BY DAVID STEELE
SAMUEL Bickerstaffe, or Sammy as he was affectionately known to all, was born in Ballytromery, Crumlin, in April 1938, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War.
He was the son of the late Fred and Elizabeth Bickerstaffe (nee McQuillan), and a brother to Gwen, Wilfred and Ledlie.
It was in Crumlin that a 12-year-old Sammy acquired a taste for the grocery trade, working in Kirk’s grocery store, who had shops in Crumlin and Antrim. Tesco and the other multinationals hadn’t reached our shores at that time!
Sammy was on the move in 1956 touring the local roads, driving a grocery van for the late Billy Shaw. It was after the weekly pipe band practice in the newly-built Mount Orange Hall, Ballydonaghy, Sammy and a few others were inclined to have the odd game of Badminton - with sticks used as racquets. However Sammy landed a shot over the net, but at the same time badly sprained his ankle. The following day, an injured Sammy enlisted the help of his younger brother Ledlie to complete the daily run in Shaw’s van. This was to be the beginning of a grocery duo that was to last for almost six decades in the Glenavy area.
After a few years Sammy and Ledlie rented premises at Rose’s Lane Ends from the late Paddy Hickland, a shop previously occupied by John Campbell (John the Grocer) a native of Dunore, Antrim. The shop reopened with Sammy’s name above the door on Saturday January 2 1960. It was here that Bickerstaffe’s quickly established a good local clientele down in ‘the low country’ for the groceries, vegetables, animal feed, seeds and so on that were on offer.
Ten good years passed and he once again was on the move to Main Street Glenavy, after having purchased Scott’s Shop from Edward (Ned) Scott. The Bickerstaffe name commenced trading in the Main Street on Saturday August 28 1971.
It was the shop in Glenavy that really made Sammy reach the peak of his career. Just prior to this period, Sammy decided that ‘married he would be’ and he and Nora Ingram, a young lady from Glenavy whom he met at a dance in Crumlin Orange hall, who incidentally was also experienced in the grocery trade (having worked in Alexander Boyd’s, Lisburn in her maiden days) were married in St Aidan’s Church Glenavy, on Wednesday September 15 1965.
Nora quickly became an integral part of that great team in the shop with her meticulous bookkeeping skills making her invaluable to the success of the business. Mr and Mrs Bickerstaffe eventually set up residence in Glenavy, opposite the shop in one of two adjacent houses purchased from the Bolton family, of Ballymote. Sammy’s parents lived in the other house.
A substantial yard to the rear of the houses was used to store gas bottles amongst other items to help supply the shop. This yard also includes the oldest building in the village.
The Main Street premises had all the produce that the local householder required from toothpaste to teapots, cereals to china sets, paraffin to potatoes, Chlorendo to Condor tobacco, feather dusters to the Financial Times, Victory V’s to Victoria plums, delph to dairy products, as well as the finest cheese and of course Sprott’s bacon cut to your preference (my choice was always number nine!) with the infamous Asco manual slicer.
Sammy was a regular sight on the Main Street wheeling the Calor gas deliveries the short distance up the street from the nearby Pigeon Club, where the lorry could park safely.
While Sammy was sorting the Butane, Ledlie would have often been packing the mobile shop (20th century ‘Click and Collect’ Glenavy style) filling up with the pre-requested goods to the rural folk of South Antrim, many of whom couldn’t access the shop itself on a regular basis, preferring to have their home deliveries and at the same time ordering their ‘hiddlins’ (as they were known) for the next visit from Ledlie.
As the years passed, Sammy, Nora and Ledlie became household names in Glenavy and the surrounding areas, always offering great service, with a personal touch to all the many regulars who frequented the premises daily. Nothing was a trouble to them. I never once heard a cross word uttered in the shop. The Bickerstaffe brothers were always clean and tidy, collar and tie complete with the grey shop coat as their uniform.
Such was their popularity, that Gerry Anderson, once made a BBC programme from the shop called ‘The Van Man’ and Gerry along with the film crew, toured the highways and byways round these parts with Ledlie as he did his ‘calls’. I recall hearing at the time, that Gerry found the filming to be thirsty work, and a pitstop was made in the evening at Lily’s Bar in Glenavy. Gerry at the time, remarked that Bickerstaffe’s could boast that they had the ‘oldest paperboy in Ireland’ aka the late Reggie Ferguson, another well-known Glenavy character, son of the Late Alec, owner of the blacksmith’s shop in the village.
Over the years, many great ‘carry-ons’ happened in the shop. A matter that springs to mind was regarding a certain local character (now deceased) who was very keen on the ‘half price/reduced to clear’ basket in the shop. Poor eyesight and advancing years are not a good mix for a motorist, and his ability to see the white line whilst driving was questionable, so much so that he once collided with a local PSNI patrol car on route to Sammy’s shop! He continued to the shop undeterred, made his way to the aforementioned basket, only to be tapped on the shoulder by a constable of the law regarding the matter of a smashed wing mirror on the patrol car. The ageing shopper guldered ‘officer, are you here to apologise to me for your bad driving?’. The young man declined to apologise, and commandeered the man in question onto the Main Street to complete an impromptu eye test on the spot with a few number plates. The test yielded a poor result, and the rest, as they say, is history! Another lady shopper was known to include dried cat food pellets as her dinner on a regular basis!
