The Village Shops in the 1940s

David Gibbs’ Anecdotes (continued)

The Village Shops in the 1940s

One of my earliest memories is getting my haircut in George Sprake’s barber shop down at Knapp – Knapp being the village cross-roads. I remember sitting there as quiet as a mouse, waiting my turn in the chair. I have a feeling small boys needing haircuts were automatically relegated to the back of the queue because sometimes it was a very long wait whilst George dealt with a seemingly never-ending procession of men waiting to be shaved. When that was the case, all you could do was amuse yourself by watching the reflections in the big mirror.

I remember how George lathered a man’s face with little circular movements of his shaving brush until the occupant looked like Father Christmas with a whiter-than-white beard, a sight that was only marred when a previously tightly-closed mouth opened to reveal yellow teeth.

Next there was the razor-sharpening ritual. The razor George used was an open ‘cut throat’ one. To sharpen it he used a narrow strip of leather hanging on the back of the chair in which the customer nonchalantly reclined. Slap! slap! slap! the razor went,
backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, each stroke necessitating a deft flick of the wrist, the action continuing until George was satisfied that the edge was sufficiently keen. Then he would start shaving, scraping first this way then the other, tilting the head to the left for a few strokes, then right, then nose well up in the air so that he could get at the underside of the chin. And as the razor became loaded he scrapped the soap onto a small square of newspaper resting on the customer’s chest.

When all the shaving was done, George turned his hand to haircuts for small boys. ‘Come on then, son’, he would command, and up you got at last. Very small boys had to sit on a plank resting on the chair arms and it was some thing of a milestone in your life when you were considered sufficiently grown up to sit down properly in the chair. Cocooned in a flowing white sheet, there you sat, gazing at your reflection in the mirror as George began proceedings with an exploratory combing.

From years of experience George knew precisely what was expected of him; haircut money was hard to come by so parents required that visits be kept to a minimum. (Indeed, money was scarce enough for my father often to send me down George Sprake’s for just one ‘three-holed’ razor blade so that he could have a Saturday shave.) So George didn’t exactly spare the hand-operated clippers.

His one and only style was a very, very short back and sides that left the back of your head as stubbled as a nailbrush. But the best bit of all for was when he downed his clippers and said ‘Shut your eyes, son’, and then, using a large square bottle with a squeeze bulb attached, sprayed ‘scent’ all over the little bit of smartly-parted hair he had spared. If I close my eyes and concentrate I think I can still smell that scent and the all-pervading mixture of shaving soap, smoke from ever-smouldering Woodbine and Star cigarettes, and fumes from the Valor oil stove that engulfed the shop.

George Sprake’s was one of two barbershops in the village. The second was in Lower Street, in a hut at the bottom Half Acre Lane – such was the local pronunciation that for years I thought it was Africa Lane. The hut was divided into two rooms, to the left of the
door was the waiting room and to the right was where the barber had his chair. During the war years the barber’s name was Smith, a London Jew who, together with his family, came to live in the village soon after the outbreak of hostilities. Immediately after the war, a couple of burglars broke into the hut and, using matches to find their way around, managed to set fire to the place and it was burnt to the ground. Shortly after, the Smith family, who lived in a cottage in Tail Mill Lane, left the village.

Immediately opposite the barber’s hut was Charlie Osborne’s cobbler shop. The shop was very small. It stank of leather. Boots and shoes were stacked in every conceivable place, including on the counter immediately inside the door where they were so high that a small boy often had difficulty in seeing over them. Charlie’s bench was immediately in front of the window and to the side of the bench was his finishing machine, a motor-driven shaft on which were mounted a range of sanding wheels and buffers. Thanks to this machine everywhere and everything in the shop was covered in dust.

Charlie’s shop was something of a magnet for the boys and young men of the village principally because of Charlie’s involvement and interest in village football but also because this was where the latest in jokes, especially dirty ones, were to be heard. It was here too, on occasions, when things got slightly more bawdy, that many a young upstart of a lad was forced to endure having his trousers pulled down and his private parts smothered in boot blacking. I managed to escape this humiliation.

There was another cobbler, Tommy Sweet, who worked in a hut at the top of Tail Mill Lane. His door was usually wide open and the tap, tap, tap of his hammer could clearly be heard over a wide area of that part of the village. There would often be no other sound except perhaps the ring from the village blacksmith’s anvil, such was the peace and quiet of those times and quite unimaginable now.

