Working Lives

A greengrocer’s tale (1960-2012)

Location: Norwich

John worked for E. Pordage and Co, the fruit and vegetable wholesaler based in Norwich, visiting small city and village shops and driving to Covent Garden in London to buy supplies.

I left school in 1960 when I was 15 and my first job was a newspaper boy delivering papers.

The chap I worked for, a bloke called Ray Warminger delivered newspapers on the Plumstead Estate in Norwich and at the time they were building the Heartsease Estate, and he and his wife Elaine were going to have a shop there.

Unfortunately one morning he didn’t wake up, which was very sad as he was not very old. His wife asked me if I would be interested in the job of helping to run the newspapers in the shop at Heartsease, that was when I was 15.

As the estate got bigger, we had more and more paper boys. The papers were delivered morning and night, and on Fridays you had to collect the money. But newspapers were a seven day a week job and I was a young lad and eventually got a bit fed up with the hours.

I worked there for about three years and then I left and joined another newsagents’ shop in the centre of Norwich, called Deans, in Orford Place. They had a paper stall on Norwich market called City Hall Book Stall, and a book and newspaper stall next to Anglia Television, called Castle Book Stall. Unfortunately both are now gone. After a few years in the shop I went on to the book stall and while working there I became 18, learnt to drive and passed my driving test.

I was quite keen, like all young people, to drive and friends of mine worked for a firm called Pordage’s, who were wholesale fruit and veg merchants in Victoria Station. The job appealed to me because it involved driving, so I went for an interview and got a job as a lorry driver.

In those days you didn’t need a lorry license. You just got in the lorry – but the manager used to say, just remember that the lorry is a bit longer and a bit wider than a car. The manager was a lovely man called Jack Leggat, but he used to call everybody ‘my boy’.

When I went for an interview, he said ‘When a customer gets on the lorry and you’re selling bananas and apples and oranges what is the first thing you must sell?’ Well, to cut a long story short, I said, ‘Well, the first thing you must sell is yourself’ – my friends had told me the answer to the question. And he said, ‘Quite right, my boy, you won’t sell anything unless the customers get on well with you’.

Victoria Station was at the top of St Stephen’s, on the corner of St Stephen’s and Queen’s Road, and is now a big office building.

Pordage’s offices were in the old Victoria railway station, I presume they took a lease or something on it, and that was where they used to run their lorries from.

It was quite a big place, they had about ten or twelve lorries, which used to go round the shops in Norwich and Norfolk. In them days that was what was called ‘cold selling’. You’d load the lorry up with fruit and veg, bananas, apples and oranges and tomatoes and that sort of thing, and you’d call on the shops in the country and in the city. Some you’d do Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and some you’d do Tuesdays and Thursdays. The shopkeepers used to get on the lorry or have a look.

I remember that, for most of the shopkeepers in those days, the general uniform was a brown smock. Some had trilby hats and some had flat hats, especially the specialist greengrocers’ shops; there used to be a lot of shops that were just greengrocers’. They were very particular on what they used to buy. If there were oranges, they used to get a penknife out of their pocket and cut an orange and if it was nice and sweet they would buy.

In those days as well, the shops served you over the counter. Sometimes you would have to wait a long time, obviously the shopkeeper would serve his customers before he dealt with you.

There were a lot of market gardens and smallholdings around Norwich which used to grow produce – the ‘local produce’ we used to call it. There was no such thing as Iceberg lettuces and things like that. In the winter you had Dutch lettuces but in the summer you had mostly local lettuces like Webb’s wonders and Cos lettuce or flat lettuce.

Also on a Tuesday and on a Friday morning there was a wholesale fruit and veg market down at the livestock market on Hall Road where the local shopkeepers, and especially greengrocers, used to go and buy their stuff. The growers from round the Norwich area and Norfolk used to take their goods down there. They used to go far and wide.

I used to go to Wells to pick up sprouts and Clacton for tomatoes and potatoes and that sort of thing and I preferred picking stuff up. I was trained as a salesman because, if a salesman ever went sick, then someone had to do the round. Jack Leggat did ask me if I would prefer to be a regular salesman but I preferred to sort of float about and do a bit of everything.

Pordage’s used to go to Covent Garden, in London, every night. We used to leave Norwich at one o’clock in the morning and you’d get into Covent Garden about four o’clock and you’d then have a sleep in your cab until about six o’clock, until the market actually started and the people would bring the goods out on sack barrows and you’d load your lorry up.

