Now, an interlude for something different. This is not about Charles Edward Chipping the Latin teacher, and later Headmaster, of Brookfield Public School from 1870 – recalled from the 1939 film. It is about James Patrick Hagan and his family, the Mr Chips of Louth in Lincolnshire. It is a sad goodbye to a family business and a reflection on what is happening in our rural market towns.
Once or twice a month I visit Louth, which is a lively market town – albeit the corn market no longer exists and the livestock market is much reduced – with a busy general street market. In its hay-day market days would have been something special. Things started to change when it lost it railway station on the Boston to Grimsby line, which was closed due to Dr. Beeching. The town survived and adapted over the years to the motor age, with visitors being attracted to a traditional shopping town and its blend of local family owned emporiums. One of the attractions is Mr Chips of Louth, the award-winning fish restaurant. But things have begun to change again. Today, being Friday, I arrived outside the restaurant to be stopped from entering as the restaurant was full (there are 300 seats) and they would stop frying in half-an-hour. I enquired if there was some function being held, but was shocked to be told that they would be closing for the last time at 3.00 pm. After waiting patiently I was allowed to enter and became the last customer for a haddock and chips lunch. During my visit I commiserated with the saddened staff, who told me that many of their loyal customers, who travel many miles, had been in tears. While not tearful, I did raise my hat to them when I left and pondered how this event would impact on Louth.
Louth has a long and eventful history. It is the place where the Lincolnshire Rising [that precursor to the Pilgrimage of Grace and revolt of the North] started against the Reformation of Henry VIII. The inhabitants were proud of their church steeple – the highest in the county – and protective of the surrounding abbeys. The current inhabitants are equally proud of the town so the closing of Mr Chips has come as a shock and their goodbye has been sincere and emotional.
So here is a brief history. The earliest record of a fish and chip shop on the site in Aswell Street, Louth is 1906. Daniel Hagan was a fisherman off the South Coast and came to fish out of Grimsby in 1850. His son, also Daniel Hagan, purchased the restaurant in 1920. Daniel junior’s son – James Patrick – bought the business off his father in 1947 for £500. At that time Fish, Chips and Peas with tea, bread and butter cost 1s/7d [8 new pence] and waitress wages were also 1s/7d per hour. The present proprietor is John Hagan who took over the business from his father in 1990, assisted by his sister and brother-in-law. Since 1920 successive generations of the Hagan family have served successive generations of customers. That is the secret of their high volume business in such a small town, the family involvement being a vital ingredient of its success.
Being close to Grimsby the fish is of the highest quality and absolutely delicious, to which I can attest. But that is not the only attraction because John Hagan has consistently refurbished the premises since 1990 to provide a modern and air-conditioned restaurant with outstanding facilities for the elderly and disabled, as well as the mother with her baby. Mr Chips has a long list of awards for their meals, but is noted for other awards. In 1991 it was the initial winner of the ‘loo of the year’ award. In 1994 it won the Egon Ronay ‘Henry the Duck’ award for those establishments who cater outstandingly for families with children, being listed in Egon Ronay’s ‘And Baby Comes Too’. It was also listed in Les Routiers ‘Quality and Value Food’ and ASH ‘Eat, Drink and Sleep Smoke Free’.
So you can see that this outstanding family business has not only kept up with trends, it has also been a trendsetter. In the modern parlance of the shopping-mall developers it has been an anchor business that has brought people to the town who then also do some shopping there. It is not closing because business is in decline, if anything it is getting busier. The reason is that John has health problems and is retiring. Forced to sell the business he could not find a buyer who could afford to buy it and keep it as a going concern. It is a gold-mine, so perhaps the problem is bank reluctance to finance a buyer? The result is that a developer has bought it and fish & chips do not appear to be on his agenda.
As I left the restaurant for the last time staff were dismantling the Nativity stable, which would do justice to any church. The statues of the Holy Family, Magi, shepherds and animals were being packed away. I have never seen any other business with an in-house Nativity. The Nativity is also probably not on the developer’s agenda.
What is the future for Louth? With Lincoln to the east, Grimsby to the north, Boston to the south and Skegness to the east it has survived and prospered because it is far enough away from all of them to have its own local catchment area. In addition it attracts people from all those places because it is special, a traditional market town with a large number of long-established family owned businesses. I counted at least three family butcher shops selling local meat with home-made pies and sausages. Also, a poultry shop selling game and oven-ready local pheasant, and a cheese shop with an abundance of unique local cheese. Then there are the family owned bakers with their own-baked produced and green-grocers selling local grown vegetables. Clothes and shoe shops are locally owned, one specialising in retro frocks of the 1940 and 1950 vintage for the discerning ladies who attend nostalgia concerts and dances of the Glen Miller type that seem to be held frequently. There is also an abundance of family owned cafes and pubs, bookshops/news agents, country-wear, antiques and jewellers. Thrown in to the mix is a sprinkling of national high-street names, but of a small size.
So what is to fear? Well now that Mr Chips has closed and the Hagan family gone, I will not be going to Louth as often and so will other people visiting decline. These other small family businesses will feel the effect and the super-markets have started to surround the town-centre. Shop vacancies are appearing and pubs are feeling the effect. A local book shop and stationers has closed. The Masons Arms hotel has closed and the Olde Whyte Swannee [Louth’s oldest traditional inn] is up for sale.
Some people might say this is progress, but the traditionalists do not agree. We need to do everything possible to support and encourage family businesses.