Tea and Coffee Merchant

by Frank Sharman

During the summer of 2001, a year and more before Snapes closed, I wandered into this famous shop, like many curious tourists before me.  And like them I was warmly received by the owner, Phil Parkes, who told me what he knew of the shop's history. 

In October 2002 I attended the auction at which the contents of this Wolverhampton landmark were sold to the highest bidder.

This is what I now know about the shop, its history and its closure.  If anyone knows anything more or anything else I would be very glad to hear from them.

Snapes became the best known shop in Wolverhampton.  Apart from its regular customers, people came from far and wide just to see it - and to buy a sample of its wares and watch as their tea or coffee was served in a traditional way.  The shop was in the ground floor an early nineteenth century listed building and had a storeroom at the back. 

The shop originated with the firm of Budget & Budget, a Bristol based company which, in the early nineteenth century built up a chain of about 100 shops.  But at some time there was a sell off and most of the shops were sold to their managers.  Snapes is thought to be the only survivor of these shops.

The shop window had not changed in years.  Below the gasolier were tea chests and tins, on which were tea bowls and tasting bowls holding samples of tea and coffee.

The manager who bought the shop from Budget & Budget was one Simeon King.  After him it was owned by a Mr. J. H. Watts. 

The only remaining evidence of Mr. Watt's ownership is this old and tattered handbill (in my collection) dated 1894.  It is promoting a common method of attracting sales for tea - the giving of "bonds" to purchasers, the bonds being put into a draw to decide who got a payout.

This document refers to draws taking place simultaneously at this shop and at 7 Great Hampton Street, Birmingham; 41 Church Street, Bilston; and 6 Market Place, Wednesbury.  At present I do not know whether or not these shops were also owned by Watts.  It seems most likely but it might have been a consortium.

The list of winners in the last draw shows customers from all part of the town.

It seems that Watts sold the shop to someone who is remembered only as being a Chinaman.  It was from him that the original W. T. M. Snape, whose name the shop kept until it closed, bought it. 

Entering the doorway, which was to the right of the window, you caught a glimpse of the interior in a large mirror which occupied the wall to the right.

The door simply says "Tea Merchant" because originally that was all that Snapes sold.  The sale of coffee was added later.

For a short while, to allow for the rationing system in use during the Second World War, jam and sugar were also sold.

Mr. Snape seems to have acquired the business right at the end of the nineteenth century.  He passed it on to Albert Edward Parkes, the grandfather of the last owner, Phil Parkes. 

Albert started work with Mr. Snape when he was eight years old.  He saw a notice in the shop's window saying "Errand boy wanted" and went in.  The top of his head just reached to the level of the counter.  Mr. Snapes' method of interview was short and to the point.  "Do you know where Drummond Street is?"  "Yes" said Albert.  "Then go there and fetch my lunch".  Albert went out and asked the first person he met where Drummond Street was.  Thus started a fifty year association with the business.

The interior of the shop, looking from the entrance, seen in 2001.

It did not look much different when young Albert Parkes first entered the shop and had not really changed for long before that, possibly since the day it was first opened.

The resourceful errand boy eventually took over the business from Mr. Snape when he died shortly after the end of the second World War.  Albert died, aged 58, and left the business to his son, Tom.  And in his turn Tom's son, Phil, the last owner, started in the business when he was twelve, working in the shop after school and joining full time when he left school.

The last owner, Phil Parkes, presides over his emporium.   But often enough he was out the back, blending and tasting.

Mr. Parkes appeared on the Generation Game on television twice. 

He demonstrated the art of wrapping loose tea in a sheet of paper, which looked quick and easy when he did it but the contestants on the show soon discovered there really was a knack to it.

The shop and its fittings hardly changed in all of this time.  The 34 decorated cannisters containing the tea are the originals, said to have been made by the tinners of Bradley - "the best in the business" - and were japanned and decorated with the flags of all nations.  One showed the flag of the United States, then properly showing 20 stars.  The only time at which the US flag had 20 stars was from 1818 to 1819.  This might, give or take a few years, show the date these tins were made.

The tea storage tins behind the counter.  The upper ones are decorated with the flags of many nations - and one has the royal standard on it.

The white object, top centre, held a ball of string.  The string could be pulled down to the counter to complete the packaging of the loose tea and coffee.

The counter on which Mr. Watts, the Chinaman, Mr. Snape and three generations of Parkes wrapped tea and coffee, was worn with constant use.  The brass gasolier, doubtless installed in the nineteenth century when such things were new, remained in place.  The coffee grinders are relatively recent additions though, by the end, were vintage pieces in their own right.  And, just to show that there were changes, Phil Parkes was the first proprietor to roast his own coffee.

Phil Parkes presides.

Note the variety of storage: the original tins on the top two shelves, two banks of more recent tins and then 13 large bins with mahogany lids stand at floor level.

On the counter are highly polished brass scales and weights and a bright red coffee grinding machine. 

