Old cork shop in Gardner Street

Photo:The Cork Shop in 1983

The Cork Shop in 1983

Image reproduced with kind permission from Brighton and Hove in Pictures by Brighton and Hove City Council

Now in Brighton Museum

By Jackie Fuller, North Laine resident

If you go up to the first floor of Brighton Museum, you'll see an old reconstructed shop with the sign above: "Beall & Co, established 1883". This shop (the 'cork shop') was originally at No 51 Gardner Street and belonged to the family of Doris Abrahams.

The last retail cork shop in the UK

The shop was taken over by Doris' grandfather in 1915 "when the zeppelins started coming over London". He decided it was prudent to remove his family to Brighton and to add to his cork business warehouse in Aldgate. The shop in Gardner Street was then a small factory, but it eventually became probably the last retail cork shop left in the UK.

Doris had to run the business

In the 1950s Doris' father and sister were in the business but, unfortunately, five years after her father died (in 1956), her sister died of leukaemia.  Although married and with two young sons, Doris had to run the business to support her mother.

She said:

“My grandfather had taken on a boy, John Watkins, when he was 14, to learn the trade. He stayed on as manager and helped me to run the business until he retired in his early 80s.

We used to import cork from Spain and Portugal, then cut it to size to make bottle corks for pharmacies, brewers, and home wine-makers, all along the south coast. We also made cork bath mats, carved cork pictures and cork tops for stools. There were originally very many uses for cork, but when plastics and laminates came into being it became almost redundant and, by the 1980s, if I could show a profit of about £5 I'd had a good week. However, by that time my mother had died, so the shop was carried on almost as a hobby.”

When asked how the shop came to be in Brighton Museum, Doris said it was due to sentiment.

“You see,” she said, “John retired when the shop was nearing its centenary, so I kept it open in order to celebrate its 100 years. Then, in 1983, when the premises were being rebuilt from basement to roof, I donated the façade and contents to the Museum. They reconstructed it just as it had always looked and there it stands today - a memento of a now almost defunct industry.”

Original deeds also in the museum

The shop had stood on an ancient site and the original deeds, dating back to the 1750s, are also with the Museum. There is now [2010] a fashion fabric shop where the old "Cork Shop" used to be.

[Previously published with the author's permission in the North Laine Runner, No 122, July/August 1996 and based on extracts from "Doris Abrahams", a chapter in We're not all Rothschilds!, by Leila Abrahams, published by QueenSpark Books, 1994; reprinted in the North Laine Runner, No 206, September/October 2010]


This page was added on 08/11/2010.

I took around 70 photos of the interior of the Cork Shop before it closed. I have just uploaded scans of them to a picasa account, so if you would like to take a look inside visit this link: http://picasaweb.google.com/parfittdavid/BeallCoCorkShop51GardnerStreetBrightonCirca1982?feat=directlink

By David Parfitt
On 18/11/2010

I worked there after leaving school in 1961. Although there was very little cork making going on at this point, it was quite interesting to see all the ancient machinery. I remember having to turn that very large grinding wheel you can see in the yard. Mr Watkins was sharpening one of the very long blades from a cutting machine. My arms felt like they were dropping off. He kept saying "Faster! Faster!". My arms ached for days after that.

The whole place seemed to be a setting for one of Dickens' novels. I dreaded going upstairs to fetch anything.  It was like stepping back two centuries.  I always thought upstairs was haunted. Needless to say I was there and back in seconds! There was a time when John took me upstairs to the top floor to show me how the machinery worked. I think it was the only time it was ever switched on whilst I was working there. He threw a switch and all hell broke loose.  There were massive belts slapping against each other in all directions. The noise was deafening, not to mention the dust.  I was thinking the building could not take this amount of stress and quite expected the roof to collapse. 

Every time I watch Ron Moody in 'Oliver', it reminds me of that place.  It was in such a bad condition. The wooden stairs going up and down from the shop were so worn with age, I was frightened to death to step on them, even at nine stone seven! Mr Watkins said he had had heavier wet rags! But the job mainly involved serving customers with ironmongery, wine making equipment and domestic products from times gone by.

I also remember seeing a suit that I liked in a shop window in Sydney Street. It was Prince of Wales check and cost £4 10 shillings (which was twice my wages). I mentioned it to Mr Watkins. He took the money out of his wallet, slapped it into my hand and said "Go and get it son, you can pay me back five bob a week".

I guess I stayed there for around fourteen months and really enjoyed it. I often went back to see him, one of life's true gentlemen.

By Barry Plank
On 27/01/2011

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