‘The most stressful period in my life’ – Owner of 260-year-old Hitchin business opens up on lockdown experience

Gatwards of Hitchin has been a central part of the town's community for 260 years. Picture: Charlott

Gatwards of Hitchin has been a central part of the town's community for 260 years. Picture: Charlotte Gatward - Credit: Archant

The owner of an historic Hitchin jewellers has spoken about the unprecedented challenges her business faced during lockdown, revealed her experience delivering orders to residents and is optimistic about the company’s future.

When plans were drawn up at the start of the year to celebrate Gatwards’s 260th anniversary, owner Charlotte Gatward expected big things.

Parties, big events and wild celebrations were all on the cards – as the Hitchin jewellers, which is the oldest family jewellers in the UK, planned to celebrate more than two centuries worth of history.

But after the coronavirus pandemic closed the jewellers for the longest period in its history, 2020 still looks set to be an unforgettable year for Gatwards.

Charlotte remembers a holiday, just two weeks before a national lockdown was enforced by the government, that made her realise how serious the pandemic was.

Perspex screens, social distancing and masks are the 'new normal' at Gatwards of Hitchin. Picture: S

Perspex screens, social distancing and masks are the 'new normal' at Gatwards of Hitchin. Picture: Supplied - Credit: Archant

“I was in Majorca in the middle of March. Flying out there, I knew it would be touch and go.

“The reality hit me when we were trying to get home. Spain was already in a lockdown, airports were closing and flights were being juggled and none of the usual tourist shops were open.

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“We realised that at some point Gatwards would have to close – it was shocking.

“This business has been here for 260 years, we’ve never really experienced anything like this.”

New UV cleaning technology allows customers to try on jewellery safely. Picture: Charlotte Gatward

New UV cleaning technology allows customers to try on jewellery safely. Picture: Charlotte Gatward - Credit: Archant

Charlotte and her team spent the first day since closing removing all of the store’s stock, with some of the jewellery’s prices exceeding £10,000.

The building, and more importantly the expensive contents of its safe, were checked on every few days.

Gatwards would end up furloughing all but one of its staff, ensuring they were protected from the abrupt closure of the business. Charlotte explains that it was a “hard conversation” to have with people who have dedicated so much time to Gatwards.

Charlotte adds: “At that point I had to become a bit of an HR expert, get my head around furlough and how that would all work.

“Letters needed to be sent to all staff and we had to communicate everything clearly to them to ensure we were all complying with the rules.

“Then we wanted to look into some of the available government funding.”

Unfortunately, Gatwards didn’t qualify for either of the Government’s Small Business Grants Fund or Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Business Grants funds.

Charlotte explains that the company was “literally a penny away” from being eligible for the £25,000 grant – a significant sum that could have had a huge boost for the business.

However, Gatwards did manage to obtain a “small” sum of money from North Herts District Council’s discretionary grant fund.

With the Hitchin store closed for the foreseeable future, Charlotte set about working on a plan to make sure Gatwards could continue to trade through their online store.

In fact, Charlotte took such a hands-on approach that she would personally deliver any online orders that were in the local area during lockdown.

She remembers one day in April that saw her go to Hitchin, Letchworth and Kimpton.

“I just got in my car and started delivering. We still wanted to bring a sparkle to people during lockdown. People loved it!

“I really, really enjoyed it. What we do here is give people an experience when they buy jewellery and we wanted that to continue, even with the shop being closed.

With schools and nurseries also closing, Charlotte had to juggle running her business with child care responsibilities.

Like many parents, Charlotte sometimes found that delicate balancing act a struggle.

“We had no child care at all. My husband leads the United Chiropractic Association, so he was really busy and on conference calls all the time.

“I was running the business, delivering orders. In the beginning I had both children almost hanging off me on Zoom calls, asking for a snack while I tried to work out the furlough scheme. It was a nightmare.

“I have to say, it was the most stressful period of time in my whole life.

“Trying to juggle all those things, it felt like the dial had been turned up. But, somehow we got through it.”

In World War Two, Charlotte’s grandfather, Willson, converted the workshop into a manufacturing centre for plane parts to help the war effort.

Following in his footsteps, she wanted to do something to help her community – and decided to reward key workers with their NHS Hero Campaign.

With a huge number of entries flooding in, Gatwards picked three winners of £200 gift vouchers, with all others nominated being given free jewellery cleaning for the rest of 2020.

“We just wanted to thank the NHS, and try to do something positive for the community amid all the doom and gloom.”

For many, the height of the pandemic now feels like a lifetime ago, and Charlotte is looking to the future with optimism.

Gatwards has since reopened to the public, with social distancing, masks and new ultraviolet technology allowing jewellery to be cleaned on-site.

Charlotte said: “Of course, the future is still uncertain. But, the main thing is that people are still going to get engaged, they will get married, have anniversaries, big birthdays.

“People want to mark those occasions with something special, and I’m sure that is why this business has stood the test of time and will continue to do so.”

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