Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.


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[113] All Manner of Things Shall be Well

I am coming near to the end and I want to do a broad summary. It will be a bit rambling, without any pictures and full of sweeping generalizations. I have put in lots of links so you can find out more details.

Disclaimer

I don’t want to give you pages and pages of Terms and Conditions as we seem to get nowadays but I just want to make it plain that these are my views. For the Fifties they are the memories of a young boy brought up in a large family in Ilford with no knowledge of life outside my family and school. Even in the Sixties I knew little outside my small world. News and information from television and newspapers was far more restricted than today

Technology

We had virtually nothing of modern technology. There were fixed line Telephones, which we hardly ever used – more or less just for occasional local calls. Our house had Electricity but we didn’t have many uses for it. We had an electric iron and very, very occasionally in winter an electric fire might be used. Basically electricity was for lights. All the things you now think of as automatic just didn’t happen. We survived without Computers.

If you wanted to write anything you used a pen or pencil. Offices used Typewriters, which were only used by typists and Newspapers were produced by a complex, cumbersome labour-intensive process taking several hours.

For Photographs we had cameras and photographic film. You might take 36 shots in a week’s holiday and then wait a week for a single tiny print of each one. We did have Cinemas producing films but people did not make their own moving pictures.

(Perhaps the most automation we ever had was in traffic lights. They were very simple with no fancy stuff like lanes or filter lights or pedestrian signals. Some of them were able to detect when traffic arrived to hasten on the next change.)

Standards and Authority

Attitudes were more Formal and Standards were different especially our views about women, children, ethnic minorities, animals and sexuality. (‘Ethnic minorities’ is a modern term. We didn’t have them. There was some open racism towards ‘black’ people – and Irish!)

We respected the Authorities even though we had no knowledge of how they worked. (There was no Internet!) We trusted and believed doctors, teachers, policeman and generally vicars. If we didn’t there was no way we could question what they said or did. If something went wrong we accepted it – we didn’t think of suing anyone for damages.

Most people more or less accepted the Church and there were many more believers and regular churchgoers. The Church played a significant part in our education and our attitudes to Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and Sundays. St. Andrews Church at Ilford played a significant part in my life.

Government

The government and Civil Service covered much, much more than today – coal, gas, electricity, railways, telephones, television and national savings. Education, doctors and hospitals and local government services were more centrally controlled.

Society

Families stayed together. Men and women stayed married. Men and women were different. The man of the house worked; women stayed at home and were housewives; children grew up with their parents. More complicated family situations were rare. Homosexuality did not exist. (I am talking about generalities and public perceptions. It was not openly acknowledged or accepted.)

Most married women were housewives and there were few opportunities for work for women. Women expected to get married and raise a family at home and were generally happy with the situation. Housework (making beds, shopping, preparing and cooking food, cleaning and laundry, together with looking after children) took most of the average housewife’s day – and a lot of the evenings and weekends! Men were expected to do little at home and probably did even less.

Children, particularly those below school age, were looked after by their mothers because there were no alternative arrangements. Growing Adolescents remained in the care of their parents and could not vote until twenty-one.

While the man of the house earned an income and paid for regular bills (gas and electricity, rates, telephone etc.), he would pay a housekeeping allowance to his wife to cover basic food, cleaning and probably children’s clothes. In general, this allowance did not include anything for the wife to buy clothes or cosmetics (although most generally saved enough to look after their basic needs).

There was still the attitude that men made the major decisions for the family without consulting their wives, and wives just followed their husbands. The marriage ceremony included the promise for wives to ‘… love, honour and obey…’

[A major difference that affected all aspects of family life was that Contraception was not easy and abortion was illegal. It was not considered ‘right’ for unmarried women to have children.]

Law and Order

My impression is that there was much less public disorder and crime, but this may be partly from the innocence of youth. Police mostly operated on foot. There were no police cars. All they had was a police whistle to call for assistance.

There were different standards but crime, like other aspects of life, was more local. We didn’t have fast cars or easy roads.

Food and drink

Families ate together at home eating simple foods cooked by the housewife of the family.

Restaurants were up-market, much rarer than today and for special occasions and the rich. Eating at a restaurant was a more formal occasion and a more formal process. Except when on holiday, ordinary people rarely ate in restaurants or hotels. (Restaurants in those days were limited to British or perhaps French Cuisine. Foreign restaurants started to emerge in the sixties with Indian and Chinese restaurants.)

The only ‘fast food’ in the fifties was fish and chips, and for most people this was the only experience of eating out. The fish and chips were usually taken home, wrapped in newspaper, but there were facilities to eat in the shops. This would have been a much more informal and cheaper experience than eating in a proper restaurant.

The first equivalent of the American revolution that was fast food hit England in the early sixties. It was the Wimpy Bar. This was a glorified coffee bar which served hamburgers in buns (‘Wimpy’) but not exactly in the Macdonald’s takeaway fashion. They were served, with chips, at tables and on plates, with knives and forks – a downmarket version of restaurant service. The real takeaways such as Macdonald’s did emerge, in their full American format, until the seventies. After that came Pizza and other culinary imports from the U.S.A.

Pubs were much more common. They were crowded with men (not women) who drank pints of bitter and smoked. Pubs did not mess around serving food. Alcohol at home was less prevalent.

By modern standards, cafes were non-existent. When shopping in Ilford Mum might have a cup of tea at a department store café. That was it.

Television

Almost all early Television was live, not pre-recorded. (The only real exceptions were programmes repeated a day or two after their original broadcast.) Also, in a way which is not easy to define, there was a much narrower range of programmes, only what the middle class establishment of that time would consider to be in good taste. This consisted of news, information and entertainment based on ‘Variety’ (i.e. singing, dancing, comedy, magic, circus acts etc.) Sports broadcasting was virtually unknown as technological limitations made ‘outside broadcasts’ (anything not done from the central studios) both difficult and expensive. Back in 1950 there was no choice of viewing, no television advertisements no phone-in programmes, no Soaps, no reality television, no live football, no morning television.

