I joined F W Woolworth’s & Co as a stockroom assistant in the autumn of 1953, a few months after the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. I had failed to join the more prestigious firm of Marks and Spencer, as recommended by my careers advisor at Fairfields School, based partly on the fact that I had been a Stock Prefect at school, so I had to settle for ‘second best’ at Store 107, based at 5-7 London Street where the Post Office is situated today.
I was met at the door by the Manager Mr Jack Sturmey, a tall thin man with greying hair and spectacles. He had not been long at Basingstoke after moving from a store in East Grinstead, Sussex. With him was the Assistant Manager, Mr Hobbs, a much younger dark-haired man who rode a Royal Enfield motorcycle.
My first task was to light all the gas lamps on the shop floor which provided the back up for the main electric lighting. This wasn’t an easy task; for I had to stand on a pair of old rickety steps and light the pilot lamps with a long wax taper. The gas mantles were incredibly delicate and would often blow with a loud pop and had to be replaced very carefully.
The shop floor layout was in two sections, the upper and lower floors connected by a short staircase. At the far end of the upper floor was the cash office, manned by Sheila Purdue and Elsie Harrington, and beyond that was the door to the stockroom area, a dark and gloomy place that had formerly belonged to Cannons, the butchers. The rusted, worn old blocks and pulleys were still in position above.
At the end of the aisles was the notorious “Bag Room”, a small room where sacks of bath salts and various sixes of paper bags were kept. (No plastic bags in those days!). The main aisle led through to the stockroom which was equally uninspiring. I noted an old tradesmen’s bicycle with the basket and small wheel at the front – no longer used.
At the far end of the upper floor section was the stairway to the upper sections of the building. On the first floor were the canteen and the main cash office, and round the corner was the grocery cupboard, managed by a dear old lady called Louie Rhodes. The staircase became really narrow and curved past the men’s washroom and up to Annie’s room at the top. Louie Rhodes called this room “Annie’s room”, and once told me that a young girl had been murdered there many years previously – a little room where, of all things, the horticultural glass was kept, just about the heaviest thing that we had in stock. There was a little window in this room where we could squeeze out on to the roof and look down onto London Street and the market place. Brooks, the grocer’s, was opposite, and we used to hang bunting between them and us on occasions such as the annual Carnival held in July.
Back on the first floor could be found the conservatory, a low place with a glass panel roof. I always thought it was ridiculous that the Easter Eggs were stored there in the springtime, because if the sun shone it was hot up there and the chocolate would melt.
I recall that once when Mr Sturmey was on holiday, I was given the task of painting the outside glass with green cool glass paint. The paint roller was attached to a long broom handle and to paint the panels I had to stand on the glass roof. All went well until suddenly one of the panels gave way and I threw myself sideways to avoid dropping into the conservatory. I was unhurt; however, it was too late in the day to get the glaziers to replace the glass so a colleague and I cut some cardboard to size and wedged it into the gap.
Next morning, to my horror, I was told that there had been a break-in, and of course I expected the worst. However the thieves had taken the trouble to cut the iron bars on the canteen windows to gain access. If only they knew they could have walked in through the conservatory with no trouble which was almost next door to the canteen. We had a laugh.
My main task in those early days was to operate the bailing machine. This was a monstrous metal instrument of torture which was used to compress the cardboard into tight bales. It consisted of a metal frame in two sections that was opened by a lever at the front. I had to receive the cardboard and cartons in a little open front shed opposite the rear entrance to Woolworth’s in Petman’s Yard. The shop girls would bring out resin sided bins, and I would tip them into the machine. Any complete cartons had to be ripped apart by hand, quite a feat in the case of the New Zealand Fernleaf Butter cartons. When the machine was full I had to lift the lid and position it on the top. The lid had two chains that were attached to a ratchet device at the bottom. I then had to take a long handle which was placed on the ratchet and physically pull towards me until the cardboard was compressed. Then the ratchet was released and the whole process continued until the bale was large enough. At that point, with the bale still compressed, I opened the two halves to reveal three slots top and bottom through which a metal wire was pushed, pulled tight, secured with a pair of pliers, and then the surplus cut off. When both wires were secure, the ratchet was released which allowed the cardboard to expand and the bale was ready to be humped into the shed to await collection by the Southern Waste Paper Company on Fridays.
