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The history of Vye and Son, the Kentish grocers

Of course shops on the High Street are always changing. And we are witnessing a particularly rapid turnaround at the moment as businesses struggle to cope with the fallout from Covid.

But sometimes you come across a reminder of a bygone business that at one time seemed such an institution in Kent, only later to completely vanish.

A 1967 advert for Vye and Son
A 1967 advert for Vye and Son

One such was Vye and Son, always known affectionately by shoppers as Vye’s.

It had been founded in Ramsgate in 1817 as a tea and coffee importer by a mother and son.

Charles Vye had been a soldier in the Napoleonic wars and then a wine merchant and on his death in 1817 left his property first to his wife Sarah, and then to his three children Mary, Jesse and Sophia.

It was his widow's idea to open the tea business. Her son Jesse went into the trade with her, even though he was only 17 at the time.

Their business was on the corner of Queen Street and Cliff Street in Ramsgate, and pretty soon they also acquired a warehouse for their goods opposite.

The bombed Vye and Son HQ in Ramsgate in 1940
The bombed Vye and Son HQ in Ramsgate in 1940

The firm’s first building was destroyed by enemy bombing on August 14, 1940, during the Second World War. A plaque now marks the spot.

Jesse died in 1863, leaving 11 children and it was the fourth of these, Frederick, who took on the business, opening a second Ramsgate branch at St Lawrence. He died young at 47, and it was his son George who took over and embarked on an aggressive expansion programme.

By the turn of the century, he had added shops in Broadstairs, Westgate, Margate, Dover, Ashford and Faversham.

By the start of the First World War, there were a dozen branches

The company sought to get an edge over their main rivals, Liptons, by referring to themselves as The Kentish Grocers, and they prided themselves on service, even offering free home delivery of all orders.

An ad for Vye and Son's owned brand steamed puddings - from 1946
An ad for Vye and Son's owned brand steamed puddings - from 1946
A Vye and Son advert from 1948, cashing in on the popularity of a BBC radio programme
A Vye and Son advert from 1948, cashing in on the popularity of a BBC radio programme

George Vye died with no sons, so he left the business to his daughter Madge and her husband Cecil Stanley James Taylor (known as James Taylor), who continued the expansion programme.

By the Second World War, there were 40 stores, but the firm suffered during the war. Not only did rationing limit their potential for sales, but also several of their stores were in coastal areas that were evacuated for fear of invasion. Then came the bombing that destroyed the firm's headquarters branch, killing the store manager, Miles Leach, and a passer-by.

After the war, James Taylor handed the business to his two sons, Anthony and Nigel, who rebuilt the Ramsgate store. In 1951, George Vye's long-living widow, who had retained part ownership of the business, died at the age of 94, which gave the two Taylor boys the opportunity to re-shape the firm as a private limited company.

This quickly led to its purchase in 1955 by Home and Colonial, which had also acquired its key rival, Liptons.

In the takeover deal, Anthony was given seat on the Home and Colonial board, while Nigel became the chairman and managing director of Vye and Son, which nevertheless continued to trade under its own name.

The Ashford Vye and Son shop in 1960
The Ashford Vye and Son shop in 1960

It was a progressive business. In 1963 it opened a huge warehouse distribution centre at Dumpton Park in Ramsgate, where the company was keen to boast of its modern techniques.

Conveyor belts helped load the 2,500 product lines onto the trucks and the centre had is own packaging unit where 99 varieties of loose goods, which were to be sold under Vye's own brand name, were packaged by machine.

Vye and Son was also one of the first grocers to pay its managers by results, one of the first to introduce the idea of self-service to its stores, and was the first to open, in 1957, a cash and carry store for the public.

At their peak in 1967, Vye and Son had 61 stores across Kent, 46 of them self-service, including branches at Tonbridge, Folkestone, West Malling, Lydd, Edenbridge, Staplehurst, Rochester, Cranbrook and Tenterden, where they took over the old Embassy Cinema.

Home and Colonial later re-branded as Allied Suppliers which in 1972 was in turn bought out by Cavendish Foods, and then in 1982 by Argyll Foods. Argyll merged with Safeway in 1987, but by then the Vye name had completely disappeared.

