Ronald Harry Williams
1909 - 1993
Ronald Harry Williams (1909 – 1993), always known as Ron, was a well-known Abingdon tradesman. He was educated at Culham College School, and was then apprenticed to his father who had a saddlery business in Stert Street. When motor vehicles began to replace horses, he took over the adjoining shops occupied by his father’s saddlery and his mother’s confectionery business and set up a retail fruit and vegetable business. During World War II he served as an officer in the Abingdon unit of the National Fire Service, having previously been a member of the Volunteer Fire Brigade. He took part in fighting fires in major cities during heavy German night air raids. In addition to running the business during the difficult years of war-time shortages, he served on the Oxford and District Fruit Committee, allocating scarce supplies. In 1956 he supplied the fruit and vegetables for the lunch given when the Queen opened the restored County Hall. He retired in 1966 and, with his wife Phyllis, was active in setting up the new Methodist church at Rush Common.
© AAAHS and contributors 2014
Ronald Williams, always known as Ron, ran a retail fruit and vegetable business in Stert Street, and his unpublished autobiography and reflections give an interesting picture of a small market town in the early twentieth century. The Williams family had much experience in running retail businesses. Ron’s grandfather had Abingdon’s largest butchery shop in Bury Street (demolished when the shopping precinct was built in the 1960s), and his grandmother kept the Bull Inn next door. Ron’s father, Harry, had a saddlery business in Bury Street, which unfortunately was burnt down in 1900, after which the family moved to Epping. Nonetheless, Ron was born in Abingdon in 1909. In 1913 the family, with Ron and his two older sisters, returned to Abingdon. Ron’s mother took over a confectionery and newspaper business in 14-16 Stert Street, with afternoon teas and a lending library as sidelines. His father re-established the saddlery business in the adjoining shop at No 18 when that became available. A photograph taken in 1917 shows Ron and his father outside this shop. The family lived in cramped accommodation above the shops. There was no garden, but traffic was light, and quite small children could play safely in Stert Street and the Market Place.
Ron was educated at Carswell School, and then for seven years at Culham College Practising School, a fee-paying school attached to the Church of England teacher training college. Soon after joining the school he was given a bicycle, and cycled daily between Abingdon and Culham. His parents would have liked him to transfer to Abingdon School, which was better academically and had higher prestige, but owing to a misunderstanding over his age he was not accepted. However, his own sons were both educated at Abingdon School. Culham College School closed in1931, but Ron continued to be a keen supporter of the Old Boys Club, organised two reunions, and in 1982 was elected as Chairman of the Culham Association. At school he developed a keen interest in sports and was a member of the school’s sports committee. After leaving school he continued to play football, cricket and tennis. In 1933, while a playing member of the tennis club, he was one of a small delegation who met Alderman Arthur Preston to invite him to present a challenge cup to the club.
Horses were still the main motive power for transport and farming when Ron left school, and he was apprenticed to his father in the flourishing saddlery business which employed two men and also operated in Harwell. But when the use of horses began to decline, he set up a retail business selling fruit and vegetables, building on the experience of selling greengrocery and fruit accepted from farmers in lieu of payment for saddlery work. He took over his mother’s confectionery and newspaper shop and his father’s saddlery shop (Nos. 14, 16 & 18 Stert Street − this group, divided into a double-fronted shop and a single-fronted shop is occupied in 2014 by a delicatessen). With the help of his father, he worked land and orchards belonging to the Town Council at Abbey House to produce fruit and vegetables for the shop, and bought in fruit from orchards in the neighbourhood. Customers at the shop included well-known stars of stage and screen cruising on the river, including Jessie Matthews and John Mills. John Masefield, the poet, was a regular customer, buying grapefruit by the dozen.
