Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Yorkshirewoman with work ethic is finally made Mayor

NEW Henley Mayor Lorraine Hillier knows the meaning of hard work. Her businesses include the Hot

NEW Henley Mayor Lorraine Hillier knows the meaning of hard work. Her businesses include the Hot Gossip coffee house in Friday Street and the Upstairs & Downstairs tearoom in Duke Street.

She can often be seen dashing between the two and occasionally turns up late to meetings of the town council where she has been almost ever-present since 1998.

However, she will be paying the businesses less attention over the next year thanks to her appointment as Mayor, which will keep her busy with official duties and numerous visits and meetings.

There is a feeling of justice about her election as she was deputy mayor in 2003 but did not progress to the top post due to a change of political control on the town council and was nominated unsuccessfully four times after that.

When the Conservatives won back control at the elections last month, she was the obvious choice.

Miss Hillier, 59, who lives in River Terrace, says: “I genuinely didn’t think that my time would come.”

Now it has, she will be putting her business experience to use.

“People who don’t own a shop have no idea what it is like to be a trader and how difficult it is,” she says. “It is traders that need help as they rely on the footfall in Henley.

“It would be lovely to bring back a chamber of commerce.”

Her other ideas include reducing the number of yellow lines to create more parking spaces and rephasing the traffic lights in the town centre to reduce congestion.

Originally from Sheffield, Miss Hillier was born two years after her sister Susan, a teacher, who will be Mayoress and accompany her on official duties during her year in office.

The girls’ father Kenneth served with the Royal Air Force and then worked for Sheffield Transport.

Their mother, Shirley, now 83, worked for a veterinary centre which bred Scottish terriers. She took her master’s with the Open University when she was 74.

Miss Hillier went to the city grammar school but left as soon as she could. “I disliked school but I liked art and English,” she said. “I wanted to be a journalist, writer or artist.”

Her first job was as a studio junior at an advertising agency in 1972, when she was 16. Her main duties were making tea and collecting fish and chips!

That year she also appeared as a “dolly bird” on It’s a Knockout when it came to Sheffield.

Miss Hillier then worked as junior artist at an advertising agency and recalls a blackout during the miners’ strike. “Rather than let us leave work we all got given a candle to put by our drawing boards,” she says.

She was 26 when she became an in-house artist for the Bassett’s confection company in Hillsborough. “That was a lovely job,” she says. “I used to put my white overall on and get the white cigarette sweets while they were still warm.

“You could eat as much as you wanted while you were on the shop floor but couldn’t take anything home with you. I used to have liquorice torpedoes by my desk. I enjoyed that but I put on weight.”

She used to ride a motorcycle to work, encouraged by her father.

“I had all the leathers,” she says. “I used to wrap my clothes around a hot water bottle so they were warm when I put them on when I got to work. Once I remember seeing my bank manager who said I looked like Wonder Woman!”

At 30 she joined the By Design agency in Sheffield as a studio manager but when her Persian cat Harvey died, she was heartbroken so took up her boss’s offer to manage the company’s branches in Reading and Slough, which is when she first saw Henley.

By this time, she had a car and three new cats, Rupert, Monty and Piers. Miss Hillier recalls: “I was given a flat and used to drive down on a Monday morning with my cats and then take them back at weekends. The cats got used to travelling in the car. They would sit perfectly still.”

When the business closed she stayed in Sheffield but she missed the south so when a friend saw an advert for a job in Sulhamstead she applied and was taken on.

Two years later, she turned freelance and worked as a paste-up artist at the Henley Standard, among other positions.

She also worked every Saturday and one evening a week at Harvey Nichols in London, where she met celebrities including Kylie Minogue and Ruby Wax.

In 1989, she was made in-house artist at Thornycroft in Gerrards Cross, where the managing director had worked for Bassett’s.

A year later Miss Hillier bought the flat in River Terrace, where she still lives. “It was the cheapest in Henley,” she says. “It had damp problems due to not having been lived in for a year.

“There was also a slump in the housing market in the south when there was a boom up north so I sold and bought at the right time.

“The removal men thought Henley was part of London and my mum and I waited for hours as they got lost. They finally arrived at 11pm.”

After years of being self-employed, Miss Hillier decided she wanted to change career and went on a two-day course in Kingston-on-Thames to learn how to run a coffee shop. She opened Hot Gossip in 2007.

“I was 52 then, so it was quite a risk,” she says. “I must have had more than a midlife crisis. I was naïve as I had visions of making coffee and writing my novel. What I didn’t realise was we had to sell food.

“I knew that it would be hard work and I always had a strong work ethic but it was much harder than I envisaged. I hadn’t even thought that I needed to employ people.”

Since then, the number of coffee shops in Henley has grown with both chains and more independents  opening up.

The Mayor says: “The competition is fierce and now all the pubs are doing coffees. I am not trying to compete with the multi-nationals because you can’t. I just keep it simple. That’s the key really. Sometimes people don’t want too much choice because they know what they like.”

She likes being hands-on at work and admits to not being very good at delegating.

“In the evening I am getting my orders in and everything ready for the next day,” she says. “I do all my paperwork and all the washing of the aprons and table cloths. I never go to bed before midnight and sometimes it’s 2am.

“I survive on little sleep and I am constantly running up and down the stairs. I have this app and I do about 8,000 steps a day. People laugh when they see me run between the shops.”

She enjoys employing young people: “In my head I am still 17 and it shocks me that they refer to me as old. I find the conversation amusing because you know what you were like when you were their age. I do get CVs but I never really study them. When I employ people I go on gut feeling and it is always difficult when they move on.”

Upstairs & Downstairs opened last year and has proved to be as popular as Hot Gossip.

Despite growing up in Sheffield, a Labour stronghold, Miss Hillier says she has always been a Conservative because her parents were. She says: “To me, Labour always want to bring people down to one level and I think we need something to aspire to in life.”

She recalls that at the first general election where she was allowed to vote, Labour sent out a car offering to voters a lift to the polling station.

“I wanted to wait for my mum and dad but the third time they came round and knocked on the door I said I would go with them, so I did and voted Conservative.

“At Bassett’s there were 2,000 people and it was very Labour. You never dared say you were Conservative.”

She got involved in politics herself when she met the late Tony Lane, who was mayor of Henley five times, in Tesco where she had a second job working in customer services.

“I had been talking about parking,” she says. “I was banging my fingers on the table and he said I should stand for the council. He invited me to a meeting at Bird Place and everyone was so friendly.”

She stood for the council in 1998/9 and was elected.

“When I got in I was terribly nervous before I spoke,” she says. “I thought ‘how do you speak without notes?’ Then you realise that if you feel passionate about something the words come.

“You would serve your time and not be made mayor straight away so you would get familiar with everything.

“When I was deputy mayor the Conservatives had fallen out of favour and I lost my seat in 2003. I was heartbroken.”

She returned to the council a year later after winning a by-election against Mr Lane, who was then standing as an independent. “I felt sad standing against him and defeating him,” she says.

Miss Hillier has no regrets about never marrying.

She says: “When I was young I thought I was one of the most likely to get married. I had quite a few boyfriends. The reason I never did wasn’t because I was particularly career-minded, I just didn’t meet the right man at the right time.

“It is probably too late for me now but fortunately I like my own  company.”

The Mayor couldn’t be happier in her adoptive home town.

She says: “I love Henley, I love everything about it. It is beautiful and I like its history and the buildings. As soon as I came here I felt at home. I am still in awe of it.”

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