The trouble was that the machine was old and worn, and sometime when hauling the handle downwards it would slip and send me sprawling backwards on the uneven surface. A few months later another machine arrived which was less worn, but the handle was so heavy it took all my strength to operate, so not a great improvement.
Another hazard was that Currys was next door, and access to their rear entrance was gained by driving past the entrance to Woolworth’s. Petman’s Yard wasn’t very large and consisted of some old garages and sheds. The road led from Southern Road down to the market square past the Royal Naval Association Club, and then to Kingdon’s shop and store on one side, and the Hole in the Wall pub on the other. The road deviated to the right in front of the RNA Club which led to Woolworth’s rear entrance and on to Currys.
Woolworth’s rented one or two of the old garages wherein were stored Tunbridge Wells fizzy drinks, and all returnable items such as drink crates, bottles, vinegar crates, jam and marmalade crates, bleach crates, etc. So much came into the store in ‘returnable’ cases in those days, and as they held 24 at a time, these were pretty heavy. Also in another garage were all the returnable biscuit tins for Elkes, Cadburys, Crawfords, etc. Savoy Biscuits, our main supplier, was the only firm to send their biscuits in non-returnable cartons.
We also kept various seasonal items in the garages, including seed potatoes which came in 1 cwt sacks and were sold loose. This was fine until the winter frosts, (which I can tell you were severe in the 1950s) got into the potatoes and frosted many of them. Our job as stockroom boys was to empty out the sacks and remove the rotting frosted potatoes which wasn’t a pleasant task because the smell was awful.
Another daunting task came in the springtime with the arrival of the bedding plants. These were delivered by a local nurseryman in a beautiful old Bentley car. Boxes were in the boot, on the rear seats, on the floor and along the running boards of the car. Our task was to take them to the open flat roof above the stockroom which meant taking them two at a time through the shop and up the stairs which took ages, so I devised an easier way. My friend and colleague, Johnny Walker, was detailed to stand on top of the roof, and I would toss the trays up to him from ground floor level. This proved to be a great time saver, but sadly, occasionally a tray of plants was dropped and had to be ‘adjusted’.
Ice cream was a big seller in those days, as now, and was delivered by Lyons. We had a large chest freezer in the stockroom where the product was stored. This freezer was old and not always reliable, and would sometimes break down without warning, ruining the ice cream. On these occasions we were detailed to throw the melted ice cream away down the drain in the yard. However, I hated waste, and always filled myself with ice cream whilst carrying out this process.
The drain in the yard was a real problem because it always got blocked up in heavy rain and flooded the whole yard. Of course, I was the one who had to wade out up to my knees in water, locate the drain, remove the grill, and just poke away at it (no Dyno Rod in those days) until I hit the right spot and it ran away. I have an old photograph of this in my collection.
As I have previously mentioned the RNA Club was situated in Petman’s Yard run by a steward called George Austin. I used to take him unwanted wooden crates, and in return he would reward me with peppermint drinks. I can still taste them now. Another gentleman who had a garage in Petman’s Yard was Mr Pearce, a very gifted man who built a complete caravan from an old chassis in the garage, and then proceeded to build and varnish a lovely boat. Another garage provided a weekly rendezvous for a man and his girlfriend. We could only imagine what went on in there.
Every morning the railway goods lorry called with much of our deliveries. He backed his Scammel three-wheeled lorry and trailer down from Southern Road right to our back entrance in Petman’s Yard which was no mean feat in itself. Sometimes he would meet Mr Kingdon in his chauffeur driven Humber Snipe halfway down, and there would be angry words exchanged before one or the other retreated. Our driver’s name was Harry Stockhill and others were Les and Peter Savage. Harry’s daughter, Pearl, worked at Woolworth’s at the time.
We got on well with our neighbours. Kingdon’s was on one side; the storeman’s name was Tug Wilson whom I liked. Then came the rear of the National Westminster Bank and on the far side was Currys. Their driver was always passing me whilst I was baling. He used to call me Chunky, I recall. I bought my first pedal cycle from him, a Humber Royal Cob Tourist for £23, as good as the Raleigh
Superb. I still have the cycle 52 years later and it is still in working order.