The shop was a great place to not only purchase one’s essentials, but it was the place to go to hear all the local ‘craic’ and goings on around the area. I have heard many locals say that, since Sammy closed the shop, they never ‘heard any news or local craic’. It was a place where the poorest and most affluent of folk were made to feel welcome, all in equal measure, regardless of how much or how little was rung through the till on their behalf.
It was that atmosphere in the shop that these new, card friendly, one-stop-shops can never replace. Farmers plodding in with their wellies, yarning away to each other through the shop, children allowed to go in behind the counter to pick, one by one, their favourites for a 10p mix up (long before Woolworth’s ever thought of a pic’n’mix section) meanwhile your ears were being entertained with the panpipes, or maybe birds singing on the airwaves, or on the odd occasion, ’Scotland The Brave!’ playing and the smell of the coal and sticks, wafting from the open fire in the shop’s office, which was lit every morning. Cardboard boxes provided were the usual means for customers to cart their goods out to the car.
Many local names appeared in Sammy’s daily- The Crawfords, Heatleys, Brankins, McAllisters, Boltons, Ingrams, Mulhollands, Trowlens, Steele’s, Adams, Cormicans, Johnstons, to name but a few.
Due to the central location of Sammy’s property and dwelling, Sammy was often the subject of many very tempting offers from developers, interested in purchasing the properties for tasteless development, as has been the case all too often in our towns and villages, but Sammy always quickly and politely declined. His shop and family home meant a lot more to him than just simply financial gain. He didn’t want to ruin the place that meant so much to him, his family and his customers.
There was no lottery machine, scratch cards, bleepers, contactless card machines, bar code readers, 5p plastic bags, PIN numbers, deli counters, off sales, and NO Sunday business in the shop. Sunday mornings were instead spent in his beloved church, St. Aidan’s, Glenavy, where he served for many years on the Select Vestry, and diligently carried out the duties of Churchwarden in more recent times. In fact, Sammy helped to lift the collection at the weekly Sunday service, just prior to the recent lockdown and closure of the church in March 2020. Nora also was a soprano singer in the choir for many, many years.
Sammy suffered a terrible blow in 2005, when Nora passed away, following a period of illness. Grief took its’ toll on Sammy and he missed his devoted wife beyond words.
However, as time when past, Sammy found great companionship with Jean Logan, a Crumlin lady and a valued employee in McConnell’s Chemist Shop, Crumlin, who Sammy would have known for many years, and anyone who knew both of them, could see the joy and good times they shared together in the years that followed, whether that was in Sammy’s shop when Jean often lent a hand, at the weekly dances in Randalstown, day trips here and there, or the many trips away in Sammy’s motor home to Glenarm, down South, as well as Scotland and England!
With advancing years, Sammy made the sensible decision to hang up the overalls, switch off the fridges, park the vans, clear the shelves, pull the shutters down, empty the stocks of paraffin and call time for the last time in the shop, and did so following a half-price sale in early 2016, and so almost 60 years trading ended on Saturday 31st January, 2016 bringing the curtain down on a great local family run shop, missed by all of us.
With retirement, came the opportunity to take more time to enjoy holidays and interests, of which Sammy had many.
He followed various sports and was once involved with the Ulster Grand Prix Supporters Club, raising much needed funds to enable the races to continue at Dundrod. He was well known in pipe band circles throughout the province and further afield, having played in local pipe bands for many years, as well as piping at Hogmanay celebrations locally, as well as happy and sad family occasions.
Appropriately at his funeral in Glenavy on Monday May 18, a good friend played a piper’s lament at the graveside, (The Day Thou Gavest) following a quiet committal service in St. Aidan’s churchyard, thus signalling the end of a life lived to the full, in his native area - a life of laughter, trust, reliability, friendship, fun, integrity and hard earned prosperity.
Sammy was just one of those wonderful characters in our wee village that we thought would never be gone from our midst. He was part of a wonderful generation who knew what was involved in earning an honest pound, through hard, honest graft. The type of man that isn’t being replaced.
He was a very interesting man to listen to and a great role model for any young man or woman today. Personally, I had the pleasure of many an hour’s good craic in the office with him. A man who, from humble beginnings, went on to own a good business and property, but never forgot his family, his Church, his friends and customers, and never looked down on anyone, ever.
I can safely say that the whole rural community of Glenavy and the surrounding areas were deeply saddened by the recent passing of Sammy, and Glenavy Main Street is the lesser today without him.
Our most sincere sympathy, prayers and support go out to his close friend Jean, sister Gwen, brothers Ledlie and Wilfred, and the wider family circle, as they come to terms with the loss of a local legend such as Sammy, who will never be replaced or forgotten .
Thank you to Jean and the family for allowing me to compile this tribute, just a short glimpse into a life of one who had a wonderful story to be told.
We will never see his like again.