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The story of William Cowe and Sons

On 8th January, Cameron Robertson told TillVAS members and visitors the fascinating story of William Cowe and Sons, founders of the well-known shop on Bridge Street famous for Berwick Cockles.

William Cowe had started a tea and grocery business in Marygate in 1848. When he died in 1867 his wife ran the business until his children came of age. The business grew, and when the Weatherhead family decided to sell their larger premises on Bridge Street in 1886, Mrs Cowe bought it. Mr Weatherhead had been a confectioner making a speciality boiled sweet called a Berwick Cockle and the recipe was passed on with the purchase of the shop.

The business flourished, thanks partly to the shop being in prime position for visitors to Berwick. Everyone crossed by the old bridge and passed the tempting window displays showing not only groceries but tins of cockles and bags of ‘Cowes muck’ – the scraps of sweet left after the cockle shapes had been sieved. Two vending machines had to be installed close by to prevent visitors going home disappointed when the shop was shut.

The family was also very skilled in advertising, mentioning their sweets as ‘original cockles’, implying their superiority to those made by their local rivals. By about 1900 they were able to add ‘By Royal Appointment’ to their slogan thanks to Princess Mary Adelaide. While she was unlikely to have ever eaten them she was well known for being a bit short of money. It may have been beneficial to both parties to register her approval of the cockles!

The actual workshop where the cockles were made was very modest, providing work space for a master and his apprentice. When Andrew Hay, master Cockle maker, was imprisoned in Germany during the war he came home to find the workshop in a dangerous state. He made repairs and began work again. When the business up and running again it was helped back onto the map by a visit from Richard Dimbleby on ‘Down Your Way’.

Perhaps for a number of reasons cockle production ceased in 2002. The shop closed completely in 2010 and in 2013 the building was bought by ARCH. It was in a dangerous condition and had to be demolished but the frontage and other artefacts such as the original door were retained. To help understand the story of the building, the demolition was documented by photographer Cameron Robertson. Many artefacts were found including the moulds for the cockles and photographs showed the two hooks for pulling the hot sugar mixture, one for the master and one for the apprentice, still on the wall. The history of the building was revealed in more detail with evidence of a very early thatched structure and a fireplace of the 1500s.

The audience responded warmly to this excellent talk which for many was also a walk down memory lane.


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