We – myself and my parents Victor and Gerry (aka Vicky) Martin, moved to Golborne Road from Lambeth in 1952. After returning from being a POW in Stalag VIIIA, Lamsdorf and being demobbed Dad had never settled into a job working for a few weeks here and there as a spray painter, window cleaner, pretty much anything unskilled that was going. Mum always told of how Dad would come home, say he’d chucked in his job and hand her his final pay packet. She would go out, spend all of it and then tell him they had no money so he’d better find another job in a hurry.
In Lambeth we lived in a lovely late Georgian detached house with my grandparents Alice and Frederick Ireland. Grandad Ireland (more later about the Irelands) was a master builder and used what was originally the coach house and stables for his tools. Because we were a multi generational household Nana would look after me while Mum worked part time on the till at Lyons or ABC teahouses. Mum would also take in piecework sewing shirring elastic into children’s swimsuits at three farthings a garment.
Before the war Dad had worked as a bacon hand for Frosts, a protosupermarket group. One day he confessed to Mum that he’d like his own shop so that he could be his own boss and not work for someone else. With their small savings and some help from my grandparents they secured the lease on 21 Golborne Rd which had been run as a grocers by Vic Harrison who had apparently had little idea of shop management and pretty well run it into the ground. Our lease covered the shop and ground floor premises, the basement and back yards and the first floor rooms. Above us lived Vic Harrison’s daughter Violet Peck and her daughter, Beryl, who was a couple of years older than me.
After the lovely house in Lambeth number 21 was a huge shock. It was run down, damp and rickety with monochrome brownish wall paper hanging in large loops all the way up the stairs. Vic Harrison’s idea of repairs was to hammer six inch nails into everything, including wallpaper that had come loose. The phrase “doing a Harrison” entered our family’s vocabulary for a poorly done job. The basement of the building consisted of two rooms to the rear with a narrow passage that opened out onto a concrete yard. The inner of these rooms had no window and was quite literally dripping with green slime. Towards the street was the coal cellar. Coal was delivered by horse and cart with the street level manhole levered off and coal poured straight down into the cellar. All the rooms at this level had a fine layer of coal dust mingling with other adhesions.
At ground level there was the shop to the front and behind this a store-room with a coal fired oven where Mum would heat cornish pasties and meat pies to sell to the workmen. It was also very good for putting your feet in on a cold winter’s day. A passage ran alongside this with stairs down to the basement and up to the higher levels. It continued on to another room which was used as our kitchen and also a communal toilet for all inhabitants. It was one of Beryl’s ploys to sit in there for hours on end reading a comic and refuse to come out until Mum had words with her mum (and much effing and blinding from Mrs Peck) and made her get Beryl out. Beryl would also lay in wait for me on the landing and thump me and try to steal my toys or books until one day I filled a pint glass mug with water, hid it under my cardigan and then socked her with it nearly knocking her out. Mrs Peck complained to Mum saying I was, “as strong as an ox” After that it was a Mexican standoff. Beryl would glare at me but never touched me again.
Halfway up to the first floor the stairs took a right angled bend. There was a very tall set of french doors that opened out onto the roof of the store room. This was one of my favourite spots for playing as I could look out over the “Feathers” boys club on Edenham Street. Also Golborne Road, Edenham Street and Southam Street formed a triangle and it was possible to see everyone’s backyard. There were no fences around the perimeter and Mum always worried I’d get too near the edge and fall over.
Up on the first floor was a huge lounge that ran the length of the building looking out onto the street. It had two windows with a 12 foot drop and a large fireplace that barely warmed the room. It was so large we had in it our three piece suite, a large mahogany dining table that could be extended to the size of a table tennis table and a large sideboard with still lots of room to move. To the rear was Mum and Dad’s bedroom with a strip partitioned off by a blanket for me. For a while Mum tried to use the basement rooms but the damp and dark defeated her and I used them as part of my enchanted kingdom to play my games and keep my growing collection of pets including a wild rabbit that had a broken back and a tortoise we thought had hibernated until a foul greenish liquid started to emanate from its shell. Among my other pets was a tabby and white cat named Bobby who was my best friend and confidante. He and I would share a bed and he’d cuddle up to me with both arms round my neck.
