It all began with a shipwreck
It's been a High Street landmark since the 1940s and to this day, accounts are totted up the old-fashioned way, using pen and paper. Zoe Ash discovered why The Pioneer is an island institution
It's been a High Street landmark since the 1940s and to this day, accounts are totted up the old-fashioned way, using pen and paper. Zoe Ash discovered why The Pioneer is an island institution TIMES have changed since Ernest and Evelyn Backlund opened their first St Peter Port shop, but their hard work early on has left a lasting legacy for a family business which is going from strength to strength.
Everyone knows The Pioneer in the High Street - but few would guess that it was actually a shipwreck that led the family to settle in Guernsey.
In August 1904 the Dunsinane, a 130ft-long vessel, struck the Black Rock near the entrance to St Sampson's Harbour en route to London.
Working as a hand on board the ship was a young Swedish boy called Siegfried Valentine Backlund. Originally from the southern fishing village of Simrishamn, he had run away to join the merchant navy but when his ship was grounded, he decided to settle here.
'The boat was lost and there was no way back in those days,' says Jan Rushton, Siegfried's granddaughter. 'There weren't any ships back to Sweden.'
Soon after settling here, he met Francine Olivier. Originally from Paimpol, France, her family was running the Albion Hotel (now the Albion pub). Siegfried and Francine were married at Notre Dame Church and he was soon involved in their family business. They were living above the hotel when their first child, Fred, was born but shortly after his birth, Francine's father died and they decided to move to Alderney.
It's thought that all the remaining children - Rollie, Siegfried Jr, Mabel and Ernest - were born there and the family also adopted a further daughter, Lily. It is unclear exactly when the family moved, but possibly during the First World War.
With six children to support, the couple needed to set up a business quickly. Francine opened a grocery shop also selling home-cooked meats and cakes while Siegfried worked as a barber.
'Granddad always said that they made a good trade selling soldiers chocolate,' says Clare Backlund-Leale, granddaughter of youngest son, Ernest.
But the happy times were short-lived: tragically, Francine died in 1927 of tuberculosis. Ernest was just six.
'They made a small fortune in the early days,' recalls Clare, 'but the money had dwindled to nothing by the time Francine died.'
The shop closed down after her death and times became very hard. So a decision was made: all the older children would be sent to America.
'Things had got so bad that Siegfried just couldn't support them,' explains Jan. 'Going to America was seen as a promotion, it was thought to be a better life.'
With the older siblings gone, Ernest was left with Siegfried. But at the age of 10, when things hadn't improved, he followed them.
Clare still has the character references that the American Government requested: one from a local priest and one from a judge.
'We think Siegfried was going to join them,' Clare tells me, 'because I have his references, too. We don't know why he didn't.'
But America was not the land of milk and honey they'd expected. Ernest was soon sent back to his father when the family discovered it couldn't afford to send him to school. Back in Alderney, he and his father set about trying to make the growing industry their trade but it wasn't long before this was catastrophically interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War.
Ernest joined the forces and was posted to locations all over the world, beginning his duties in north Africa. He travelled to Algiers, and through Sicily to Assisi.
But between March and May 1940, he received orders to return to Alderney.
'Because he was a farmer, he was sent home to plant for victory,' explains Clare. But it was to be a long time before victory was achieved.
With his children now scattered around the world, Siegfried was evacuated to Filey, in Yorkshire, where he did the only thing he knew. He opened a shop selling anything he could get his hands on that members of the forces would buy, especially chocolate and soap. At the end of the war, Ernest joined his father in Yorkshire and helped with the running of the shop.
And it was here that he met his wife, Evelyn.
'Siegfried would see Evelyn going past the shop. He kept telling Ernest to say hello to her: he always said dad was a bit slow,' laughs Jan.
'Granddad always joked that she was about as much as he could handle,' adds Clare.
But he must have done something right, because when he and his father left the Dales to move back to the Channel Islands in 1946, Evelyn was with them.
They settled in a small shop in Upper Mansell Street selling toys and jewellery and it was while they were living here that Ernest and Evelyn married.
'They were living in a one-bedroom flat,' explains Jan. 'It wasn't socially acceptable for them to be unmarried in those days.'
