Off to the Shops Revisited

Blogging challenges, London

Last week the visit to my London primary school way back sixty years ago seemed to go down quite well, so today for Fandango’s Flashback Friday, we’ll go back to that era again, to the post I wrote in 2016. But this time, we’ll go shopping.

Off to the shops

In 1953, my family moved from Yorkshire to London.  At first  we lived in Earl’s Court.  In the years following WWII, it was where Polish immigrants congregated and lived, so that’s probably how we ended up in this busy, grubby, cosmopolitan area.

The area round Earl’s Court Station, near where we lived for a time.

It had shops – exotic shops to country hicks like us.  There was an Express Dairy, a supermarket,  one of the earliest of its kind.  Rummaging round on the shelves, my mother found unknown surprises such as yoghurt.  It was thin, acidic, an improbable shade of pink and none of us liked it.  Not even my father. Yet my father taught my mother to set out soup bowls of milk to sour and eat as a cold, refreshing soup.  It was a part of his Polish heritage.

She found chinese gooseberries.  We didn’t like those either.  These days we call them kiwi fruit and realise the ones we had bought must have been rancid and fermenting.

Tachbrook Street in the 1950s.

Now let’s go on to Tachbrook Street Market.  That’s where we mainly shopped, once we’d moved to Victoria.  I loved it.  It was a whole community of shopping streets and market stalls.  Even though I didn’t then drink coffee, I loved to pass the coffee blenders’ shop, and smell the rich aromas drifting through the door as the coffee beans gently roasted and toasted on giant metal grates.

Jonathan Farber: coffee roasting, Unsplash.

I remember the neighbourhood Italian restaurant.  We didn’t have the money to eat there, but I could see through the window and watch as waiters wielded those giant pepper grinders they seemed to like so much.

Tachbrook Street Market. (www.23ashleygardens.com)

We’d pass the neighbourhood grocery store – ‘Home and Colonial’ .  I seem to remember we actually got our groceries in Sainsbury’s.  There was a Tesco store, a very early example of a supermarket.  We didn’t shop there  (‘Supermarkets won’t catch on’ opined my mother).

A ‘Home and Colonial’ sign

There was a MacFisheries.  I was fascinated by the glistening fish laid out on the marble counters of the open shopfront and watched as my mother’s choice for the day was expertly de-boned and filleted in seconds.

There were dozens of adverts, designed to encourage you to eat fish every day of the week (MacFisheries archive)

There were fruit and vegetable stalls.  I loved to hoard the richly decorated tissue papers that protected each orange, each tangerine.  Occasionally, in late summer, my mother would buy us a peach each, as an exotic treat.

A Sicilian orange, carefully protected (Daily Mail)

Once I got to be about eight or so, I’d be sent off to Apple’s the Hardware Store to buy a gallon of paraffin (Aladdin pink, as opposed to Esso blue) to feed our paraffin heaters.  There was Mr. Apple himself, with his bristly grey moustache and his grubby brown overalls.  The paraffin glugged out of its storage tank into our can.  I’d count out the money, then I’d struggle home, the heavy can banging against my shins, the contents splashing my socks, along the street, and across the busy Vauxhall Bridge Road.

This was the offending paraffin stove. Dangerous but efficient.

Because my father was Polish, we did quite a bit of shopping at the delicatessen near Buckingham Palace Road.

Here were thin sticks of kabanos, the drier the better.  Nobody but me ate this at school, and my friends assured me it was donkey meat.  There was Polish boiling ring – a horseshoe shaped sausage that was my favourite meal, boiled and served simply with mashed potato and cabbage.  Sauerkraut of course, and bigos.  The plain cookery of 1950s Britain was largely unknown to me apart from school dinners, but that’s a whole other story.

Kabanos

Besides Polish foods, we’d often have pasta or risotto or wienerschnitzel.  Oh – apart from two things.  On Saturdays, my mother always bought a pint of brown shrimps from the above-mentioned MacFisheries.  Saturday tea times would see us all sitting round the table with a pile of brown bread and butter, peeling those fiddly shrimps.  And she was very partial to a kipper too.

I can’t leave out ordinary grocery shopping though.  We went to Sainsbury’s in Victoria because it had fresher, better goods according to my mother.  It wasn’t a supermarket.  We’d go into the shop, with its brightly-tiled floor, and there, to left and right were the counters. Dry goods, dairy products, bacon and ham… and so on.

Here’s a 1950s branch of Sainsbury’s. Not ours, but a branch in Streatham, London (sainsburyarchive.co.uk)

Young women, their hair concealed under net caps, skilfully wielded wooden butter pats to reduce great slabs of butter into manageable half-pound portions..  Others bagged up sugar into dark blue ‘sugar paper’ bags.  There was always a man at the bacon slicer, turning a lethal looking metal disc to slice bacon and ham according to the customer’s particular requirements (Thin?  Thick?  Gammon rasher?) .

