Barbers of Helston

Adapted from a paper of my late Grandfather

William Frederick IVEY

1903-2000

I am not going to try to recite the names of the long list of barbers who served the local community, but just to make a few notes of three. The first two are incidental, but unlike the fruit merchant who displayed all of his best quality merchandise on the top of the basket, I am keeping mine until I come to the bottom!

Barbers shops played an important part in the progression of social life in Helston.

It was in these premises that much of the local gossip was ventilated, challenges of strength were exchanged, stories of outstanding achievements were discussed, the penny newspaper passed from hands to hands to occupants who would sit on the hard bare, comfortless planks which served as seats, until the print had been almost rubbed off with the use they received.

Barbers shops were often the source of sensational news. I was in a chair having a penny haircut and I can remember the incident well. I was too small to be `operated on` in the usual sitting position and was kneeling in the chair, the large white apron had been tucked around my neck. `Barber COOK`, a bachelor who lived in wendron street with his sister, was attacking the job.. snip .. snip.. snip, removing a tuft of hair with each snip. There were no electric razors or clippers in those early days, electricity was unknown in Helston, as yet for several years to come.

Suddenly, a man rushed into the single room premises and announced in an agitated voice “THE KING IS SHOT” !!!!!!! Barber Cook dropped the comb and a customer awaiting his `turn` was so shocked that he had to have a drink of water to help him overcome his agitation.

Where the announcement originated I do not know. It was, mercifully, untrue! – The king referred to was H.M.King George V, accompanied by Queen Mary, they were on a visit to India in 1911 for the ceremonial Durbar of December 12th. Where the report originated and which was widely circulated in the town, I never knew, but we are at least grateful for its falsity….

It was the custom of many men folk to visit their favourite Barber on a Saturday night and have `Three pennyworth`. This would be a shave and a haircut and patrons would patiently sit on the hard benches, gossiping and smoking clay pipes. Those who did smoke puffed out clouds of reeking stinking shag and twist tobacco smoke and `expectorating` into enamel bowls spaced on the floor and packed with sawdust to receive the surplus discharge!!

Filthy it might appear by modern standards, but in the early 1900`s it was rather different. It was, it might be claimed, a part of the furniture! These utensils were expected to be provided for the use of customers. Some public houses too, were also provided with these `charming` cuspidors. It may be of interest to note that the Army & Navy Stores 1907 catalogue offered `SPITOONS` in Brass at 1/6 & 2/1 each.

I`ve heard of a frequenter of a country Pub who never missed at three yards! What a fascinating occupation and what a morbid subject, but we must remember that hygiene was a subject as yet in its infancy. Wireless or `Listener-Ins` as they were first known were as yet unknown. Yes it was known that a number of poles and a mass of wires everywhere could be seen as Poldu, near Mullion, which belied its name of `Wireless Station`? We had to wait for another generation before the word `Television` came into use…

In Meneage Street two Barbers Shops were situated almost opposite each other. On the left hand side on entering the town was Barber Joseph Henry ADDISON of 49 Meneage Street. He was a short portly man whom I have been told, was formerly a barber in the Army and apparently held the title of being its fastest shaver. This of course is open to query and I can`t recall where the information emanate, but I can vividly remember seeing him peering over his app’s door, viewing his opposite number.

Barber Edward John COOK was across the road in 48 Meneage Street. Whether they were on speaking terms or not, I do not know, but they must have been in agreement to some extent as the town Barbers, now progressing to the more agreeable term `Hairdressers` formed themselves into some sort of organisation and agreed not to cut schoolboys hair on Saturdays. It was a forerunner of a number of barber Shop notices to appear, none of which seem to be of much use or to subscribe to the comfort or financial advantage of their patrons……. Shaving was no longer 1d, there was a 100% increase here. It increased to 2d! Haircutting was now 4d. Schoolboys 2d but not Saturdays. It has been a long history of increases ever since, the present up trends are explained as `Inflation`!

Then there were the apprentices, starting wage 1/- per week. Duties included sweeping the floors of superfluous hair trimmings, which would be brushed out through the door, across the pavement and into the Kennel, at that time flowing conveniently alongside the walkway (Kennels in Meneage Street are now covered over). The little squares of shaving paper would be disposed of otherwise. After a period and depending on the apprentice, he would graduate to placing the apron around the clients neck and having adjusted the rest at the back of the neck (a very skilful job & delicate operation) the apprentice would be allowed (providing his aptitude was such) to apply a coating of lather. The Barber would then come along with an open razor (Cut-throat) and adopting an attitude as if to extract a tooth, would manipulate the fearsome weapon. The apprentice (if he was sufficiently skilled) would wipe the last visible evidence of soap and the boss would take the `tuppence` or whatever charge might have been and a voice would ring out NEXT!!!!!! The same performance would then be repeated with another client. Seldom did the clients suffer blood letting but we shall hear more about that later.

BARBER SURGEON

We cannot fail to have been intrigued by appearance outside the Barbers Shop of the highly coloured `Barbers Pole`.

Affixed outside, usually near the doorway, this decorated pole about five feet in length, was adorned with red, white and sometimes blue paint; a sign indicating that in the long distant past that `BLOOD LETTING` could be done here! The fillet round the pole signifies the ribbon which was bound round the arm before bleeding.

