Robert Brown's article published in The Gazette September 26, 2003


THE recent scaffolding on the shops on the eastern side of upper Church Street brought back a few memories for the older folk of the town.

They remembered the old shops that used to be there before the terrible fire of 1935, when Mr Aston’s shopping arcade was destroyed.

Known as the Little Dustpan, the building was once a furnishing warehouse established by Benjamin Thorne in 1844. He specialised in various trades including building and furniture making. In 1929, Mr Vernon Griffith, a secondhand furniture dealer, took over the building. Then, the following year, William Aston acquired the lease.

Mr Aston began his career in fancy goods when he opened a shop at 35 Winchester Street in Basingstoke in 1918.

Upon moving into upper Church Street, Mr Aston renovated the building by constructing an arcade with small shop units on either side. This involved including storerooms, fitting-rooms, and new windows.

In the centre of the arcade was a large aviary with budgerigars and other colourful birds, which became a favourite with small children. There was also a small monkey kept in the arcade which added to the interest.

Mr Aston’s wife, Vera, kept a drapery shop in the arcade, among the other units.

In his line of business, Mr Aston travelled about the country, leaving his staff to deal with the customers, and while at Brighton at the end of August 1935, he received an urgent call to return to Basingstoke.

His shop and arcade had caught fire in the early hours of August 29, and most of the building was gutted.

Two occupants in the flat above were able to get out of the building before the flames consumed the property, but the birds in the aviary could not be saved.

The fire brigade, based in Brook Street, were there within minutes and managed to keep the fire from spreading too far.

Unfortunately, just down from the arcade was a house belonging to Mr Gill, and this was badly damaged. He had already lost his motor car when fire swept through a block of 22 garages at Phoenix Park Terrace in the May of that year, and the Church Street fire was a terrible blow to him.

Mr Aston managed to obtain an alternative property in Victoria Street, as his shop contents had been insured for £8,000, allowing him to carry on his business.

The Church Street premises were cleared away, and later on new shops were built, but further back from their original frontage. This allowed the road to be made wider in that area of Church Street and let vehicles park along that side of the street.

The Victoria Street property was smaller than his other one, but Mr Aston extended it to sell household furniture, with a yard which was covered over with a roof.

In later years he changed the business to selling fancy goods, especially leather items.

After the Second World War he became popular for his homemade goods, as well as those produced in his workshop.

Women were attracted by Mr Aston’s advertisements for leather orders already cut into the required shapes for machining together at home, and it was quite common to hear the sound of sewing machines chugging away in houses around the town.

The finished goods, such as children’s handbags and men’s briefcases, were returned to Aston’s workshop and he would hand over payment for the completed work.

Then further work was handed over for completion the following week, and so on.

It gave housewives in the town a source of revenue to help live a better life.

In early 1966, William Aston decided to close down his business in Victoria Street and moved to Worthing in Sussex, where he died on September 26 that year. A tiny mention of his death in the local newspaper in Basingstoke was all that was written about Mr Aston.

The many “outworkers” who had been employed by him hardly noticed the obituary for the man they called “the bag maker”.

His premises were taken over by other businesses. Then, during occupation by a firm called Homecraft Supplies, a fire broke out on February 26, 1980, and almost gutted the building.

It seemed like the flames that destroyed Mr Aston’s first property followed him to his second premises even though he had already moved on.