We had one channel for a few hours each day with very poor quality black-and-white pictures on a nine-inch screen! My memories of Children’s Television date from these earlier days. By the late sixties we had three channels, still not broadcasting all day and still without the reliability and picture quality we expect today.

I have a whole series of blogs about particular stars of television – from David Attenborough and Doctor Who … to David Attenborough and Doctor Who!

Of course in the Fifties Radio was just as important with Mrs. Dale’s Diary and Two-Way Family Favourites.

General Entertainment.

At home, people spent some time watching television, listening to the radio, reading and perhaps making their own music. Pianos were nowhere near universal, but were far more popular than today. Cinema was more popular. If people went to the theatre, it was a far more special night out than now. People more often just went out walking together.

Pop Music hadn’t really started. Televised sport was almost non-existent – apart from the weekly football results.

Education

I have said a lot in my blogs about Primary School, Secondary School and University life all of which were much more formal than today. I can only speak for Grammar School education, which may have some similarities with the few remaining Grammar Schools today – including my alma mater, Ilford County High School, which still exists. Teaching was based on chalk on blackboards, reading from textbooks and writing in exercise books. Our most sophisticated visual aids were – coloured chalk.

We had just the traditional subjects, formal homework, end-of-term examinations and hand-written reports.

Shopping

We had simple local ShopsGrocers, Bakers, Butchers, Newsagents, Chemists, Hardware shops and Post Offices were common. Big towns had Department Stores but there were no Supermarkets. If I take an example, the baker might sell half a dozen types of loaf (only one of which would be sliced and packed,) white rolls or brown rolls and a few types of cakes. We were not burdened with Choice. There was, of course, no on-line shopping.

Transport

There were no motorways, just narrow roads going through the centres of towns so that long-distance travel was a series of traffic jams. For local shopping parking outside the shops was easy and free.

 

Money

We used cash and coped with pounds, shillings and pence and it was all done by mental arithmetic. Shopkeepers gave us the right change. Credit was virtually non-existent. Banks managed all their calculations without automatic calculators or computers.

By way of a diversion, here are some typical prices from the Fifties (or perhaps early Sixties) from memory. I have converted pre-decimal money to approximate decimal equivalents.

  • 1p would have bought a cup of tea. (Coffee was 2p.)
  • A stamp for a letter was about 1½p. (There was no distinction then between First Class and Second Class post!)
  • A Mars bar was 1½p, a Kit-Kat 1p. (Most other chocolate bars did not exist then.)
  • A bus ride started at 1p and was unlikely to be more than 10p. (Buses were double-decker and had bus conductors.)
  • A small loaf of bread was about 4p.
  • A haircut (for men) was about 5p.
  • A pint of beer in a pub was about 5p.
  • A cheap plastic ball-point pen was about 10p (and probably still is).
  • Single records, when they started, were about 33p. LPs (33 rpm) were about £2 to £3.
  • A three-course meal in a restaurant would have come to between 50p and £1.
  • A gallon of petrol was about 25p. (That’s a gallon, a bit more than four litres!)
  • A black-and-white television set (9 inch) was about £60-70. (This figure has remained virtually unchanged for 50 years.)
  • A 4-bedroom semi-detached house in the suburbs of London was about £250.

(The Retail Price Index has risen by a factor of about 25 since the mid-fifties. Most of this inflation took place in the Sixties and Seventies.)

 

Miscellaneous

There were virtually no plastics so things now made of plastic would have been made from wood or metal.

Packaging, when it existed, was simple, perhaps a rectangular box. Bread, meat, fruit and vegetables were sold loose or perhaps wrapped in tissue paper.

We knew little of some modern health concerns and Health and Safety was not a major consideration. Substances like mercury, DDT and asbestos, now considered very dangerous, were uses routinely. The same can be said for lead in pipes, paint, toys and petrol. Smoking was common, ubiquitous and accepted.

Here are some of the evils of the modern world, which we did not have in the Fifties.

  • Consumerism and advertising were much less significant. There were no three-for-two or buy-one-get-one-free offers.
  • We had and no junk mail.
  • There was no cold calling on telephones.
  • Utilities – gas, electricity, water, telephones, television – were state controlled and there were no choices of tariffs.
  • Banks and building societies were similar to each other – offering few choices at identical rates.
  • Telephones did not have premium rate calls – but then all non-local calls were difficult, unreliable and expensive.

Trust

Something younger people find hard to understand is that we knew so little of the nastier side of life that we trusted people.

There were no school runs by the parents. Children as young as five walked to school on their own. When we were seven or eight we were sent to the shops at Beehive Lane on our own. Women with babies would leave them in prams outside the shops.

[I know. I said no pictures. I changed my mind.]

We played in the streets or spent the day at Wanstead Park Recreation ground – without mobile phones and without even watches. We came home when it was time for tea.

 

 

I have put in a lot of links but there is a lot more in the blogs including some about Christmas, my family, politics and some miscellaneous odds and ends … and language. I still think the best way to read then is to start at the beginning and work forward.

My last blog … in a week or two … will be about language.

 

The title of this blog comes from the quotation ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’ from Revelations of Divine Love, the first book in the English Language known to be written (about 1395 AD) by a woman.

We know little about the authoress, Julian of Norwich. Even her name is uncertain. She lived in the second half of the Fourteenth Century as an anchoress in a cell joined to the Church of Saint Julian in Norwich, which is probably the source of her name – although Julian was a common name for women at the time.

 

Acknowledgements

As this is almost my final post I want to acknowledge my sources. Apart from my own memory I have just two sources.

There may be an odd exception but almost all of the background information and most of the pictures come from Wikipedia.

The rest of the pictures – apart from a few of mine – come from Facebook, generally from the rapidly growing number of groups devoted to nostalgia about the Fifties and Sixties.

 


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[52] Are You Being Served?

I am going to complete my memories of shops of the fifties with Department Stores and clothes shops, with a special mention for Woolworths. (When I say ‘complete’ that doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind later!)

