This is the third of a series of stories by Margaret Wilby on her recollections of her early life. It is about her father's time as a Co-op branch manager immediately after WW2.
It is written following a recorded chat with Mike Adams of The Friends of Ossett Library. The recording of this piece is at the end for those who would like to hear it.
My father was an only child whose father was killed in France in the First World War. His mother was a semi-invalid who, following his father’s death, he had to look after. She died when my father was only twenty. As soon as he could leave school she needed him to be earning so he got employment at the Co-op as an apprentice grocer and in his time worked at most of the branches. I remember we had at home, a whole set of text books on the skills needed to be a grocer. He went to night school in Dewsbury to learn the skills and business. Times were a lot different from today. There was no refrigeration in the shops and food preservation and preparation were complex. He needed to know the importance of hygiene, how to look after and cut unpreserved meats such as bacon which came to the shop with hams and hocks attached and had to be boned and rolled by him.
The shop, although now empty for quite a long time, still stands on Wakefield Road at Flushdyke. When it was the Co-op in my father’s day, on the right-hand side when you went in, there was a mahogany row of drawers full of herbs, spices and tobacco etc. There were such things as ginger, cloves, cinnamon, caraway seeds and pepper. The shop had a lovely, distinctive smell.
I can remember my father asking me, “What do you think the most expensive commodity is in the shop? I thought and hesitated. He then opened the pepper drawer. Apparently there had been some kind of crisis, possibly because of war or weather conditions that had made the price shoot up. He used to weigh out small, handrolled, cone-shaped greaseproof bags of it. Butter came in wooden tubs and this was cut up, weighed into either pounds or half pounds and again wrapped in greaseproof paper by the grocer. Sugar was weighed into 1lb (pound weight) or 2lb blue bags made of “sugar paper”. When I was teaching we used “sugar paper” of many different colours for craft work but in those days it was all blue.
At the side of the Co-op there was what was called in this part of Yorkshire, a “taking in ‘ole”, a door at first floor level with a hoist fitted over it. This was used for lifting produce etc. to the upstairs store rooms. At the Co-op potatoes were stored upstairs and there was a chute for them to be sent down when they were required for sale. When they came down they made a loud ,exciting rumble.
I don’t think my father chose to work at the Co-op because he was keen on Co-op principles or on being a grocer. It was a job and he needed a job. He was not political. For some reason a number of new staff started around the time he did and they were more or less the same age. There was Clifford Gregson later at the Manor Road branch, Frank Thompson at Streeside, Ernest Philpot at Central, Ernest Oxley in Butchery. Norman Howroyd, the general manager, used to shuffle the staff round from time to time to gain experience when they were younger. I do not know why they all started more or less at the same time . It was not a wartime thing because they all went from school and there became a close bond between them.
My mother used to object slightly because she thought dad’s job somehow dominated our lives. If you worked at the Co-op you were “public property”. She felt that we were watched a little bit. It was difficult after the war because there were still food shortages and there was some rationing long after the war had ended, until about 1954. People were registered with my father and mostly all that came into the shop was food on ration. Occasionally he got a special supply such as a case of tinned salmon. With perhaps only 24 tins of salmon and many registered customers he had to decide who would be the lucky ones each time. He tried to rotate the treats between them and he hoped they would not say anything but of course they did. He was always having arguments with someone because a neighbour had got a tin of salmon or whatever and they had not. He used to try to explain how he tried to be fair to everyone. These incidents used to drive him mad.
There was a perception by some, including Mrs. J., who was a near neighbour, that we as a family had more than our share which of course we did not. I remember as well when my mother decided to have the front room decorated and she had the Co-op decorators in. Mrs. J. said as she went past, “The divi. will be down this year”. There were always these sort of sneers. Everybody knew my father and he disliked this outcome of his position in the village. If we had not lived amongst everybody it may have been easier for him.
When I went to help in the shop it did open my eyes. I had never thought how comparatively well-off we were but we were always well-fed, clean and well-dressed and we were warm in winter. My mother was very careful with our money. She was a good homemaker, clever with her fingers making things for us. We always had a one week holiday at the seaside. We went off on our bikes and sometimes stayed in Youth Hostels. It was a working class standard and we were a long way off middle class but when I was in the shop I realised just how poor some people were. People would come into the shop and perhaps only buy one Oxo (father kept a box for this purpose), one egg or one cigarette. That was how he used to sell some things to customers if it was all they could afford. At least they did not get into debt.
Credit was not allowed for foodstuffs in his shop but if they wanted clothes or furniture etc., they could go into the main Co- op in the town centre and , depending on my father’s approval, get such things and they were charged to our branch. These people would have a card and pay weekly at my dad’s shop. They were very hard times for many.