There were three grocers’ shops in the village: the Co-op down at Knapp, Hamlins in Lower Street, and Billy Holmans up at Bake House Corner. Only one of these shops, the Co-op, survives, albeit under a different name.

I had little or no experience of shopping down Hamlins or up Holmans because during the war years, owing to food rationing, each individual had to be registered at one particular shop. Of the seven people in our family, five were registered in Nichols and Gee in Crewkerne and two down at the Co-op.

Miss Mildred Paul, who lived in the village and worked for Nichols and Gee, called on my mother every Monday evening and took her order for the week. The goods were delivered the following Thursday afternoon, free of charge.

The rations from the Co-op were collected on Tuesday and it was my after-school job to get them. I hated this chore. The shop was invariably crowded, possibly because on Tuesdays trays of cakes and meat pies were delivered from Crewkerne and since they were not rationed there was a bit of a scramble to get hold of them. My standing instructions were to get seven pies and seven jam tarts.

As you entered the shop, to the left was the fats and bacon counter. A Berkel bacon slicer with its graphic display of possible thicknesses was right next to the window. Just one man, Mr Hawker, clad in a white apron, manned this counter. I have no idea what the rations for two people amounted to, but it was at this counter you handed over your ration books and coupons were cut or the allowances indicated on specific pages cancelled out. Then small amounts of margarine, lard and cheese were cut and weighed and individually wrapped in greaseproof paper on which the price was scribbled. The cheese was supplied to the shop in large, round, linen-wrapped ‘cheeses’, initially too large to cut using a knife and so they were sectioned by drawing a wire through them. Even the smaller pieces of cheese were cut – using a wire, never a knife. Lard and margarine were also supplied to the shop in large blocks.

Facing the door was an unmanned counter on which there was a row of biscuit tins, tilted forward and with their lids removed to display their contents of Peake Frean, Huntley and Palmer, Crawfords or Jacobs biscuits. Below the biscuits were vegetables – carrots, broad beans, runner beans, two or three Savoy cabbages perhaps, or a basket of cauliflower. And in season there would be fruit – apples, pears, damsons and Victoria plums – grown in the village.

To the right of the door there was another counter at which you bought everything else you needed or could get other than the bacon and fats. There were a number of assistants at this counter, amongst them the shop manager, Frank Stickland.

When space became available you moved forward and placed all your little packages of fat, cheese and bacon on the counter. ‘And the next please’ Mr Stickland would say and then trot off to get the individual pot of meat paste or whatever you had asked for. This would be placed on the counter. ‘And the next please’ he would again ask, and then trot off for the next item. When your order was complete, a hand-written bill with each item listed was made out. But the goods were not paid for until the following week. Instead, you paid the previous week’s bill and when you did so you were given a ticket, a  little numbered receipt, to which was added your share number. Our number was 36, inherited from my maternal grandmother who was the 36th person to join the Crewkerne and District Co-operative Society many years before. This ticket was eventually affixed to a gummed sheet and at the end of the year all the individual totals on the tickets were added together to determine the amount of dividend to which you were entitled.

Another of my regular chores was to take the accumulator down to Miller’s garage to get it recharged. An accumulator is a glass-cased acid-filled battery and they were used to power the ‘wireless’. When charged they provided power for about a week. Most people had two accumulators so that when one was being used the other could be down Millers being charged. It cost 6d (2.5p).

Millers also specialised in cycle repairs, particularly the repairing of punctures, but I didn’t have a bicycle until I was a teenager and by that time I was capable of mending my own punctures.

There were two butchers in the village, Charlie Osborne and Frank Parker, both in Lower Street. We had a delivery of meat from Frank Parker every Friday afternoon and on Thursday mornings, before school, I had to go down to their yard – there wasn’t a shop as such, just an outbuilding in the yard – and collect a quantity of liver, sausages or faggots. Frank Parker had a green van and in diagonal lettering across the rear doors it boldly stated ‘Best English Meat Only’. Much of this was locally reared and killed on the premises.

Just before the war there were two bakers, Harry Mitchell, my uncle, whose bakery and shop were down Knapp close by the Co-op, and Mr Ford whose bakery was at the top of Tail Mill Lane.