Rub-a-dub-dub, Three men in a tub, And who do you think they were? The butcher, the baker, The candlestick-maker, …

Supermarkets                                                                                                              

Before I come to these, I want to respond to some comments on my earlier posts about shops. I want to clarify what happened with supermarkets. They started, slowly, in the early sixties. I think there was a shop called Greens Stores in Beehive Lane that started as a Grocers, turning slowly into a tiny supermarket.

It was a revolution, just after 1960, when a supermarket opened in Ilford. It was the only one then in what was a large town. It was about the size of the tiny modern Metro supermarkets. I think it was called Dysons. Mum went once a week with a shopping list and took Dad with her because there was so much to carry. They only had the smaller trolleys at first.

But for the rest of my thoughts about shops I want to keep back in the fifties as far as I can remember. The earlier posts about shops – butchers, bakers and the others – were my earliest memories from the fifties.

OldIlford01

An early picture of Ilford. I can’t be precise about the date.

List of Shops

Department stores came in various sizes. They all sold at least some men’s clothing and ladies’ clothing and some or all of the following: children’s clothing, lingerie (always distinct from ladies’ clothing), shoes, curtains (US: drapes), soft furnishings (sheets etc.) household goods, haberdashery (See below), furniture, carpets and rugs (US: rugs and carpets!) kitchen equipment, ornaments, books and stationery … and food.

Before I look at department stores, the following list shows the shops I remember in the fifties mostly from Ilford. Because the overlap is uncertain this list also includes shops that just sold clothes (and, for completeness, shoes.) I may have some dates and names wrong. Many were chain stores found throughout the area so I may have seen them just outside Ilford.

Since then almost all brands have been merged into others or disappeared. My comments below about the brands say nothing about the actual shops. (I haven’t been to Ilford for many years. I understand that Bodgers is the only one still there.)

In time honoured fashion they are in alphabetical order!

  • Army and Navy – A Popular chain of shops. Merged with Chiesmans. Now House of Fraser.
  • Bodgers – About the only department store still there now in Ilford
  • British Home Stores – Now BHS. Cheaper end of the market. Included food and a café.
  • C & A – A Dutch chain, came to Britain from about early sixties. I loved it for men’s clothes. No longer operates in the UK.
  • Chiesmans opened 1959 Merged with Army and Navy. Now House of Fraser.
  • Co-op – Now CRS, Co-operative Retail Services
  • Dolcis – Shoes, an established chain. No longer with us. Always seemed to be located next to Lilly and Skinner and Freeman, Hardy and Willis.
  • Dorothy Perkins – Established chain for women’s clothes. Became part of Burton group.
  • Etam – Women’s clothes and lingerie. A Dutch firm. Not now in UK.
  • D. H. Evans – Established chain for women’s clothes. (Not sure of current politically correct term – for the ‘fuller figure.’) Now Evans. Part of Arcadia.
  • Fairheads – Included haberdashery. Now seems to have disappeared.
  • Freeman, Hardy and Willis – Shoes, an established chain. No longer with us.
  • Harrison Gibsons – Included furniture and carpets. Now House of Fraser.
  • Home and Colonial – Established chain, mostly food. Now merged into Safeway.
  • Lilly and Skinner – As for Dolcis and Freeman, Hardy and Willis.
  • Maison Riche – Upmarket women’s clothes only.
  • Marks and Spencer – clothes and food. All their clothes used the St Michael brand name in the fifties. Still going strong.
  • Montague Burton – Now Burtons. Then it was an upmarket men’s Taylor. The only place for made-to-measure suits.
  • Moss Bros – Formal dressware and hire.
  • Moultons – Multi-storey shop. The name now seems to have disappeared.
  • Richards Shops – Taken over by Arcadia.
  • Selfridges – Could be late sixties. Now House of Fraser.
  • W. H. Smiths – Now WHSmith. See below.
  • Wests – Included haberdashery. Now seems to have disappeared.
  • F. W. Woolworth – See below.

[Note: Arcadia group now owns Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Evans, Wallis, Debenhams, Selfridges, House of Fraser and many other brands.]

Fairhead

The picture above shows Fairhead’s in Ilford

Note the orderly queue (for a Sale)

And the use of shop windows for display.

Big Department Stores

When I first did my notes, I said that department stores can best be seen as like Grace Brothers in the Television series ‘Are you Being Served’. I now realize that this program was last shown in 1985 so you may not all have seen it! It started in the early 70s, so by then the stereotyped department store was already an obsolete figure of fun.

They were much larger than the basic shops we have seen already – butchers, bakers etc. – at least twenty times the floor space and normally at least two or three storeys. I think Harrison Gibsons, with five or six storeys, used to be the tallest building in Ilford.

(The Harrison Gibsons building was destroyed by fire in 1959 and Moultons, next door to it, was damaged. Flames lit the sky and we could see them from our house two miles away.)

What was fundamentally different about these shops was their internal architecture. There were lines of counters making up large elongated rectangular areas. Several shop assistants inside looked after all the merchandise, which was either on the counters or in drawers under the counters (or, at the outside of the shop, behind the assistants.) Customers stayed outside the area containing merchandise. If what you wanted was not visible – it probably wasn’t – you had to ask the assistant to find it and show you. Items of clothing appeared carefully boxed, not hanging up. There was relatively little that you could touch or even see.

BeingSErved

The picture above from the BBC series shows a cash register

Showing 3s 6d (That’s 17.5p)

Also, clothes were arranged in departments by type of clothing rather than by fashion designer. If you wanted a white dress shirt, you went to the counter selling white dress shirts and asked to be shown the range. (There was probably only one brand anyway.) There may have been one or two on display, but most were kept neatly in drawers and cupboards. You would have a small range from which to make your choice and finalize the purchase. If you wanted an overcoat at the same time you went on to the overcoat department (perhaps on another floor) and repeated the selection process with another shop assistant. For a large department store there would be perhaps hundreds of staff where today a staff of about half a dozen may sell just as many products.

