From junior to MD of shop that was a city institution

Len Astley-Penny

Len Astley-Penny

First published in News

THE FORMER owner of an Oxford shop that claimed to be England’s oldest ironmongers has died aged 84.

Len Astley-Penny was the proprietor of Gill & Co from 1973 to 2000. It had, until 2010, stood as one of the city’s institutions for 480 years.

Mr Astley-Penny joined the shop in 1945, aged 14, as a sales assistant and one of his jobs was to sweep the floor.

It was the start of a career lasting more than five decades with the shop, during which time he worked his way up to run the business.

Gill & Co was a company with a long and rich history, dating back as far as 1530 during the reign of Henry VIII.

Exactly where the original premises was in Oxford is not clear, but in 1880 the company, which had a number of names throughout the years, was operating from High Street.

Mr Astley-Penny became managing director of the business in 1973, after his predecessor, Marguerite Treloggen, sold her shares in the business when ill health forced her to retire. He was joined by fellow directors Donald Bourne and John Partlett, and his wife Angela was also later to become a partner in 1984.

They continued its traditional old-fashioned service, giving customers the ability to buy, for instance, a single nut or screw.

Towards the end of the shop’s tenure in the city centre, its biggest customers were traditionally Oxford’s colleges. But there were also many longtime faithfuls.

Mr Astley-Penny told our sister paper the Oxford Times’ Limited Edition magazine in 1988 that there was even a special, irreplaceable supply of candle wicks.

He said: “Each year, before winter, an elderly lady asks for one.

“I don’t know what she’ll do when we run out.”

The firm’s present name – which it still holds at its current premises in Chipping Norton under different ownership – was established in 1922.

The business was, back then, a domestic wonderland tucked away in Wheatsheaf Yard, off the High Street, in a narrow passageway.

And, over the years as times moved on, it transformed from having about 14 workers when Mr Astley-Penny started to just its three directors and a sales assistant.

In the 1800s it employed an army of workers capable of fitting out an entire country house from basement to attic.

Its many years of operation and unusual sales style had left it with many unusual and outdated materials, which made its supply rooms like a bizarre museum.

During his time at the shop Mr Astley-Penny and his wife lived in North Hinksey. Mrs Astley-Penny had left her job as a medical secretary to take over as the company’s financial director, before becoming a partner.

Mr and Mrs Astley Penny retired in 2000, after selling the shop and business.

At the time they said they planned to travel.

Mr Astley-Penny died on June 13 and is survived by his wife.

A funeral service was held on July 3 in Botley Baptist Church.

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