Crambie’s: The Colunio Pet Shop
by Josh Swarbrick
ColneLife’s RESIDENT HISTORIAN GEOFF CRAMBIE RECALLS TALES OF WILD CREATURES IN THE HEART OF COLNE (NOTHING NEW THERE, YOU MAY THINK!) BUT THESE WERE AT HIS FATHER’S HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL PET SHOP.
Nowadays your average pet shop is unlikely to feature anything too exciting, a couple of hamsters here, a rabbit or two there, maybe the odd reptile if you’re lucky – but back in the day things were quite different, as evidenced in the sheer variety of wild and wonderful pets from all across the globe stocked by Colne’s very own Colunio Pet Stores.
From tortoises to monkeys, rare birds to even rarer lizards, it’s no exaggeration to say our resident historian Geoff Crambie’s dad’s pet shops stocked the most exotic pets and quirkiest creatures Colne has ever seen.
Crambie’s Colunio Pet Shop was the talk of the town in its heyday. “If you wanted a pet,” Geoff explains, “you went to Crambie’s.”
Having moved to Colne following the devastating loss of their home and possessions in Coventry during the 1940 Blitz, Geoff’s parents opened their first Colne pet shop at 5a Spring Lane in 1946. A roaring success, a second shop opened two years later, just across the street at 29 Albert Road.
We had a Myna bird called Mickey for a time too, it spoke about 80 different words – no swear words thankfully!
With it being his family’s business, young Geoff was thoroughly involved in almost every part of pet shop life. “The real joy was going down to see what new pets came in,” Geoff recalls. “Everything came from all over the world, all by rail. Sometimes my dad used to call me out of school to go down to Colne Station and help him carry all the cages and boxes back to the shop. I remember we had a trolley we used to push up Albert Road, people always used to stop us on the street in awe asking what exotic pet was arriving at the shop today. They were really happy days.”
But ‘exotic pets’ seems something of an understatement.
“Every two months we’d get tortoises from Greece,” Geoff explains. “They came in long wooden boxes – like the kind used to ship bananas across the world – and there was about 50 in each one. My dad used to pay me a shilling for cleaning all their shells until they sparkled! We used to sell them for 5 shillings each, about 25p in today’s money – only I don’t think you’re allowed to sell them in the country anymore!
“We also used to get rare parrots – I think they’re illegal now too! We had other wonderfully exotic birds as well: java sparrows from India, zebra finches shipped from North Africa, we had a Myna bird called Mickey for a time too, it spoke about 80 different words – no swear words thankfully – and we ended up selling it for an astronomical amount of money. Then there was the tropical fish bonanza upstairs, my dad had six tanks filled with beautifully coloured fish like tetras, guppies, and Siamese fighting fish – each was sold for as little as a sixpence. We even used to get monkeys that came from North Africa! The pet shops of today don’t have nearly the same exotic variety that my dad had…
“But I think the most exotic pet we ever got,” he explains eagerly, “was a monitor lizard in 1952. It came all by itself from South Africa, and my dad paid quite a bit for it too, about £10 which in those days was almost £400! It was 6ft long, came in a huge metal cage filled with live crickets and other bits of food for it to eat on its journey to Colne. It was an absolutely fantastic creature – I don’t think anyone has ever had one in a pet shop before or since!”
The most exotic pet we ever got was a monitor lizard! It was 6ft long and came in a huge metal cage filled with live crickets.
Geoff also excitedly recalls his encounters with some of the more mischievous animals sold by his dad. From escaped hamsters mistaken as rats, to a two-foot (thankfully non-venomous) snake that went missing for multiple weeks before turning up in a hidden corner of the shop, it seems there was never a dull moment at Crambie’s! “One memory I’ll never forget was the uproar caused by one of our escaped parrots at Colne Station,” Geoff says with a laugh. “There were about 40 employees at the station in them days, from boaters and carriage cleaners, to station masters, and all of them were scrambling around, tripping up and falling over trying to catch this one beautiful blue, yellow, and green macaw. It was flying about in the waiting room after being let loose from its cage, and then a lad called Tommy Green leapt up in the air and caught it – it was magical! They fetched a good price did macaws, about £200 in today’s money I believe.”
Geoff’s family ties to all creatures great and small extends even further back than the opening of the Colunio Pet Shop in 1946 though. Geoff’s dad had been breeding budgies and canaries since the age of 9, an interest he passed onto Geoff from a young age. Together they attended various cagebird shows across the North West, joining over 60 societies from all across Lancashire to exhibit some of their most prized birds. “My dad bred some of the world’s best budgies,” Geoff explains, “and to get the perfect budgie is no easy feat! He won about four solid silver cups in his time, and to keep each of the cups he had to win three times! And then there’s the very rare silver spoon he won for having bred the perfect British Border Canary. There was also quite a nice monetary prize as well!”
This avian interest extended beyond the pet shop walls too. Surrounded by over 500 budgies and canaries at home, Geoff fondly reminisces about waking up each morning to the wonderful crescendo of birdsong. “Though I think my mum had got a bit tired of them by the end,” he laughs, “anyone who has had birds will tell you how much of a pain it is to clean up all of their birdseed!”
Perhaps the biggest highlight of Geoff’s time working with his dad at the pet shop was during the Queen’s Coronation in June 1953. Wanting to do something special to celebrate the new monarch, Geoff’s father hired a lion cub from Southport Zoo to sit in The Colunio Pet Shop window for a week. “I’ll never forget the sight of people all lined up outside to get the slightest glimpse of it!” he laughs. “My dad had a cage specially made for it, and he used to get me to go down to the butchers each day to buy it a joint of meat – it would eat this great chunk of meat within half an hour! It was quite an interesting time to say the least, and one of those things that’ll probably never happen again but that I am fortunate enough to remember.”
Geoff’s father hired a lion cub from Southport Zoo to sit in the shop window for a week.
Customers and Crambies alike clearly made many happy memories in the Colunio Pet Shops. “It was a sad day for us all when the shop closed in 1961,” Geoff explains, “My mum and dad had put their heart and soul into it – and people loved visiting the shops! But they really were great days, and I’m so fortunate to have had parents who gave me that chance to have such wonderful times.”
ColneLife Autumn 23