Former Vye employee Margaret Reynolds (nee Burt)
Former Vye employee Margaret Reynolds (nee Burt)

Maureen Reynolds, nee Burt, from Bell Lane, Ditton, went to work for the Tonbridge branch of the firm in 1949 on leaving school at 15. After a six-month try-out she was offered a formal apprenticeship.

She still has her indenture papers, dated January 2, 1950, which had to be signed by her father, Robert Burt, as well as herself, and were witnessed by the head teacher of Hadlow School, Stuart Bennett.

Over the course of the next three years, Vye and Son promised to teach her "the Art and Trade of a Grocer and Provision Merchant" provided she served the firm "faithfully, honestly and diligently."

She must have done so, because on January 2, 1953, the indenture was stamped as being completed.

Mrs Reynolds recalled: "At the time my family lived on Maidstone Road, Hadlow, and I used to cycle into work every day."

Maureen Reynolds (nee Burt) left at the provisions counter with Miss Bartlett
Maureen Reynolds (nee Burt) left at the provisions counter with Miss Bartlett

She said: "The shop was in Tonbridge High Street near the bridge. There was was Goodrich, the ironmongers, on the corner with Bradfield Street, then a butchers and then us. The last time I visited, our building had been divided into two charity shops."

Mrs Reynolds explained there were two divisions to the shop, the grocery counter for tinned and packet goods, and the marble-topped provisions counter for fresh food such as ham and cheese.

She said: "It was still a time of rationing and everything had to be cut up and weighed very carefully. You weigh out rice and sugar and packed it into little blue bags. Even the biscuits were sold loose and had to be bagged up very carefully."

She recalls there being about five staff on each counter, plus the manager Mr Millen, an office girl, a lady out the back who packed up orders to be delivered, a deliveryman and a warehouse man who brought in stock from the storage shed at the rear.

She recalled the names of some of her colleagues: Daphne Streeton, Barbara Burton, Mrs Gillet, Raymond Peacock, Mr Vickers, Win Austin, Miss Bartlett. Senior staff and customers were always addressed by their title and surname.

From left, Daphne Streeton, Mr Vickers, Miss Wise, Maureen Reynolds and Barbara Burton
From left, Daphne Streeton, Mr Vickers, Miss Wise, Maureen Reynolds and Barbara Burton

The supplies were delivered by lorry from the firm's Ramsgate base.

She said: "I would sometimes have to cycle out to customers' homes to collect their orders. Other times I would be slicing bacon or cutting the gammon off ham joints, before they were cooked."

One job she didn't like was cleaning out the ovens afterwards. She said: "All that grease! That was an awful job."

Vye's supplied the provisions for Tonbridge School and she remembered the strange contrast between the enormous order of cheese and butter for the school, compared with the much smaller allowances for individual shoppers.

She said: "As I recall, Tonbridge used to flood regularly every year in those days. The butchers used to cop it, though fortunately there were a couple of steps up to our shop and the water never came inside."

A Vye and Son works outing in the early 1950s
A Vye and Son works outing in the early 1950s

Mrs Reynolds enjoyed her time at Vye's and considered they were a good firm. She recalled: "Every year we would go on a works outing together, once to the Festival of Britain, other times just to the beach."

She stayed there until 1957, when she left home to marry her husband Clarence and moved to Ditton.

But her training stood her in good stead. She continued to work in the grocery trade until retirement, first at Dimons in East Malling High Street, then at Michael Robins, a newsagent and grocer, a few doors along in East Malling.

Both businesses have since closed.

Mrs Reynolds is 87.

Former Vye's apprentice Roy Ingleton
Former Vye's apprentice Roy Ingleton

Former Kent Police Superintendent Roy Ingleton from King Street in Maidstone also served a three-year apprenticeship with Vye's.

He joined their branch in Rendezvous Street, Folkestone, in 1946 and stayed with the firm until the early 1950s when he received his National Service call-up papers and went off to fight in Korea.

He said: "The schools in Folkestone were pretty rough and ready at the end of the Second World War and I was glad to reach the age of 14 which meant I could leave school.

"My father had different ideas, however, and would not let me leave school until I had a sound job to go to, preferably with an apprenticeship.

"I applied to an engraver, an upholsterer and other firms seeking apprentices and was eventually offered an apprenticeship at Vye and Son, which I took on the basis that people will always need to eat."

