Chapter 15: The Shops of Old

English_Westminster_TeaIn Tottenham High Road, there was a grocer’s called Norman’s.  Here an oldish gentleman presided.  He was probably in his fifties.

Mr Norman was a very pleasant man and was well liked by all who knew him.  He gave me a job as a delivery boy. This was during the War about 1943.  He had a new delivery cycle with a large back wheel and a small front wheel.  Over the front wheel was a basket carrier into which a fitted basket would drop.  I used to take the various orders around to houses in the district to save the local ladies carrying heavy loads.

The shop was a grocers which was typical of the day.  The frontage was about twenty feet across.  Over the window was a sign saying ”Norman’s, Grocers, fine teas and provisions”.  The words would be picked out in gold letters which were of a concave bevel design with a black background.  All this was behind glass.  In the window was a complete display of teas and coffees.  The display would have been real tea and coffee, no plastic substitutes.  (There was no plastic then, only Bakelite) These would be surrounded by tins of famous biscuits.

Inside, to the left was the counter which ran the full length of the shop.  All goods were displayed behind the counter.  Here the customer would order what they wanted.  “A quarter of fine Ceylon Tea please, Mr. Norman”.  Mr. Norman would expertly flick out a fresh tea bag with one hand and while placing it on the scales, he would choose the appropriate four ounce weight. He would then turn to face a wall of cabinets each marked, once again gold on black lacquer, with the name of the variety of tea contained within. He would gather a scoop of tea, wave it under the nose of his customer and, when she smiled, he would fill the paper bag. He would then seal it by folding, not having any Sellotape at that time.

His customer would then proceed with their order.  Biscuits;  these were carried in plain tins which were about ten inches square and a foot high. Mr. Norman knew which biscuits were in which tin.  He would now place a large white paper bag on the scales into which he would carefully place the biscuits and then, holding the two top corners of the bag, would dexterously throw the bag outwards and then towards him twisting the corners of the bag into a seal. He would then go through a similar procedure with cheese, butter, bacon, ham and dried vegetables and pulses, until he had completed his customer’s order.  This took time and several other customers would watch while they waited for their turn. The first two in the waiting queue would sit on the chairs provided. There was never any pushing or complaining, but there was invariably a lively conversation, during which all the world’s troubles were sorted out. I always thought that Mr. Norman was the main cause for the arrival of Supermarkets.  I often wonder if the ladies of the thirties would still prefer to have their chosen groceries carefully weighed out from fresh produce rather than pre-packed everything.

When we were young, we were able to go to shops such as Norman’s to buy a ha’porth of broken biscuits.  These would be ladled out from a tin into which all the broken biscuits and crumbs had been dropped.  The grocer would take a sheet of newspaper, torn to the appropriate size, and form it into a cone shaped bag.  Into this he would deposit the biscuits.  Sometimes we would find a whole biscuit which had got into the tin by mistake. This was a triumph.  Of course, you had no idea which biscuits you would get, but then, that was the exciting thing about it.  We ate them all anyway.  You could even buy them at the local “Oil” shop.

Much of Tottenham High Road were shops of varying sizes serving areas along the road. There were concentrations of shops at Bruce Grove, a department store, Burgess’s, there was a Co-op furniture store, next to the furniture store was a Co-op grocery store which was still operating in some form until the late sixties.  Here was what had been a very modern shop at the time of its opening in the early part of the twentieth century.  The shop not only typified large grocers of the day, but also a selling operation which has now disappeared. As in the case of old Mr. Norman, the much larger Co-op served their customers with their needs as they ordered them.  Tea was sold in the same way as at Norman’s, coffee was ground in front of you, it was blended as you required it, bacon was sliced and weighed, ham and other cold meats were sliced on the spot, the client indicating where they wanted the meat cut from, especially the roast beef and mutton. They would also indicate the thickness of the slices.  Butter was patted up to shape after weighing, clients went from counter to counter ordering and waiting for each item in turn.

co_op_building_lansdowne_road_1930The shop was like a large hall with counters on each side and at the bottom.  Men and women stood behind the counters ready to serve. The women wore white cotton coats with white aprons while the men always wore white shirts with stiff shiny collars and a black bow  tie, a black waistcoat and trousers, a white apron attached to the top button of their waistcoat from where the apron went directly to the wearer’s hips and then tied round the back.

This was the Co-op in action.  Almost all the customers were members of the London Co-operative Society, each purchase carried a dividend to the member.  Every transaction was written in a small black book as a record against a subsequent distribution of the “divvy” or dividend.  As items were purchased, the people behind the counter took the member’s money and, together with a slip showing the transaction, placed it into a cylinder.  This was then attached to an overhead wire system by which it was “shot” to the cashier’s desk which was located against the north wall and raised about six feet above the ground..  The wires converged from all over the shop to the cashiers who sorted out the change and “shot” the cylinder back for the client with their change.

Each member had to remember their membership number, we all knew ours – 549343 – and it is probably still etched into the brick wall of the porch of No. 7 Trulock Road near the front door for when the Co-op milkman arrived.  This would have been after the local dairy had stopped coming round with a churn.

Next Chapter: Chapter 16: The myth of mock recipes

© Terence Gallacher 2015.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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