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Willesden businessman 'Mr Airey' passes away

RESPECTED: Mr Hensley Euton Airey

LONG-STANDING and well-known north west London businessman and community organiser Mr Hensley Euton Airey passed way recently, aged 87.

Mr Airey was regarded by many as one of the pioneer Jamaicans who established a successful business after arriving in the UK from the Caribbean in the 1950s, which is still going today.

He first opened Airey Bargain Store in Willesden Lane in 1962 and then later opened another store in Kenilworth Road selling perishable food and groceries for a growing Jamaican community, who had made north west London their home away from home.

Mr Airey’s business made him such a popular figure in the area that it wasn’t long before he expanded the business to include selling alcohol along with the famous ‘Airey patties’.

This demand for the products and services supplied transformed the business into the first 24-hour multi-goods, groceries, snacks and off-licence in London.

It was the popular place to shop after hours during evenings and weekends to get a bottle and a patty before going to parties and where people also stopped on their way home from a night out.

Even celebrities like John Holt, Toots, Marvin Gaye and many more would drop in at Mr Airey’s store after gigs and hang out.

Whatever customers came to the shop to get, there was always a friendly atmosphere, banter, good reggae and other types of music being played as they enter.

Before Mr Airey arrived in London from Jamaica in 1953, he had already had some preparation to go into business.

He was born in Plowden Hill, Manchester to Mariam Wilson and Mr Airey Senior. He had two brothers Calvin and James and a sister, Verita

While working on the farm, he would pick up fruits that had fallen from the trees and sell them. Here began the personal leadership and entrepreneurial skills as he always saved his money and spent it wisely.

Later, he went to live with an aunt in Kingston where he would go and help out in a shop run by one of her friends and cultivated ways the business could be improved.

He ran the shop, worked hard and at the same time made sure he dressed sharp and went out to dances where he had a good time.

One night when he was out dancing, a friend mentioned a ship leaving for England where the lucky ones went to have a better life. He contemplated long and hard and decided that he would like to give England a try.

He arrived in the UK on August 8, 1953 with 100 shillings.

He had flown from Jamaica to Newark, New Jersey and then embarked on the ship ‘SS Siberjack’ which took 10 days to land in Southampton. He then got a train to London and went to friends in Grenville Road, north London.

He first worked at a factory in Watford making pens.

He saved his money and bought a van, which he regularly used to pick up other workers to take them to and from work.

Applying his entrepreneurial skills to life in the UK, he would go out part-time in the evenings to enable customers to buy goods from his Brian Mills catalogue to improve their new way of life in the UK.

He then went on to expand his range of goods offered to further enhance the lives of Caribbean folk to include items like coloured tights ‘American Tan’ for dark skin as well as other goods like candlewick bedspreads.

As business picked up, with more demand for specific items and more people coming from the Caribbean, he decided to give up his job and go into business full-time in the summer of 1962.

Airey Bargain Stores was born at 73 Willesden Lane before he expanded further to include the grocery store and off licence.

On learning of his passing, Winston Pickersgill, proprietor of New Look Travel in Harlesden and a fellow Jamaican, said Mr Airey was an inspiration for those Caribbean people who started up businesses in north-west London in the 1960s.

“He was a very friendly and helpful person and those of us who had ideas of running our business would look to him for inspiration. If you were having a party, Mr Airey would supply the beer in bulk on a sale and return basis. He was one of the first black salesman on the road along with ‘Mi Amigo’ hair product store in Craven Park. I have known him since 1961 so was sad to hear of his passing, “ Mr Pickersgill said.

Mr Airey retired from his business at age 75, but nonetheless kept in close contact with his family who carried on his work. He leaves behind five children, daughters Delores, Lorraine, Janice, Sharon and son Kelly. Another daughter, Doreen pre-deceased him 18 months ago.

A funeral service for Mr Airey was held on March 23 at the New Testament Church of God, High Road, Willesden.

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