You had a tilt and ropes when you’d finished; there was no fork lifts, everything was handled, put on the back and you’d stack it. Then you’d leave Covent Garden hopefully about ten o’clock and you’d arrive back in Norwich about two o’clock in the afternoon.

Pordage’s had depots all over Norfolk, one at Cromer, one at Lowestoft, March, Cambridge and so they employed buyers in Covent Garden.

When you arrived Covent Garden they’d give you a list of the stuff that they’d bought for you so you could check it as that was coming on the lorries. The market, Covent Garden, was very, very busy in them days and there were men going about in uniforms who tried to keep the market in order

We called them Beadles, I’m not sure if they were employed by the market or London Council. Now Beadles is not a name that you come across that much and because they looked after you, or they kept you a space for parking, they always used to look for a tip. We used to give them half a crown every time we went. If you didn’t give it to them probably the next time you went you wouldn’t get in the market sort of thing, that’s how it was. (laughs)

They were very happy days and everyone was very friendly as I say and the shops were all nice; they were lovely village shops. There wasn’t only a grocery shop in the village, there’d perhaps be a butcher and a baker and some of the bigger villages had petrol stations.

That was ‘cold selling’ and when you went to the shops there’d be other firms who did the same as Pordage’s. There used to be Lyon’s cakes and Harris’s pies who would call on shops.

The best day of the week at Pordage’s was on a Friday because Fridays was pay day and in those days on a Friday you got a nice envelope with some pounds, shillings and pence in it. Getting paid always made the week worthwhile.

The salesmen were on commission, most people doing cold selling in those days earned a commission on their sales. But that was always nice on a Friday to get a wage packet with pounds, shillings and pence in it. It wasn’t a lot I don’t suppose but it was always nice to get the wage packet which we always checked.

I used to go to farms to pick stuff up ready for the salesman on a Monday morning, so I got a bit extra for working on a Sunday.

There was a railway line still went into Victoria Station, and once or twice a week there was a carriage come in with bananas on, ‘cos Pordage’s were banana specialists. Sometimes I would help but normally there would be a team who worked on the bananas, and they’d put a rope round the top of the stems.

In the floor of the warehouse there was covers and you’d take the covers out and underneath were all rooms where the bananas were hung up. You’d pass them through the hole and they’d be hung up in these rooms, in the dark, to be ripened and then when they were ripe they were taken down to another place and what they call the hands of bananas were cut off the stems and packed into boxes.

There was a railway line still in them days which ran into Victoria Station and round that area there was quite a few coal yards and although the Victoria Station had actually closed there was still deliveries what used to come in on the railway line from different places in that part of the city.

We didn’t really have problems with insects or spiders. Occasionally there was the odd insect and that sort of thing. Big spiders used to come out and you’d get in touch with the newspapers, but not terribly often, to be honest.

I presume that they came in the docks or whatever it was in London ‘cos at the time, early 70s or late 60s, London docks was still very much the thing and the bananas came over on what they called the banana boat.

Anyway after about three years working for Pordage’s, which I very much enjoyed, I joined a firm called John Copeman and Sons who were wholesale grocers in Drayton Road in Norwich.

They were part of the Mace organisation. Although that was a family business, several grocers all over the country joined, it gave them bigger buying power. Copeman’s decided to open a fruit and veg department and I joined them.

But obviously when working for Copeman’s you only delivered to Mace shops, you didn’t deliver to greengrocers. You didn’t do cold selling then because cold selling was beginning to drift out because it was very time consuming.

So there were two or three people in an office in the fruit and veg department who used to telephone the customers who would say ‘Oh, I’ll have a box of oranges or a box of apples’ or something like that.

In those days we had a lot of local stuff like lettuces and tomatoes which were grown in Norwich but also something which you don’t see today.

In the winter when Cox’s apples finished, say about March time, you went onto Australian and New Zealand apples, or what were called Cape apples which came from South Africa and they were really lovely quality.

As they were imported they used to come into London docks and you’d bring them back from Covent Garden, Cape grapes and oranges from Israel, called Jaffa oranges, which you don’t see now, and oranges from South Africa called Outspan.

But I think once we joined the Common Market, we were not allowed to deal with the countries outside the EEU so nowadays I’m afraid we have these tasteless French apples. In them days, you didn’t have such things as French apples; they were Cape or Australian or South African apples and oranges.