Ron as a boy and young man made many visits to London, for business, for pleasure, and to visit relatives. His autobiography gives an account of a Zeppelin bombing raid on London in 1915, during the First World War, when he heard bombs from the shelter of the cellar and next day saw some of the damage. He visited the battlefields in France in 1930 with two friends. He describes the hardships in Abingdon in the post-war depression, and the General Strike in 1926. In 1922 he went with his father to the English Cup Final, the last to be held at Stamford Bridge. In 1923 they went to the first Cup Final at the new Wembley Stadium. Ron used his Box Brownie camera to photograph the disorder before the game, when crowds forced their way into the already full stadium and invaded the pitch, delaying the kick-off. In 1924, he went with his parents to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.
Ron was fascinated by Oxford colleges and museums, and liked to watch the annual Encaenia processions at the Sheldonian Theatre, identifying famous figures such as the politicians H H Asquith and David Lloyd George, and the writers Bernard Shaw and John Betjeman, when they received honorary degrees. He had a boyhood friendship with Ted Castle, later Lord Castle, who at that time lived at Boars Hill, and whose wife Barbara Castle would be a prominent figure in the Labour party. He was always ready to take advantage of new technology. As a boy he owned an early Meccano construction set, and he was among the first in Abingdon to own a telephone, a car (a bull-nosed Morris Cowley), a wireless set, a television set and a colour television.
In 1938, shortly before the Second World War, he married Phyllis Silvester. They were staunch Methodists, connected with both the old Primitive Methodist Church in Ock Street and Trinity Church in Conduit Road. They set up home in the accommodation above the shop, where they raised two sons and a daughter. He steered the business through the austere war-time shortages, controls, and rationing. He also served on the Oxford Food Allocation Committee which oversaw the allocation of scarce fruit and vegetables in the area.
In 1934 Ron had joined the Abingdon Fire Brigade, enjoying the comradeship of a close-knit team of volunteers, many of them tradesmen who worked in the town centre and were able to run to the fire station when there was an alarm. Early in the war the Abingdon unit was called to a number of crashes of aircraft, particularly training flights using RAF Abingdon. He became a full-time officer of the Abingdon unit (then part of the National Fire Service) which was called on many occasions to fight major fires caused by heavy night-time air raids on cities. The first such regional call-out was to Birmingham in October 1940 and was followed by duty in Coventry, London, Bristol, and Portsmouth. They were in Bath at the first of the ‘Baedeker’ raids. There was considerable personal risk in fire-fighting while enemy bombs were still falling; for example, on their first trip to Portsmouth, the Abingdon unit were working close to a Winchester unit which was hit by a bomb, killing all the crew.
After the war Ron continued to run the greengrocery business, and in 1956 he supplied fruit and vegetables for the lunch given to the Queen after she re-opened the restored County Hall. In 1966 stress and age forced him to sell the business and retire. Ron and Phyllis moved to a house in Picklers Hill. They were active founder-members of the new All Saints Methodist church on Appleford Drive in North Abingdon, and Ron was a Church Trustee. In retirement they greatly enjoyed a cruise to the Norwegian fjords with Bob Winter and his wife. Bob was a builder, and one of Ron’s many friends from Culham College School days. Ron joined Probus, the organisation for retired business and professional people. He was one of the first volunteers to train and work at the Citizens Advice Bureau. In 1978 their son Alan was called to the Bar, and Ron accompanied him to Middle Temple for the ceremony. In 1988 Ron and Phyllis celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary with a lunch at the Crown and Thistle hotel. Ron celebrated his eightieth birthday in 1989. He died in 1993. Phyllis died in 1994.
Ron Williams had seen Abingdon grow from a small market town to an expanded town of some 35,000 people. The quiet streets with horse traffic had given way to motor traffic, congestion and parking problems. Towards the end of his career the old style of retailing, with personal service and frequent purchases, was beginning to give way to a new age of self-service, pre-packed goods, and the weekly shopping trip by car to fill the refrigerator. He retired shortly before retailing had to face the challenges of decimal currency and VAT. He believed that the ability to make the right decisions was the key to happiness and success, and flourished in a century of change by recognising and acting on the opportunities which arose.
Alan R. Williams, ‘The Williams Family of Abingdon’, (5th Edition, Typescript, July 2008), and Ron Williams’ autobiography, currently in the possession of the AAAHS, by permission of Alan Williams.
© AAAHS and contributors 2014