January 8th 2018: Grace notes


Briefly recalled last week, Doggarts was reserved for a quiet day. The department store was familiar all over the North-East – 16 branches from Ashington to Stockton, Wingate to West Stanley – but who knew that the family included an FA chairman, an MCC president and an England test cricketer (who’s still alive)?

The photograph atop the blog is of the Bishop Auckland branch, where it all began in 1899, and which might almost have entered the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

Whenever a south Durham lad wanted to underline his confidence in a claim, he’d insist that if it didn’t happen he’d show his backside in Doggarts window. In Darlington, posher, they’d threaten similar exposure in Binns.

The stores which Arthur Doggart had begun in 1899 finally shut up shop around 1980. “We weren’t small enough to become a self-service operation and not large enough to have really big bulk buying power,” Jamie Doggart, son of the founder, once told me.

The Bishop Auckland branch is now a champagne bar – get Bishop! – where the Tees Valley Jazzmen, led by indefatigable Durham Amateur Football Trust chairman Keith Belton, play occasional gigs.

Keith doesn’t talk of playing at the champagne bar. He talks of playing in Doggarts window.

Arthur Doggart, strict but benevolent, was a prominent Baptist and future president of the Baptist Union. His stores – “the fair dealing family firm,” they proclaimed – had departments from hardware to haberdashery, mantles to millinery, furniture to footwear.

“It was incredibly labour intensive” said Jamie. “Father’s philosophy was that if there was a counter (and there were an awful lot) there should be someone behind it.”

Assistants, immaculately attired, were forbidden to address one aniother by first names, even if – as sometimes happened – they were man and wife. Each was given a book of staff etiquette and might be fined a penny for wasting company paper or string.

They were a happy band for all that. Really it could have been the model for Are You Being Served, and Arthur Doggart old Mr Grace, save that Doggarts probably had a lot more credit.

Many had Doggarts clubs, many the stories – especially in the first golden age, when Bishop Auckland and Crook seemed semi-permanently in the FA Amateur Cup final – of men taking out a club and then selling it at a loss, in order to buy a train ticket to Wembley.

Still, of course, we’ve to touch upon the FA chairman, whose end was extraordinary, and the England cricketer still with us. With thanks to more remarkable research by Ray Ion, there’s also the matter of the extraordinary opening offer at Bishop.

We await another quiet day. I’m free.