There are fashions in rose cultivation, just as there are in habits, costume, and coiffure.
A nameless, ancient, pale shell pink rose used to ramble at will all over the old brick barn where my dad’s family lived at Keepers Cottage, Footherly. It had been planted in some distant season without reference to the preferred palette and naturalistic planting schemes popularised by Gertrude Jekyll at the turn of the 20th century, even though it typified them.
I was a young child when my mother lovingly stocked our front garden at 155, Bosty Lane, Aldridge with all the latest varieties of “Hybrid Teas”. We really appreciated their virtues: the exquisite form of the bloom, with the classic pointed bud, whose shape endures as the petals around it unfold, and the startlingly intense colours of the latest introductions: “Uncle Walter”, (1963) , a vivid red; “Grandpa Dickson”, (1966), sunny yellow – and “Blue Moon”(1964)- in reality a blueish violet, but even now the nearest approximation of the elusive blue rose. “Ena Harkness” invited a diminutive Susan to lean in to its ruby flowers to inhale a powerful fragrance, undaunted by the earwigs lurking at the base of the petals.
Hybrid Tea roses are sparse of foliage, and whole beds of them present as a dismal cluster of bare, upright sticks in the winter months, because they sulk if underplanted. These shortcomings mean that are now out of favour with gardening cognoscenti. All roses, from the wild dog-rose to the florist’s confection give me too much pleasure to criticise them for their faults, unlike Vita Sackville West, who really had it in for a rose called “Dorothy Perkins“. This endearingly bright Barbie-pink rose, a generous bloomer, she described as an “old enemy”, in her column for “The Observer,” and as “… a blaze of color; a long, angry, startling streak … I blink on seeing it; and having blinked, I weep.” Oh dear!
The “real” Dorothy Perkins was the grand-daughter of American rose-grower Charles H. Perkins, who named his creation after her back in 1901, fostering a trend for naming roses after people. The vigorous plant immediately began to win prizes, and become so famous and popular that the H. P. Newman Stores changed their name to “Dorothy Perkins” in 1919.
Nearly 100 years later, the name “Dorothy Perkins” is still emblazoned on shopfronts the length and breadth of Britain. I reckon I would have been about 16 or 17, in the 1970s when I first sloped in to make a purchase of a pretty blouse or some lacy tights in the Dotty P. shop in Park Street, Walsall, but a member of my family had crossed that threshold some 25 years before at a similar age, with much more purposeful a step, let alone far superior deportment and grooming.
My mother’s next youngest sister, Irene, was a tall, slender, personable girl in a cheap print frock when, she recalls, she was making herself useful by running errands for a near neighbour by the name of Mrs Alice Brown. Mrs Brown was the manageress of the Walsall branch of Dorothy Perkins, and, despite Irene’s tender years, persuaded her to be recruited into the sales force as a trainee manageress. At first, she was obliged to sport the dreaded greeny-beige button- through uniform of the sales girls – “it was horrible, like a prison dress,” Irene says vehemently. Soon, in deference to her training she was allowed to wear her own outfit of an impeccably tailored dark suit, and stylish peep-toed court shoes. She relished the fact that her income enabled her to choose her clothes for the first time in her life.
If dainty, now obsolete items of trousseau such as bed-jackets and girdles had been your desire in 1950’s Park Street, you would have been greeted, Madam, at the door of the Dorothy Perkins store by a young lady at once uncannily similar to my mother, but, in Mother’s own words, sweeter and more ladylike. In the role of “First Hand”, the elegant Miss Sheldon would then have shown you to the department you required, be it hosiery, corsetry, blouses, nightwear, or the comprehensive range of knitting yarns which Dorothy Perkins purveyed at the time. Miss Butler, Miss Brazier (whose husband never allowed her to wear make up) or Miss Cooper with their proficient knowledge of the stock behind their own glass counter, would courteously have served you, and neatly hand written the record of your purchase – each ticket being countersigned by the manageress. A dedicated cashier would have completed the financial transaction. Mrs Rathbone, the cleaner, was an integral member of the team, and appears prominently on group photographs of the staff. I remember Mrs Rathbone in later life as she lived next door to my grandmother in Bentley. She was the matriarch of a large family, which, I was uneasily aware, struggled against ill health and poverty.
When a relief manager was required at West Bromwich, the company had an opportunity to assess Irene’s ability to run a shop. Acquitting herself well, and not quite nineteen years old, she was offered the position of manageress of the Worcester branch. Reassured that The Church was able to find a respectable Catholic family for her to board with, my grandfather gave his permission for her to go.
Mr Farmer, a member of the family which owned the company, made regular visits to the larger stores, including Worcester. He was also present (and it looks like it is a terrible chore for him) at a conference attended by Dorothy Perkins manageresses and area supervisors from far and wide. Worcester seemed cosmopolitan to Irene after Walsall, but arriving by train in London she feared to leave her hotel at all, in case she got lost in the streets of the capital. A coach arrived at the hotel in the morning to transport the delegates to the impressive Ashridge conference centre in Hertfordshire.
Irene thrived at Worcester. Her salary of £30 per month enabled a single girl to live well and to save for the future. She became great friends with all the girls who worked for her, including Miss O’Connell, Miss Thatcher, and Worcester branch’s cleaning lady Mrs Turbeville. This lovely shot of the staff in their shop was taken for the Dorothy Perkins company magazine. The young photographer who took the picture returned to the shop several times, for what he insisted were vital retakes. He had, Irene remembers with amusement, “The biggest ears you ever did see.” Eventually, he plucked up courage to ask Irene to go out with him. But an evening at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, and afternoon tea with his parents in their Worcester flat were insufficient to impress. On New Year’s Eve 1954, Irene was to meet her future husband, at the exclusive staff ball held at the Powick Asylum. As midnight chimed, a net of balloons was released from the splendid ceiling of the Victorian ballroom. Irene watched a girl sip from a glass of port as she sternly warned a defiantly grinning young farmer in a sparkling white dress shirt to desist from popping the balloons with his lighted cigarette. He earned a big sticky red stain for the front of his shirt from that other girl’s glass of port wine. Despite that, Irene accepted a lift home on the back of Trevor Thackeray’s motorbike……………….and…..and