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Banburyshire Family History

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Muriel Wells

Things are happening so fast these days that it is quite difficult to keep up with the changes. Suddenly it hits you! How different life used to be in your youth. The habits of centuries have been swept away very quickly by the wheels of progress.

I had been The Corner Shop recently. And, my, hasn't it changed? Not always for the better, mind you, but well adapted to our more hurried lifestyle and our convenient transport. Technology has brought refrigeration, dehydration and canning, so that the life of many foodstuffs is vastly prolonged and we can buy more infrequently.

In the 1930s and early 1940s things were so different. There were some grocery chains, like the Maypole, but these were still homely shops, slicing their bacon at the counter and cutting off the required amount of cheese. The scales with their brass weights were a wondrous things to a small child watching the careful balancing required. Yes, we had a branch of the Maypole amongst the shops that were part of the "General Wolfe" shopping centre. Mum used to walk there when she needed more than our corner shop stocked.

Prewar, I didn't take much notice of the shop in our street. The owner Sid, was obliging, cheerful and pleasant and errands there went off innocuously enough to not leave a lasting impression.

I did take more notice of the butcher's shop, several streets away, whence I was often dispatched for, "Six penn'orth of steak", for my father's dinner. He travelled for the furnishing firm of "Smarts" and needed a quickly prepared meal at whatever time he dropped in. I remember that the butcher had the tops of a couple of fingers missing and I found it hard not to stare at them! I was cautioned to be careful crossing the side streets, but one day the need was reinforced in a most unpleasant way. I was returning home, clutching the steak, when I came to a side street crossing and found my way blocked --- I must cross the road --- and it was one I wasn't allowed to. However I didn't argue, for there was no choice in the matter. One of my friends had run under a large lorry, and been killed, and blood was spattered all over the pavement.

The shop that did have impact was Mr. Knight's in Webster Street where my Granny Lucas and Auntie Florrie lived. He had a small general store, about the size of most front rooms in the houses alongside. It was packed with goods, but neatly so. He made the most wonderful ice-cream with a small hand turned unit.

When I was 7 years old I used to go to Grandma's for my lunch, and to practise for 1/2 hour on their piano. If I practised hard I would be rewarded with a cornet (cone). Talk about the donkey and the carrot!! Two relatives also brought their sandwiches and ate them at Grandma's house. They worked nearby at a textile works, travelling in from Bulkington, a village near to Coventry. Usually they went to Mr Knight's shop to get an ice-cream too, and Wilfred always chose a round wafer (sandwich). I was so envious --- it was the height of sophistication to me and I longed for one. Sometimes I was allowed a bite!

After the Blitz we lived in Webster Street ourselves and Mr Knight's became our local shop. I can see him now, in a fawn dustcoat, serving behind his counter. He didn't suffer fools gladly and you had to "mind your Ps and Qs" as he always liked his lunch in peace and a short siesta afterwards and woe betide those who didn't respect it. The locals knew better than to transgress but the occasional stranger had him turning out, chewing ostentatiously, and if not careful they might even get "the sharp end of his tongue".

For all that, he was scrupulously fair with the rationed goods, and loyal to his regular customers when something scarce came in which could be purchased with our points.

It is difficult to think ourselves back to a time when most foods had to be bought often and eaten almost immediately, as for the average household there was no means of keeping them for any length of time. So much of the shopping had to be done daily.

Mum managed to feed us well and we were always tidily dressed, but to achieve this took a lot of work and ingenuity. She trudged "up the Wolfe" late on Saturday night, where fruit, vegetables and other perishables were almost given away, as they wouldn't be fresh enough for sale on Monday. She bought as much as she could carry, and in this way her housekeeping money would go much further.

Clothes were made on grandma's treadle sewing machine, until an elderly lady sold Mum a little hand-turned Singer sewing machine in the early wars years. She wouldn't let us near it though, as needles were so scarce! We were a 'knitting' family, and for several years, from 5 years old upwards, I remember an annually knitted dress, with plain bodice and 'holey' skirt! Joyce, of course had them, too, in an appropriate size. So little was bought from the shops, compared with the present day, but of course there was very little money in the '30s and nothing much to buy in the shops in the '40s!

With my brother being under 5 years old we found, on registering for our milk allowance, that he was not allowed to have the same milk as the rest of the family! Mum favoured 'Purity' milk in the narrow necked bottles, with a crimped metal cap. It had a distinctive taste but kept well --- nowadays it is called UHT milk. Throughout the summer the milk jug or bottles were stood in a bowl of water, covered with a muslin cloth, and kept on the'thrawl', a ventilated tiled shelf, near the floor level of our walk-in pantry. For Roy's pint, we had a delivery from a local dairyman. In the back of his van was a milk churn and measure, for he milked his own cows. He had a small farm, an oasis overtaken by the growth of the city. We benefitted by this arrangement as if the cows produced well or other customers took less than their entitlement, he knew that Mum would be pleased to have extra.

One day he brought out a container of some thick creamy milk, which he called 'bystings', (but which I now know is called beastings, --- colostrum, the first milk after calving). He wasn't allowed to sell this but asked for a pudding dish, which he filled. "Stir in some sugar, and sprinkle with nutmeg", he said, and instructed her to stand the dish in water and bake in a slow oven. He assured us that it would be just like egg custard, and he was right!

Prewar so many tradesmen delivered round the streets, with their small vans, larger lorries, horse drawn carts or large drays. The latter were owned by the breweries and were pulled by magnificent draughthorses, beautiful beasts with gleaming flanks and huge 'feathery' feet. I never trusted the milkman's horse after it bolted, one day. The coalman was always fearfully black but hefted the sacks onto his shoulder pad with ease. The baker, in his van, opened up the double doors and slid his trays out to serve appetisingly fresh bread and cakes. Mum bought bread, but always made her own cakes using her little Bero cookbook. In no time at all she'd whip up some currant buns for tea.

The Tinker would come round with his handcart and kettles and pans would be brought out to be mended. The Scissor-grinder's call meant a scurry around to find the items that needed sharpening. The gypsies came door to door to sell wooden pegs and wheedle something from the housewife.

We recycled, but it was never called that! Clothes were cut down and remade for the children, other garments ended up in the ragbag, where they were used for patching or cut up to make the rag rugs, which were always "on the go". What was left over went to the rag and bone man and the few pence was a perk for the housewife, who rarely had money to spend on herself.

A time so unlike now, that it seems as though I am talking of an alien culture in a foreign land! But I lived it, although I sometimes wonder if it was a dream.

Yes, it was simpler then.


The hour was very late/early and in my tiredness I forgot a very important factor influencing the shopping habits of the earlier to mid years of the last century. Oops!    »> t'cwop!

Written by Muriel Wells