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The Local Corner Shop

Every one had his or her local corner shop. A place that, as a kid, you were often enough asked to, "pop down to, along to, across to, or up to," on an errand, to fetch a packet of Woodbines or something for mum, or an elderly neighbour. If you were lucky you might even get a penny or more to spend on some sweets for yourself for doing the errand. That's when sweets could be bought for a farthing each; a penny could purchase four sweets. Sweets such as Blackjacks, a farthing each, or Bulls eyes, at a halfpenny each, two for a penny, a cushion shaped, strong flavoured black and white striped boiled sweet that lasted ages in your mouth if you sucked it, resisting the urge to crunch it up. You could buy a slab of Palm toffee for, was it tuppence! A chocolate biscuit 'Wagon Wheel', that seemed as big as a tea plate, for, I think thruppence; but they've shrank down in size a lot over the years. The sherbet dips were another favourite. Served in a small paper bag with a twisted top with a liquorice straw protruding through. Suck up the delicious sharp tangy sherbet powder through the straw and when it was all gone you ate the liquorice straw. In these little bags of sherbet you'd find a small metal 'good luck' charm; perhaps a tiny horseshoe or some other miniature goody us kids eagerly looked for when the sherbet ran out.

Above: An example of the penny, half-penny and farthing! (Click for large view)

Fry's Chocolate Bar wrapper showing the five emotive facesThe small bars of Fry's chocolate were another favourite of mine; a special treat at thruppence a bar. I recall the changing faces of the Fry's boy depicted on the back of the chocolate wrapping. The first boy's face was a very distrought tearful face; the second face a slightly less tearful face; and so on until the sixth face showed a very happy smiling boy's face as he gets his bar of Fry's chocolate. This thruppenny bar also got a lot smaller in size as the years went by and went up in price to sixpence a bar. It eventually disappeared.

Many old favourites disappeared as time marched on. Palm toffee was one. Before the individual slab of toffee, you bought it broken into pieces from a much larger slab. It was broken up with a little toffee hammer and then weighed out at so much an ounce. Most sweets were sold by the ounce, and our rations of sweets were generally bought in two-ounce amounts of this or that. Gob Stoppers were another favourite with us kids. At a penny each they were quite big and they lasted for ages and ages. As the large ball in your gob was sucked it gradually changed colour, as it had multi-coloured coatings. Us kids were forever taking them out of our mouths with our, all too often, grubby hands to see and compare with our mates what new colour was showing and guessing the next colour to show. These big Gob Stoppers were eventually banned because kids were occasionally choking to death on them as they ran around with them in their mouths. Another nearby local corner shop sold liquorice-sticks that were actual twigs of wood. They were around a penny for a small bundle of about four twigs. You chewed these liquorice soaked sticks until all the lovely liquorice flavour had been well and truly sucked out, leaving just a wet pulp of well chewed wood fibres.

An early observation from the 'Booth early Police books' for Plumstead in 1900 says, "The streets are straight & empty & clean except when the children tumble out of school and leave a litter of small paper bags which once held pennyworth of sweets or fruit.".......Nothing has changed, 'cept the prices and very few corner shops!

Our local corner shop was called Dickins' and was situated on the corner of Goldsmid Street and Sladedale Road. It was owned by a lovely elderly couple, Mr & Mrs Dickins. They were related to the Dickins who had their own shop in Parkdale Road who also later owned another shop on the corner of Parkdale and Sladedale Roads (ex Welsh the Greengrocers) and which was run by Lennie Dickins their son. Dickins' was a typical corner shop. To us local kids it was known as 'the sweet shop' as indeed all local kids called their own local shop. These shops all had that very recognizable corner shop smell, a familiar aroma they shared in common. A bouquet of smells that incorporated hints of soap, paraffin, confectioneries, kindling wood, mothballs and other smells more subtle. Often stacked up on high shelves that reached the wood-lined ceiling, an array of rows of large glass jars, each labelled jar containing varying amounts of different coloured sweets for our young eyes to feast on, whilst we pondered on what to get with our penny held tight in our hand.

I remember going on an errand for mum to get a bar of Lifebuoy soap from the corner shop. The red coloured soap, about 6 inches long with 'Lifebuoy' embossed on it, was roughly moulded and had no wrapping paper. On purchase, it was wrapped in a piece of newspaper, as was the bar of yellow 'Sunlight' soap used for washing the clothes and the floors. I loved the smell of Sunlight soap on Monday washing day, but the smell of Lifebuoy soap was not so nice as it had a stronger carbolic smell and did it sting your eyes when your mum washed your face with it! This soap was nothing though when compared to the dark red bar of 'Carbolic' soap that really did mean business when that came in contact with eyes and other orifices!

