By the time Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, there had already been an animal feed shop at 61 High Street, Coldstream, for nearly a decade.
Reckoned to now be the world’s oldest pet food supplies shop, its doors were first opened by George Wilson in 1830, when the Duke of Wellington was prime minister, Britain was still hanging pirates and Charles Darwin had yet to make his famous voyage aboard HMS Beagle.
Back then the business was primarily concerned with animal medicine and feedstuffs.
It was sold around the turn of the 20th century to W.E. Howden – the name still adorns the lintel above the front door – and the interior was refitted with its existing mahogany and brass fittings, and the facade decorated with six pink granite columns.
Time seems to have stood still since then and current proprietor, Rob Smith, still serves customers from behind the shop’s original mahogany counter.
Behind him shelves groan with glass jars, and drawers still bear the yellowing labels listing exotic-sounding products of bygone days – Sweet Spirits of Mitre, Salts of Lemon and Camphorated Water.
Rob bought the business more than 40 years ago, but has never felt the need to change the name above the door to his own.
“I’m only the fourth owner since it opened – it was opened by George Wilson, was then run by his son; then between 1900 and 1910, it was taken over by Howden, who sold it on to the Clements in the 1950s and I bought it from them in 1974,” Rob explained.
“It was originally called Wilson Medicine Warehouse and it was nearly 100 years before the name was changed to Howden’s. That’s been its name ever since and if its been good enough for the last hundred years, that makes it fine by me!”
George Wilson actually invented the world’s very first sheep dip, which was manufactured at 61 High Street and sold nationally.
Wilson’s Sheep Dip has long since vanished from the shop’s shelves, but Rob still prides himself on offering the same old-fashioned brand of customer service that Wilson would have been familiar with.
“Originally I ran it as veterinary medicines – going round farms selling sheep dips and what have you. But then farming went through enormous changes 25 or 30 years ago and I had to rethink everything,” said Rob.
“Animal medicines were going through huge change. Farming was in a decline then and if I had stayed with the farming side, I’d have gone down too.
“So we started bringing the pet food side of things back up again, because we had always carried worm balls and the like for dogs – I’ve still got all the old recipe books here somewhere.
“It was the best decision we ever made and we’re quite modern now with a website and Facebook page.”
While the shop has never sold live animals, it has established a reputation for expertise when it comes to pet feedstuffs. Rob even has his own dog food recipe – the popular Coldstream Crunch.
“People come in here, we get to know them and their pets, learn about their lives and how they’re doing and there’s always a bit of banter around all that. It’s what makes it all worthwhile and enjoyable.”
And while Howden’s no longer brews up its own animal medicines, staff members Jaqui Rickard and Claire Murray are both certified to dispense modern medicines, such as wormers, for pets and horses.
Jacqui, who has worked at Howden’s for 13 years, commented: “I like the animals and the people you meet. Folk love to come in have a chat about their pets. It’s never boring!”
Rob has a particular fondness for his canine customers: “The Borders is a real pet area, particularly dogs and that population is always growing. This area has a strong history of working dogs, whether gundogs on estates or the traditional border collie because this has long been such a stronghold of sheep farming.
“These working dogs needed fed and looked after. They were well-bred, so owners wanted the best for them and this gave rise to a whole range of foodstuffs for dogs.”
Rob has two daughters of his own and says he would love it if one or both were keen to take on the business one day. “If they don’t, I’ll be heartbroken when the day finally comes that I have to give it up.
“But I have no plans to retire. I intend to keep going till I drop!”