tells me that he’s been cutting men’s hair in Saltaire for 32 years in July. He started his own business at 205, Bingley Road (not strictly Saltaire village, but close enough) in 1973. He’d previously worked with Herbert Sheilds who had a shop at 1, Gordon Terrace, on the corner of George Street.
Quite an achievement to have such a successful small business, I thought, when so many have foundered.
I tried to work out what’s so special about what Peter has on offer :-
- His adverts say “gentleman’s hairdresser” but I always think of Peter as a barber. Judging by the number of teenagers that I’ve seen in his shop, he must be keeping in touch with the fashion scene and creating the modern look. But his bread and butter customers are his regulars. By and large they go to him for an “as usual” haircut at a reasonable price, along with the friendly banter and badinage which accompanies it in this predominantly male establishment. Make it as insulting as possible, lightened with humour, and give as good as you get, in the knowledge (or hope) that none of it’s really meant.
He’s almost a caricature of the blunt, outspoken Yorkshireman. He doesn’t mince words and is proud of it. If you want to sort out the problems of the world, you’ll be sure of a strong opinion in return. Of course, he has to know you first – new customers are treated much more respectfully. The banter signifies that you’ve been accepted and recognized as one of the locals.
- Peter’s good at his trade. He’s been cutting men’s hair since his teens.
He moved to Nottinghamshire when he was 14 years old, to a branch of the family who were farming there. He soon became apprenticed to a hairdresser, and then managed a shop in Mansfield for a year , before moving back to Shipley in 1971.
- He looks the part, and this is a good advert for his skills. He carries his 53 years well, with no trace of middle age spread. He’s sported a beard ever since I’ve known him, but now it’s more silver than brown, and it’s neatly trimmed and groomed.
Have you noticed how a beard gives a certain gravitas? Victorian men adopted beards and side whiskers because it made them look solid and dependable. Officers at the Front in the Crimean War of 1854 let their beards grow for purely practical reasons in the freezing Turkish winter, little realizing that they’d become fashionable when they returned home.
Peter’s beard doesn’t do this! He has an almost rakish look, with a twinkle in his eye and a ready smile.
- Peter’s local credentials couldn’t be better. He’s a member of the Firth family which is well known in the Village. There were Firths the Bakers at 2, Victoria Road since the late 1930’s. And you’ll find others well represented at Salts Mill. Peter’s grandfather worked for 54 years in Finishing, and his uncle worked as a wagon driver for 57 years. There has also been a branch of the family working as farmers and gamekeepers since the 1700’s. Peter’s great, great grandfather was gamekeeper for the Earl of Rosse at Northcliffe.
The family tree has been traced back to 1723 in this area. Dawson Firth had 13 children, so no wonder they’re so well represented. Peter lives locally with his wife, Cynthia, in a house in Hirst Mill Crescent into which he moved when he was 3 years old, and which his grandmother had owned since 1929.
- Peter’s interests and topics of conversation appeal to his clientele. He’s enthusiastic about animals, wildlife, riding, hunting, and the outdoors life generally – with his own special spin to it.
He’s got 3 dogs – and used to have a ferret which went for walks with them without a leash. It thought it was a dog, he says!He shoots clay pigeons – but with a muzzle loading, flintlock rifle! Everything’s larger than life and more colourful with him. He has a fund of homespun philosophy. For example, when describing how to control a horse, he says “you tell a gelding but ask a mare”. Just like something from a Peter Sellers or Dudley Moore film!
- There’s a long tradition of barber’s shops in the area, most of which have been taken over for other uses now.
Perhaps the best known in Saltaire Village was at 79, Victoria Road. It was Hardacres originally, but was then taken over by Tommy Rhodes. There was also a barbers at Tillotsons on Gordon Terrace. Peter reversed the trend in 1971 when he converted a greengrocers into his present emporium. There are a lot of new hair salons along Bingley Road now, offering trendy hairstyles, nails, facials, tanning, and complete make overs – all at top prices.
Peter now has the niche market. It’s what his customers want – value for money and no frills. And if you can get that, along with the local gossip and news of friends from the past, you’ll come back for more. Plus, there’s Peter’s memory for the details of conversations. He can sometimes continue the same conversation with a customer on consecutive haircuts as if there’s been no time in between!
- There are some attempts to diversify into new markets. Picture framing and house signs are other products on offer. He says that he’s also trained to repair umbrellas, and still has the repair equipment!
Fortunately, Henry VIII got rid of barber/surgeons, or he might have tried his hand at that too. Peter has to admit that, although he’s justly proud of his 32 years working in the area, he’s got a long way to go to equal Herbert Sheilds 50 years.
Sentinel readers also have a reason to be grateful to him. He helped to get the Sentinel started, and is still a regular advertiser. He doesn’t really need to advertise elsewhere. There’s still a ready market for his skills, and there’s a stream of mums and dads bringing their sons for their first and subsequent hairdressing experiences.
So I asked him why he’s not expanded the business. “We’re just an unambitious family” he says with a grin. I think that this is where he wants to be – still continuing his family’s 300 year tradition of service in Saltaire.