Smyth’s family business closes after 82 years at Narooma: a tribute

The following is a tribute written by Dalmeny resident Ingrid Smith to the Smyth family who closed their doors last week after 82 years of trading in Narooma:

The tribute author - Ingrid Smith of Dalmeny.

The tribute author - Ingrid Smith of Dalmeny.

Click here for original coverageSmyths of Narooma closing, ending 82 years of trading

The tiny, exquisitely embroidered collar lay nestled in the lavender scented box. Purchased by my mother for her tiny daughter’s christening frock, it had been carefully selected at Smyth’s of Narooma.

In those days, white collars were sewn on to frocks when needed. After the special occasion, the collar would be gently unpicked, hand laundered and starched, then laid away until next time.

Some few years later, I was taken to Smyth’s by my mother and handed over to a wonderful young lady called Pat. It was a serious occasion indeed: entry to Narooma Central School was not far ahead and a tie was needed.

The navy-blue, wool-gaberdine box pleat tunic was already safely hanging up in the wardrobe at home. It too had been purchased at Smyth’s. Pat took me, a shy five year old, by the hand and a considerable time was spent in the selection of the necessary maroon school tie.

Two years later the school uniform was changed to the sailor dress, incredibly innovative for the era. I stood patiently whilst being measured for the requisite material needed to make the new uniforms.

Mrs Clarice Smyth, a lady of great dignity, style and charm, would come and talk to mother as I was being measured up. Her husband, Mr Bill Smyth Senior, was the founding father of the store.

Great excitement abounded the day I was allowed my first Speedo swimming costume. I was collected from school and the serious business of proper fitting and choosing the correct costume was undertaken. A huge beaming smile covered my face as I exited the store with mother.

I wish I could remember the names of all the wonderful people who always worked at Smyth’s. From Pat, who helped with my first school tie, to  Les Campbell who fitted my husband with the black jacket necessary for my mother’s funeral, the staff were always personified by helpfulness, knowledge, politeness and customer service.

Each year, a week before my mother’s birthday, father and I would go on a secret shopping expedition. Naturally, neither of us had the slightest idea of mother’s clothing or shoe size: I remember gaping in horrified amazement at father when I realised this vital fact.

The same marvellous lady, Jill, who always attended father and I on these important excursions, always knew mother’s size, her tastes in colours and styles and her preferences in dress fabrics. Dad and I would leave the shop, each parcel exquisitely gift-wrapped by Jill, the whole expedition having taken up to two hours. Jill was responsible for mother’s birthday shopping for many years.

Smyth’s was a veritable temple of colour, shape, size and magic. Rolls of fabric would change with the seasons, the summer selections always my favourites. How I loved standing by the material counter as the huge scissors confidently slashed off the required lengths of fabric.

I could never understand how the ladies handling the scissors always knew exactly where to cut, nor how they always made such a straight cutting line!

Back in the 1960s, bed linen came in lovely, flat cardboard cartons. Actil sheets were folded till they fitted perfectly into their gold and maroon labelled boxes. Exquisite in quality, always white in colour, purchase of those pure cotton sheets was a serious event in a woman’s life.

Then there were all those balls of wool: shelves and shelves of them in their protective cellophane packaging. Money was very tight in those days and the Smyth family was well aware of this. Knitters like my mother were able to purchase the wool a few balls at a time, paying as they went.

The rest of the wool required for the garment would be put on a special shelf with the customer’s name written on the cellophane packaging. Sometimes I would be sent to the store, to ask for ‘three balls of the wool my mother is using, please.’ That was all that was needed to say.

Tubes of coloured buttons attracted children like magnets. Those buttons came in every size, shape and colour imaginable. What a special day it was when one was actually permitted to choose some buttons for a newly made dress.

In the 1960s and the 1970s, all girls at primary school studied sewing, whilst the boys did craft. During my years at Narooma Central School, we girls were very fortunate to be taught sewing by the very kindly, patient and highly gifted Mrs Whittle.

At the start of each term, we would be given a list of our sewing requirements for the next 13 weeks. Like the other girls, I would give my list to mother, who then took it in to Smyth’s, the next time she was in Narooma. The list always included half a yard of cesarine cotton fabric. I still have some of the items today, that were made from that same cesarine: a knitting bag, a book cover, a pin wheel and a book mark.

Every Christmas it was time to get some new bedroom slippers for mother. Pair after pair of slippers was removed from their pristine white boxes for the delectation of my father and I.

Ruby red quilted velvet, sky blue satin with tiny toe rosettes, delicate orange paisley: how could one possibly choose? It was usually left to the lady attending to us to gently remind us of mother’s preferred taste. Perhaps ruby red with sequins was not quite mother’s style? So we would be tactfully turned in the right direction, leaving Smyth’s with yet another beautifully gift-wrapped parcel.

The shop truly was Smyth’s with the family invariably at the helm, always present and always working. Mr Bill Smyth Junior would be there with a cheery smile and a helpful word for all.

All through my life, including my very last visit to the shop, I would see Mrs Lorna Smyth, quietly guiding the store with her courtesy, kindliness, ability and charm.

Mrs Alison Gowen, née Smyth, went to school with me and could be found at work in the store during school holidays and after school. From an early age it was evident she had the same gifts and abilities needed to run such a complex business in a small town, as both her parents and grandparents.

Smyth’s has always stood for quality, courtesy, and caring customer service at the very highest level. They have been an integral part of living in the Narooma district for eighty-two years and will be sorely missed.

Ingrid M. Smith

Dalmeny