Quenby's The Oldest Island Chemist
Written by Miall James and published in 'The Bulletin' in 1980
Not, of course the original, because, as he used to advertise in all the local magazines and newspapers, that distinction belonged to the late C.P.Venables, who opened his shop in the High Street in 1929. Norah Quenby came from Hertford with a loan from one of the wholesalers, and the assistance of her brother-in-law, an old-established Pharmacist in that town, in October 1933 to open a chemist’s at 72 Furtherwick Road, or as it was then known, 8 Furtherwick Parade. For the past 47 years the company has traded on that site, although of course there have been many changes, both in personnel and in the sort of work done.
Back in 1933 there was no N.H.S. I and many people had to pay for their medicines. Fortunately the prices were very much lower than today, as an examination of the prescription records shows. Unfortunately the earliest books have been mislaid, but even in 1942 the first entry is for Baby Lessons, for some ear drops, and the recorded charge is 9d. (3 ¾p) Later on Master Webb needed some Golden Eye Ointment, and for this his mother was asked to pay the princely sum of 6d. (2½ p) No wonder the pharmacists qualification M.P.S. was wryly said to mean not Member of the Pharmaceutical Society but ‘Mostly Pennyworths Sold’.
In those days the shop was much smaller, and the staff restricted to Miss Norah Quenby and her younger sister, Jean, who left about the time that Norah met and married one of the teachers at the Island school, Ray James, who had came from South Wales in 1934. In size of shop, too, things were very different. Anyone looking at the Furtherwick Road premises now can see, just where the staircase goes up to the cosmetic department, a beam. This marks the back wall of the old shop. Until the early fifties’ all sales and dispensing were carried out in that small area, with the James’ living behind and above. They had quite spacious accommodation, too, with a dining room (with a diamond shaped window through which one could see if anyone had come in the shop during a meal), a kitchen, and a garden running down to the little service road at the back, which is now just wide enough for the dustmen. Upstairs were two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a room used as a sitting room, but which, when visitors came sometimes doubled as a bedroom. There was also a stockroom, with a sort of french doors, which stood about where the present fitting and interview room is now.
That explains the James’ but what of the Harts? During the War Mrs. James had as assistant, Miss Violet Hart, whose younger brother later took an interest in pharmacy, while still at Southend High School. Eventually much later after qualifying and completing his National Service he took over the running of the Long Road branch, which had been established in 1947 about where Loe’s, the Builders now stands in The Village. Just before that expansion had come to Canvey that other figure, well known to many Islanders over the years, Norman Penny, who joined Quenby’s in 1946, after demobilisation ‘to give the place a try for 10 years, and maybe then move on’. The idea of having another pharmacist was to let Mrs. James look after her growing family, but somehow the writer doesn’t seem to remember much home life for his mother, and all three directors worked very hard to establish a sound business. Mr. James gave up teaching shortly after the war to devote himself to the business side of things, Mr. Penny was responsible for matters pharmaceutical and between mangers at the Long Road branch, Mrs. James ran that, covered for holidays and generally practised her profession.
The coming of the N.H.S. was kind to the profession of pharmacy generally, and to the pharmacists of the expanding town of Canvey particularly. One could never say that the James, Penny’s and Venables were friends, but there was no hostility or particular rivalry, and both firms shared a duty rota and lent each other out of stock items to ensure a good service to the people. It is from these days when there were only two chemists in the rota that the custom dates of having no-one open on Christmas Day. Mr Penny, Mrs James and Mr Venables were always willing to turn out for emergencies and felt that, in those circumstances, it was not necessary to have, every other year, to spend (in those days) two hours on Christmas day in the shop. This co-operation is also the reason that on Canvey the chemist who is open one day of a Bank Holiday weekend is also open the Sunday. It did mean that Mr. Venables and Mr. Penny got two successive days off.
During the ‘fifties Furtherwick Road was the Island’s major shopping centre, and the companies premises there were expanded. Early on the shop was extended into the whole ground floor, and when the writer started work, prior to going to college, in 1957 there was upstairs a Christmas cosmetic showroom, and a small photo room, although most of the latter sales took place in the body of the shop itself. During that time too, Quenby’s moved off the Island, opening a branch in the then sleepy village of Thundersley, and later another in Rayleigh, which has since been sold.
One cannot leave Quenby’s in the ‘fifties without mentioning that traumatic experience, the flood, of February 1953. Neither shop was badly affected, although some seafront premises, then being used for storage, were, and all the labels came off the bottles. The James’ were living in Benfleet then, but the Pennys had to be evacuated and like many others found temporary accommodation with friends in Benfleet. A temporary dispensary was established in the King John School for the evacuees there, and a skeleton service maintained from Furtherwick Road for those few who had remained, as Mr. Venables’ premises had been flooded.
