Shop Assistant

After the sales, we were drafted upstairs to dust the fixtures. With turbans on our heads, what a laugh we had.

It was 14 January 1945 and it was my first day at work.

My first job was at ‘Walkers’ a credit shop, but a posh one, or ‘ticket’ shop as we all called it. I was there 12 years, started at nine shillings and sixpence a week, one week’s holiday a year. We got the rich people from Tynemouth to serve, and the miners for their pit boots “no coupons needed”! I was always on the shoe department and indeed they sent me to Norwich, and I trained to be a shoe fitter. I enjoyed my job.

I got married 1954, realised the money was a pittance so, in September 1957, I applied and passed “the test” and started for Christmas staff at Marks and Spencer. I stayed for 27 years.

Newcastle, even then, was a flagship store for the North East as it is a city. The wages were, and are still, very good but you work hard, no-one stands around.

When I started it was only one floor, but front to back and the side of the store going up into Prudhoe St, it was a large area.

Ladies dresses and blouses and slips and some men’s and children’s clothing were sold from hanging racks. We had to open the boxes and hang every item then. Most things though were sold from the counters, skirts, jumpers, knickers, men’s socks and underwear, clocks and other things. These counters had to be kept tidy at all times, a thankless task!

Fruit too was sold from a counter, assistants weighed and took the money.

There were tills on each counter, one till key to each counter, 2 assistants, one full-time, one part-time. You passed this precious key to each other, we all had chains attached to our belts, plastic belts, nylon overalls.

No computerised tills then, you added up, then entered the total in. When you first started you went from counter to counter. I hated men’s socks and underwear, as I wasn’t very quick to add up, as those prices were small and all different, but I solved that by having paper and pen by my till – this was frowned upon.

In those days we had a right swine of a manageress. She had her favourites, it happens all over, doesn’t it? Young girls into their first jobs, she terrified them, shouting and ranting, but jobs and good wages were hard to get, so some put up with it, but a lot left.

I hated her, but as I wasn’t that young and married, I stood up to her (she frightened me too) – many a week after having a confrontation with her in her office – her sitting, you standing like a child, over nothing really. I always thought she’d show me the door, but she never did, in fact I was given ladies fashions as my permanent department, I loved it and was good at it as I really liked to help people to decide what to buy. We had certain allotted racks to ‘patrol’, to fill up, and help customers too. If the size or colour wasn’t on the racks you ran upstairs, quite a distance, hoping to find it.

No one was overweight, we all had tons of exercise. You had to pass a medical to start at M & S, they never in those days employed overweight staff. They were classed as, believe it or not, a fire hazard!! Two people had to be slim enough to pass each other very easily behind a counter. In those days we had a lot of bomb warnings. The store was emptied of staff and customers in record time. M & S even then was a tall building, and we had a huge yard at the back, behind all the shops to the top of Northumberland Street. Later to be converted to what you see now.

The first floor was management, the medical room – we had a doctor calling twice a week then, chiropody, hairdressing and the canteen – marvellous fresh meals and veg and salads every day by lovely Flo. (They don’t have meals like that anymore). All the ovens were washed every day. The cloakrooms and toilets were spotlessly clean and lots of stockroom spare.

The second and third floors were mainly empty, apart from window dressing stuff, models legs and torsos. We had good window dressers then, and they did marvellous windows.

Late February, after the sales, the Sales Floor was quiet, so we were drafted upstairs to clean and dust the fixtures. With turbans on our heads and buckets in our hands, what a laugh we had, we laughed and worked hard and talked. The ‘Dragon’ wouldn’t allow that, she never went up there though. Now that I’ve started to write this, I’ve so many more memories that I can’t put to paper, the friendships I had, even now Christmas cards and phone calls from lovely women living miles away now.

We talk about the months and months of dust and grime when this store was first extended, when we finally had a second floor with new lifts and escalators, we went up and down them for days. We got a fire manager, a Mr Williams, he was to us like the second coming, great sense of humour, he worked along the side of staff and he never stopped singing the praises of the hard working Geordies. For him we worked even harder.

My bus journey to Newcastle was 9d return, it ended at the Haymarket open air bus station. The first ten people had the luxury of a bit tin roof, we froze in the winter, conductors though helped people on and off, I could do with them now. So much for progress.

Newcastle 1999. M & S has expanded yet again and I’m proud of it, as I think we old ones played a great part in it. I still know some staff as they were young then, and now must be in their thirties or forties. Nice people too. People don’t say shop-assistant now, its sales-person, but I’ll always be proud to be called Assistant, that’s what it’s all about! To assist and help customers, not always manning tills or filling up racks.

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