Keith Parmenter – ‘I had one lady crying when I said I was leaving’
You have only one day left to collect your Dry Cleaning from Keith Parmenter’s tiny shop in Princeton St, Holborn, because he is closing tomorrow forever after twenty-eight years. When I visited yesterday, Keith had a mere half a dozen suits on the rail and he was clearing out his shop while awaiting collection of these, which gave me the opportunity for a chat to learn the story that lies behind this modest establishment, measuring just ten by fifteen feet.
In these quiet streets situated between Theobalds Row and High Holborn, Keith has been a popular figure for decades. He is the custodian of house keys and the recipient of parcels for his neighbours, and renowned among the worthy members of the legal profession who rely upon Keith to get their dark suits cleaned efficiently at short notice in readiness for important court cases.
Although his workplace is small, Keith is a man of the world who has seen life and is celebrated for recounting tales of his youthful adventures upon the seven seas. I was as touched to meet Keith as his customers are sad to see him go, and it reminded me how much individuals such as he contribute to the distinctive character of our city.
“I will have had this shop twenty-eight years this September. I also used to have half the cafe on the corner and I had sunbeds in the basement, a solarium – two and half businesses. I was already involved in this before I came here, I took over a dry cleaning shop in Cowcross St next to Smithfield Market. I just met somebody one day who already had a shop and they were a bit short of money, so I squared a few things up and worked with them for a little while and saw how it was done. Then I saw this advertised, and I applied and took over this shop.
I was born in Stratford and I went away to sea as a merchant seaman when I was fifteen and a half. My first trip was on a an Esso oil tanker. I was a galley boy because I always had weak eyes. Although I wanted to, I could not be on deck I could only go into the catering, but in the end I found it to be the best. I worked for the New Zealand Shipping Co, the Port Line, the Union Castle Line encircling Africa and the Cunard Line subsidiary which used to sail from St Catherine Dock beside Tower Bridge. I used to go on four week trips to Italy, via Porto, Lisbon, Cadiz and Seville. It was chartered by Harveys of Bristol and we brought back wooden barrels of port from Porto.
I had a lovely upbringing in Stratford, more-or-less where the Olympic Park is now, and my dad used to buy and sell horses, scrap metal, rags, fruit and veg. He was a proper costermonger. It was all in the family. My grandfather, he came from Belgium and he had a secondhand shop and he would also buy and sell horses. He had stables where the Olympic Park is, that was all open land by the River Lea where I used to ride horses bareback. It was a wonderful time – to be in Stratford and live like that. I had the best of both worlds.
When I did go to school in Canning Town, I was not a very good scholar. I used to play football and I used to box. It was close to the docks and I saw all the ships’ funnels, and I was mesmerised by them. It intrigued me and I always loved history and geography, and that gave me the urge to go away to sea. There was lots of seamen from East London, on every ship I sailed there was always one. At first, I followed in my dad’s trade, I had a scrap yard and I used to buy and sell scrap, and I did house clearances. There is not much I have not done!
It has been wonderful here in Holborn. That gentleman who has just gone by, he is a top barrister. I have met barristers and judges, and got on with everyone. I had one lady crying when I said I was leaving. I have friends from all the different Inns of Court. There is one customer – I am not sure what he does – he is something to do with the Royal Family and last year I went to one of the Queen’s Garden Parties. He got me an invitation and I thought to myself, ‘I would have never believed this when I was a boy in Stratford,’ because I was a bit of a rascal. It has been fabulous here. This is a lovely area.
That building on the corner opposite used to be Yorkshire Television and I saw all the stars from the different shows sitting outside. It was very busy then but it has gone a lot quieter now. I have decided to have a break and I want to do a bit of travelling. Hopefully, I can keep strength up because I still feel pretty good and I work out every day.”
‘I would have never believed this when I was a boy in Stratford’
Keith Parmenter’s last days of dry cleaning
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