A bread-winner who ruled by fear

The Tees Businesswomen Awards inspire columnist Harry Pearson to reminisce about the first businesswoman to make an impression on his young life…

I think the Tees Businesswomen Awards is a splendid idea that is surely long overdue (and congratulations to Claire Preston, above, for winning the inaugural top gong).

When I was growing up, back in the 1960s, many Teesside businesses were run by women – often older women and quite frequently pretty scary ones, at that.

Indeed, had the Tees Businesswoman of the Year Award been running back then, I have little doubt that it would have been won, year in and year out, by Miss Metcalfe, the lady behind the counter in our local bakery in Great Ayton.

I’m not sure if Miss Metcalfe was actually good at business, I should add, but one thing was for sure she was not a woman to be denied.

The morning after my parents moved into the village, they were awoken at dawn by a firm rapping on the front door. When my mother opened it, she was confronted by a statuesque, middle-aged woman in full Fanny Craddock pan-stick make-up, who said sharply: “I am Miss Metcalfe. You will buy your bread and confectionaries from me.”

It was not a request, it was an order.

Miss Metcalfe was like a mafia don in a floury pinny. Had she decided she was Tees Businesswoman of the Year, no judge alive would have dared tell her otherwise. Frankly, she was so fearsome she made Lord Sugar at his most irritable look like Mylene Klass perusing a photo gallery of kittens wearing bonnets.

Some businesses build brand loyalty through excellence. She did it through terror.

Miss Metcalfe’s shop was next to a greengrocer’s, whose proprietor was suspected of placing his finger on the scales when weighing out your sprouts.

Miss Metcalfe had no need for such cunning. She made the hardest, heaviest and densest bread in the universe. If you’d placed it on an “I speak your weight” machine, the device would have cried “Ouch!”. My grandfather had a hernia lifting one of her granary rolls.

Miss Metcalfe was aided by her younger brother, a short toad-like man whose hair was curled up on his head like a stuffed ferret. He walked with a pronounced stoop – the result, I expect, of lifting Miss Metcalfe’s teacakes.

He spoke when he was given permission – as if she had an invisible cigarette stuck in the side of his mouth, a habit that gave his speech a ventriloquial quality, so that unsuspecting visitors to the shop would often form the impression that it was not he who had spoken to them but the plate of hazelnut macaroons that sat on the left of the counter, gathering dust.

These macaroons were not for sale, but were an historical exhibit. They had served as supplementary armoured cladding on the hull of the HMS Hood when it was battling the Bismarck.

Miss Metcalfe – true to the Yorkshire stereotype – was incredibly thrifty with ingredients. Neither the introduction of rationing, nor its repeal, had made the slightest difference to her recipes.

When you bought a currant bun from Miss Metcalfe, you got just that – a bun with a currant in it. The filling ran through her apple pies like an ill-founded rumour. Once she offered my mother a fruitcake we’d ordered from her for Easter with the memorable words: “It got a bit overdone, but you can easily remove the black bits with a cheesegrater.”

The quality of her goods made no difference. Fear of Miss Metcalfe’s wrath guaranteed repeat business. No villager dared shop elsewhere.

When he reached the age of 80, Miss Metcalfe’s brother risked a severe earbashing by dying without her consent. Miss Metcalfe elected to retire to Filey. The only people who mourned her absence were local manufacturers of protective footwear. No winner of a Tees Businesswomen award will come close to matching her, thank heavens.

 

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