Generally, department stores had grown from drapers, selling textiles – clothes, curtains, sheets etc. but the range of goods depended on the shop. At some stores there were some counters selling food but there was nothing resembling today’s supermarkets (or hypermarkets or superstores).

Some included basic cafes providing tea, coffee and biscuits and not much more. (Tea and coffee will come later.)

Haberdashery

Many had quite large areas selling haberdashery – equipment and goods to enable customers to make their own things – knitting needles, wool and knitting patterns; sewing needles and cotton thread; patterns for dressmaking; hooks, buttons, zips and beads. In the relative austerity after the war a lot more people knitted or sewed at home as a cheaper way of obtaining clothes.

Bodgers

Clothes Shops

There were some shops, as indicated in my list above, which only sold clothes. They were structured in the same way as department stores. Over more than fifty years, most chains have changed their ownership, branding and clientele several times in what is now a fiercely competitive business. It was probably better to think of them in the fifties as clothes shops rather than fashion shops.

WH Smith

Smiths were slightly different in the way they changed. They started a bit like the small newsagents that generally became corner shops. But Smiths shops were larger, almost department stores. They sold newspapers, stationery, some confectionery, books and magazines, but also records, (later CDs, computer accessories, electronic games,) playing cards, board games and small gifts. It is still a large chain successfully filling its own niche market. What was left of the Post Office is now similar.

Woolworths

F W Woolworths was aimed at the cheaper end of the market. I probably saw more of this shop because there was one at Gant’s Hill as well as one at Ilford. It sold cheap clothes, kitchen utensils, toys and games, food and many other things. They picked things not for sale elsewhere and sold them in large quantities. I have memories of a few things sold there.

School_plimsolls

School plimsolls came from Woolworths. They were mass produced in China and only sold at Woolworths. Everyone at school had shoes like these, which we carried to school in our PE bags with our shorts. They cost a few shillings. As far as I know they were the only form of sports shoes available.

peanuts1

As well as other food, Woolworths sold loose peanuts by weight. They would be scooped and put into a paper bag and weighed – the assistant just kept adding a few until it skipped over the 4oz marker. They were not the peanuts of today, not roasted and salted. You could either get them in their shells (above) or without shells – they still had the red skins. Both were about 6d for a quarter (4oz).

peanuts2

Finally, apart from photographs, I possess just a few treasured items from over fifty years ago. I bought these at Woolworths. They were unusual then as we had little contact with African craft. Now there are shops selling all sorts of decorative craft goods from Africa, India, Asia and South America. I still love these little antelopes.

Antelopes2


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[42] Aspirin, Negatives, Saucepans and Hammers

[42] Aspirin, Negatives, Saucepans and Hammers

I have covered most of our local shops at Beehive Lane, shops that were generally seen at every little group of shops. For Butchers, Bakers, Greengrocers and Newsagents, see: [24] ‘Hallowed be Thy Name’. For Grocers: [28] ‘Clever People and Grocers, they Weigh Everything’, and for The Post Office: [37] Car Tax, Family Allowance and Dog Licences.

I want to cover two others that will complete the main set of local shops, Chemists and Hardware Shops.

Boots

Chemists

Most of the other shops were local shops but then, as now, Chemists were virtually synonymous with Boots the Chemist. Primarily they were the place to get prescriptions made up or to buy non-prescription medicines.

Prescriptions then were handwritten by doctors, who were notoriously bad at writing legibly – so that part of the art of the pharmacist was in deciphering the meaning. (And, of course, mistakes did occur.) These local shops were the only places supplying prescriptions – not a great surprise, as there were no supermarkets.

(Prescriptions were free until 1952 when the charge was one shilling [5p] per prescription, not per item. In 1956 it became one shilling per item and rates have increased steadily since then – with a period of free prescriptions from 1965 to 1968. The system of exemptions is complex and now pretty out-of-date.)

The range of non-prescribed medicines available then in Chemists was probably much smaller than nowadays. Unlike today, most of them were not publicly displayed. If you wanted anything, you asked the pharmacist confidentially. It was a place where the queue was a little more discreet than other shops. (You might have been able to buy contraceptives from Chemists. They would have been well hidden behind the counter.)

AspirinBottle

Aspirin was much more widely used for pain relief, before its side effects became so infamous. It may have been the only generally available analgesic tablet. As for many tablets, you could buy aspirin in bottles of a hundred, which made them much cheaper. They were not individually sealed in foil as they are today. Like so many things, they have been changed today by health and safety concerns. I don’t think you could buy a hundred tablets now.

The chemist shop also sold many things that could be loosely described as chemicals – make-up, perfumes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo and conditioner. [Just kidding! There was no such thing as conditioner!]

I have to admit to uncertainty in my memories. I think you could buy cleaning products – Ajax and Vim – from Chemists, and also possibly toilet rolls. Please don’t take my lists as definitive.

Photography

See [41] Flash, Bang, Wallop! This blog about photography described the processes of developing and printing pictures. Back in the fifties, photography was a function of your local Chemist. I think they may have done developing locally, and printing at their headquarters. Typically, it took a week to have prints produced. The Chemist shop was also the only place to buy both cameras and films, with other accessories such as flash bulbs.

Hardware Shops

Hardware shops sold all the non-food items in daily use including pots and pans and all kitchen utensils – not that there were many kitchen utensils. None of these would have been made of plastic. They were metal, wood and ceramic, and we did have pyrex – ovenproof glass. The range of kitchen equipment was limited. We had saucepans, bowls and dishes, kitchen knives, potato peelers, colanders, mincers. I will leave full the list for a later blog about cooking methods but you will not be surprised that we managed without woks, parmesan cheese graters, pineapple corers and spaghetti measures.

Peelerthorben_bottle_opener

There were also tools – hammers, screwdrivers (and screws) and a few others – not the vast choice now found at DIY centres. Again this is a subject to be considered in more detail later. As you would expect by now, tools were simple; choice was limited; and they were made of metal and wood only.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Yale

You can think of hardware shops as the source of all things made of metal, so they also provided locks and copied keys.