In those days, fortunately, Health and Safety were only individual words and not a dictatorial body so there was no-one to pontificate about the hygiene of having a cat on premises where food was sold. Bobby was a regular part of shop life and would sit on the doorstep to greet customers. In reality he was an essential part of the shop as it was overrun with mice and Dad regularly had to trim the cheese to remove little teeth marks. One day, when he was cutting bacon with one of the old hand operated machines, a little mouse got trapped by the blade and before Dad could do anything he’d chopped off its little back leg. Said mouse was promptly despatched under the heel of Dad’s shoe.
Anyone who has watched “Open all Hours” would have a pretty fair idea of what Dad’s shop looked like and Dad was not unlike Ronnie Barker in appearance complete with moustache and full length coat. The only difference being that Dad’s was white. It had removable buttons that were held in place with pegs that went through loops in the back of the buttons which were pushed through holes in the coat. It fell to me or Mum to put these in as Dad had been badly wounded during WW2 and had little use of his right hand. Although he had taught himself to write left handed anything that required fine manual dexterity defeated him.
The shop had a full front window with the door opening on the left as you faced the shop. Inside were tins of biscuits from which customers chose which they wanted. He also did a fine trade in broken biscuits and children regularly asked for “fruppence werf ‘v broken ones mister”. Tea was sold loose from large wooden chests, usually an ounce or two at a time and put into a paper bag. He also bought in rice in large chests and one of my after school jobs was to weigh it into pound bags for sale. A scoop and a quarter weighed a pound and it was amazing how easily one could gauge the amount after a few goes.
At right angles to the window was the counter with a chiller cabinet containing cheeses, salami and flitches of bacon. On top of the counter was a set of scales and display stands with packets of Lyons pudding mix, Kraft cheese, Burton’s Battenberg cake, and a brand called Kut-a-kake that used to boast that each piece was “specially wrapped” On top of the chiller was another glass fronted display stand with 2d caramel wafers, Brand’s dressed crab dish paste and butter in 4 ounce packs although these were often cut into halves or quarters for customers’ requirements as rationing was still in force when we moved to North Kensington and, in any case, people could often not afford to buy a whole packet. Behind the counter he had box shelves made from old packing cases with tinned food in them and plastic strips across them where prices were displayed.
This was long before the days of pre-packaging and Dad would cut bacon and ham to order. Bacon was bought by the leg or shoulder from Ivan, Kellets and Child and one year Dad negotiated for my school class to have a trip to their smokehouse to see how bacon was made. I forget where it was but can remember the tall chimney with the joints hanging down on hooks,the interior walls of the chimney being stained with a thick, glossy brown substance and the aromatic smoky smell.
Any ends of meat that couldn’t be sold, we ended up eating or Mum would mince and add to the heaps of potatoes she chopped with onions to go inside the pasties. When I read Noel Streatfield’s “White Boots” I immediately related to Harriet Johnson and her father’s shop although Dad was a far better businessman than Mr Johnson and the shop prospered.
The pasties were very popular with young working men as they were cheap and tasty. She also made steak and kidney pies and a peculiar mixture of baked beans, tinned peas, corned beef and Oxo cubes which she would ladle out into dishes the customers brought into the shop. It was surprisingly good and became one of my favourite childhood meals.
Dad had a very innovative approach and was constantly looking for ways to improve his stock. Up Kensal Road was a wholesalers run by either Czech or Polish people. It was from here Dad bought his salamis and wurst. I often used to walk up there with him and one Christmas the men gave me a musical box like a carousel that played “Silent Night”.
When West Indian immigrants started to arrive in the late 1950s they complained that British bread wasn’t as good as the bread they got back home so Dad found a West Indian baker who would supply him in bulk.
Eggs were bought from a farmer who would sell them by the trayload, thirty eggs to a tray and also would supply Dad with chickens and geese at Christmas. In those days chicken was not the ubiquitous food it is today and these birds were delivered feathered and still with their interiors still intact. Mum and I sat of an evening after delivery plucking and disembowelling the wretched things. The trick to plucking is to dampen the feathers first so they don’t fly everywhere as you pull them out but it did mean a good wash oneself afterwards to remove them from ones person. Disembowelling was trickier as I was told to be careful of the gallbladder as its rupture would taint the flesh and make the bird unsaleable. Most of these birds were old layers and often one would find an egg inside them or, more spectacularly, a string of yolks before the shell had formed around them. I recall one time finding an egg encased in its membrane with the finest, transparent shell.
