Remembrance of Things Past

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


[58] A Picture tells a Thousand Words

This time we have a few pictures that I have found recently in my wanderings round the Internet. I can’t guarantee where these photographs came from or their precise dates, but they are approximately from the fifties or sixties and remind me of my early days. Some will show more details of you click on the picture; some are quite low resolution.

  • In fairly random order, I will start with shoe shops.


This is what they looked like, with every size of every style in a box somewhere. New shoes always came in shoe-boxes. Service was personal with assistants measuring carefully for fit, especially for growing children.

  • The next picture, believe or not, shows X-ray machines.

These were often available in shoe shops, used particularly for children to make sure there was enough room for growth. You can see how the child could look in at the middle, with both parents viewing at the sides. You could see the bones in your feet just as for X-rays used today in hospitals. Now, of course, Health and Safety considerations would not allow such a machine.


  • Next, continuing in a random, order we have a building:


It’s a Telephone Exchange, containing all the equipment to connect calls to just a few thousand lines. It was bulky mechanical equipment, operated slowly and was subject to errors. The building would have had space for some telephone operators and other GPO workers. Now a small computer can replace dozens of exchanges. See [35] Telephones

  • The next picture is a garage – not a service station or a petrol station.


You bought petrol for your car at the same place where you took your car for repairs and servicing. It was not self-service and the man who served you could also check your oil levels; repair or replace punctured tyres; adjust or clean spark plugs etc.

You needed garage services much more then as cars were less reliable. This is a low quality picture so I can’t see the price. It might have been about 5p per litre!

  • Now for memories best forgotten – school dinners.


It was not the high point of the day. The food was plain and simple, dished out together. We queued for it and there was no choice. I have seen it said that the choice was: take it or leave it, but this was not true. You had to take it and you were expected to eat it.

  • Another, much nicer, memory of food, The Curry Emporium.


This Indian Restaurant opened at Gants Hill in the early sixties, our first introduction to any form of non-English cuisine. I remember occasionally going with a group from Ilford County High School for lunch when we were in the Sixth Form, just after it opened. You could get a Prawn Pilau for 6s 8d. (That’s 33p) The Curry Emporium gave me my first experiences of curries, pilaus, biryanis and chapattis. It was all excellent food. I still enjoy Indian cooking.

  • While we are with food, here is a fairly typical family eating at home:


(I didn’t have to say ‘at home’ because that was where people ate their meals.) The picture may be American because that looks like a coffee pot in the background on the oven. Very typical of the era is the fact that everyone ate together at the same time, sitting round a table. It was the easiest way to do it and they had no television to tempt them away. It was, of course all prepared by the mother of the family, the housewife.

  • Perhaps a few years later, here is a television:


This looks like an entertainment centre. Underneath the television is a reel-to-reel tape recorder and by its side is a radio and record player. At the time this was very modern. All of this now could be part of your smart phone!

  • Inside a Department Store:


The goods are tucked away under the counter, much of it in boxes. The assistants would get things out and help you choose. See [52] Are You Being Served?

  • Still in shops, a cash register:


It looks post-decimal, but I think it may be American and older. See [45] How did we Manage Without … ?

  • Now for a car, possibly a bit older than the fifties:


Cars did have running boards at the side like this. It looks British from the number plate and may have been from an early driving instruction booklet. Note the amber indicators, which used to flip out at the side and the explanations of hand signals. When I learned to drive hand signals were still in the Highway Code. [When I went to the USA in the seventies I had a lot of difficulty explaining ‘indicators.’ I think they call them ‘turn signals.’]

  • Bedtime drinks.


I think in the forties cocoa used to be the main bedtime drink, made with warm milk. We had Ovaltine and Horlicks, both of which had their appearances at our household. Shown here is a Horlicks mixer. Hot milk was poured into it, over a measured quantity of a dried powder mix. Using the plunger mixed them together into a smooth drink, also introducing bubbles of air to make it a frothy drink.

  • A Dymo Labeler


I won’t go into how these work but oldies like me can reminisce. It produced strips of plastic marked with embossed letters. The process was slow and fiddly. (The modern equivalent does the same thing without the mechanical processes. It looks more like a keyboard.)

  • Finally, bus tickets.


In the sixties a machine something like this produced bus tickets by printing the details on to a roll of paper, something like a modern supermarket receipt, but much more primitive.

  • These are the real bus tickets that I remember fondly.


These are what we had earlier. For 1d or 2d or 4d you were given a pre-printed ticket, made in different colours. The conductor (or conductress) would clip a hole in the ticket to show that it had been issued. That’s why conductors were known as ‘clippies.’ (Yes, I know, youngsters are asking: What’s a bus conductor? Maybe other blogs will explain some of these pictures a bit more.)

Some of these pictures are American but there were many similarities between the two countries. I have had a comment on Facebook saying how much my blogs remind someone of growing up in Illinois.



[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, …


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.


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.]


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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 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.


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).


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.