Another occasional job was to take money to the National Provincial Bank which was situated in Winchester Street where the Indian restaurant is now. I had to take banknotes and bring back change in an old Gladstone bag. No escort was provided, but I never thought anything of it in those days. Villains were few and the police knew most of their names anyway.
Woolworth’s paid an annual bonus to their staff at Christmas which I used to look forward to, as my wages were only £2 10 shillings per week. Another exciting event at that time was the Christmas Dinner and Dance which was usually held at The Station Hotel or the Town Hall (now housing the Willis Museum). Mr Bearne, a well-known photographer, always took photographs. Now and again coach trips were organised to London to see shows. I recall seeing The Crazy Gang twice at The Victoria Palace, and also Kismet at the Stoll. We also visited Waller and Hartley’s factory at Slough and watched them making sweets and rock for all over the country.
Waller and Hartley’s sweets always came to us by rail in unmarked long cartons containing either four metal tins or four cartons of sweets. However, the railway workers were not fooled by the lack of labels, and pilfering sometimes took place by making a strategic hole in the side of the cartons and removing some of the sweets. We always checked these boxes carefully of course, and one day whilst unloading, I felt that one of the cartons felt too light despite there being no visible dents or holes. After removing the metal band and pulling our four tins, one of them was found to be completely empty.
Every so often we received a visit from the Area Manager. Mr Sturmey always got quite worried over these visits, and always wanted us to be at our best and on top of our jobs. Cheeky Johnny Walker once said to him that the best thing about the 1950s was that they were over.
Under- or Assistant Managers came and went over the five and a half years that I was at Woolworth’s. After Mr Hobbs came Mr Tony Hesseltine who liked amateur dramatics; then we had Mr Seymour who seemed very efficient, but at the time of the rebuilding came Mr Sheppard whom I didn’t like because of his sarcastic ways. He was one of the reasons I decided to leave Woolworth’s, but in the meantime, I had to work with him.
It was at that time that I bought a BSA Bantam motorcycle with the help of another colleague, John Bray. We hitchhiked to Hook, and bought the motorcycle for £18.
When I first joined Woolworth’s, I was the third member of the stockroom staff for a while. The ‘main man’ was Ken Lamden, a short, smart young man who rode from Tadley every day on his sports cycle. He was awaiting his call-up for National Service and had a high opinion of himself, and used to fantasise about being a secret agent. His assistant was a lad called Bob Harris, a Whitchurch boy who had been moved from Andover to Basingstoke, FWW107. We got on immediately and have been friends from that day to this. I am proud to have been Best Man at his wedding in 1965.
Within a few weeks of my joining Woolworth’s, Ken Lamden left for the army, and Bob Harris was transferred to the West Country, so at the age of 15. I was left in charge with a team of ten stockroom girls. This was only meant to be a temporary measure, but of course it was several weeks before a young fellow called Colin from the Isle of Wight took over. Every stockroom boy is also classed as a trainee manager by Woolworth’s, and I had to do my stint of floor walking from time to time, but I knew, even then, that I was not cut out for this life. My greatest interest was playing cricket, and working at Woolworth’s greatly restricted this activity.
Mr Sturmey was a kind man and did his best to encourage me to go for a career in Woolworth’s. He even took me to see the Farnborough Air Show one year. However, everything changed dramatically in about 1956 when it was decided that FWW107 would be completely rebuilt. The contractors moved in, and the two men in charge were called Bob and Roy who were very popular with the staff, especially the middle-aged women. One half of the shop floor was re-done followed by a new stockroom. A breezeblock annexe which was used as a warehouse was quickly built at the end of the alley on Webber’s ground, and all the stock was transferred to it.
A four-wheel manual trolley was provided to move the stock back and forth. It had steering so Johnny and I had great fun driving it from the warehouse to the shop, as it was all downhill. However, over the two years that the rebuilding took place, the brakes failed one day and we came hurtling down the alley and couldn’t stop. We usually rammed into the dustbins to effect this, but for some reason Johnny who was driving at the time took a different course and headed for the RNA and on towards the Market Square. I jumped off and left him to it, and luckily, he survived with the aid of one of Kingdon’s garages, which we rammed. We never rode on it again after this incident.
We had a lovely new store, but for me it had lost its individuality and although the stockroom continued for a while in the breezeblock annexe, it eventually became a workshop for Webber’s Garage.
For me FWW107 was no more, and I left soon afterwards.