If a house can tell a thousand stories, a shop certainly can too. This shop’s journey through time began in 1928, when Filton was a new suburb, created to cater for all the new workers at Filton Aircraft Factory. 32 Gloucester Road North was just one of a rank of newly built shops, ideally situated for workers going to and from the factory.
In the same year it was bought by Harry and Elizabeth Bennett, who had a son named Wilf who was just about to leave Cirencester Grammar School to start an apprenticeship at the factory. Harry and Elizabeth named their shop “W.C Bennett & Co”, and stocked it with newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, cigars, chocolate and sweets.
When Wilf completed his apprenticeship, he became an Inspector in the factory and was still working there when the second world war arrived in 1939. In future years, Elizabeth would tell her grandchildren about the daylight raid on the aircraft factory in 1940, when many people were killed. She remembered seeing the planes flying over and hearing the sounds of the bombs dropping, and then waiting many terrifying hours before she received the news that her son was safe. Because Wilf was a special constable, he had remained at the factory to bravely try and rescue people who were trapped in the wreckage.
Later that year, Wilf was called up to the 4/7 Royal Dragoon Guards. Promoted to the role of Corporal, he went on to command a tank on D Day, and take part in many tank battles in Normandy.
At the end of the war, Wilf returned to Bristol safely, and when Harry and Elizabeth retired, he took over the management of Bennett’s. In 1951, unbeknown to him, his life was to change when he travelled to London for a sales course for Parker pens. While there, he was to meet his future wife, Isabel Allan, the manager of a stationer’s shop in Douglas, Isle of Man. Isabel and Wilf started to write and phone each other and in 1952, six months after first encounter, they married, and Isabel settled in Filton to run Bennett’s with her new husband. A year later they were to have the first of two children, Heather and Alan.
(1951, Wilfred and Isabel’s wedding day, standing in back garden of Bennett’s. L – R: Harry and Elizabeth Bennett, Wilf and Isabel, and friends)
With their business experience and expertise combined, Wilf and Isabel built up Bennett’s to be a thriving local business. They introduced a new card department featuring a huge variety of greetings cards, a deep freeze with Lyons ice cream, and ices such as Fab and Zoom lollies, and a gift section too, selling items like Parker pens, purses and smoking accessories, such as pipes.
There was a also a magazine rack; if the magazine a customer wanted wasn’t in stock, then Wilf would order it for you. Newspapers were stocked such as the Evening Post, plus comics too, including The Eagle, Look and Learn, Diana and Bunty.
Bennett’s also stocked the Green Un, the football results paper, and Saturday afternoons in the 1960s would see the shop filled with local men and boys waiting for the paper to be delivered with the reports of that day’s matches.
Wilf and Isabel’s daughter Heather, now a grandmother herself, remembers a variety of people employed to work in Bennett’s over the years. She explains: “The people who worked in the shop were our ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ when we were very young. We had Uncle Sid and Aunty Margaret in the 50s. I was bridesmaid when Aunty Margaret got married. There seemed to be a happy working atmosphere in the shop. I remember Mrs Bowden, Mrs Curthoys, Mrs Wellman and Mrs Painter from later years. Also Mr Bishop (“Old Bish”) who did lots of the paper rounds, wearing a huge black oilskin. Mrs Wiltshire helped Mum with the home, as Gran was 80 in 1961.”
When the rationing of sweets ended in 1953, Bennett’s confectionary department expanded. One entire wall was covered with jars of sweets to be weighed on scales and put into bags for the customers, and there was a variety of chocolate bars too.
To the further delight of local children, a toy department was also introduced. There were lots of toys such as dolls, and lots of LEGO, model making kits and more. Raymond Williams recounts his memories: “My mum Doris worked there in the mid-sixties. I remember getting Corgi Toys for Christmas and bits for my Hornby trainset”.
Andy Buckley also remembers the toys: “Bennett’s was one of my favourite shops at Filton Park. The model makers mecca that was at the back of Bennett’s shop sold all sorts of model kits, including now rarer Aurora kits from the USA, and I had as many as 120+ Airfix and Revell aircraft kits hanging from my childhood bedroom ceiling thanks mainly due to this shop.
“The shop also sold all sorts of pocket money toys including Lego specialist parts in small boxes, Matchbox cars, Dinky and Corgi cars and spares, Lone Star cap guns (mine was confiscated when I took it to school) among many other items of schoolboy interest – including miniature Jetex solid fuel rocket engines that the braver could strap to a Dinky Toy car.”
