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A Spitfire Pilot Remembers: The New J & S Davis Is Born

"A typical week would be a departure from our delightful flat on a Sunday evening and taking a train sleeper to Yorkshire, Lancashire, Scotland or Cornwall..'' Nine years after the ending of the war former Spitfire pilot John M Davis launches his own business and travels Britain on selling missions.

With the encouragement of a good customer and friend, J. Hutchison Cottrell, I started on my own in 1954 and gradually picked up dental products. To build turnover I sold a line of household electrical items plus some specialised display pieces. This meant long periods away from home with three groups of customers to visit.

A typical week would be a departure from our delightful flat on a Sunday evening and taking a train sleeper to Yorkshire, Lancashire, Scotland or Cornwall. The train movement rocked me to sleep. Second class on the train suited me fine, and I usually had the sleeper to myself.

On arrival I would take breakfast either in the station, station hotel or the hotel where I was sleeping on the Monday night. After breakfast my first call would be to the display manager of the leading store at 9 am with a second display call a possibility.

Then perhaps one or two calls to electrical wholesalers or electricity boards. Finally back to my old friends, the local dental dealers. Maybe an evening meal with one of them. If it was a small town like Plymouth, I would move on to the next port of call that evening. A large city like Cardiff or Glasgow would demand a second or even third day.

All these trips were a great pleasure, visiting old friends and feeling their genuine desire to support my young business. It was not an expensive travelling life, with good hotels costing less than £20 for bed and breakfast.

It was all fairly hectic. My orders I would post back most evenings. At that time it was often possible to deliver the mail to the last train for London and it would arrive in its London destination with the first or second mail of the following day.

So, even without the modern facilities of mobile phone, e-mail, fax and computer, we worked with speed and efficiency. Hilde handled the orders in the evening after her work and sometimes brought the packer from her job to our flat to help. The parcels would be taken in Susan’s pram to the local post office.

Often I was able to be back home for a late family Friday night meal at home or with my mother. However, for greater economy and effective use of time, I would sometimes keep going for two weeks. For example, after Lancashire I sometimes carried on to Northern Ireland.

On one Friday night I had finished in Liverpool and made my way to the airport for the flight to Belfast. Using my flying experience I sniffed the low cloud and poor visibility and decided that it was not an evening for flying. Instead I moved to Liverpool dock and took a sleeping berth on the ship to Belfast.

Belfast could be done in two working days, and then the evening train to Dublin with a return flight to London on the Friday night. Occasionally I would do a week of calls on dental practices with the local salesman. Belfast and Dublin were particularly successful, and I thus covered the whole of Ireland from Londonderry to Cork.

My Northern Ireland dealer customers were mainly Protestants but included one Catholic. I thought it would be a constructive idea to bring them together for a social evening since there was no contact between the two religions. So I invited them all with their wives to join me for dinner in my Belfast hotel. All accepted except one very staunch Protestant, who arrived to have an early drink with me but left before the others arrived. He was not going to breach his lifetime code and socialise with a Catholic. The evening certainly did some good.

Northern Ireland was the territory I most enjoyed visiting since they were delightful people. This was the time when one put one’s shoes outside the bedroom door for cleaning. One morning I opened my door and found one black and one brown shoe; so I rang for the porter who came along and was shown the odd pair. He scratched his head and murmured, “That’s strange. There is another room on this corridor with the same problem.” However I ended with two shoes of the same colour.

Whichever part of the country I was visiting, most evenings were spent with dealer friends, sometimes in their homes and sometimes going out together.

Bill Black of Birmingham was a keen Aston Villa football supporter, so sometimes we would go along and watch them. In Glasgow George Carruthers was a Rangers supporter. One evening we watched them play Motherwell, which had always been the Scottish club I followed. That evening I learned that it was a Protestant v Catholic game, with strong police presence and the two lots of supporters well separated.

In Edinburgh I would sometimes be invited to sleep in the home of David Wallace and his delightful wife. Hull was also a pleasure, and I would sometimes join Alfred and Rene Hall for the night in their home. So my selling trips were also happy, social journeys with much time with friends.

One week when I had finished in Edinburgh too late to return home for Friday night. I was booked on the train sleeper and decided to visit the theatre, return to my hotel for bags and walk to the station for my train.

On leaving the theatre I came across a young man kicking another youngster who was lying on the pavement. Standing alongside was a girl shouting, “Help, help!” Feeling that assistance was really required, I stepped forward and got the kicker into a headlock, thus permitting the girl to drag the floor-bound fellow to safety.

I was then faced with the problem of what to do with the lad I was holding in the headlock. So I started asking passing pedestrians for assistance. “Help, please. Would someone assist me?” The passers-by just continued to pass by without even appearing to look at us. One little lady did hesitate and comment in her broad Edinburgh accent, “I would go if I were you, or they will get you next.”

The fellow I was holding was whimpering and pleading to be released, promising to behave. The girl finally returned and asked me to release him so that she could take over. There seemed no other alternative. When released, the young man realised that he was much larger than the little fellow who had been holding him, and he shaped up to attack me. I just looked at him without moving, and fortunately the girl led him away so that I could continue my journey to my hotel, where a wash enabled me to remove blood I seem to have collected.

This experience convinced me again of the benefit of teaching boys to box. One fights by strict rules with a handshake before and after the fight. A while later in Hull I spotted one youngster kicking another who was on the ground. This time it was only necessary to approach and shout in a menacing voice, whereupon the kicker ran away. In spite of being convinced of the merit of boys boxing, it has been removed from the curriculum of every school I know. A great pity.

When at home I was able to do my selling in the London area and also visit such towns as Reading and Brighton, with an easy train return home in the evening. I must have called on every dentist in the Reading area.

The business was growing, and it was evident that we could not continue in a second floor flat. Figures for the first year showed a turnover of just over £10,000 with the likelihood of reaching £100,000 before many years. So we looked for a house that would permit us to separate home from business. This we found at the enormous cost of £5,000.

With a large mortgage the purchase was possible, and we then enlarged the garage and fitted it out with mobile shelving so that it became a very effective warehouse. Construction of an outside staircase at the rear made it possible for me to have an upstairs office and to receive visitors in it without going through the house. What had been the back door became the business entrance, with the scullery becoming the downstairs office and the larder becoming additional storage for small items.

A five-bedroom house had more rooms than we needed, so we decided to take paying guests in two bedrooms, in which we provided limited cooking facilities. We were fortunate in our tenants, who were charming people. A retired elderly lady teacher in one room and a married couple in the other. The single room had one disastrous occupant before the teacher. A woman took it, and shortly after a man moved in with her. Then her husband arrived, and there was a near fight on the staircase.

Money was scarce. Hilde worked as secretary for a solicitor and looked after our business from home, plus caring for baby Susan with the aid of two grandmas.

As the business grew, we needed staff. After a few very nice secretaries we were fortunate in finding a wonderful lady, Irene Cahn, who had two sons and lived locally. She used to come round on a motorised scooter. She stayed with us until she died many years later, undertaking secretarial duties, selling, invoicing and dealing with the telephone, so that soon she knew most of our trade customers.

Hilde still continued keeping our accounts, which was her job until just before retirement.

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