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How Rosemary Trinder, from Clare between Sudbury and Haverhill, went from testing rocket engines to selling vintage fashion

Testing rocket engines sounds an unlikely career start for a woman who is now one of Suffolk’s leading dealers in vintage fashion … but for Rosemary Trinder doing the unexpected was always par for the course.

Rosemary, who turns 80 this year, also became a computer programmer in the 1960s when the technology was in its infancy.

She worked on an experimental tracked hovercraft and wrote programmes to print banknotes at a time when it was an incredibly unusual job for a woman. Even today less than 20 per cent of computer professionals are female.

Rosemary Trinder in her shop, 20th Century Fashion
Rosemary Trinder in her shop, 20th Century Fashion

“For most of my career I was working as the only woman,” she says. “It’s wonderful that now women can expect to go into these sorts of things, whereas in my life I was always the only one.”

Today, in a total change of direction, she sells vintage designer clothing from the shop she and her husband Peter have run for 50 years, while also carrying on their secondhand book business online.

Now called 20th Century Fashion, the shop in Clare is an Aladdin’s cave of beautifully crafted garments and accessories, mostly for women but also for men, where Gucci, Versace and Ralph Lauren rub shoulders with Burberry, Savile Row tailors, Catherine Walker and many more.

A Burberry jacket takes pride of place
A Burberry jacket takes pride of place

Quality is the keyword and the clothes on display reflect her love of wonderful fabrics which stems from making most of her own clothes when she was younger.

She seeks out luxurious pure wool, cashmere, silk and sumptuous velvet - some in muted hues, some in glorious, vibrant colours.

Rosemary grew up in Bampton in Oxfordshire - a village now familiar to millions of Downton Abbey fans because it was used to film outdoor scenes in the popular TV series. “My father was the station master, and we moved to Wales after the station was closed in the Beeching cuts,” she says.

Rosemary Trinder wearing a vintage velvet jacket outside her shop in Clare
Rosemary Trinder wearing a vintage velvet jacket outside her shop in Clare

At school she discovered a natural talent for maths. Her A Levels included maths and sciences. “I was largely the only girl doing that. Maths particularly I found very straightforward.

“After leaving school I worked for a local auctioneer. I declined to go to university because I already had an idea I would be getting married. Peter and I met at a friend’s party and married when I was 19 - we’ve been together for 60 years.

“He was an electronics engineer. At age 13 he’d gone to technical college, it was an experimental thing at the time - his O-levels were in things like metalwork and woodworking. Peter worked at a GPO radio station which communicated with all the embassies, organisations like Reuters, it was a huge hub.”

An eye-catching top by Gianni Versace
An eye-catching top by Gianni Versace

They began married life in Carlisle. “My first proper job was at the Spadeadam Rocket Establishment,” she recalls. The ex-RAF base in Cumbria was used to develop and test the Blue Streak rocket,

“It was waste land, very high and very boggy, it was a huge establishment. What they were creating first of all was a rocket that was part of British nuclear defence, the Blue Streak missile. I went there as a performance analyst. It was around 1964 or ‘65. There was a group of four or five girls who took the records for the engine firings.

“We were testing pairs of engines to go into Blue Streak rockets which by the point I arrived was going to be a satellite launcher, not an offensive weapon. It was a totally unsophisticated process - a pen plus a rotating chart. They had a project developing where they would replace all the chart records with computers. They found the computer, and then had to think in terms of writing software from scratch.

A Louis Feraud waistcoat
A Louis Feraud waistcoat

“They could have gone for people who knew about computers, but not about rockets, but they chose to have people who knew about rockets and teach them about computing. There was a computer aptitude test to see who had the ability to programme. Anyone on the site could take it and all sorts of people did, including firemen, nurses, and cooks.

“It was an interesting result, they found the higher earners did best. I was an outlier on that because I was in the top three, and I certainly wasn’t in the top three earners.

“I was one of three who was trained. That started me programming computers. I thought, I have found my niche, absolutely. It was probably the most significant point in my career. Another point was that the man in charge was prepared to take on a woman in her early 20s on such an important project, which was very far-sighted and egalitarian of him.