In the 60s Yo-yos became popular and Bennett’s even had a visit from a Champion Yo-yo-er to demonstrate!
Excitingly for local schoolchildren, a range of fireworks was also introduced to Bennett’s; these were all displayed in a special glass cabinet that was brought out every year a couple of weeks before 5th November.
Local woman, Lyn Evans, has strong memories of the fireworks at Bennett’s: “I can remember my Dad taking me there to buy my fireworks from a display cabinet. I am 70 now. Such memories. Wilf opened the shop after hours for me to choose my fireworks; it was magical”.
Wilf and Isabel’s children regularly helped in the shop, and Heather’s Saturday job in the late 1960s was to weigh out the sweets and put them in bags for the customers. Both Heather and Alan also had regular paper rounds, plus extra rounds if someone failed to turn up. They would also enjoy the trip with their Dad to the wholesalers.
But one of Heather’s favourite jobs was looking after the shop’s stock of toys: “One of my favourite jobs as I got older was cleaning out the glass cabinet with Brittain’s farm animals, zoo animals and soldiers in. Then I used to carefully replenish the lines of plastic animals.”
Heather and Alan also used to enjoy frequent trips to the wholesalers with their dad. Heather explains: “Especially near Christmas when Dad used to go and look for toys that customers had requested. So much business in those days was driven by good customer service – if my Dad didn’t have something in stock he would write the order in “The Book” and go and find it at one of the wholesalers. At Christmas my parents were worked off their feet until 6pm on Christmas Eve. Quite often there was no time for them to wrap our presents and we would find a pillow case at the end of our beds on Christmas day, filled with suitable things from the shop. We still believed in Father Christmas – I am not sure how!”
The 1960s brought big changes – and challenges – to Bennett’s. Tragically, in the early 1960s, Harry Bennett was knocked down by a motorbike on Gloucester Road and he sadly died a few weeks before Christmas in 1961. By this time, he and Elizabeth had been living with Wilf, Isabel, Heather and Alan at the shop for a few years.
Then, the cinema across the road from Bennett’s shut down and was instead replaced by Fine Fare supermarket; this sold sweets and cigarettes for less than Wilf could buy them for which directly impacted their business. To fight back against the supermarkets, Wilf and other newsagents set up a group buying scheme called “Knowle Confectionery”.
In 1965 Isabel was ill and had to have an operation, though fortunately she recovered well. Wilf became President of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents in the same year and the annual conference was held in Isabel’s homeland – the Isle of Man.
Wilf and Isabel steadfastly remained in their shop for a few more years, working long, hard hours. Wilf would get up every day at 5am for the papers, count them out and put them in the news bags ready for the paper boys’ arrival, and then he would open up the shop about 6.30am. Wilf had a new shop front installed; this remains to this present day.
In 1970, decimalisation took place and the old system of pounds shillings and pence was gone. Wilf and Isabel had to install new tills to cater for the new coinage and Heather and Alan would often help their parents cashing up at the end of the day, a task which was usually completed by about 6.30pm.
In 1971, Elizabeth Bennett was 90 years old and needed looking after; as Wilf Bennett was nearly 60, he decided it was time to retire and took the decision to sell Bennett’s. Bristol Evening Post Kiosk took the shop on first, then it was rented and later bought by a local woman named Mrs Jogia.
To this day, living and working in Bennett’s has left an indelible mark on Heather Bennett: “I still cannot go into a Newsagents shop without mentally comparing it to Bennett’s. I have yet to find a better newsagents! I also hate poor customer service – you would not dare talk to my mother if she was serving a customer – you would be ignored and told off later! I try to ‘shut off’ when going into a shop nowadays when staff talk to each other and don’t speak to me – their Customer!”
Today 32 Gloucester Road North is The Little Bathroom and Boiler Company and is owned by James Jesson, who was himself raised in the local area. James opened the shop in 2020 and sells stylish bathroom fixtures and fittings, as well as boilers. James is a husband and father of three children and he aims for his own shop to be a family-friendly local business which thrives for many years, just like Bennett’s was many years before.
James is fascinated by the history of 32 Gloucester Road North and keen for the shop’s history, and the people who have lived in it throughout its 93 years, to not be forgotten.
Thank you to Heather Bennett, and all the local people who shared their memories of Bennetts, helping to create this article.