If the ‘fifties were a time of expansion and, generally, of increasing prosperity, the ‘sixties were the time of change. First of all, The Village business was moved to the present site, at 171, Long Road, much more suitable premises recently built by Albert Jones. The population at the west end of Canvey had not increased much since the ‘forties, but that in the Syderveldt Road area had.
Next, as mentioned earlier, Harold Hart returned from National Service with his degree and Mrs. James was finally able to retire for good, although she is still chairman of the company, and takes a close interest in its affairs. Mr. Hart soon became a director, the first newcomer to the board since the change to a limited company in 1950. The third change was rather more gradual, in that the writer, who had qualified from Sunderland Polytechnic in 1962, returned to the area in 1963, but not to Canvey. The old-established pharmacy of L. H. Fox in Benfleet came up for sale, and a new company, Miall James Ltd., was formed to take this over.
In 1965 it was decided to put a manager in there, and bring the second generation to 72 Furtherwick Road to work alongside Mr. Penny, who had after all, earned a bit of a break. Three years later Mr. Venables decided that at 80 years of age he had had enough, and Quenby’s bought him out, Norman Penny going round the corner to the High Street. Sadly, Mr. Venables didn’t enjoy a long retirement, dying within about six months. Sweet Briar Walk, alongside his shop was renamed Venables’ Close in his memory. 1967 had seen the arrival of the Co-op pharmacy in Furtherwick Road, and after the early suspicion natural enough the old co-operation that had existed with Mr. Venables was renewed with the newcomer.
During the ‘seventies the new generation got their teeth into things and changes took place. The Thundersley and Benfleet shops had been modernised in 1965 and 1969: in 1972 the old Venables’ pharmacy was radically altered, and the flat above, unoccupied since the ‘thirties made habitable again. The shop was extended and the dispensary combined with the medicine sales area. 1975 saw the firm’s most ambitious capital work when the first floor showroom was built at the Furtherwick Road premises. The downstairs had been becoming increasingly crowded, and the cosmetic and photographic departments were nearly bursting at the seams, and although first floor premises are unusual on Canvey there seemed little choice. The decision was taken and the work completed just in time for Christmas. The older generation retired from active participation during this period, and the current managing director is Mr. Miall James, with Mr. Harold Hart superintendent pharmacist, and by the end of the decade they had initiated two more developments, one commercial, the other purely pharmaceutical (although it will have to make a profit).
On the one hand the photographic department was moved out into the Knightswick Shopping Centre and on the other the decision was taken to operate a pharmacy in the proposed health centre, to be built in Third Avenue, off Link Road. Work was started on this at the end of 1979 and it is expected that the pharmacy will open during the summer of 1980.
Over the years the James’, Penny’s and Hart’s have been active in the life of the island, in various facets, and have taken the name of Canvey into national affairs. The tradition started with Ray James, who became involved with the Canvey Chamber of Trade, held most offices locally and finally became treasurer of the national body, and a member of the Distributive Industry Training Board. During the late ‘fifties and early’ sixties he tried twice to gain a seat on the local and County Council, once as Independent and once as Conservative, both times unsuccessfully. He was a governor of several local schools, including Furtherwick Park for several years. In 1953 a member of the flood relief committee and for several years a member of the old Canvey Island Hospital Committee, which tried to establish a cottage hospital on the island. Unfortunately the N.H.S. authorities blocked this proposal, and the money collected over many years was used to establish the occupational therapy centre in Little Gypps.
The writer, Miall James, has carried on this tradition, even to the unsuccessful candidature for Council, this time as Liberal. (Perhaps in years to come someone from Quenby’s will try for the Council in the Labour interest and actually get elected)
My other interest has been pharmaceutical affairs, and although only in 1980 elected to national office, I have been for several years a member of several county committees, and it is through one of these, the Family Practitioner Committee of the N.H.S. that I have been able to play some part in pressing the case for the health centre. Norman Penny and Harold Hart have both been active in Church affairs, the former as a Methodist, the latter at St. Nicholas, being for some Years a member of the Parochial Church Council.
Ray James’ early teaching experience spilled over into Quenby’s in the form of a commitment to staff training. Very early on, staff were encouraged to go to cosmetic and other product knowledge schools, and when formal education for assistants was introduced with the Industrial Training Act the, company co-operated enthusiastically, but of course with one director on the training board, the others didn’t have much choice. Over the years some 14 young pharmacists have received part or all of their post-graduate training with Quenby’s and many have gone on to run their own pharmacies very successfully, and not only in Britain.
We have also trained many technicians and several of our staff have gained high marks in City and Guild’s examinations. Formal education though is not everything, and the practical experience of nary of the company’s long service staff, and several are near or over the 20 year mark, is very useful to the many islanders who daily seek help and advice on all sorts of matters.