun licence.
In 1902 the business employed 16-year old Wilfred Jackson. Every day he would cycle to and from his home, five miles each way, and often acted as the delivery boy, carrying all manner of items for neighbours and customers on his bike. In 1923, at the age of 37 and by then a partner in J B Banks & Son, Wilfred married Daisy Emerson who had a confectionery business in the town and their son Jack was born in 1926. Wilfred worked full time until he had major surgery at the age of 72 then he resumed work on a part time basis until his death at the age of 78.
On January 5th 1933 the business became a limited company and in 1942, at the age of 16, Jack Jackson joined his father Wilfred in the firm, though he took a break from the business in 1944 when he joined the Royal Marines for three years. In 1957 he married Dorothy Eckford and they went on to have three children, Kay, Alan and Vanessa. In 1958 Peter Chandler, who had been Jack’s best man, joined him in the shop and worked there for many years until he retired through ill health.
Jack Jackson, like John Banks before him, was a man of many parts. He was a founder member and President of the Cockermouth Mountain Rescue Team established in 1953, and by the late 1960s he had bought out the remaining ‘sleeping partner’ in the business. In his spare time he collected all kinds of local memorabilia, particularly antique locks and keys, and in 1969 he became a magistrate, only retiring in 1996 when he reached the age of 70.
On three separate occasions between 1950 and 1970 the shop front was damaged after being hit by lorries going uphill on nearby Castlegate, the steep and narrow road going out of the town. All three lost control on the ascent and slipped backwards, crashing into the shop front. It was also in the late 1960s that the shop was extended backwards and joined to the separate tin smithy at the rear, and it was then that the long forgotten well was discovered in the former shop yard
As a young girl Jack’s youngest daughter Vanessa would get pocket money for cleaning all the brass scales and weights and polishing the mahogany shop counters, then she officially joined the payroll in 1985 at the age of 22. The firm also owns the commercial and residential premises behind and above the business and Vanessa managed the letting of these premises as well as working in the shop. When Vanessa passed away in 2018 at the age of 55 her role was taken over by her daughter Sarah who had become the fourth generation of the family firm when she joined in 2014, and now with Sarah and her dad, Chris, who has taken a more active role in the business, J.B Banks continues to serve its customers and community.
The heritage museum came about as a result of the devastating flood of November 19th 2009 when the rivers Cocker and Derwent, which meet in the town, burst their banks after heavy rainfall. The shop was flooded to a depth of 4.5ft, counters were overturned, stock was ruined and silt was left everywhere. The clean up and salvage operation took eight weeks, during which ruined stock was removed, the whole floor was replaced, stained and aged and the counters were repaired, cleaned and polished.
Due to an accumulation of paperwork and items collected and stored upstairs over many years there had been no room to put things during the flood so realising that space was needed in case of an emergency Vanessa and expert locksmith Ken Day, who joined the business in 1963 and is still there, took on the task of sorting through everything on the first floor during 2010. With nearly 200 years of history to go through it took quite some time to identify and label all the items found in the old workshop; while many items were retained others were sold and local archives took some of the interesting paperwork for their records.
The workshop and office were left as authentic as possible, with original ‘sit up and beg’ desks, high stools and typewriters from different eras in the office, while in the workshop a massive workbench running the length of six windows was left with vices, hammers, anvils, pipe benders and more, looking just as if the workers had put down their tools and gone home for the day. Once everything was sorted out the public were allowed through the rear doors of the shop on a regular basis from 2011.
Entering the shop from the sunlit street was like stepping into another era. Even though it does sell plenty of modern day items it looked just like the independent hardware shops I remember from my childhood, where you could get almost anything no matter how obscure it was. It also reminded me of the classic Two Ronnies ‘Four Candles’ sketch, and looking round this shop I was in no doubt that it would be possible to buy four candles – or even fork handles.
Through the door at the back of the shop the ground floor of the museum was a mixture of antique tools and equipment, memorabilia and old signs and school photographs, with a unique ATCO Trainer car and the old well in one corner. There’s a long-standing rumour that there may be a secret passage in the well, connecting it to the nearby castle, but so far no-one has ever tried to find it.
The ATCO Trainer car was manufactured by Charles H Pugh Ltd of Birmingham, a company better known for the production of lawn mowers. After the introduction of the Highway Code in 1931 and compulsory driving tests in 1935 the car was designed as a Safety First trainer car for school children, to help stem the rising numbers of road casualties by giving them basic training in car handling and road sense from an early age. Built around a 1939 ATCO lawn mower with the cutters removed it had a 98cc 2-stroke petrol engine in the back and scaled-down versions of a full-size car’s controls, with the accelerator, brake and clutch pedals all in the normal positions. With a speed of 8-10mph starting was by a pull handle between the two seats and there was just one forward and one reverse gear.
The original plan was to sell these cars in great numbers to schools and local authorities as part of a nationwide road safety initiative, a plan which received widespread backing from the press, politicians and the House of Lords, and distribution was to be through the motor trade and established ATCO lawn mower outlets. The cars were launched on June 16th 1939 but after only 250 had been built the project was cancelled with the outbreak of World War 2; it was estimated that 200 had been sold with the rest being broken up for the war effort.
With the introduction of fuel rationing, and the car’s small engine being able to achieve a distance of up to 80 miles on just one gallon of petrol, some of the cars were registered for the road to be used by adults rather than children and the Sunday Chronicle of November 26th 1939 featured a picture of an Oxford businessman driving a road registered ATCO Trainer through city centre traffic.
The wooden staircase to the upper floor of the museum was decorated on both sides with a large collection of old locks and keys, from simple padlocks to plate locks, penny-in-the-slot toilet door locks and even police cell locks. Set back in a corner at the top of the stairs was the small office with its high desks and stools, pre-war items, advertisements and paperwork, all looked over by an oil painting of John Banks.
The rest of the large space featured the long workbench and tools of the tin smithy and plumber’s workshop on the right while on the left floor-to-ceiling racks contained a diverse mix of tools and various other objects collected over the space of many years, from clogs and clog irons rescued from the old cobbler’s shop next door to a more up-to-date bus stop sign.
If I had read the labels on most of the items in there I would have been there for hours but with only an hour for on-street parking I couldn’t linger too long, so with three quick photos of the nearby streets with their colourful houses and shops I made my way back to the van.
The shop is open Mondays to Saturdays from 9am to 5pm and the museum from 9am to 4pm. There’s no charge to look round the museum but there’s a visitors’ book and an unobtrusive donation box on a table near the foot of the stairs. Visitors can take as many photos as they want and dogs are welcome in both the shop and the museum. If anyone reading this is ever in the Cockermouth area then I can recommend a visit to step back in time for while – it’s a fascinating place.