They tied the knot at St Joseph's Church on 11 November, Remembrance Day, because the shop was closed all day. It was a very small wedding and Ernest wore his demob suit, issued to him when he left the forces.
'There was no best man,' says Jan. 'A priest stepped in and Siegfried had to give Evelyn away.'
It wasn't long before their son, Christopher, was born and their big break came. Later that year they brought the first 'walking' dolls to the island and sold more than 100 that Christmas. With the profits, they invested in their own property: Evelyn's in Church Square.
Before they could move in, it had to be totally renovated, following strict planning regulations. With its distinctive rounded pebbledash frontage, the shop shaped the way the square looks today.
At 40, and pregnant with Jan, Evelyn stepped back from retail work and the family moved from above the shop to a house on the outskirts of St Peter Port.
Evelyn's quickly built up a good reputation selling watches, clocks and leather goods.
'At its busiest, there were 14 people working in the Church Square shop,' says Jan's husband Martyn. 'They were desperate to sell and would have people standing outside selling and others in the cellars passing stock up.' Ernest used to write across the windows and Clare jokes that it used to look like Arkwright's, the shop in the BBC comedy series, Open All Hours.
It all paid off. By 1970 business was booming and the Backlunds bought 32, High Street, where their shop,
The Pioneer, remains to this day.
When Jan was 16 years old and pregnant with Clare, Ernest had a heart attack and she and Evelyn were again thrust to the forefront of the business, Jan now effectively managing it. It was during that time that she met Martyn Rushton.
Jan had caught the Scottish hotel manager's eye and when she was 20, they married. He, too, joined the family business and became manager of the Church Square shop.
Those were great days for the retail trade in Guernsey: business was brisk during the whole of the 70s and 80s.
'You used to have to fight your way up the High Street,' says Martyn. 'Sealink used to do a £10 fare and with that you got whisky and cigarettes as well.'
So why has this small business become such an intrinsic part of the High Street? How has it survived through decades in which big UK names have colonised our streets? Loyal customers and staff, says Jan.
'Other places are so impersonal - having to get your own things and queue up. We talk to people when they come in.'
It's that personal touch that has always made the shop so special,
'Dad used to say, ?Have a sweet and keep the cold out?,' recalls Jan of the endless supply of Guernsey sweets he kept on the counter. He would also give a silver sixpence to any honeymoon couple who visited the Church Square shop.
Even now it remains true to its roots: there are no electronic tills and with no calculators allowed, everything is added up using good old-fashioned pen and paper.
'Mum does have a sneaky calculator round the corner,' whispers Clare. 'It's only for working out euros,' counters Jan, swiftly.
But in common with their shipwrecked ancestor, life has not been all plain-sailing for the Backlunds and the decision to close the Church Square shop coincided with a tragedy that shocked Guernsey.
For the Forest Road house into which the paper plane crashed one winter night in 2000 is the home of Jan and Martyn. The combination of a downturn in trade and ongoing health problems related to the crash resulted in the closure of the shop and its subsequent letting to Healthspan.
'It's very hard to make a living these days,' explains Jan. 'If we didn't own the buildings, it would be a different matter.'
Like Jan, her daughters, Clare and Fiona, grew up in the shop. But will this generation of the Backlund dynasty follow in her footsteps?
'We expected them to, but never forced them into it,' says Jan. 'They were always keen to be involved.'
While Fiona trained as a Norland nanny, Clare was only ever interested in leaving school and joining the business.
Now she and husband Martyn Leale have two boys, Joseph Ernest and Ernest Jacob. So determined was Clare to carry on the family name that she added Backlund to her husband's surname.
It's clear, as Jan sits with her children and grandchildren, that she is very proud of the legacy that her parents began - and that she can pass on.
'Gran and granddad spent their lives building up the business,' says Clare, 'and it's nice that we can carry it on for them. We want their work to be worthwhile.'
Perhaps her own boys will carry on the Pioneering line.
'I like being in the bag shop,' giggles young Joe. But then why wouldn't he? It's like a second home to him, just as it was to his mum and his nan.
Who knows? Maybe one day in the future, little Ernie Backlund-Leale will be running The Pioneer.
With a little bit of magic, he'll meet and fall in love with an Evie, and the story will have gone full circle.
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