Shopping Hours

Before I look at other shops it’s worth remembering when they opened. Almost all shops opened from 9:00 to 5:30 and for a large number of them this included a break in the middle when they were closed for lunch (generally from 1:00 to 2:30). There was half day closing on Saturdays and one other day, usually Wednesday. (Each town had its day for half day closing, usually Tuesday or Wednesday, agreed jointly by the local Chamber of Commerce.)

Opening on Sundays was controlled and very limited. For example, greengrocers could open on Sunday morning to sell vegetables as they were considered perishable, but they could not sell tinned or frozen peas.

Shops did not open on Bank Holidays.

Other Shops

I can remember some others from Beehive Lane that would not have been found in all little shopping parades. There was a Book Shop, a Ladies Hairdresser and I think an Estate Agent. (This was before the days of Unisex Barbers. The men’s Barber was at the other end of Beehive Lane.)

In general, there were shops in larger areas such as Gant’s Hill and Ilford town centre (accessible by bus), which included the other main non-food shops – Furniture Shops, Shoe Shops, Clothing Shops, Pet Shops, Banks and Building Societies, Gas and Electricity Showrooms, and Department Stores.

In a vague attempt to be logical, I will split blog posts and leave until later Department Stores (including F W Woolworth) and also all clothes shops to a later post.

So, for completeness I will list here some more I can remember: Fishmongers (selling fish), Florists (which just sold flowers), Cobblers (repairing shoes) and Off Licences (alcohol – more details coming later). There were no out-of-town shopping malls, no supermarkets and no convenience stores, no Garden Centres, no DIY centres, no betting shops and no shops selling computers or mobile phones.

You will have noticed that very little could be bought from more than one type of shop.


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[28] ‘Clever People and Grocers, they Weigh Everything’

In my deliberately random ordering, this post takes up the ‘story’ where [24] ‘Hallowed be Thy Name’ left off. We are continuing to look at the basic small shops, to be found everywhere, including my little local shopping area of Beehive Lane. There’s a heavy hint in the title:  – today it’s all about the Grocers shop! More shops will come later.

I should have emphasized in the earlier post about shops that nothing was self-service. You queued at the counter and asked for what you wanted, which may have been (or may not have been) visible behind the shop assistant. Sometimes you asked without knowing whether they had what you wanted. If there was a choice, then you might choose before you had a chance to see it.

This will be more relevant when we come to other shops. So far we have considered, the butchers bakers and greengrocers, where most goods would have been on display. At the combined newsagent, stationers, tobacconist and confectioners, only a selection would be visible. At the grocers, a selection would be visible (behind the counter) for you to choose.

This post is in danger of looking like a list of foods, but as you read it, notice the simplicity of the items; the lack of choice; and what it missed out. Imagine going round your supermarket and only seeing these things. I will come back later to consider some significant omissions.

[I know there will be mistakes and omissions.  Some self-service was creeping into our shops in the fifties, but not where I lived. Please read the spirit of what I say, not the detail]

Co-op-grocers-staff

Dry Goods

Grocers were general food shops, but excluded those perishable goods that we have already met. They did not sell meat, bread, or fresh fruit and vegetables. We certainly did not have ‘sell by’ or ‘best before’ dates, but these were foods that had to be sold when they were fresh. (OK, I missed out the Fishmonger earlier, the fish equivalent of the butcher, only fresh fish. Grocers did not sell fresh fish either.)

To start with, think of dry goods, and things that a supermarket will call basic ingredients, the sort of thing that can come in paper bags or cardboard boxes – sugar, flour, salt, dried fruit (raisins, currants, sultanas), desiccated coconut, rice and pasta (probably just spaghetti or macaroni). Add some old basic ingredients you may never have heard of – cornflour, arrowroot.

We also had herbs and spices, a much smaller selection than nowadays – and herbs were dried herbs only. Some special treats like dried figs and dates would only appear at Christmas.

I want to say tea and coffee but forget coffee! There was tea – we had Typhoo – there may have been other brands. I suspect that you may have been able to buy roasted coffee beans, but I’m not sure. (We did not drink coffee in England. That was what Americans did.)

The nearest approximations to instant coffee were the original Nescafe, then just an unimpressive powder; and bottled Camp Coffee – a thick brown substance described by Wikipedia as 4% caffeine free coffee essence and 26% chicory essence (the rest mostly sugar). Neither of these tasted anything like what we now call coffee.

(After the difficulties of supply during the war, my mother used to buy an extra packet of tea each week out of her housekeeping allowance to save up for emergencies. We had a sideboard full of tea.)

Other dried things in packets – well you could get dried soup mixes, gravy powder (Oxo and Bisto, no choice of varieties for each,) mustard powder. Breakfast cereals – you had corn flakes, Shredded Wheat, Weetabix, maybe two or three others.

Biscuits

Many basic types of biscuits have survived the test of time. Biscuits then would have been seen as a luxury item, but you could buy: plain tea and Nice biscuits; bourbon and custard creams; ginger nuts; plain and chocolate digestives; shortbread, fig rolls and garibaldi. That was about it.

You could buy biscuits wrapped in packets, much as now, but you could also buy them loose.

Plain Ryvita was the only crispbread. There were Jacobs crackers and (table) water biscuits.

Dairy Products

My memories of dairy products are unclear. Milk was delivery daily to our doorstep and the milkman would deliver some dairy products if we ordered them in advance – eggs and cream. But I think that dairy products in general were also available at the grocers. In what follows, we assume that all dairy products came from grocers, so our lists continues.

Milk, in pint bottle only, was just milk. (Jersey milk was extra high fat.) Cream was single cream or double cream. Eggs, stamped with a lion symbol, came in four sizes – small, standard, medium and large. (Maybe standard was larger than medium. The names do not help!) Butter was lightly salted or unsalted (maybe two different brands) and margarine was Stork margarine. You could also buy lard. There was no crème fraiche or fromage frais, no pouring cream or whipping cream, no squirty cream, no spreadable butter, no low calorie versions no cream substitutes, and no yoghurts of any type.

