As a child in the late 1950s shopping was a task that my mother did on an almost daily basis. At this time we, and probably most families, didn’t have a refrigerator and so perishable goods could only be kept a day or two. At my grandma’s house in Chapel Allerton, she had a cellar and above the steps down, there was what she called a meat safe. The safe was a metal box with a grill across the front and sides to allow air to circulate. The temperature in the cellar was always cool and the meat safe was where she kept meat, milk, butter etc to stop it going off. The metal structure prevented mice and rats getting to the food and it seemed to work well. Unfortunately our house at Lawrence Avenue and later at Gipton Wood Crescent didn’t have one, and so shopping was not the current once a week trip. The other major difference was that there were individual shops. You would go to the grocers, then the greengrocer’s, next the butcher’s, the post office for Family Allowance, the newsagent’s to get the items needed and usually things were not packaged. The greengrocer would weigh out the potatoes on his scale using a silver scoop and then pour them loose into mum’s shopping bag and it was the same for other fruits and vegetables. Biscuits were displayed in large tins and orders would be taken, weighed and put into paper bags that were fastened by holding the ends and flipping the bag and items around. Cheese was in large blocks and orders were placed on a cutting board and a wire with a handle was used to cut off the approximate weight. It was then placed on the scales and, after consultation, agreed and priced.
Because of storage problems only small items were bought so that they would be used before they went off. It was the same in the butcher’s, and at Dyson’s bacon would be sliced to order and I would watch fascinated as the butcher used the machine and thin slices were caught in paper in his hand. I realised it was dangerous as he had one finger missing. I also used to watch expecting bloodshed as meat was placed on the enormous thick chopping block and the cleaver was brought down with a mighty whack! I can still remember the different smells of the individual shops and the banter that took place between the shop keepers and customers. I suppose, due to the regularity of shopping, the same faces came daily and everyone got to know each other well.
I believe that for similar reasons, milk was delivered daily in the mornings so that it was cool and wouldn’t go off before it was used. There was the ritual of leaving notes in the empty bottles and the reckoning and payment at the end of each week. Who could forget the foil caps being pecked through by the birds in winter as they got a drink, or the milk freezing and forcing the foil caps off and a column of frozen milk standing proud above the glass? As I got older the television programme, Blue Peter, would have an annual drive to collect the foil tops so that the aluminium could be recycled and the profit used for charity. Here, in Western Australia, milk was delivered in the evening so that the day was at its coolest.
When at Lawrence Avenue we used to shop at the corner of Easterly Road and Oakwood Lane, but when we moved to Gipton Wood Crescent the locals shops were on either side of Easterly Road at the Gipton Wood Road junction. There were two butcher’s here, Dyson’s and Dewhurst’s, a fish and chip shop, Youngman’s, I think and it had stained glass windows and for some reason one showed the Pied Piper. There were assorted shops, a newsagent’s-post office, bakery and what became the first supermarket I had ever seen. It was only a very small shop, but it was the start of the big change in shopping. When it opened, I think it became a Spar, you could put your order in, pay and they would deliver it to your house. It came on a bicycle with a large basket holder at the front. The orders were small compared to today’s bulk purchases, but the poor lads who delivered must have struggled to keep their balance and to get up some of the hills. It is interesting how home delivery died out for many years after widespread ownership of cars and mega-supermarkets, but has returned in recent times and has become even more important during social isolation.