In former times in all countries, the business of a Barber and that of a Surgeon appear to have been regarded as having a natural affinity. In England in the reign of Henry VIII, the Surgeons & Barbers were incorporated into one Company, but strange to say, the very Act of parliament which does this draws a very sharp line between the functions which is to discharge. They are strictly prohibiting from encroaching on each other`s province: Barbers are not to draw teeth, Surgeons are not to `exercise the feat or craft of barbery or shaving`.

Two centuries later it was discovered that the functions in general of barbery & surgery were as independent of each other as the art of tooth-drawing is that of shaving! Accordingly, on the preamble that the business of a Barber was `foreign to and independent of the practice of surgery`, an Act was passed in the 18th year of King George II, dissolving the connection between the two bodies.

BACK TO HELSTON

Barber Cook used to stand and `expectorate` (returning to the old subject again) into the Kennel. I asked him once if he had ever misjudged his shots and he revealed his secret saying that he could see the reflection of anyone approaching up or down the street by watching Mrs Luggs shop window opposite.

When I was older I used to think sometimes that my life might have been in peril when seated in Barber Cooks chair waiting to be shaved. He would lower the neck rest which placed the victim in a very exposed or tempting position and I never appreciated his remark when he would say “Would`nt this be a fine throat to cut”! Perhaps he might have been reading about Sweeny Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street. I don`t think I would appreciate the prospect of being transposed into meat pies. Fortunately, perhaps there was no cellar in Barber Cooks premises.

With the ageing prospects of Barber Cook, who used to suffer terribly from rheumatism in his feet, his attendance at his barber shop became less and less frequent, until he made the journey no more. One day after an absence of some weeks the news was spread from his own Barber shop that Barber Cook had pased away.

The business was taken over by one time apprentice, a very efficient craftsman in his own, Arthur Thomas, the son of a local Postman. Arthur was a very accommodating young man who was well liked in the town. He suffered an impediment in his speech and stammered. This did not prevent Arthur seeking pastures new. He pursued his calling out of the County for a while and later returned to St Keverne to become a Dairyman & Milk Vender.

On the opposite side in Meneage Street Barber Addison plied his trade. His shop was entered by a step down, unlike Mr Cook`s which was a step up.

Mr. Addison had a number of children of both sexes. Amongst his other accomplishments, he was a draughts/chequers player and on one particular day I received the cane for being late at afternoon school due to the insistence that I played draughts with one of his boys. I had two beatings that day, one from Mr William Hall (School Master) and the other from Barber Addison’s boy on the chequer board. Mr Hall (known as `Shaker` behind his back), it would appear, was not very sympathetic to the game of draughts!

Well that disposes of a couple of Helstons former Barbers and now we arrive at a third. A highly respected citizen of the town, a master tradesman, and noted impersonator was our own Peter Sandry. He was known far and wide as a character humourist.

No doubt some of you have read the late Mr. A.S.Oates book `Around Helston in the Old Days` which has a whole chapter dedicated to his antics. Anyway, I knew Peter well and had on more than one occasion turned the wheel of a contraption for him. I suppose it had a name but I don`t know it. However, attached to it was a length of rope serving as a belt which rotated a brush affair. For want of a better description I would compare it with a pantry rolling pin with bristles attached, held by Peter behind a partition. I believe the objective was to simulate the scalp or something, perhaps to remove dandruff. Anyway, a tap on the screen was a signal to commence turning the wheel. The first time that I turned the handle of this machine I twirled it around as fast as my puny strength permitted and received an entreaty from the other side to “go slower boy”! I can`t remember what happened, it was bordering on 70 years ago that the incident occurred. Peter was won`t to enlist the aid of anyone on the cheaper side of the screen or partition to function this weird machinery.

Peter was a joy to know. When he `got going` there was no holding him. Whenever it was announced that one of the artiste to appear at local concerts or entertainments, as they were more frequently announced and often held in the remotest places in the peninsula, it was an open invitation for a crowded attendance.

I feel that I must recount a personal experience of such an entertainment which took palace in the former Sunday School at Lowertown, near Helston. Peter would always pick out some usually popular local character. He would appear on Stage attired with white apron; which he frequently used the corner of to wipe away a tear from his eye, and went on to relate his experience of a trip to the `Scilly Isles`.

It was the day of `Lowertown Regatta`. All incoming and outgoing mail steamers had to remain in the outer harbour and Harbour Master James Harvey (shrieks of laughter) had to control the shipping. Joe Johns (more shrieks) won the upstream wheelbarrow race…. and so it went on. I knew Mr. Johns well and we always had a good laugh when the little incident of the upstream wheelbarrow race was mentioned. But the trip to the `Isles` took all prizes for sheer hilarity. Peter started off well but when he got out in the `bay` and the `ships roll` started to have an effect on his stomach, which was conveyed by the rolling of his eyes. Soon he commenced to show signs of sea sickness, suiting his actions to his supposed appearance. Not a word being spoke but people roaring with laughter. Some had to go outside to relieve the pressure of their own stomachs. I have never seen anything like it before or since!

Well that is it. I hope you have enjoyed my own stories of the `Barbers of Helston`.

William Frederick Ivey

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