Harry Mitchell was renowned for the quality of his Easter cakes, both locally and further afield. When he died in 1939, the bakery business came to an end, but his wife, my Aunt Annie, continued to sell sweets at the shop right through the war years and it was here that l bought my quarter-pound ration every Saturday. l don’t remember Mr Ford too well and know nothing of his baking skills other than the currant population of his buns was generally agreed to be somewhat sparse. One sarcastic comment l recall being made suggested that he stood on Ham Hill when he was sprinkling them in the mix. Ham Hill is four or five miles away.

Sometime in the early 1940s the bakery changed hands and the new baker was a Mr Batstone. It was then called ‘The Laurel Bakery’, probably because of the laurel hedge that skirted the property, but the village people still referred to it simply as ‘ down bake house’.

Much of the output from the bakery was delivered straight to the customer, deliveries being made around the village by horse and van on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays. More privileged customers also got a delivery on Saturday mornings via carrier bike. As young boys, both my brother Jack and l had the job of providing this service at one time or another. There was no baker’s shop as such. Casual customers went into the bake house itself to buy their bread and cakes. The oven was immediately inside the entrance door and on occasions you had to wait outside as bread was taken from the oven on long-handled wooden ‘spades’ and tipped onto a table. The sight of those golden loaves, and the smell, was really something and l never minded waiting. Later, when l was about twelve or thirteen, l remember helping lifting off and stacking the hot tins, wearing a pair of hessian DCL yeast bags as gloves, DCL being the initials of the yeast company.

Bread was baked every day except Sundays. On Sundays, people were able to get their Sunday joints and potatoes baked in the bread oven. It was a very useful service, especially for people who lacked baking facilities in their own home. Customers delivered their dishes about half past nine in the morning and collected them again around mid-day, after coming out of church or chapel in many cases. The hot dishes were carried in slings fashioned from teacloths.

Just as there was no baker’s shop, neither was there a dairy although dairy produce could be purchased from several farms. In addition, several dairy farmers delivered milk door-to-door twice a day, morning and afternoon, virtually straight from the cow. Pony and trap was the usual method of delivery, although I recall one lady pushed a bicycle around, the pails containing the milk hanging on the handlebars. The milk was dipped from the pails using pint- and half-pint measures and then poured into the housewives’ jugs that they placed on the doorstep in readiness. At this time milk was not
pasteurised and therefore, far from being the health-promoting drink it was widely considered to be, it posed a considerable health risk. That said, I do not recall any member of our family becoming ill as a result of drinking it.

There was no fishmonger in the village but a roundsman from nearby Crewkerne was a regular visitor to the village. In addition to this, during the summer months of May and June, the village hawkers, who normally sold locally produced fruit and vegetables to catering outlets or door to door in nearby towns, sold fresh mackerel around the village. This was a long-established practice going back many, many years to the days when the horse and cart was the only transport available. In those days, they collected the fish straight off the boats at West Bay some fifteen miles away and then raced each other back to the village. I have no recollection of the use of horse and cart, only vans and small pick-up trucks, and I think by the then the racing was at an end. But I am quite sure the cry ‘Mackerel! Mackerel! West Bay mackerel’ that I regularly heard was the very same cry that had been used for generations past. But no longer, alas.

There is one other shop that I must mention. It was half way up Broadway, at the junction with Hitchen – there is still a shop there to this day. A formidable spinster called Maude Farr ran it. She sold a miscellany of things such as clothing, hats, linen and the like, and also cigarettes, tobacco and sweets.

Maude was a somewhat obese lady who used to spend much of her time sitting on her front step, with her collie dog at her feet, gossiping with whoever happened to be passing and critically observing the world go by.

My sister Marjorie, when she was about ten or eleven years old, was sent up Maude Farr’s shop to buy herself a cardigan. Maude had two in stock – which my mother must have known about – a blue one and a fawn one, both with buttons down the front and
with two little patch pockets. Marjorie chose the blue one because it was much prettier than the fawn one. But when she got home, mother noticed there was a hole in it so she sent Marjorie back with instructions to change it for the fawn one. Maude examined the blue one and, seeing the hole, reluctantly handed over the fawn one. But she also
handed back the blue one. ‘Here chil, thee bedder ‘ave thic one too’ she said. Buy one get one free, all those years ago!

But I rarely ventured inside Maude’s shop. She was far too intimidating. On one occasion, when I was about thirteen years old, I tried very hard to be friendly towards her. ‘Hello, Maude’ I called out as I pedalled by on my bike. ‘Miss Farr to you, young man’, she snapped back.

© David Gibbs 2003