My younger sister Ann remembers that it was every Saturday morning that our dad would leave our pocket money for us on the living room mantle shelf. She got thruppence and I, being three years older, got sixpence. Every year on our birthday we would each get a rise of thruppence in our pocket money. When we went to spend our pocket money at the corner shop to get our weekly meager amount of sweets we had to take our ration books with us. When I had selected my sweets I remember the elderly Mr Dickins would cut out of the ration book with a big pair of scissors some squares with amounts printed on each square which indicated your weekly sugar ration allowed for that week. Many other items were on ration after WWII and were still being rationed into the early fifties. When sugar rationing ended in the early fifties there was such a rush of folk buying sugar and confectionery that it was put back on ration again. Sweet rationing finally ended on February 4th 1953 and all food rationing ended on June 3rd 1954. To us kids in those days it was so good to be able to go and get sweets without any ration restrictions, so you can well imagine what it was like for our parents as well, when all forms of rationing finally came to an end.

Not that us young kids had much in the way to spend, and it was the same for my mates too. But, at least when you did manage to purchase some sweets, they sure tasted that much more delicious. Dear old Mrs Dickins would wait very patently behind their well worn wood counter whilst pint-sized four year old me pondered over what to get with my halfpenny, or three farthings, held tightly in my hand. Then, when the big decision had been made, she would take down and unscrew the lid off of the jar, reach in and count out into my hand the sweets; then, thank yous exchanged, away I'd trot, mouth watering in anticipation of the tasty morsels I was about to receive. My sister recalls the time that our mum sent her to Dickins' on an errand. It was winter time and she was all wrapped up to go and mum said, "Don't loose the change" as mum pushed the money wrapped in a note with what to get into her glove. She got the item and was crossing the road and slipped in the deep snow and lost the sixpence change in the snow. Nervously she explained to mum how she had lost the change. But mum said to her not to worry about it. I over heard them talking and that sixpence was lost in the snow. I took the hearth-shovel and shovelled the snow looking for the sixpence and Mrs Dickins came out of the shop and asked me what was I doing. I explained that my sister had lost the sixpence and I was looking for it. A few days later Mrs Dickins was talking to mum and told her about me digging in the snow for ages looking for the lost sixpence. My mum felt quite embarrassed about this as she thought Mrs Dickins thought that mum had made me go and dig in the snow for the sixpence. But that sixpence to me was well worth looking for. Another time my sister was heading down our front steps as our dad came along. Dad asked her where was she going and she said to Dickins. He ask her how much did she have to spend and she said, " a ha'penny". Dad gave her another couple of pennies as he didn't want her going there with just an ha'penny. But it was no problem at all for us kids to go to the shop with only a ha'penny; no embarrassment whatsoever.

However, I remember a very embarrassing incident that occurred at another corner shop just down the road from our local shop. I had gone into this shop to buy some sweets on my way home from school. As I entered 'Ping' went the shop door jingling the bell. I stood at the counter and waited for the lady to come out from her living room, which was just off of the shop. But no one came. I opened and shut the shop door again, jingling the bell. Again I waited and still no one appeared. I was just a kid and I was at eye level to all those marvellous sweets, all so temptingly lined up right before my eyes! After a short deliberation, between right and wrong, I quickly grabbed a hand full of sweets and crammed them into my tiny thieving gob. At that very moment 'PING' went the door bell behind me and a ladies voice said so sweetly, "Sorry to keep you waiting sonny Jim, I just popped over road to get some greens for tea, (Welshes' corner greengrocers) what would you like?" Quite unable to answer her because of a mouth crammed full of illicit loot, I froze. Petrified, I kept my back to her, trying desperately to swallow down whole pieces of unchewed sweets. My face felt red and hot and it seemed impossible to get the mouthful of sweets down my throat, yet, somehow, I did! I think that it was sheer panic that I managed to swallow them all back; the fear of being found out and caught a thief, with all that that meant if my parents were told. So, finally, after what seemed ages, I turned to her with a hot red face and very watery eyes, caused by my embarrassment and fear and also from choking back those lumpy sweets that scratched my throat as forcefully I swallowed them down whole; only then was I able to turn to her and 'innocently' give her my order. I reckon that she must have known what I had been up to, but she never said a word and I was soon out of the shop and on my way home, so greatly relieved to have got away with it. It was a very long time before I went back into that shop again. However, I've never stolen a sweet since!

