By Julie Newman
Whenever I watch Ronnie Barker’s Open All Hours it takes me back to the shops of my childhood in Bexley village in the 1950s. In those days most of the shopkeepers we frequented knew my mother by name and we addressed them likewise.
There were two grocers, the Co-op and Pearce’s Stores; two butchers, the Co-op and Mr Kelsey, who had his own abattoir and grazed his animals at the back of the shop near the railway; two fishmongers, Mr Wiseman, who sold wet fish, and Mr Aldridge who also sold fried fish and chips; a greengrocer and a baker. Other shops included Moore’s the chemist, Mence Smith the hardware store, Mr Austin the jeweller opposite the station approach, and a shoe shop. The ladies were well catered for with Mrs Deere the draper, a classy fashion shop called Gadsby’s, and four hairdressers. Both my mother and grandmother had their hair done at Phylis Hellier’s opposite the post office in Bourne Road, where it would take the best part of the afternoon to have a shampoo and set. Other services included a garage with two petrol pumps on the pavement next door to Aldridge’s fish shop, opposite this a cobbler and a blacksmith’s forge under one of the railway arches where my father had two wrought iron gates made.
A view of our front garden
The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society – the Co-op – was our main grocery store. There were counters both sides of the shop with tall displays of goods, such as Kellogg’s cornflakes and Omo washing powder, and customers queued at different parts of the counter according to the goods they wanted. The bacon counter was the most fascinating to me and I would stand for ages watching the bacon and cheese being cut. One day I got lost in the Co-op – so huge and intimidating to a three-year-old – and I started to cry. I had been so absorbed in the lady with the big red bacon-slicer that when I turned round my mother had disappeared. Luckily, one of the friendly assistants, Mrs Duckett, looked after me until they found her.
The other thing that fascinated me was the little cubicle behind glass where the lady, dressed in twin set and pearls and hair neatly waved, counted the “divvy” (dividend). Every time a purchase was made the shop assistant gave the customer a few tin discs in varying amounts that counted towards a share in the profits. These were then saved up and handed in to the lady in the cubicle who counted them quickly and entered them in a ledger.
Next door to the Co-op grocery was the butcher’s shop with its beautifully well-stocked window. There was always a rack of brown and white rabbits hanging by their back feet, strings of sausages and all different cuts of meat and offal. Inside, behind the counter were sides of pork and lamb hanging on hooks, and the distinctive smell of fresh sawdust scattered on the red concrete floor. My mother would choose the meat she wanted from the window display and join the queue, while I made patterns in the sawdust with my feet when she wasn’t looking.
We always had fish on Fridays; my father’s favourite was halibut while my mother and grandmother often had herrings or roes on toast for tea. Even our cat, Chippy, had a treat with a pound of “pieces” bought for him. Mr Wiseman opened his window onto the street with all the fish displayed on a huge marble slab but in hot weather there would be a blue sign informing customers “all fish in fridge” that my father designed for him.
Me with my father
We walked to the village with our shopping baskets and string bags but these were sometimes too heavy to carry all the way home, so my mother invested in a large basket on wheels which, she said, was a godsend. Most of the groceries were wrapped in greaseproof paper or placed in paper bags; fish and meat in large sheets of white paper. My mother reused the waxed paper from the sliced bread to wrap the sandwiches my father took to work and our food scraps were parcelled up in newspaper and put in the pig bin at the end of our road. Recycling was called “waste not, want not”, and I recall being told to draw on large sheets of white paper from the butcher’s when I’d filled all my drawing and colouring books.
Mr Lloyd owned the sweet shop where I looked forward to spending some of my pocket money on Saturday mornings. My grandmother bought the more expensive sweets that were sold by the quarter from large glass jars but I preferred the “junk” sweets that included the brightly coloured sherbet dabs, sweet cigarettes, flying saucers and penny chews. I would also buy sweets on my way to school and many a time I was told off for eating in class and my sweets confiscated!
Mr Miller from Express Dairies delivered our milk daily, and Mr Grooms the baker called regularly with a huge basket of bread and cakes. Occasionally, there were travelling salesmen with suitcases full of dusters, polish and hardware items which they demonstrated in front of us, hoping for a sale. There was even a salesman from a catalogue firm called Blundell’s and I remember my mother buying me a pair of brown, crepe-soled sandals on the “never-never”, a forerunner of shopping by post, and now internet shopping.
Anything we couldn’t buy in the village such as furniture or kitchen appliances, or a wider selection of fashion items, involved a bus ride to Bexleyheath, Lewisham or Eltham. These towns were only 20 minutes away but an exciting day out for us and we put o our best dresses, hats and white cotton gloves. I loved getting a new pair of shoes or a party dress but the best treat of all was afternoon tea with a selection of iced fancies in the restaurant of Hides department store, opposite Bexleyheath clock tower.
My mother at our front door
Our food shopping experience began to change in the early 1960s when the Co-op went self-service. This offered us more choice with items such as Birds Eye frozen foods, and the novelty of taking a basket and choosing our own goods from the shelves was much quicker than queuing up. Other stores followed suit and a few years later came a very modern supermarket called Granville’s, situated at the station approach, and was the talk of the village. I wonder if Ronnie Barker consciously used the name of this supermarket chain for his assistant in Open All Hours?