ABINGDON’S newest bar and restaurant, the Tipsy Mercer, opened its doors last month.

It follows in a long tradition of licensed premises reflecting occupations, e.g. the former Butcher’s Arms in Stert Street and the Plasterer’s Arms which once stood on the corner of West St Helen Street and St Edmund’s Lane.

A mercer was a dealer or merchant. During the Middle Ages the term came to apply to a dealer in particularly expensive fabrics such as silks and velvets.

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Probably the best-known mercer to have a connection with Abingdon was John Roysse who re-founded the town grammar school in the sixteenth century.

Seventeenth century trade tokens, issued to ease the extreme shortage of coins of low denomination, survive for two Abingdon mercers – Robert Blackaller and Sarah Pleydell – who both issued tokens to the value of a halfpenny i.e. half of the old pre-decimal penny.

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It is with the name ‘Beesley’s’, however, that this building will be associated by many.

The origins of ‘Beesley’s’ may be traced back to 1673 when William Stevenson, mercer, opened his business on the north side of the Bury, as the High Street was then known.

He was later joined by fellow mercer, Edward Roberts, who was succeeded by his sons and then by his grandson Nathaniel.

A later occupant of the premises was John Harris who joined up with John Tomkins, a smock maker occupying the adjoining property.

In 1842 the partnership moved to The Narrows on the south side of the High Street, currently numbers 22 and 24, flourishing for a time but later dissolved.

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The menswear section at Beesley's circa 1910.

When John Harris died, his son John junior and wife Hannah took over.

In the 1850s William Beesley came to work for the widowed and childless Mrs Harris.

When she died, she left the business to her 'true and faithful servant', but he sadly died fairly soon afterwards at the early age of 53.

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His widow Susan and son Ernest Herbert continued trading under the new name of ‘Beesley & Son’, and at one time the firm had branches in Wantage and Reading.

With the death of Susan in 1895 there was yet another change in name to ‘E H Beesley’.

An advertisement from 1910 reveals that Beesley’s business – tailors, clothiers and outfitters – was aimed for the most part at men.

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‘Tallymen’ were employed to drum up custom in the villages around Abingdon. Deliveries were initially by pony and trap but in 1908 motorised transport, a De Dion van, was purchased.

After the First World War, Oswald Barrett became a partner in the business and the firm was renamed ‘E H Beesley, Tailors and Outfitters, Ltd’.

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He also entered into a second 'partnership' by marrying E H Beesley’s eldest daughter Gladys.

In the 1920s the partnership flourished, acquiring several potential competitors, notably Chivers which occupied large premises at 7-9 High Street, as befitted a business advertised as 'The Leading Drapery House' in Abingdon.

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Duponts, a smaller ladieswear shop in the Market Place, was another acquisition at this time. These were later sold off in the 1940s.

The business, still at nos. 22 and 24 High Street, extended its ranges to include ladies wear, household linens, fabrics and school uniform.

On the death of Ernest Beesley in 1949, his three daughters Gladys, Phyllis and Madge and became partners with Oswald.

Oswald’s son David, meanwhile, joined the firm in 1950 becoming a partner four years later.

When Oswald and his wife retired from active roles in 1960, David and his wife Molly took over the management.

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The business specialised in men’s and ladieswear, drapery and all aspects of school uniforms.

In the 1980s the business, apart from the school-wear retained by David and Molly Barrett, was sold to Hodge’s Menswear and later to Dunn & Co., but both these firms were short-lived.

Beesley’s was finally liquidated in 2001 bringing to an end a four-centuries-long tradition of fabric merchandising.

Beesley’s was typical of the family businesses which were once the norm in Abingdon, with knowledgeable staff offering a personal unhurried service. There was always a chair provided for those who found standing difficult.

I am grateful to Mr David Barrett for access to his family history and for permission to use his copyright photographs.