Shocking Pink boots
Shocking Pink boots

“I was the only woman in my social group doing what I did, and it was like that most of my working life. The computer was in several six-foot cabinets, and the memory was in terms of ‘k’s not ‘m’s or ‘g’s. I was there about seven years. Then around 1970 there were indications that the project was likely to be cancelled.

“Peter wanted to go into antiques, and we also fancied going back down south again.” In 1969 they bought the historic building in Clare that is now their home as well as their business - but it was 1974 before they could get in into shape to move in.

“I came to Cambridge and managed to get a job with Tracked Hovercraft who were developing a high speed train to run on a concrete beam. There was a track set up in the Fens on the Bedford Levels. There I was doing very much the same sort of thing - testing the machine. I had the right computer skills and had the right application for those skills.

Rosemary Trinder inside her shop
Rosemary Trinder inside her shop

“I went out and saw it run. It was quite exciting. I’m sure I’m the only person to be present at a rocket firing and at a test of Britain’s tracked hovercraft.

“I stayed with the company until we heard on the news that the government was cancelling the project. I was out of a job within a week.”

Rosemary’s next job was with Basingstoke-based commercial security printers Thomas De La Rue - still the world's largest printers of currency. She had already done some part-time work for them.

“It was in machine engraving at that time - totally mechanical not computers. They printed security documents, mostly banknotes for a high proportion of the countries in the world that didn’t print their own.”

She played a key role in computerising their printing process, designing and writing software to create secure patterns for banknotes.

“I wrote all the programmes to create the patterns which had previously been created by very complex mechanical machines,” she explained.

Meanwhile their business in Clare was getting established. “We assume the building is 16th century,” said Rosemary. “It was part of a huge site, including all the shops on the left, owned by the Butcher family. The lady who owned it used to say ‘we are the Harrods of Clare’.

“In 1974 we started the shop, selling books and antiques. It wasn’t an easy time with antiques so we went more to secondhand books.

“Peter also had his own speciality which was vintage tools. I was still doing three or four days a week in Basingstoke and had a flat there.”

She left De La Rue in 1999 after working for the company for 27 years, developing and refining the computer system.

“The fashion came about because we reached a point where we were selling more books online - we started using computers to sell them around 1996,”she said.

“We looked at the options for the shop and found that fashion was quite interesting and less likely to be attractive online.”

Not surprisingly, with her background, they were in on the ground floor of online selling … before the launch of Amazon in the UK, and around the same time as Tesco.

“Computers and books are an admirable application because to a large extent you know precisely what you are going to get,” she says.

And while today massive amounts of cheap clothing is sold online, she feels that customers for her vintage fashion prefer to see it and try it on.

Like many women in the 1960s and ‘70s Rosemary made most of her own clothes and it also gave her an understanding of what to look for in a quality garment.

“Growing up my mother was a seamstress and went to an evening class led by a French lady who had worked in couture. I went along to a few of the classes.

“It was an era when people did make most of their clothes, because it was economical to do so. I did tailoring as well. I used to buy quality patterns. One thing it taught me was what particular tasks took a lot of work.”

But she wasn’t an avid follower of fashion. “Clothes were not a big interest but I always liked materials. Fabrics are what attracts me. When I’m buying for the shop I largely go for classics, things that don’t shout a particular era.

She points out a perfect illustration - a midi-length skirt in butter-soft sage green suede that could have been made yesterday … or decades ago.

“We never went much further back than the 1970s. It gets harder to get nice things before that. Also, they are smaller and less likely to fit people today.”

She also points out that recycling vintage clothing is a green and sustainable way of enjoying fashion.

So will any of today’s top-end designer trends stay the course and pop up up as vintage fashion in 50 years time.

“I think every fashion era we go through, there are things you think look awful, then a few years later there is something that stays around,” she says.

She points out that the sack dress, a style with no defined waist that appeared in the 1950s, is still a popular shape today.