Another event in the shopping ritual at these times was a trip into Leeds on a Saturday. I remember going with mum on the bus to town. We would get off at the bus station and walk up through the outdoor and then the indoor market. Leeds market was an entertainment in itself. The magnificent building housed as wide assortment of people and traders as it did shops and stalls. It was like a wild carnival of humankind. It was noisy, bustling, cramped and full of exotic colours, smells and experiences. I think you could buy anything there. There were fruit and vegetables, fish stalls, butchers (I was fascinated that you could buy horse-meat at the butcher’s by the entrance), florists, haberdasheries, electronic goods, antiques, coin collectors, pet stores, clothing, iron-mongers, cobblers and shoe stores, hairdressers, carpet and rug sellers, cafés and restaurants. I am sure that I have missed many others. Just to walk through its uneven floor was wonderful entertainment and a sensory overload. Traders would call out, advertising their wares and there was banter between opposing traders. What made it almost intimidating was the fact that as a small child you were dwarfed by the adults that crowded around you and your view was constantly blocked. You were always in danger of getting lost if you didn’t keep a firm grip of your mother’s hand. The sounds, the smells and the colours remain with me still after all these years. I suppose that it is the environment that is least likely to return in the near future. Such crowds must have been the breeding ground and transmission point for many diseases in its time. One interesting recall I have is that when my mother was a wages clerk for Wragg’s Motor Cycles in the 1970s she used to take the week’s takings from both shops to the bank. She just carried the takings in her shopping bag and went through the market on the way, doing her shopping and then she would return with the cash for the wages. She would have had several thousand pounds at that time and that was certainly enough to be robbed if anyone had known. She never was, but you certainly wouldn’t allow it nowadays.
The trip to Leeds often meant a trip to the co-op. I never really understood how it worked, but somehow you could get your divvy and that meant some money back from shopping there. My wife can still remember her co-op number from Hanley in Stoke on Trent, but I have no idea of my mum’s. The Leeds trips would usually mean lunch at a cafe or maybe fish and chips at Nash’s, if I was lucky. Leeds was always busy and mum would always seem to meet people she knew. This meant standing getting bored whilst she chatted away. Shops were often grand establishments with elegant frontages and interiors, and the department stores were particularly magnificent. Schofields and Littlewoods were very impressive and I think it was Schofields that had wonderful Christmas displays in their windows. I seem to remember visiting Santa in the store a number of times, but each time the present was a Blow Football game. I still loved it though.
When we didn’t go to town we would often go to Harehills to do our shopping. Harehills had a wide range of shops and I remember Frew’s Sports shop, Varley’s records and toys, the pet shop across the road, with the cafe next to it. There was Martin’s the cleaners, several antique/junk shops. From one of these we bought a violin, which ended with my less than gracious hanging on the railings, refusing to go in to the violin teacher’s house.
There were carpet shops, furniture shops and all the usual range of traders. Banks were places that you had to visit to get cash and make deposits, and there were opticians and other professional services such as solicitors. It was very different from the way it is today and was old-fashioned. It was probably past its prime and the housing and area was seeing a movement as new families moved in and old ones moved out. The far end of Spencer Place certainly had a very bad reputation and the old Gaiety Kinema was just a shell. The Harehills cinema was still in action, but the main one was the Clock.
One major change was the introduction of the supermarket. Grandways was the first, I think, and it was much bigger than the other local ones and mum started shopping there and dad would now come along as he would drive us there. Larger scale buying took place and the car was needed to take it all home. Prior to this I don’t think my father was ever involved in shopping. Mum used to organise the house finances and dad was given his weekly allowance of cash spending money and mum dealt with everything else, paying the bills, saving for holidays and buying clothes.
We had been given a cool box whilst we were at Lawrence Avenue and that was a plaster box that you poured water onto the top and the plaster soaked it up. As the water evaporated it cooled the air inside and worked a bit like a fridge. When we moved to Gipton Wood Crescent we got our first fridge. It was second hand from one of my mother’s friends, Mrs Flathers. This and the access to a car changed the whole shopping experience. Food could be stored and so shopping became a weekly excursion and the writing was on the wall for speciality shops. Supermarkets selling almost everything took over, with self-service and bulk buying putting people out of work and out of business. Initially supermarkets were still local, but eventually the development of the shopping centre, where everything was under one roof and with ample free parking, would put even them under threat. I remember the opening of the Merrion Centre in 1964 and the Seacroft Shopping Centre, but my memories of these will have to wait for another tale.
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