The Chandler: a woman in a man’s world

The lifeblood of a river faring village is its chandlery. For Elizabeth Copper, it was her life for over 50 years. I spent a fascinating morning with her and I’m sharing her story as told to me in her own unique way.

The Cabin Yacht Stores closed its doors to business ten years ago. Elizabeth was 75 years old and finally, able to take a rest. She recalls:

“When we first came, the grocery store next door had this piece of land that had a very very old corrugated building on it. Must’ve been there for a lot of years and it seems that at weekends it was sometimes used for a little weekend cafe. There was no-one renting it so the gentleman in the shop said to us, would you like to rent that shop so you’ve got somewhere to keep all your bits and pieces, your equipment, all your tools and paint? So we took it on and when I was first taken to see it, it still had – and I’ve still got it – the glass cake case, with the sliding door, with some old pies in it!”

workshop1

“We then used it as our workshop because we worked on the boats along the club. They were  mostly wooden boats but also there were fibreglass ones of all different classes. We did the repair work and painting, getting them ready for the season.

My husband did tuition in the evening, for teaching people how to tie knots, the ones that are really needed  – we did show them some fancy rope work but the main thing was the practical part of it. My husband did the extra work in the evening because in our trade you didn’t make a fortune. You hardly make a living but you try to sort of manage. Well, you’ve got to because there’s no-one else, when you’re in business on your own you haven’t got any handouts. And it doesn’t matter if you’re unwell, you’ve still got to work.”

Rope1

“It’s nice to be your own business and once you have been, it’s very difficult to go back to be doing what you had done before.

Changing circumstances

“The Portland Cement company owned the whole village, except the pubs and corner shop. Having rehoused a lot of people from the old weatherboard cottages, they asked us if we’d like to rent a bigger cottage. Well, people had been wanting to buy paint that we were using on their boats, and the work clothes that we were using and so we grew into a business.We didn’t want it as a shop though, because you’re then tied to hours, whereas with boats you can have a bit more free time to go out on the river now and again and have a bit of a holiday and it really grew without you knowing it. For years we were in that old cottage, very cold, very dark and dismal but from that old building we sold nautical books all over the world.

It’s interesting, some of the letters that you had from people elsewhere, and surprising that from this little village so many parcels went out. And of course we bought books from America, as some boat building books aren’t published in this country and the very clever designers often were American.”

anchor

“Then things happened in my life to change it so that I was then left as a sole owner with my children to feed. With my husband’s passing, the business was me on my own handling big heavy chains, cutting up with a hacksaw –  a good life (she gave an ironic laugh at this point) but I’m still here to tell the tale – I was only a little tiny person. I did have muscle but you’d just got to get on with it, whatever’s going brings you a few pence.”

Keeping an eye on the beginners!

“As club members, you were allowed as a group to put the moorings down on a specified day with the club until some years ago they realised how dangerous it was for people that weren’t usually doing that sort of work. They were usually in their offices so when they’re on a boat doing a duty playing about with chains, going over a winch, there could have been some very bad accidents. Lucky enough there wasn’t. If you’ve got a couple of people who know what they’re doing in the boat, they tell these other – what I call office workers, who were useless to do practical work, they were clever but not practical – they (experienced boat handlers) would say, just sit there and unwind that or do something else, to keep them out of danger and the ones that could, did the job. You even had to tell these people going out to do their duty on the boat in freezing cold weather to wear suitable clothing, warm clothing, because otherwise they’d be sitting there shivering and you’d have to come back because they’d be getting hypothermia!

Now of course it’s all done commercially, for which people have to pay out more, but it’s the safest thing.”

Boat

Customer satisfaction …

“The men, when they came into the yacht chandlers, they’d be gazing at a wall of fittings for a long, long time. Some of the wives were part of it but some would sit in their cars as they weren’t that interested, and they’d come in after a while and there’d be a husband drinking a coffee and still gazing at the wall, deciding on what he wanted to buy and then there’d be a little conflab! And then he’d say, ‘we’ve decided we want to have that, will you put that to one aside for us – I’ll come back and see you again’ – because if it was more money than they were allowed to spend it would be a problem!

But other wives, who were sailors, would come in and help decide. Other people would do homework with the catalogues at home and come in and discuss things with you. Whether it was right for the job they wanted to do and if it wasn’t something we stocked then of course we got it for them, quite quickly and easily.”

wall stuff

“Big businesses in the area had staff to actually get items for them, as a lot of our gear wasn’t just used on boats, it was handy in other trades. The firm’s people would come in with a list: this is what we’d like to have. I’d work out how much it was all going to be and get money up front, because I didn’t wait six months for my money. And they were quite willing to do that, because they knew if they gave me that list that would be with them when they wanted it. If they gave it to their staff, they’d still be yelling for it when the job needed to be done. But it seemed strange to me, paying someone in an office and they’re not getting on with it – because of lot of it is detective work, when you’re trying to find things – gear –  it’s not always in a catalogue, a lot of stuff has to be made by a tradesman. Blacksmiths made a lot of traditional fittings etc and of course we had the contacts – we would give them the drawing and get it done.”

The chandler’s craft

“We made up all the wires for the boats ourselves on our machine and I was everlasting hanging onto a bit of wire measuring and whatever, and also the hand splicing of various ropes, some of it very, very artistic work in some respect. With some of the new fangled ropes, it wasn’t only 3 ply, it was lots of plaited ropes and you had to learn how to do that special splice that didn’t rob the rope of too much strength. It had to be done well and truly yachtman like so it looks very neat. A lot of it is handicraft but I didn’t have patience to do the braid on braid work, it took a long time, to fiddle with the needle. It was interesting the sort of work that we did, and people would come to us instead of a supermarket chandlers because of the atmosphere.”

Boats

“The yacht chandlery business was hard work and interesting, I’ve had some wonderful customers and friends over the years, and still have along the clubs, you know; a few of them have departed. which is sad. There were a few cottages left and I knew the people who lived in them, just to say ‘good morning, goodnight’ to as I walked to my business.

It was a different world, we all used to help each other. And Easter time if customers were on their way down and they’d get some hot cross buns, they’d always fetch us in some – a nice thought, wasn’t it?

Because I was born at the time I was born I’ve never wasted anything, reusing and recycling all my life, it isn’t something new. Parents were much more frugal, it was second nature. Good parents show you the way  – how to be a banker, how to turn a penny into a tuppence.

I could have sold as a going concern but didn’t want to leave my roots. Would’ve been easier than having to look after an old building – and an old body!”