Roy Ingleton's indenture papers with Vye and Son
Roy Ingleton's indenture papers with Vye and Son

He said: "After a mutual trial period of a few weeks, I was signed to a three-year apprenticeship in August 1946.

Mr Ingleton said: "Most grocer’s shops were quite small in those days and rejoiced in names like The Maypole, International Stores, Hudson’s - which have all disappeared with the exception of Sainsbury’s, which was then around twice our size.

"We had fewer than 10 staff including the manager, assistant manager, a lady cashier and a delivery van man.

"The war was over, but strict rationing was still maintained and other problems ensued.

"Butter arrived from New Zealand or Australia in wooden boxes of 56lb. The large block had to be cut up, mostly into pieces weighing 2, 4 or 8 oz (to meet the 2oz per head weekly ration) and the pieces ‘patted’ into shape with a pair of wooden paddles. I became an expert in butter patting!

The grocer's bible
The grocer's bible

He said: "Cheese (there was one kind only) was drum-shaped and around 56lb and had to be ‘skinned’ (the muslin coating removed) before being cut up into more manageable pieces with a two-handled wire.

"Bacon arrived as a whole ‘side’, which was cut into pieces and sliced into rashers.

"The weight of the side was carefully determined before arriving at the shop to conform to the number of customers registered.

"All the side had to be used up and customers had to accept a little of the less-popular slices in with their couple of gammon or back rashers.

"Biscuits were supplied in metal boxes, the lids of which removed and replaced by a snug-fitting glass. They were placed at an angle along the front of the counter, so that customers could see what a ’Garibaldi’, ‘Nice’, ‘Custard Cream’ or ‘Lincoln’ looked like."

"With little packing, biscuits often arrived broken, but they were not thrown away, just weighed into a paper bag and sold cheaply as ‘broken biscuits.’

An advert from Nabisco congratulating Vye's on their 150th anniversary in 1967
An advert from Nabisco congratulating Vye's on their 150th anniversary in 1967

He added: "A great deal of time was spent weighing and decanting goods into acceptable-sized bags: sugar, soap flakes, soda, dried fruit, coffee, flour, vinegar ..."

"The shop premises consisted of the main shop floor behind which was a storage area, over a cool cellar.

"There was no heating apart from a small, domestic oil stove which was brought out if there was a cold snap, but the manager believed that a shop-door should always be kept open so as not to discourage potential customers.

"On the other hand, there was no refrigeration other than the coolness of the cellar and quite a lot of stock was lost because of this.

"A few years later, in a freezing cold foxhole in Korea I could have done with that little oil stove!"

The memorial stone marking the bombing of the Vye and Son headquarters was laid by Madge Vye
The memorial stone marking the bombing of the Vye and Son headquarters was laid by Madge Vye

Mr Ingleton said: "After my National Service, I felt I needed something a little more exciting than a return to the grocery trade, so I joined the police instead, where I stayed for the next 28 years."

"But I still have both my indenture papers and a copy of Laws Grocers Manual, which it was necessary to study to succeed in the exams set by the Institute of Certificated Grocers."

Mr Ingleton is 90.

Robin Kenworthy's connection with Vye's was as a customer rather than a employee. He has lived in Staplehurst since 1963.

He said: "Vye's opened a shop in Staplehurst in the 1960s - in two units in the then new parade of shops, which soon they expanded to a third unit."

The Vye and Son shop on the corner of Station Road and Dover Road in Walmer, around 1910
The Vye and Son shop on the corner of Station Road and Dover Road in Walmer, around 1910

He said: "I seem to recall that Victor Value green grocers was in that unit and they moved to another unit in the parade to make three units together for this.

"Later they became Liptons and then Spar and now Spar has recently been taken over the Post Office."

Mr Kenworthy, 87, said: "There were other grocers in Staplehurst at the time: Market stores, A.J. Bean, Marden Road Stores, Harmers (who were linked to Mace), Dixon's, the Quarter Stores, and Cost Cutter.

"A.J. Bean was also a Post Office that later moved to the newsagents C.V. Tew (formerly Dagleish), next to the Railway Tavern."

If you have a photo of a Vye’s shop, or a memory of one, email ajsmith@thekmgroup.co.uk

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