There were glass-topped tins of biscuits – digestives, custard creams, Lincolns, nice, arrowroot…..: these were sold loose.  People on a restricted budget would choose a mixed bag of broken ones.  My mother regarded all of these with disdain.  We made our own.

And when it was time to pay, we’d find that all our receipts, from each counter we’d visited, would have arrived at a small wooden kiosk near the centre of the store.  An efficient type would add it all up, we’d pay her ( it was always a ‘her’) and we’d go off with our groceries.

The scenes played out here are so clear in my mind, but I can’t find a single image to support them.  Not one.  Can anybody help?

One thing we never had to buy at the shops was milk.  That was delivered, every single day including Christmas Day, in glass bottles which we rinsed out and returned, on an electric-powered milk float something like this….

A milkfloat

I remember our shopping trips fondly. They were time-consuming, certainly. But the rich variety of a morning walking from shop to stall to shop again was quite a highlight in my week.

46 thoughts on “Off to the Shops Revisited

  1. Oh, brilliant account! The scent of roasting coffee beans; the pink paraffin (I recall such at my paternal grandparents, smelly dangerous heaters as I recall), the descriptions of shops and your mother’s opinion of supermarkets! How wonderful that you ate an interesting diet in 1950s England….Schnitzel, sauerkraut, Kabanos…..I was fortunate that my mother cooked a la Elizabeth David and others to make dinner less dreary.

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  2. I love this! What a rich food culture you enjoyed. Pasta and risotto seem unbelievably exotic to me. My early childhood – a little later than yours – was entirely meat and two veg and roast on Sundays. I can’t recall having fish! But I can just about remember our Sainsburys with its counters as you describe, Margaret. Of course, the milkman but also the bread van and the fruit and veg van. And the ice cream van!

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    1. I remember lots of friends routinely having fish (often fish and chips) on Friday, though I don’t think any of them were Catholic. But yes, your childhood seems to have been typical, and none the worse for that.

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  3. Great memories. I remember a Sainsbury just like that in Catford near to where my grandparents lived. What a shame that those high street stores are mostly gone. The one that intrigued me as a boy was International Stores.

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    1. Oh, I remember the International (not) Stores as well! And Catford is almost my new stamping ground as son and Team London live in Hither Green.

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      1. Catford is famous. Spike Milligan and Cat Stevens both lived there. And my Mum.

        A curious name derived from a ford across the river Ravensbourne around about there where cattle used to cross when being taken up to Smithfield Market.

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    1. I’ll tell you. It’s gone up-market and is all Artisan Coffee Shops, Farrow and Ball paint (if that means anything to you?) and Artisan Cheesemongers, with international street food carts at mealtimes.

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  4. I really enjoyed this peek into your past, Margaret. I loved hearing about all the different shops.

    Your parents must have been very adventurous to leave the country to go to the big smoke. London had a lot of air quality issues at that time, didn’t it? Still, I expect it was the place to be to get ahead.

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    1. Not adventurous, just desperate for work. Rural North Yorkshire was not the place for an immigrant to find work that matched his qualifications, while London offered the chance to work, have a bit of Polish company, and gave my mother a better choice of teaching posts too.

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  5. Oh what fantastic memories you had. A lot has changed in the few short years you’ve been alive. I don’t remember shopping like that, but I lived in a town of only a couple hundred people and only one little general store. 😀 I do remember getting our milk delivered though.

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  6. I love reading about London back in time! Somehow shopping sounded more fun back then, although shopping in the food markets in London today is still very enjoyable. Feel free to post more childhood memories!

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  7. You tell these tales so niftily, Margaret. I did laugh at your mother’s dismissal of supermarkets. Shame she wasn’t right. Goodbye paper bags, hello plastic packaging started there. We didn’t have a Sainsbury but we did have a Knights with a bacon slicer and the big scales. 🙂 🙂

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  8. What wonderful evocative memories. I don’t remember pre-supermarket shopping, but am struck by similar the experiences were to my shopping routine today; trying to buy as much as possible from small local businesses. I know many of us are doing this where we can afford to for social and environmental reasons. Yet another example of turning our backs on newness which has turned out to do as much (or more) harm than good.

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    1. Indeed. It’s said that though Covid has made many turn to online shopping, it’s also brought an understanding of how having a real relationship with particular shops pays dividends. Let’s hope that sticks.

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    1. It was quite an experience, going grocery shopping. So many skilled assistants doing their bit to keep the housewives (always housewives!) happy.

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  9. oh this is fabulous Margaret, what wonderful memories and wow the research you have done to find the photos. My Mum went to school on Buckingham Palace Road, and her father was a fishmonger at the Army & Navy store.

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    1. Was your mum’s school Buckingham Gate? Lots of my friends had siblings there. And the Army and Navy Stores! That’s a real blast from the past. We’ll be related soon.

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