Cheese was Cheddar, or a few other similar types, perhaps with mild and strong varieties. (The only foreign cheeses were Edam and Gouda.) It was cut to order from a large slab and weighed.

[I cannot be precise about either Kraft cheese slices or Dairylea triangles in a circular box. They might have been around that early. There were certainly no other pre-packed cheeses available in the fifties.]

Meat Products

You could buy ham at the grocer, which would be sliced for you and weighed. I think they had those lethal looking slicing machines. It was not available pre-packed.

You could also buy bacon – back or streaky, smoked or unsmoked, with or without rind – probably unpacked in the early days.

[If you were wondering about food hygiene certification, we didn’t have it. Assistants must have washed their hands occasionally but they did not wear those thin polythene gloves. Food was touched constantly. Most of us survived without getting food poisoning.]

The biggest difference in foods available to us now is that prepared and preserved foods were very limited, but there were some, sold at the grocers.

Preserved Foods in Jars

We had some of the basic foods now available in bottles and jars: – jam and marmalade; tomato sauce and HP sauce; Marmite and Bovril; lemon curd, peanut butter, honey, treacle (and syrup in tins). I am not sure about olive oil, but any other vegetable oils were unlikely.

Those tiny bottles of fish paste were much as today – salmon and shrimp, sardine and tomato etc.

BunkerOpener

Tinned Foods

There were tinned foods, but tins were different – opened by a complex two-handed device, which slowly cut round the top. Heinz was the main brand, (possibly the only one,) already producing many more things in tins than were implied by its advertising slogan: ’57 varieties.’ The main products in tins that I was aware of were vegetables (baked beans and peas), fruit (mandarin segments and pineapple chunks) and soups. To our family, baked beans were an everyday item, tinned fruit went into an occasional fruit salad on Sundays, and we never made used of the others.

Heinz-cans

Fray Bentos corned beef came in a tin that was difficult to open. It used a key that gradually tore and unwrapped a strip all round the tin. Tins of sardines came in another design of tin, with their own, difficult mechanism to open, somewhat similar to the corned beef device. (Opening tins was a more dangerous process then, with the risk of cuts from the sharp metal edges.)

K3100018

Frozen Foods

When we were young, (before about 1955,) our household did not even have a refrigerator. Mum used to say that there was no space in the kitchen. The early versions just had a small compartment for ice and frozen food. At first, the only frozen foods available were ice-cream and frozen peas. (Fish fingers were next.) We did not often have either. (You will notice a general trend with new things being relatively expensive, treated as luxuries.)

Cleaning products

There were very few cleaning products at all – soap (I remember Wright’s Coal tar); maybe half a dozen washing powders; washing up liquid; scouring powders (Ajax and Vim); Brillo pads and furniture polish. There was nothing else that we ever used at home. You could get these products at grocers, so they had the overall feel of (very) primitive supermarkets – not just food.

There was some duplication in where you could buy things. Perhaps cleaning materials came from the grocers or the hardware shop. You might get chocolate from a grocer or a newsagent. You could buy a tin of peas at the grocers or at greengrocers; perhaps bacon at the butchers or grocers. But most products came from just one type of shop. You would certainly never see fresh meat, unsliced bread or vegetables in the grocer.

Opie1

[I cannot check pictures like this one found on the web, for historical relevance. Many of them show products of the 70s or 80s. This one gives a feel for the sorts of things sold in Grocers – dry goods, cereals, bottled goods and soap powder. There are certainly products included here that I remember coming in as ‘new’ products, so we didn’t have them in the fifties.]

Convenience Foods

I have listed a lot of things we could buy in grocers but don’t be misled into thinking that the Grocer’s shop sold hundreds of different foods, like a modern supermarket. If you take away perishable goods from a supermarket today, you will have thousands of lines of food, (perhaps tens of thousands,) but most of them were not available to us. (Don’t forget what I said about choice in [23] Variety is the Spice of Life.)

There were just a few foods that could be described as convenience foods, but our family did not use them. So I can’t be precise about the full range or whether they were there as early as the fifties. The only things I can think of that were not simple ingredients were: tinned and packet soups: gravy powder (and Oxo cubes) and custard powder; and tinned meat pies.

The first real convenience foods I can remember were Vesta Beef Curries, which came in the early sixties.

Exotic and new foods

When it comes to fruit, vegetables and groceries, you have to remember that we have many basic ingredients that either did not exist or were exotic by British standards. Very few foreign foods were cheap enough to be shipped here. (The idea of flying in perishable goods was too expensive to consider.)

Long before the EU, we had a special relationship with Commonwealth countries (formerly the British Empire). So we had sugar from the Caribbean, and Canterbury lamb from New Zealand.

Supermarkets

So far you may be thinking that our modern supermarket combines the old grocer with the butcher, the baker, and the newsagent, stationer, confectioner and tobacconist. Think on! We have not seen them all yet, but it also includes the hardware shop, the chemist, pet shops (for pet food), and off licences (for alcohol).

It may also include: dry cleaners, men and women’s clothes shops, shoe shops, and of course a café and petrol station! (Plus things we didn’t have then, like CDs and electronic games.)

We survived then without pot noodles, pre-packed and cleaned vegetables, yoghurts, smoothies, kiwi fruits, breakfast cereal bars, fresh soups, mixed vegetables, casserole and pasta sauces, flavoured crisps, fresh herbs, frozen Yorkshire puddings, pizza bases, Viennetta, pre-packed sandwiches and lots more.

We have lived through the transition of shops into modern supermarkets. One of the early examples was MacFisheries. Originally, they sold fish only but they suffered in the late fifties from the introduction of Birds Eye frozen fish fingers [US: fish sticks]. They widened the scope of their sales, selling fish and groceries, and were probably one of the first real supermarkets. Mac Fisheries eventually became Unilever, one of Britain’s largest and most successful firms, but their supermarkets faded away.