For many years, through good times and bad, Snapes continued to serve the widest range of teas and coffees, doing their own tasting and blending and serving customers individually and with traditional politeness.  They were friendly and affable people.  Stephen Favill (who now lives in the USA) was, for several years, a police officer in Wolverhampton.  He tells me:

I got to know Phil and Anne Parkes quite well, so well in fact that they used to let me use their caravan in Wales.
When I served as a police officer in Wolverhampton, I was introduced to the store and its owners by my partner, Phil Lunn. We would often go into the back room and partake of tea, straight from that time-worn old blending tray. We would stop and pick up biscuits....Phil used to love custard creams......and often we would make the tea ourselves if he was busy. On one occasion he had a delivery and the lorry was double-parked outside, so to help things along, Phil and I took off our uniform coats and were outside unloading tea chests, carrying them into the store!

The shop never really changed because there was never any need to change.  But Phil Parkes was the last of the Parkes line and he and his wife had to retire some time.  What would happen then?  We found out in 2002 when they duly announced their retirement.  And since their children had not entered the business they did not want to carry it on.

It seems that the Parkes' first thought was to offer  the contents of the shop to the Black Country Museum. The Museum refused them. Their problem was that they felt that the only place they could sensibly put them was in the reconstructed village - but that is supposed to be a working class Black Country village and a shop like Snapes just did not fit in.

Mr. and Mrs. Parkes then decided to sell the contents by public auction through Walker Barnett & Hill.   It was at that point that all the fuss started. Everyone seemed to feel that something should be done, that "Snapes should be kept". It was thought that someone ought to do something - the someone being almost anyone from the city council to English Heritage, the National Trust and this Society.

A view from the back of the shop towards the shop window.  It shows the venerable counter with the gasolier above it.

The gasolier was a 19th century introduction; the electric lights would have been added relatively recently, probably not more than 75 years ago.

But there were problems about doing something. Mr. and Mrs. Parkes did not own the building the shop was in. They had a lease of the shop and the room behind; and that was all. The building was owned by Michael Troman. That means that the Parkes owned, and could sell, all the contents of the shop but not the premises or anything which was part of the building.  So the contents had to be divided from the shop.  And there is no law that stops anyone selling their own goods, however historic the may be.  If the shop was to be kept as it was someone would have to buy the contents at auction and then get a new lease from the building's owner. Not only that but they would also have to find someone to carry on the shop in the same way and it appeared at the time that it would not be possible to find anything like an exact replacement for Phil Parkes with his tea tasting and coffee blending skills.

But  what people wanted preserved was not just the shop but the way it was conducted, its whole atmosphere and style. But that is something else that heritage law can not allow for - it can preserve buildings but not process and not performance. They way I see it was that Snapes was a performance - and it can no more be forced to continue than could a particularly fine production at the Grand.

But things looked as good as they could get when the National Trust arranged to take a lease if they succeeded in buying the contents at auction and apparently got a suitable manager lined up. In fact it is now thought that, had the National Trust succeeded, the shop would hardly have closed and would have carried on almost as usual.  No other saviour appeared, the city council apparently thinking that, having encouraged the National Trust, they had done their bit.

Printed greaseproof wrapping paper for 8 ounces of tea. 

The design is a fine Victorian one but the name of Albert Parkes appears on it so it may be a post-1945 concoction.

The last sheets of this paper were handed out with the auction catalogue.

I attended the auction at Walker Barnett and Hill’s auction rooms at Cosford, where the entire contents were to be sold as a single lot. It was quite an occasion, with a good crowd in attendance, television cameras all over the place and the general atmosphere one usually associates with a London auction room selling a famous old master. And why not? The price was not going to be in the millions but what was being sold was something just as unique. And something of the charm of Snapes was captured by the presence on the rostrum of the very last packet of tea weighed and wrapped at the shop; and by each person attending being given one of the last sheets of Snapes’ printed wrapping paper.

The bidding started somewhat hesitantly but soon got into its stride and, somewhere around the £50,000 mark, it seems that the National Trust was constrained to drop out.  Eventually the lot was knocked down for £112,000. There was much applause and Mrs. Parkes, who was there with her two daughters, seemed to be in something like a state of shock. Even after Walker Barnett and Hill have taken their cut, the Parkes will get a substantial sum of money. Nobody seemed then, or seems now, to begrudge them that.

But who had won the auction? Whoever it was had left strict instructions that they were to be anonymous. This naturally lead to rumours that the collection would leave the country and would be split up. But I understand that the current rumour is that the winner was Harrods or someone on their behalf. That makes sense and ought not be discounted.

It is, of course, regrettable that Snapes has gone. But I do not see what more, in the present state of the law, anyone could have done about it. Wolverhampton lost this part of its heritage because it was outbid. But I further understand - and I have no confirmation of this - that all the documents relating to the shop have been destroyed by Mr. and Mrs. Parkes. How much there was, and how important it was, I do not know. But if that is what has happened I think I understand what the Parkes were doing: the pageant now is ended. And even Prospero broke his staff and left not a rack behind.

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