Ten-year-olds would carry glass jars full of sulphuric acid to and from the shops and no-one thought anything of it
Now that the High Street, like most small-town centres, seems to consist of building societies, estate agents, charity shops and cheap jacks, I like to look back to about 1940, give or take a few years.
If I did some research, I could build up an accurate picture of how it was, but that would end up as a boring list of names, dates and products sold. Instead, I’m going to try and give, hopefully, a more colourful and interesting verbal walk up and down as I remember it, with scope for older readers to say, “What about so and so’s, I’m sure that’s not right”, or perhaps like me, “Those were the days.”
I usually joined the High Street at Brooke’s the newsagents crossing from Border Road to Hedley Street to school. Their window on the High Street was usually filled with toys and books but it was the side windows that used to fascinate me, filled with wood tools and patterns for cuckoo clocks, fort, dolls houses, bookshelves and furniture, all designed by Hobbies Magazine and Catalogue. Fretwork was in its heyday and the ornate designs had to be seen to be believed.
Other newsagents were Heslop’s; their windows used to feature the centre double-page pictures from the London Illustrated News each week. They had a shop where the Ritz Bingo Hall is. When the Ritz Cinema, as it was, was being built they had to change location, so they put a notice in the window, “Moved by a Movie after 25 years”. Hardie’s, opposite, sold sheet music as well as papers and magazines. It was run by Mrs Steele, a big stern woman who always wore a cross over pinny. She also taught children to play the piano. Whilst waiting to be served you often heard a pupil struggling to play Robins Return or Skater’s Waltz.
Further down on the north side were Hill’s and Raey’s. Raey’s feature was postcard advertising and packets of foreign stamps. Hill’s was a much bigger shop, three windows each side of the door forming a V. They sold lots of pots and pans, fire grates, buckets, step ladders, garden tools and requisites, often displayed between the windows. They were also the best shop for stationery for night classes, drawing boards, tee and set squares, slide rules, shorthand notepads, pens and pencils, etc. Night classes were attended by large numbers of teenagers trying to better themselves, many, because of their studies, became really successful, some even famous, and dozens, if not hundreds, qualified as sea-going engineers.
Back to Border Road, and Backley’s famous for its cream cakes. Other bakers were Turner’s next door, Laurence’s also sold wines and spirits, Mill Hill Bakers and Pringles, each with their own specialities, mainly baked on the premises, so the smells of cooking were many and varied – sometimes burning.
Another bakery was Sutherland’s which for a while was also a sub-post office. They made wedding cakes and often held wedding receptions in the café upstairs with photographs taken at Dickenson’s Studio almost next door. A less popular cafe was Anderson’s, this was also a large sweet shop. The owner was a dark-haired lady with a high pitched voice and a fussy, “Yes my dear, what would you like?”, manner.
Next door to Anderson’s was the London Lending Library, where for 2d or 3d (1 – 1½p), you could borrow a book for a week. I think they must have been a bit downmarket as I recall my mother didn’t approve of them. Also, in that block was Alsop’s cycle shop. Many a time I gazed hopefully at a shiny new racer with 3-speed gears and dynamo lights. This was one of the many shops where you could have accumulators charged. As lots of homes had no electricity, radios (or wirelesses as we called them) needed a high tension dry battery and a lead-acid low voltage battery or accumulator. These lasted about a week between charges, so most people had two, one in use and one on charge. I often got the job of taking it. Can you imagine the fuss there would be today if 10 – 12-year-olds were carrying glass jars full of sulphuric acid to and from shops, yet it was so common then no-one thought anything of it, and I can’t recall any horror stories of accidents or acid burns.
Back to Backley’s – opposite was Kemp’s the grocers; other grocers were the London & Newcastle Tea Co., who gave stamps against purchases which could be exchanged for goods, a forerunner to Green Shield, as did Thompsons’ Red Stamps Store. There was Duncan’s, Maypole, Meadow Dairies and Hadrian. Either Maypole or Meadow made a big boast that they never sold a bad egg as they tested each one on a lightbox just before they sold it to the customers. Butter was nearly all sold loose, that is from a large block that came to the shop in a wooden box or barrel; a ¼ pound or ½ pound, cut, weighed and wrapped as required. One of the above shops would pat it into a neat shape with a pattern on one side before wrapping it for you. Very little was pre-packed in those days.
Watson’s leather shop was also interesting. Hard, thick leather for shoe repairs in varied shapes and sizes from full hides to small pieces, some cut to shape of soles and heels ready to nail on; steel and rubber tips, hobnails and studs to save wear on the leather taps for dance shoes, clog users, leather laces, all still joined together as they were cut along a wide strip nearly to the end and the strips rolled to form like a tassel and the laces cut off one at a time as bought. Leather knee pads for miners, school satchels, music cases, handbags and belts. There was a shop opposite also sold bags, but my interest was in the sheath knives they sold. Every boy scout aimed to have one for when they went to camp; this shop had a wide choice, the most desirable being the ones with a deer’s foot handle but these always remained beyond my budget.
There were at least three fruit and vegetable shops Parkinson’s almost next to Brook’s had a delivery service to Walkerville (me and a handcart) Day’s had a big box arrangement filled with 5 or more hundredweight’s of potatoes with a small opening at the bottom to shovel out ¼ or ½ a stone into a scoop on the scales and into the customer’s bag or basket. Bowman’s during the war often had a queue to buy rabbits to supplement the weekly ration.
Talking of queues another regular queue was at Hutchinson’s the tobacconist for cigarettes. In pre-war days they kept a wide selection of different brands of tobacco and snuffs.
There was Pets that in addition to pups, kittens, birds and fish and of course their food, cages etc., they sold stamps. I remember lots of pictorials including a large triangular stamp from Bosnia, in those days a non-existent country just a part of Yugoslavia, strange how it is now so prominent.
Ainsworth’s fresh fish shop – the whole front of the shop opened up making it more like a market stall. The owner looked like the film star bad guy Dan Duryea or at least I thought so. I think there was another fresh fish shop opposite the Ritz and called Garrod’s, or something like that.
Harry Randle’s, famous for toffee next to the Royal Cinema (known as the Ranch because of all the cowboy films they showed), kept a terrific selection of sweets, as did Marches the ice cream parlour; their ice cream was snow white and delicious. You could also sit down for ice cream, coffee, or hot orange on the bench seats each side of about 3 long marble-topped tables.
There was Dixon’s for wool and ladies and baby clothes. Gladson’s (the half-round upstairs window is still there) Cornelius and Bon Marche all sold various draperies and in fact, the latter was a small department store.
Amongst the butchers were Hay’s and Herman’s specialising in pork, with Hay’s selling mainly sausages, cold meats pies and sandwiches.[I] remember Dampney’s (next to Boots on the corner of Station Road) for decorating materials, including wallpaper that had to have ½ inch cut off each edge, and Brighter Homes where could you get a more appropriate name for a paint and paper shop!
David Gillis furniture, Patterson’s furniture and carpets, Bradshaw’s or Bradburn’s for musical instruments sheet music and records. My Valet, the dry cleaners, Woolworth’s – nothing over 6d (2½p) and so on. I haven’t even mentioned the Co-op but then that would be a story in itself.
Yes, I think you will agree I’m right in thinking the High Street is not so interesting or as complete a shopping centre as it was.