Thursday, 23 April 2015

From the Past: Rickett, Cockerell

Glancing out of the train window this morning, I read the legend 'Rickett, Cockerell & Co' on the back of a battered little outbuilding of the station where we had stopped - and experienced a little wave of nostalgia. In the grimy, coal-fired land of my boyhood, every railway station had a little coal merchant's office - usually Rickett, Cockerell & Co, usually a kind of half-timbered miniature house with a tiled, hipped roof and a central chimney. These ubiquitous little buildings used to fascinate me and I wondered what went on in them, surmising that it must have something to do with the coal lorries that went the rounds and the coalmen who heaved great greasy sacks of the black stuff onto their backs (protected by a medieval-style leather jerkin with leather cap attached) and staggered to the coal hole to unburden themselves with a great clattering din.
 Well, those days are long gone, local coal merchants are few and far between, and the Rickett, Cockerell name survives only on weathered signboards on the remnants of their quaint former premises, now converted into minicab offices, estate agencies and the like. The name has a certain glamour, with its faint echo of Ricketts and Shannon, the aesthetic duo - and a stronger connection with Sydney Cockerell, the great curator, whose family firm it was. Indeed he began his working life as a clerk in the business, until he met the likes of Ruskin and Morris and got drawn into an altogether less grimy world.
 The name lives on too, I was amused to discover, in an important case in consumer law: Wilson v Rickett, Cockerell & Co Ltd (1954). Mrs Wilson was a housewife who in good faith purchased a consignment of Coalite from the company. When she lit it, a detonator in the Coalite exploded, taking out her fireplace. The company's defence was that, yes, it happened to contain a detonator, but there was nothing wrong with the Coalite itself. This did not cut much ice with the judge.


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