Another corner shop that I would occasionally call in on my way home was situated on a corner in Tewson Road, opposite the entrance to St. Nick's hospital. I used to get a glass of homemade lemonade from this tiny shop. The lady would ask what flavour I wanted and poured the coloured liquid into a glass. She'd put the glass on a stand with a metal tube going into the glass. The machine had a round glass container on top filled with water. A lever was pulled and there was whooshing and hissing sounds as lots of large bubbles globed up into the round glass container and, hey presto, I had a glass of extra gassy lemonade at a penny a glass!

A Mr Fletcher and his wife had a corner shop on the corner of Flaxton Road, top of Timbercroft Junior School. My eldest brother Mark sometimes helped him deliver the Star and Standard evening papers. Elderly Mr. Fletcher collected his papers from Plumstead Station, delivering along Conway Road. Mark would meet him top of Lakedale Road. Mr. Flaxton always had a pipe in his mouth and talked to everyone in his friendly high-pitched voice, through his teeth, without ever removing his pipe.

Alan Gibbs, remembering his local corner shops, says, "There was a group of corner shops in Conway Road and on the corner of Ancona Road was a group of little shops. Rumbold's was a hardware shop, selling everything from sweets to soap powder to paraffin. The sweets I remember were Flying saucers and Gob stoppers which you could suck all day. Long liquorice pipes plus sweet cigarettes; you could buy sherbet bags, wetting your finger and dipping it into the bag. On the other corner stood Loaders, which sold bread, ham, cheese and so on. Across the road stood Davies the butchers, in those days the floor was covered in sawdust. They used to have a chap deliver the meat on a delivery bike. Turkeys and poultry would hang up outside the shop at Christmas time; no frozen ones them days. Then there was the wireless shop where you would take your accumulator for the wireless to be recharged. There was also the Orchard Arms pub in Ancona Road where I was sent to get my dad's beer bottles filled up and a penny arrowroot biscuit for the dog. Just below the pub was Jones, one of the first shops to have a fridge, and where we all went to get our Jubley's. Back along Conway Road was Frank Bywaters the hairdressers, which also took orders for the chimney sweep, whose name was Waghorn, who had an old motorbike with a box sidecar, which carried his rods and brushes. The barbers wouldn't cut kids hair on Saturdays as this day was reserved for adults only. One thing that puzzled me when he had cut the gents hair he would often say, "Anything for the weekend sir?" It wasn't until I got older that I realised what he was referring to!"

In Joyce Foster's story she remembers, "On just about every street corner there was a small shop. One day mum sent me across for two ounces of 'All Sorts'. On the way back temptation was just too great, so I ate one, but she knew that two ounces meant six sweets and I came back with only five! I was sent sent straight back to the shop and, in deep shame, I said that I wasn't given the correct weight. The shopkeeper knew what had happened though and took pity on me and replaced it. On icy mornings an old man named Mr. Baxter used to stand out side his shop on the corner of Avery St. and give us children a bulls-eye each." (a black and white stripped boiled sweet)

Bread was bought on Sundays from the corner shop if we'd ran out of it at home. We'd carry it home without any wrapping at all on it. Hygiene was not such a factor in those days. Behind the shop counter the sticky boiled sweets were handled with fingers that had just filled, perhaps, a container of paraffin; or had just cut up some rashers of bacon, wrapping it up in newspaper and then picked up the broken pieces of toffee after perhaps handling some soap or counting a load of pennies into the till and then cutting up a block of cheese; doing this all day with the same busy fingers! Sticky buns and cakes sat exposed with no cover from dust and flies and were picked up with fingers; no tongs, and put into a paper bag that was separated from the stack of bags by a swift lick of the fingers and the bag deftly blown open before the cakes were dropped in!

Gordon Coton recalls their local shop as more a general store that sold a good mixture of goods. He recalls the big blocks of cheese and butter cut into the size you wanted with a wire cutter. Also the paper cone deftly made by the shopkeeper by twisting a piece of paper round his fingers to make the cone to hold the sweets. He remembers a small hand-held gadget for making ice-cream wafers. A wafer was put into its tray then a lever pulled down, then a dollop of ice-cream was smoothed flat into it, another wafer put on top, the spring was released and up popped a uniform-sized wafer ice-cream.

Things could be purchased and paid for at the end of the week. Every item was carefully written into a well-thumbed book and the tally totaled up and then settled up by the customer each payday. This system afforded folk to continue to buy things during the week, when their money was short. This also helped the local corner shops to continue doing a reasonably steady daily business in the poorer working-class areas.

Colin Weightman.

Children outside a shop c.1900. (photo © Childrens Society)

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