Colmers of Bath and the New Zealand connection.

Colmers of Union Street in 1970.
Colmers of Union Street in 1970.

Last February the Virtual Museum of Bath featured ‘The Colmers Story’ – a specially produced booklet, published in 1970, to celebrate the centenary of the formerly struggling Bath drapery and furnishings business acquired by James Colmer in 1870.

James Colmer senior
James Colmer senior

The store in Union Street was to bear his name until 1973 when it was taken over by Owen and Owen. Both stores are no more but the building IS still in the retail business.

James Colmer was a Devon boy who learned the drapery trade in London before entering the department store business here in Bath – a city which already had Jolly and Son and Evans and Owen up and running as competitors.

Colmer's stores
Colmer’s stores

James was so successful – and his son after him – that shop after shop along Union Street came into the Colmer’s embrace. In 1914 a new shop front covered all the property under one name.

Though pitted with shrapnel the store escaped serious war damage and emerged to prosper and grow with new branches in Bristol and at Weston-super-Mare.

There was also growth at the Bath store with an extension and two new floors. Another branch opened in Taunton.

Our original coverage came to the notice of Jenny Reitze who made contact with the Virtual Museum from her home in Western Australia.

“I am  so glad to see Colmers is still remembered’ she said. ‘I am James Colmer’s eldest daughter – my sister lives in Wiltshire in England.’

Now – a whole year later – another branch of the family has chanced upon The Virtual Museum of Bath and its story about the Union Street business. This time it’s Chris Rickards who lives in New Zealand and whose grandmother – Gertrude Rickards – was a Colmer.

‘I am living in New Zealand in a city called New Plymouth. We left England in September 1949 by air from Croydon Airport – now a shopping centre.

It was due to the Colmer Trust that we were able to do this. Earlier we were looking at Canada and Australia as well as New Zealand on the £5 (1949 values) assisted passage. We travelled by Pan Am Airways stratocruiser with five days flying and two stop-overs.’

Chris thought he would like to share some family memories with us all. I have already put him in touch with Jenny Reitze in Western Australia.

‘The Rickards family moved from Bristol to a hastily built bungalow with concrete floors at number 22 Meadland Avenue, Corsham in 1941. My father worked for BAC at Filton and , when Bristol was bombed, BAC re-located to the underground quarries that were originally used to obtain Bath stone for city buildings.

I went first to a private school in Corsham, funded by my grandmother, Gertrude Rickards (née Colmer) who had the ability to obtain loan money from a Trust set up by James Colmer the First.

He set up this Trust following the early death of his first wife Fanny (née Jarvis) leaving five children under the age of ten. James extended this trust to include the children of his second marriage to Lydia Gumbleton. Gertrude – my grandmother – being one of several children.’

Following this early schooling in Corsham my next education was at Green Park College in Bath – not far from the former railway station. To get there l departed by bus from the Hare and Hounds pub on Pickwick Road. The journey ended at the original bus stop overlooking the Avon River – weir – and the Pulteney Bridge.

Early Colmer’s delivery lorry.

From here l walked to the college – sometimes visiting the Abbey on the way. Coming back home it was usual to call into Colmer’s tea rooms for a cookie or two with a fruit drink. I can well remember the almost Victorian style of the tea rooms and the well-dressed serving ladies.

James Colmer
James Colmer

Chris remembers that there was a custom required by James Colmer – who also became Mayor of Bath.

‘Staff had to address each other by their surnames when at work. If a married lady had the same name as another member of staff, they had to use their maiden name.

The custom was  ‘Mrs Smith or Miss Smith’ while for the men it was plain ‘Smith’. If James Colmer walked in at the start of the day, the staff custom was to stand in line, curtsy for the ladies, or doff your head if a man and say ‘Good morning Mr James.’ He would reply – ‘You are all doing very well.’

This is so-sounding like ‘Are You Being Served!’

Chris said that after the war was over his father left Corsham for Abergele in North Wales  – ‘ just prior to departing we were all entertained at afternoon tea by ‘the old boy’ himself at his shop in Union Street. We all had to be on our best behaviour too.’

‘When Gertrude Rickards (née Colmer) died in 1947, monies became available from the Colmer Estate for my parents and four children to migrate to New Zealand.’

It is fascinating stuff Chris. Regards to your wife Joan and thanks for sending this story – along with many illustrations – on a CD from New Zealand.