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SW Adams - iconic ironmongers in Romford Market; Founder’s grandson recalls shop’s history

The staff in 1970, with nearly 700 years of service between them. Picture: David Adams The staff in 1970, with nearly 700 years of service between them. Picture: David Adams

Sunday, March 30, 2014
6:00 PM

There’s more to family history than tracing your ancestors. How they made their living tells a story too, about them – and changes to the town they lived in.

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The shop and St Edward’s Church in 1905. Picture: David AdamsThe shop and St Edward’s Church in 1905. Picture: David Adams

Take my grandfather, Sydney Adams. He was born in 1876 in Western Road, Romford. His first job was at an ironmonger’s shop at 7 Market Place, next to The Lamb pub. When the owner retired, Sydney, not yet 24, decided to try to buy it.

Although his father was quite well-off, Sydney was one of 13 children, so he couldn’t expect much help from there – nor from the banks.

So he did what enterprising young men did in 1900 – he approached relatives, his father’s friends and his church and scraped together enough in loans to buy the shop.

Sydney advertised himself in 1902 as “ironmonger, gasfitter and tinplate worker; large stock of dairy utensils and apparatus.” Dairy farmers were important customers: Romford was still an agricultural market town. And people ate their food off tin plate, enamel-coated on the premises. The shop flourished, but the 1914-18 war caused problems, “owing to the shortage of business staff and the consequent extra work.” The 1916 accounts were a landmark: Sydney spent £32 on “horse-hire”, but for the last time. There was a new accounting item: £17 for “motor-expenses”.

Sydney Adams. Picture: David AdamsSydney Adams. Picture: David Adams

Peacetime after 1918 was good for business: by 1931, Romford’s population had doubled, to 36,000. Sydney saw his chance, diversified into being a builders merchants, and never looked back. House building boomed, and so did SW Adams Ltd.

They sold the first Marconi wireless sets in Romford, they fitted telephones, they provided plumbers, electricians and heating engineers, they manufactured tiled fireplaces, they did replacement windows and vehicle repairs. They even had their own railway siding in Victoria Road.

SW Adams was all today’s hardware superstores and electrical warehouses under one roof – plus your local plumber and electrician.

The boom didn’t last for ever. War loomed again. The firm’s records note that in September 1938 “the international crisis caused a collapse in the building trade and sales were halved”. Although things got worse when war broke out the following year, the Luftwaffe gave SW Adams a lifeline. Sydney secured a government contract to provide materials for emergency repairs to bombed properties.

Trade recovered a bit in 1940-1 and again in 1944-5 “due to the exceptionally high turnover of Ministry of Works Emergency stock during the recent V1 and V2 attacks”. Call-up of men meant that for the first time women were employed in the shop.

The business recovered after 1945 as Romford continued to grow – to 88,000 by 1951, with the building of most of Harold Hill still to come. Sydney’s son Frank took over, and SW Adams continued to flourish until it closed in 1970. The 25 staff had worked there an average of over 30 years, two of them more than 50. How times change!

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