Although Dad had a till he refused to add up purchases on it as he could do it in his head quicker and often more accurately than punching the keys and pulling the handle (yes just like Arkwright’s devil machine) If a customer demurred he’d let them add up on the machine while he did it in his head and always he finished first and was correct. Eventually regulars accepted that what Vic Martin said was right.
Cigarettes were a large part of his sales. Packs of twenty were available, but more often in this poor neighbourhood people bought packs of ten or even two. Popular brands were Kensitas for the coupons you collected and could exchange for gifts, Senior Service with the picture of an “old salt” smoking, Dunhill, Craven A, Players and a brand especially for the ladies “Sweet Afton”. A very upmarket brand was Sobranie. You could buy strong smelling “Black Russian” or a milder one “Cocktail” with the cigarettes each a different pastel colour. No health warnings then and I can recall seeing an advertisement in a magazine recommending smoking for people with asthma. Like butter, cigarette packets were also split and one cigarette would be bought at a time if the person didn’t roll their own. Tinned tobacco and cigarette papers were more common, as very thin “fags” could be rolled and men would spend all day with a partially smoked “dog-end” attached to their lower lip.
Customers were a mixed bunch. Many were very poor and had a real struggle to make ends meet. While Dad was far from a soft touch, he was aware of genuine hardship, having had to leave home at twelve years old and become self supporting because of his father’s remarriage. He would allow people things “on tick” until their situation improved and often give away slightly smelly bacon or sausages that were past their best. With a rinse under the tap the bacon was edible if somewhat strong tasting.
Some of the best customers Dad had were the irish “navvies” who had come over as part of “MacAlpine’s men” after the war to work on the roads. These were young, husky men, well paid and hungry as a result of their hard labour. They would buy bacon by the poundload, eggs by the dozen and a whole loaf of bread and 4oz of butter and that just for the one meal. Dad’s mother, who had died young of throat cancer, was Irish and I suspect their soft Kerry and Limerick voices touched his sentimental streak.
At the other end of the scale were women with children and no man to support them. Illegitimacy rates were high around North Kensington and I suspect that a lot of women were, unwillingly, “on the game” to support their children. Alas, all too often, this resulted in yet another mouth to feed unless a trip to the local back street abortionist could be afforded. Rumour had it that she operated from one of the basements in Edenham Street using a pint of gin and a knitting needle, brine or a chemical abortifacient to perform the task although in the 1950s I was ignorant of such things being still of primary school age. Dad could always be relied on to find a little something for a woman who was trying to raise her children decently despite her circumstances.
In those days, before the internet, and in many cases before people had telephones the “traveller” was a regular weekly visitor to Dad’s shop. These men, often European Jews, were employed by warehouses to visit shops and persuade them to buy their goods. Looking back they seemed to have a curious sameness about them. Gaberdine coat, Homberg or Fedora hat and a thick accent. They were paid on commission so were persuasive salesmen.
Dad got on well with them and, having been a POW in Silesia, could sympathise with them as many were DPs (Displaced Persons) as a result of Hitler’s policies. Dad was always keen to get a bargain and pass it on to his customers so would negotiate a special weekly deal on a particular line. I can recall one week it was Heinz Baked Beans and another tinned fruit salad, macedoine of fruit as it was called.
Next door to us at 19 were an elderly couple Bert and Amy Cross who were originally from Earl’s Barton in Northamptonshire. He had been an apprentice at Clark’s shoe makers as a young man and was operating as a “snob” as shoe makers were known in those days. In 1959 he decided to retire and the shop came up for lease. As I was now at grammar school and there was a limit to how much Mum could do in the shop, my parents decided to lease number 19 and Mum was going to run it as a drapers, ladies’ clothing and wool shop, since the closest one was the other end of Golborne Road, over the iron bridge. Thus started another phase of my life on The Golborne.
Gwen Nelson (nee Martin), 2014