Obituary: The Suffolk shopkeeper praised by David Cameron
Tony Whatling, who has died at 94, opened in 1951. He’d even be there on Christmas Day, in case folk had forgotten anything vital
"He really was a legend." Former customer and friend Liz Miller is talking about Tony Whatling, who opened his village shop (and, soon after, a post office) in the summer of 1951. He was 25 then, and would spend about 68 years behind the counter.
They were decades marked by change: from rationing and decimalisation to computerisation. There was also the National Lottery. Tony made the first ticket sales in the area - which resulted in long queues of cars and customers outside on launch day in 1994.
The loss of "a very special character" is sad for the village of Westhall, about four miles north-east of Halesworth.
"Something he especially liked witnessing over his 68-plus years in the shop was meeting customers' children, who he then watched grow up and become parents themselves," points out Liz.
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"He knew customers by name, and the names of their children. In fact, many youngsters experienced their first step into the world of work with a Saturday job in Tony's Stores and they have been followed some years later by their children doing the same thing!"
It was early in 2012 that Tony got a name-check in the House of Commons. While warning Parliament that some rural areas were being let down by the Post Office network, Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey said: "I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, and the Prime Minister will want to congratulate Mr Tony Whatling, who has served as sub-postmaster in Westhall for more than 60 years and has still not retired."
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It was a different story in Wangford and Walberswick, she said, where villagers were being let down because there was no post office outreach provision.
Prime Minister David Cameron replied: "To run a village store and post office for 60 years is a huge achievement. It is people like him who keep our country going."
Tony told the EADT: "I always wanted to own a shop. It's been my whole life. I enjoy meeting people and it's been nice watching families grow. You build up a nice relationship.
"A lot has changed but I still enjoy it. I will keep on doing it for as long as I am healthy."
India and Japan
Anthony Whatling (Vincent, officially, though he was always "Tony"!) was born in Wissett, a couple of miles north-west of Halesworth, on August 16, 1925. "Tony arrived in Westhall with his parents when they moved into Cox Common Farm," explains Liz.
"As a young man he worked at the International Stores in Halesworth and during the Second World War served in the Far East with the 2nd Dorset Regiment.
"Many people who met Tony during his 94 years have memories of stories that he told about the time he spent in India and Japan in the 1940s. One of numerous stories he delighted in telling was about how he survived the dangers of a poor water supply because of the fact that he had been brought up on untreated Westhall water."
Tony opened his Mill Common shop on July 16, 1951, with the post office following later that year.
"Since then he has weighed parcels, sold stamps, given out pensions, provided a delivery service, dealt with rationing and decimalisation, taken computerisation on board, held the first lottery sales in the area - which, incidentally, resulted in long queues of cars and customers outside on launch day - and witnessed a lot of other changes. The list could go on."
More than a shop
Every Christmas, Tony handed out individually-wrapped presents to local children and always opened his shop for at least an hour on Christmas Day, just in case anyone had forgotten a battery for that all-important toy or something for that day's special meal.
"Tony provided more than a shop, but also a meeting place where villagers could catch up on local news, collect their doctors' prescriptions, buy tickets for various events, (and) place ads for events, church news, goods or services to sell - and if 'what you wanted was not available, Tony would get it for you'.
"Appropriately," says Liz, "his slogan included 'For all your neighbourhood needs'. His contribution to the community was enormous. Not least, he served on the parish council for over 40 years - the last 10 as chairman. After which he was always happy to address a village issue he thought needed attention and ensured it was dealt with.
"It's no wonder, then, that Tony deservedly received many awards for his dedication, not only from the Post Office but (he) also received the Probert Community Initiative Award in 2008 and was presented with Maundy Money from the Queen in 2009, praised by the Prime Minister and treated to a visit to the House of Lords, followed by tea at the House of Commons with our MP, Therese Coffey."
Village was his family
Tony never married, although he enjoyed the love and companionship of Peggy Dawson for many years until her death in 2007, says Liz.
"However, the village was his family and when ill health eventually forced him away from the shop and he became immobile, Cindy, who has worked for him for about 50 years, and probably knew him better than anyone, became his main carer.
"She soon found people from the village only too happy to take in his meals whilst she continued to run the shop and post office along with her team - Daphne, Julia and Mary.
"Tony continued to receive many visitors, so was kept up to date with happenings in the community. Typically, he hated being a nuisance to anyone and apparently, when 24-hour care became necessary, he asked to go into hospital because he felt he had become a burden.
"Fortunately, he was persuaded to remain at home… and thus, a few days later, went peacefully to sleep in his own place.
"He had requested that the shop should remain open on the day of his death so it would continue to serve his customers."
One could write a book
Someone who knew Tony called him "a gentle man by nature and a gentleman to all". Another person said: "Westhall has lost a legend but many memories will remain with all those whose lives he touched."
Tony was clearly much more than the local shopkeeper and sub-postmaster - "one could write a book about his life!" says Liz.
The funeral is on Saturday, December 7 at St Andrew's Church, Westhall. Times and details should soon be made known by the shop.