I was nearly five at the outbreak of World War Two, almost old enough to start school but too young to be left on my own for any period of time. So, when my mother went into town each week, to do the family shop, I went along with her. She was a lady who enjoyed shopping, even though the money my father earned in a gent’s outfitters store didn’t allow too many luxuries. She had a set route she followed every time we went out, encompassing her favourite suppliers for all the necessities she required. Even though it involved a walk of three or four miles (laden with goods on the way back home!).
Her first call was always at Mr. Pont’s grocery store, which was the furthest place we visited, the rest of the trip taking us back towards home. The shop was tiny, compared to the monster supermarkets we are accustomed to nowadays, with a single counter along one wall and goods literally stacked everywhere else. Mum would sit down on a provided chair alongside the counter and Mr Pont would step forward on the other side to serve her. No self-service nonsense in those days. She would then take out her shopping list from her bag and say something like, “Eight ounces of butter, please Mr. Pont”, and off he’d go, to the other side of the shop where a large block of butter stood, on a marble slab. He would deftly, and surprisingly accurately cut a piece off the slab, wrap it and bring it back to us, jotting down the price with a stub of pencil on a piece of paper. This would go on for some time, with Mr. Pont rushing about all over the shop in answer to my mother’s requests, taking sugar from a sack with a large scoop, cutting bacon from a side hanging from the ceiling and tea from a large, foil lined tea-chest, stacking everything in front of us and jotting down the prices. Eventually, her list having been filled, Mr. Pont would manually add up the price and snip the various coupons from our ration books. Then Mum would pay and we’d leave, not touching the purchases. That was because the groceries would all be delivered, later that day, by the grocer’s ‘boy’, on a pushbike with a big basket on the front handlebars.
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This ritual would be repeated, with minor differences, at various shops on our route back home, the ‘Biscuit Barrel’ who (yes you’ve guessed it), sold all types of biscuits, from open tins, about 30cms cubed. Mum told the assistant which varieties she wanted as we strolled along the line and they would be popped in a paper bag, no triple-wrapped cellophane in 1940! There were also boxes where broken biscuits were put, which you could buy at a considerable discount, all very friendly and for the benefit of the customer, not the shop!
Next came the butcher, with his expertly cut joints, smaller now than before the war because of the rationing, but still recognisably from the right parts of the animal, unlike some of the cuts we see today, which could be from a rump or a shin for all that can be told.
Finally, it would be the greengrocers’ turn to enjoy our company, with his wonderful array of fresh, locally grown produce, one of the few things that were free of rationing. Then Mum headed for home, her stride triumphant, and her arms full of biscuits, meat and vegetables.
Despite the restrictions of rationing and the abysmal methods of selling them, by today’s slick standards, we all lived pretty well during those war years. Everyone had enough to be fit without getting fat, we walked everywhere because of petrol rationing and we didn’t live in stuffy, overheated houses. I sometimes yearn for those far-off simple days, but then I grab a beer from the fridge, a bag of biscuits from the pantry (half of them broken at no reduced cost!), a sit down in my air-conditioned living room to watch television on a 56-inch screen. It’s easier to forget those “good old days” then!
What did you enjoy about shopping in the earlier days? Who owned your local grocers, butchers and bakers? Tell us in the comments below…