The Society Award for 2007 was to have been presented to Eric Webber of Chagford at the 2008 AGM ‘for his dedicated service to the community’ through nearly 60 years in the retail trade, but sadly he had died before the presentationcould be made. However, his widow, Mrs Eileen Webber, and son Chris Webber were present to receive the Award tin the form of a unique inscribed plate handcrafted by Penny Simpson and Susanne Haines’. Tom Greeves said that Webber & Sons of Chagford was a ‘shining example of a successful local
business’. He also commented that it very much reflected the Society’s interest in the social and economic wellbeing of Dartmoor communities.
In response, Mrs Eileen Webber said how delighted and honoured she was to receive the Award on behalf of her late husband. Chris Webber told the meeting how proud his father was to know that he was due to receive the Award and that he had commented that it was ‘ a real award from real people’, which gave him immense satisfaction.
Interview with Eric Webber of Webber & Sons, Chagford
Chagford, on the eastern side of Dartmoor, has many attractive features. It has a rich history and tradition, having been a stannary town
as well as the home of people such as James Perrott, the Dartmoor guide, and his family, and the writers Freya Stark and Thomas Firbank.
Even today some well-known people have chosen to own a Dartmoor ‘retreat’ near Chagford.
Despite all the changes that have occurred in rural life over the last 50 years, Chagford has retained its distinctive character and has a very
active local community. It continues to benefit from tourism, but has not been spoilt by it. Some aspects of Chagford life have remained in place for many decades by adapting to changing demands. One prime example is Webber & Sons, the hardware shop in The Square, Chagford, for which the term ’emporium’ would be a much more accurate description. A first-time visitor to Webber’s will wander through the shop with increasing wonderment at the range of stock, which is as extensive as the premises themselves, and includes cookware, china, outdoor clothing, electrical accessories, household materials, tools gardening equipment, pet food, books, maps, toys and games. Many customers will have found items in Webber’s that they had searched for in vain in larger city centre shops, and probably at an attractive price too.
While it is surprising to find a shop like this in a town the size of Chagford, it is even more remarkable that next door is the similarly large
and well-stocked premises of another hardware shop, lames Bowden & Son. I visited Eric Webber, who still runs the business in partnership with his wife Eileen, their sons Chris and Rod and their daughter Elaine, to find out more about the story of Webber’s. Eric, who is now 87, told me that until the late 19th century his family farmed at Old Walls near Yeo. However, his grandfather Gideon was keen to learn the saddlery trade and went to away to London to take an apprenticeship.
At that time there was a small saddler’s shop in The Square, owned by William Thom. In 1898 John Webber, Gideon’s father, heard that the
shop was for sale and informed his son, who arranged to buy it and carry on the business, putting his apprenticeship to good use. Mother benefit of his apprenticeship was that he met his wife Minnie while in London. The Webbers’ saddler’s and ironmongery shop was run by Gideon until his tragic death in 1916 from a roof fall, upon which his son Frederick was released from war service and returned to Chagford. He, his brother Victor and Minnie, his mother, ran the shop until 1929, when Minnie and Victor went back to London. Frederick and his wife Kate were now in sole charge of the shop. At the age of 10, their only child, Eric, who had a fine singing voice, won a place as a chorister at the Cathedral School, Exeter, before moving on, again as a boarder, to tong’s College, Taunton, from where his academic ability took him to Durham University. His degree course was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War and in November 1939, he was commissioned into the Devonshire Regiment, later being seconded to serve with African troops in Kenya and the Middle East, where he became a Major.
At the end of the War, Eric returned to Durham, completed his degree and began to study at Exeter University for a teaching diploma. By this time, he had married Eileen. Soon afterwards, his father informed him that, if he did not wish to join in the management of the shop, it would
eventually have to be sold. Eric chose to return to Chagford to help run the business and thus it was that, having trained to be a teacher, he
found himself becoming a shopkeeper! During World War 2, Webber’s had expanded to its present size from what had originally been a small front shop. At that time, the premises immediately east (ie the church side( of Webber’s were owned by George Collins and comprised his own shop (a butcher’sj, the Perrott family’s shop and the Ring 0′ Bells Inn. Eric’s father, Frederick, decided to buy the butcher’s shop and what had been the Perrotts’ shop, but did nothing with the additional space for quite a while, other than using it as a storage area. Eric now wishes his father had bought the Ring 0’Bells as well!
In 1956, Eric told his father that he did not think the shop was realising its full potential and consequently the entire premises were stripped out
and re-arranged to form a much larger shop. The business had long since moved away from traditional saddlery, and now gradually the
ironmongery trade was being complemented and indeed partially displaced by an ever-widening range of household items. The coming of the railway to Moretonhampstead in 1866 had first brought tourism to the eastern part of Dartmoor and in fact Webber’s trade has always been helped by demand from tourists. Before World War I. at Gideon’s instigation, Webber’s had become ticket agents for. bus trips to Exeter and for train journeys on the London & SouthWestern Railway. For many years, Webber’s sold petrol in two-gallon
cans and also provided a service in charging accumulators, which would sizzle away in one of the buildings to the rear of the shop.
Gradually, after the end of World War 2, the affluent retired colonial administrators and tea planters who inhabited the larger dwellings in
and around Chagford died or moved on. Many of their former houses and also a number of local farms are now owned as weekend homes by
people from outside the area. The growth of the tourist trade and the coming of ‘weekenders’ means that Webber’s trade with local farmers is
now dramatically less than it was between the wars. Very recently, business in general on Dartmoor appears to have declined somewhat,
some local hotels have closed, and in fact Eric says that levels of trading are currently worse than they were during the outbreak of foot
and mouth disease in 2001.
The next-door shop owned by James Bowden & Son was originally a house with a through passageway to a blacksmith’s at the rear. James
Bowden first rented and then bought the premises from a Mr Murch, and the shop was opened in the 1890s. Relations between the Webbers
and first the Bowden family and then the Smiths, who now own Bowdens, have always been very good, despite the fact that they
compete in the same market. Eric says that the presence of the two shops next to each other is actually a benefit because it combines the
drawing power of both businesses and is thus more attractive to tourists.
It is not unknown for someone to come to the Webber’s counter and say they have lost their wife/husband somewhere in the shop! There was
also an occasion when a customer was locked in the shop because they happened to be in a fitting cubicle at closing time! I asked how it was possible to control stock, with the thousands of different items that are on sale. Eric said that in fact they carry out a stock-taking exercise once per year, generally in January or February when trade is quieter. They work through the shop section by section and the process takes around three weeks, but naturally they do not, nor is it necessary to, stock-take down to the last nail!
As to the future, Eric points out that, although he has eight grandchildren, he is unsure at present whether any of them will eventually wish to take on the business, as there are so many other opportunities for young people in the modern age. We can only hope that at least one of Eric’s grandchildren is attracted by the idea of keeping this fine and successful business — indeed a Chagford institution – in the family for many years to come.