“We’ll paint it up but we’re not changing it.” Andrew Hawkes, son of Merriel ‘Peggy’ Hawkes, is adamant.
Peggy, the 45-year proprietress of dusty, old-school greetings card shop Pegga Stores, passed away in December, one month shy of her 90th birthday. For local people Peggy’s passing brought a mixture of sadness, disbelief — she was an institution no one imagined could die — and fear. “Everyone’s been asking 'are you going to sell the shop; are you going to change it?' We’re not. We love it,” says Andrew. “But we will clean.”
At the top of Westcombe Hill, about halfway between Blackheath Village and Charlton lies Blackheath Standard. A pleasant area with a village green, the Royal Standard pub and a bank that actually still remains a bank, it is a haven of mainly independent shops — butcher, baker, greengrocer. If you ignore the multiple bookies and estate agents, it is a little slice of arcadian bygonery.
On the corner of a parade of late-Victorian shops sits Pegga Stores. Complete with stripy awning and double-fronted glass windows, if you didn’t know it sold birthday cards you might expect a curious little shopkeeper in a fez to appear from nowhere and offer you fancy dress costumes to try on.
Inside, a collection of original display cabinets, glass counters, peg-boarded walls and beauty-board dados jostle with wooden racks of cards and shelves of last-minute necessaries. Balls of string. Envelopes. Glass owls. Jam pot covers. China pigs. Confetti. Wipe-clean tablecloths. Doilies. Lots of doilies. If Pegga Stores looks as though it hasn’t changed since the late 1950s or early 1960s, there’s a good reason for that.
“Mum wouldn’t change anything,” says Andrew. “It was the last shop in the parade to have security." (A 1960s wrought-iron grille and a truly deafening alarm bell that would knock any potential burglars out with its sheer volume).
Born in January 1926 (she would have been 90 this month) Peggy was a tap dancer, performing for the troops in the second world war and later working with ballroom-queen Peggy Spencer. “Even into her 70s she’d get up on the table and dance,” says Andrew. “When she finally went to hospital the doctors were astonished at her legs — the best they’d ever seen on an 89 year rold.”
Despite dancing and working with radioactive materials in a laboratory near Bromley, Peggy settled down. “We always asked ‘What did you see in Dad?” admits Andrew. “She had been going out with an American pilot. Dad was a bit of a wide boy, the sort of guy that ‘could get what you needed,’ if you know what I mean.”
A sort of a James Beck? “Yeah… All the girls fell for that...”
A bored housewife, Peggy started working at the local newsagents/stationers for an elderly couple, the Munns. Andrew cannot be sure 188 Westcombe Hill has been a stationer’s since it was built but he does know the Munns had it for 50 years before they retired, a year or so into Peggy’s employment.
“She was horrified to think she’d lose her job,” says Andrew. “So the family got together and bought the shop.” Peggy continued to work there for 45 years, her USP good, old-fashioned service. “There are several blind people in the area; Mum used to go round the shop with them reading out all the cards.”
“People would come in and talk to her — if they were feeling a bit depressed they’d have a chat and go out feeling a lot better. They often didn’t even buy anything. She’d give stock away half price, or just say ‘oh, bring in the money next time.’ People don’t do that anymore.”
Peggy’s till is identical to the one in Open All Hours, though many years of constant service means it no longer has the characteristic snap of the TV version. “I bought her a nice electric cash register,” sighs Andrew. “She said 'I’m not using that’.”
A frail-looking elderly lady in a shop might have seemed a soft target to thieves but on being threatened with a knife Peggy pelted her assailant with cuddly toys from the shelves. He ran away but the till now has a glass shield.
Some things have had to change. “We had... have... an original oak-panelled ceiling,” says Andrew who, thankfully, seems to love the shop as much as his mother. “The fire brigade wanted us to remove it but I couldn’t bear to, so we had some expensive fireproof boarding put over the top. It’s still up there, waiting until we can find a solution and expose the oak again. We also have one gas light fitting — a workman ripped out the other one before I could stop him.” The shop is now lit with ultra-modern strip lights, circa 1960s.
Various psychics and mediums have come into the shop over the years. They all gravitate to the same corner where I heard the noises.
It has not deterred Pegga Stores resident ghost.
“When I was a teenager messing around in the basement I used to hear things up in the shop, in one corner,” says Andrew. “Someone moving things around. I’d think someone had broken into the shop, but it was all locked up and empty. Various psychics and mediums have come into the shop over the years, sometimes 10 years apart from each other. They all gravitate to the same corner where I heard the noises.” The ‘presence’ is friendly, and like everything else in the store, welcome to stay.
In a parallel universe Peggy Hawkes is a household name. While filming in the shop for a new ITV soap, the actor playing ‘the shopkeeper’ proved to be rubbish. Peggy suggested herself for the role. On being told she’d need an Equity card, she said ‘well get me one, then’. They did. Sadly, in this world the show — even its name now lost to the annals of time — was never commissioned.
For a woman who declared she’d be carried out of her shop in a box, Peggy virtually was. She continued to come in every day, come rain, come shine, driven by Andrew, never taking a single day off until her last, short illness.
As the 21st century charges towards its third decade the vultures have been circling but developer-sharks will find slim pickings at 188 Westcombe Hill. “People try to buy the shop all the time,” says Andrew. “We get notes shoved under the door (there’s no letterbox) and people even come in. Mum used to send them away with a flea in their ear.
“Me and Angie are going to give this a go.” Angela Wing worked with Peggy for many years and also has no intention of changing anything. She’s busy restocking Basildon Bond notepaper and sourcing baby shower cards. For the record, Peggy would have approved of the former, seriously disapproved of the latter.
“People love Pegga Stores,” says Angela. “They’re keen for us to stay. We’ve had offers of help for nothing, just to keep the shop open.”
So, relief all round in south east London. But…why ‘Pegga Stores’, not Peggy? Andrew Hawkes shrugs. “We have no idea”.