More successful were Sainsburys. There was quite a large Sainsbury’s at Gant’s Hill, a little bit further away than Beehive Lane, serving just groceries in those days. As you went into the shop there were counters to the left and right, each with three or four assistants behind them. If you wanted cheese, you queued up and the assistant cut your selected cheese to order and weighed it. If you then wanted ham, you went to the back of the ham queue. You could work your way round each of the assistants like this! Sainsburys did change with the times, becoming one our biggest supermarket chains now.

Zorba the Greek

Clever People and Grocers, they Weigh Everything’ comes from the film, ‘Zorba the Greek.’

It was probably true that grocers weighed everything not too many years before the fifties. I am sure that my grandmother bought things like flour, tea and raisins by having them weighed. Even the milk would have come from a churn. So, we were becoming more advanced by the fifties! Grocers weighed some things, but most of their produce was at least already weighed and boxed!

I knew that this would be the biggest post so far but it would be silly to split the poor grocer in two. I still have some more shops to consider …

 


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[24] ‘Hallowed be Thy Name’

Another blog that has nothing to do with religion, apart from a passing reference to the local synagogue. If you have been following, you will understand the title in a few minutes. If not, wait until the end. I am going to talk about – our local shops.

Before I talk about the individual shops, I want to give an outline of the groups of shops we walked to two or three times a week.

LocalMap1

Local Map

I need to say a little about the map above. The only significant change since we lived there is in the Port of London Authority (PLA) Recreation Ground. In our days, it was virtually a square area of green, reckoned to have a perimeter of one mile by those who ran round it for exercise. (Not me.) Now it has a school taking a chunk out of it. The rest of the map has not changed.

We lived in the Cathedral Estate, to the West of The Drive, where all the roads were Gardens, named after cities with cathedrals. (You can see Hereford, Lincoln and Chelmsford. There are many others. Houses in The Drive were bigger and posher than the cathedral estate.) You can see St Andrews Road on the other side, home of St Andrews Church, our local church.

For our nearest shops, we crossed the Drive, which didn’t have too much traffic, and took St George’s Road and Fairholme Road to Beehive Lane. I have marked the location of our local shops in red on the map.

Beehive Lane Shops

On the map above, courtesy of Google Maps, you can see Beehive Lane, or you can search any other map software for Beehive lane, Ilford. In the fifties, this road used to have two sets of shops, north and south of the Eastern Avenue (marked on the map as the A12, one of the first major dual carriageway roads to be built in Britain). We just went to the small section at the south end, from the old synagogue to Cranbrook Road. It still has shops but they are all different.

I would imagine that Beehive Lane is now quite busy. When we were seven or eight we would not only walk there, but we would cross freely to shops on both sides of the road.

Typical Small Groups of Shops

It was a typical selection of shops of that time, perhaps a dozen or so shops on each side of the road. I feel that I ought to list them all, to illustrate what typical rows of shops used to be like. I know that I will get some wrong but most of my list will be right! (The generalizations are mostly right!)

We had a greengrocers; a bakers (Hirtes?); a butchers; a chemist’s shop; a grocery; a hardware shop; and a combined newsagent, stationers, sweet shop, and tobacconist. These were typical of most small shopping parades and all would be visited fairly frequently.

There were others perhaps not always found in small parades. I remember a ladies’ hairdresser; a bookshop; and probably a fishmonger, an estate agent and a funeral parlour. There may have been a shoe shop. I am fairly sure that there were no clothes shops. For less common purchases, we went further afield, to Gant’s Hill (the roundabout just visible to the northeast on the map) or Ilford High Road (southeast and off the map).

[To the West lies Wanstead Park, Ilford Golf Course and a wide, dual carriageway section of the North Circular Road that wasn’t there when we were young.]

I will look the four main small food shop types next but I want to note two points. Firstly, there were no restaurants, cafes or coffee shops, or shops containing coffee shops. (No takeaway food shops!) Shopping was shopping, not stopping off for a coffee first. Secondly, if there was something you wanted there was very little chance of two different shops selling it. You expected to have to visit a few shops for your daily shopping.

Butchers

There are some things about butchers I cannot remember clearly, so I will start with the definite bits.

Butchers sold uncooked meat – lots of different cuts of beef, mutton or pork, with a more limited selection of lamb and veal. It was all hunks of meat visible on slabs and the butcher would cut off a piece to order and weigh it for you, just wrapped in greaseproof paper. (Often he would use a large butcher’s knife and chop on a wooden block.)This would include offal – liver, heart, kidneys – and if you wanted minced meet, it could be minced through a mechanical mincer to order.

That was all the meat we usually bought. You could buy a whole chicken, not any part of a chicken. Perhaps there were other meats available on special order. I am sure that the butcher also sold fresh sausages, with not much choice beyond beef or pork. I am not sure about meat products such as bacon (which you could get from a grocer), or the more obscure meats such as game.

The butcher may have had some refrigerated storage but most meat would have come from the markets of London overnight. None of the meat was frozen and those who bought it did not have freezers.

Bakers

Today’s lesson is about the history of breadmaking, which has been revolutionized by the Chorleywood process – named after the British Baking Industries Research Association, based at Chorleywood. This process, developed in 1961, enabled the use of lower quality wheat, thus allowing much more of our home-grown wheat to be used for bread. It has added Vitamin C and fat to the ingredients and uses intense, high-speed mixers.

Almost all British bread now uses this new process. Grumpy old men, like me, would say that bread made this way now does not taste as good as it used to. Superficially it looks the same! [US: Because the high quality of US wheat, this method has not spread to the US.]

Primarily what the old Bakers shop sold was loaves of crusty bread, not sliced. A freshly baked loaf would be handed over, wrapped in a piece of tissue paper, to be added to the shopping bag. It cost roughly 8p in modern money terms. There were a few different types of white loaf on offer.

