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Cornish and Co - Outfitters for a City

Latest update - 12th June 2010

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Cornish invoice headSnappy Snaps on the corner of Fore Street and North Street is still referred to by many, more than 15 years after it finally closed, as Cornish's, and many elder citizens of Exeter, will have memories of being marched into the store at the start of the school year to be kitted out with their school uniform.

The Early Days

It was Frederick George Cornish who started a 'Gentlemen's and boys' complete outfitters and tailors' in 1884. The earliest entry in a trade directory, dated 1893, places Frederick George's shop on the corner of Broadgate, on the High Street, in what is now a travel agent. The firm was listed as a mens outfitter, tailor, hatter and hosier.

By 1905, the premises in Paternoster House, occupied by Wheaton's bookshop became vacant, and Frederick George moved to the corner building. The bulk of Paternoster House was occupied at that time by Brock's furniture store, and what appeared at first glance to be the small corner shop became one of Exeter's icon retailers. The shop had four additional floors and a basement, the whole lot topped with a round tower, capped with a conical roof that at the time gave a wonderful view towards the Haldon Hills.

The history of some firms are peppered with takeovers or disasters - Cornish's seem to have escaped such turmoil through its long existence, serving the men and boys of Exeter with everything from underwear, to workclothes, to tailored suits. By 1910, business was doing well enough for an expensive, full colour display calendar to be produced.

That Lift

The five floors proved to be an obstacle for older customers and by 1923, Cornish's was the first establishment in Exeter to install a lift. The lift was manned by Mr Vicary, of whom Margaret Ball remembers:

"I remember going in when it was Cornish's, they got the most peculiar lift I'd ever seen. There was just room for one person to stand, you kept your elbows in, and there was a funny old lift man there, who used to be very old fashioned and polite and say 'Good morning Madam'  and he'd take you up on this rickety old lift, up to the first floor."

The lift was replaced in the late 1960s' and the family filmed the event - one Sunday morning, the new lift was lowered through the roof, into position - no doubt there was more room for elbows, although the lift was now, sadly, unmanned.

Frederick George's two sons, Frank and Fred both joined the firm. For the time, they were unusual in being referred to by their first names. Every morning, a member of staff would climb to the tower and run up either a cornish, Cornish Sale or Union flag - in the evening the flag was lowered. Like many Exeter firms, the company would take, once a year, some 20 members of the staff on a charabanc trip, normally to North Devon and provide them with lunch. The staff showed great loyalty, and one member named Ethel, worked in the office for 40 years.

As mentioned, many a child was fitted out at Cornish & Co. James Bell remembers:

"We did not go to school outfitters, but each August, large laundry size baskets would arrive from Cornishes, .......... containing complete sets of uniform for each of the children, including underwear and shoes. These were in various sizes, qualities and prices, we would try them on in the front room, keep what we wanted and send the remainder back. Father paid everything by monthly account."

Wind of Change

Cornish's were lucky to survive the May 1942 blitz. All the shops up as far as Brock's were destroyed by fire and bomb. The change in direction of the wind that night, which did so much to spread the fire through the city, actually saved Brocks and Cornish & Co. James Bell who was eleven at the time, wrote:

"We walked up North Street as far as Waterbeer Street. We could see South Street ablaze, just one wall of fire with the flames joined together from both sides of the street. There were then some loud bangs from the area of the fire and the sky above Brocks became illuminated. The heat began to reach us, as we moved back as far as the entrance of the Gaumont Cinema."

After the war, Frank's son Jim, and Fred's two sons, Dick and George joined the firm after their demob. The firm continued quietly to trade through the 1950's and 60's. Cornish stocked a much wider range of sizes than other retailers, to cater for the many farming families in the area. The actor, George Woodbridge who played Swithin in the 1967 Forsyte Saga was a customer at this time, because he found London outfitters could not supply his ample frame.

During this time the various floors of Cornish's were divided into:

Basement - overalls and pyjamas
Groundfloor - underwear ties
1st - offices hats and caps
2nd - mens wear
3rd - childrens wear
4th - stock room and offices
top - coffee room

In 1977, the Bilderberg Group held their annual conference at the Imperial Hotel, Torquay amidst great security for the visiting VIPs, such as Henry Kissinger and David Rockerfella. A Minister from Holland arrived at Exeter Airport after 5pm, with damaged trousers, and needed a new pair suitable for a grand dinner, very quickly. He was rushed, along with a police escort, to Cornish's who had arranged for a trusted assistant to open especially, and found a suit to fit, along with some other items of clothing. When it came to pay, he offered a credit card - the assistant said that, alas, they didn't accept credit cards, so he offered a cheque from a Dutch Bank, and again, found that it was not acceptable. Finally, the Minister had to scrabble around for some English money, and return some of the items, as he didn't have enough ready cash to pay for everything. It was a rather embarrassed Dick Cornish who was informed of what had happened the next day.

Changing fashion

By the 1970's, clothes retailing was changing, and the younger generation expected to be able to browse through racks of clothes, on a self serve basis. Such a traditional outfitter as Cornish & Co found that trade was being lost to the large multiples. In 1981, the partners sold the Fore Street and Exmouth shops to a retailer from Axminster. The new owner continued, trading under the Cornish name until 1991 when he closed down. The premises were vacated and given over to a photo print shop.

And what of the fourth generation of Cornish's - they have gone their own way into new fields. Joe Cornish, George's son is considered to be Britains best, landscape photographer, working on many commissions from the National Trust and English heritage - one can be certain that he gives his clients the same quality service that his great grandfather did all those years ago. Another son of George, Ben Cornish has taken a unique career path into the world of circus as a member of Circus Berzecus who perform all over Europe. A mix of clowning, juggling and unicycling are a long way from the serene calm of the fitting rooms at Paternoster House, but still require a shared sense of delivering quality to the public.

Sources - Trade directories, Margaret Ball, Peter Hinchcliffe, James Bell and an interview with George Cornish © 2006 David Cornforth - not to be reproduced without permission

The Cornish shop was in Paternoster HousePaternoster House - Brock's the furniture shop where in B-Wise and Cornish and Co. in Snappy Snaps. Cornish outing circa 1950 A Cornish staff outing circa 1950. George Cornish is front right, Doris Sharpe a long serving Cornish employee is front left, and Mr Beavis, father of local musician, Ray Beavis, is rear, second from the right. Cornish advert A Cornish advert from 1947. Cornish calendar 1910 A shop display calendar from 1910. Courtesy of George Cornish.

Invoice head from 1971 - courtesy of Phil Wright.

Bilderberg Group - an annual, by invitation only conference of about 100 influential US and European people from around the world. They discuss world business and politics. The content of the discussions are secret. Members have included Donald Rumsfeld, all major leaders of Europe and the US, Prince Charles, Dan Quale and Will Hutton. A very diverse group.

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