Most popular was a large, split tin. That’s what we normally had.

SplitTin

It had a very uniform, square cross-section which made it ideal for cutting into slices.

There were just a few other loaves available, including a brown split tin or a small loaf (half the size). Two that always stayed out of our requirements were Hovis (wholemeal, but we didn’t know that,) and the wrapped, sliced loaf, both far too expensive for everyday use. Our treat was a very occasional cottage loaf:

Cottage_loaf_2

You could also buy white or brown rolls, freshly baked, and a selection of cakes (including cream cakes), again freshly baked. (Bread, rolls and cakes were fresh because they were baked early that morning, and were baked locally. There was not time to deliver across significant distances. I know I have a retired professional baker as a reader of these blogs who may comment!)

Bread did not have a ‘sell by’ date. It was baked early and sold on the same day. If you wanted to make breadcrumbs, you might be able to buy a loaf from yesterday (half price). Otherwise, no baker would think of selling old bread.

We didn’t have to buy bread every day. It was delivered to our door, free, twice a week. With the exception of the wrapped, sliced loaf, which might keep for a few days, you could not buy bread elsewhere.

[I have to point out that Hot Cross Buns, associated in the Church with Easter, were only available on the morning of Good Friday, the Friday before Easter – all baked the night before.]

Fruit and Vegetables

You can have an idea of the greengrocers – fruit and vegetables – after seeing butchers and bakers. The greengrocer would have bought his fresh vegetables overnight in London – whatever was available. My main memory is of regularly asking for seven pounds of King Edwards and two pounds of greens.

‘King Edwards’ were potatoes. They may have been the only variety. We never asked for any other, except for the brief period each year when ‘new potatoes’ were available. Potatoes were covered in earth and had to be washed and peeled.

I have never discovered what ‘greens’ were, but that’s what we asked for – they were leafy and green. There was a period in spring when we asked for ‘spring greens.’ We also had onions, tomatoes and mushrooms. Sometimes there were peas, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, perhaps even parsnips, turnips, swede. We only had whatever was in season – in the salad season: lettuce, beetroot, cucumber, celery and radish. (Peas came in pods. I can’t claim to be an expert about green vegetables. I would never eat anything green until I was much older.)

All the vegetables were in open boxes and the shopkeeper picked them by hand and weighed them. They were of mixed quality and you could not pick the best ones. Nothing came in lots of varieties. If you wanted mushrooms you had – mushrooms.

Fruit was much the same. When in season – apples, oranges, pears, plums and melon may have had a couple of varieties. Also rhubarb, blackberries and gooseberries. Strawberries appeared as a luxury for a few days a year. We did not see exotic fruits like bananas or pineapple. Kiwi fruits, star fruits and many others did not exist.

Several tinned foods were available. At the greengrocers you could buy tins of garden peas, processed peas (what we now call mushy peas,) and baked beans. (Heinz beans have not changed – apart from becoming beanz!)

In the very early days of frozen foods, the first things you could buy were frozen peas, from the greengrocer. You would not have a freezer, just a small frozen compartment in the new refrigerator.

I can remember our local greengrocer explaining the laws about Sunday opening then. He could open on Sunday morning to sell food that would not keep. He could sell his fruit and vegetables but not tinned or frozen food.

Newsagent

They always called themselves something like Newsagents, Tobacconists and Confectioners. The word Stationers was there sometimes. I don’t know which came first or which provided most of their income.

They sold newspapers, the half a dozen main daily papers and perhaps a local paper – daily or weekly. [I will leave newspaper delivery to another post.] There were also some weekly and monthly publications, not many by modern standards. I won’t be specific in case I get them wrong – two or three women’s magazines; two or three children’s comics; a few well-known, popular magazines; a few hobbies like gardening. Many other specialist magazines were published but would only be held at the local newsagent if you ordered them in advance.

As Stationers, they were the place for envelopes and writing paper. (We wrote letters in those days.) You could also buy notebooks, pens and pencils etc., but not stamps. Stamps only came from Post Offices.

[OK, I missed out Post Office. Beehive Lane had a Post Office. Not now – wait for another blog!]

I could do a whole blog about sweets (US: candy) from the Good Old Days. (Perhaps I will.) Some you bought individually for a penny, a halfpenny or a farthing. (A farthing was a quarter of an old penny, very close to 0.1p now) Some came from big jars on the shelf – they would be ladled out with a scoop and weighed, sold in quarter of a pound portions.

[Sorry about units. A pound weight, 1 lb., divided into sixteen ounces, 16 oz., was a unit of weight, not to be confused with a pound sterling, £1. Sweets might have been 6d or 9d for 4 oz. That’s about 2½ to 3½ p for about 100 g.]

Jar-of-sweets-3

Jars were something like the picture but they were glass, not plastic.

There were several chocolate bars and tubes of sweets. Nearly all are still with us and have changed little – Cadbury’s milk, plain, or fruit and nut; Mars, KitKat, Marathon (now Snickers); Polo, Smarties (like US M&Ms), Opal Fruits (now Starburst) and Wrigley’s chewing gum.

Tobacco included cigarettes, cigars etc. and matches. I am sure I will mention tobacco again. It was smoked more widely and carried no health warnings – but we knew it was not good for you. I can’t give figures but it would have been taxed less and much cheaper.

Even then, they sold other cheap articles to catch the eye of the shopper – small toys and souvenirs. I can’t give a full description as my eyes rarely moved away from the sweets! I think these shops were the opportunists. They sold what they could and added new things, becoming the general stores immortalized by Ronnie Barker and David Jason in ‘Open All Hours,’ sometimes now combined with service stations for petrol.

Of course, with the obvious familiarity with our Beehive Lane shops, you will now appreciate why we sometimes got the opening lines of the Lord’s Prayer confused. It did not start, “Hello, Beehive Lane!” See post number three.

I had a feeling that there would be much to be said about shops. This post is already another record for length! I will leave the other shops to another post …