Oranges from Israel arrived just after Christmas in wooden crates, some of the Jaffa oranges were very heavy. Those crates of Jaffa oranges were very heavy, sometimes they could weigh about 150lb. You don’t see Jaffa oranges or Jaffa grapefruit now that’s all from the EEC really.

Everything seems prepacked and sterile now. In those days, as well, everything was sold loose. There were loose bananas and loose tomatoes: pounds and ounces and then oranges and things like that were sold individually. There was nothing which was prepacked, they were all sold loose. When you bought a pound of apples or four oranges they were put in brown paper bags by the shopkeepers.

Anyway as I say, I worked at Copeman’s delivering and that was hard work. After I worked in the fruit and veg department for about three years I transferred over to the grocery department and we used to deliver groceries round shops round Norfolk and Suffolk.

At first we had ordinary lorries, box vans, and you had to hand all the stuff and sack barrow it in but after about a year there was tail lifts and the chaps in the warehouse called ‘pickers’ used to put orders in a cage with wheels on and you would then wheel the cage out onto the back of your lorry onto the tail lift and then push it onto the lorry.

Obviously the last calls what you done were up the front and the first call was on the back. A lot of shops used to have about five, six, seven cages and that made the job a lot easier.

In those days you did not need a heavy goods licence at Pordage’s and then when I went onto Copeman’s you still didn’t need one, if you could drive a car you could drive a lorry.

But some way through my employment with Copeman’s, probably in the 80s, they introduced the heavy goods vehicle licence, and if you wanted to drive the lorry you had to take a lorry test.

Copeman’s were very good with a lot of the drivers like myself and wrote to the DVLC and said this particular driver had been driving for so many years and hadn’t had an accident and you was automatically given an HGV licence.

So I was driving a massive lorry though London with all the traffic but I never actually passed a driving test. I wouldn’t have thought there’s that many people nowadays who haven’t taken the driving test and the medical and all that sort of thing. You used to have a medical every three years, they were much more strict as time went on but in those days there was not a limit on your hours or anything.

But times change and I wouldn’t want to drive a heavy goods vehicle down to London now.

The M11 wasn’t built then and you used to go right through the middle of Attleborough and Wymondham and Thetford and Newmarket, there was no bypasses.

Then that was mostly countryside, just a single lane and you’d drive through places like Great Chesterford and past Audley End, and then through Sawbridgeworth and Ugley and Quendon and different villages. You’d come right through the middle of Bishops Stortford and Epping . There was no traffic cos that was the middle of the night.

There was a clock on the wall at Epping and you could time yourself. We used to try to get out of Covent Garden by ten o’clock to get back for Norwich for about 2 o’clock and that used to take about an hour to get from Covent Garden to the clock on the wall at Epping.

They had a depot at Cambridge and the driver used to come out with me as well. We used to leave at the same time and there was a café at Quendon or perhaps at the Four Went Ways.

We’d stop and have something to eat and a cup of tea and I would carry on to Norwich. They also had a depot at Bury; sometimes the Bury driver would come out with us and there’d perhaps be two or three Pordage lorries come out together and we’d stop in the café and have something to eat.

Lot of cafes in different places in them days, no tea stall or nothing on the side of the road.

At Copeman’s we used pounds shillings and pence but I think about 1971, the money changed to decimalisation. This was quite a big change for a lot of people and a lot of shop keepers – Copeman’s held seminars, I suppose you’d call them. For certain shops in a region, say like all around Diss, they would hire a village hall or something like that, and the shop keepers would go and get trained ready for the switch over to decimalisation.

I personally thought that when we went decimalisation a lot of the prices went up. In those days we used to sell 28 pounds of bananas for 28 shillings which was a shilling a pound but in decimalisation that was seven and a half pence and this was often rounded up to 8 pence or 9 pence.

When I was delivering fruit and veg for Copeman’s we did not work Saturday or Sunday so on Friday about 4 pm to 5 pm we would make second deliveries to shops to cover for the weekend.

It was doing this job that I met my wife in 1969. I was delivering to Alan Juby’s shop in Salhouse Road. At 5 pm when my wife was leaving off as she went to get on her bicycle I asked her if she would like a lift, and put her bike in the back of the lorry. This progressed nicely but sometimes I had to juggle my deliveries round to be there at 5 o’clock. We got married in November 1969 and we are still happily married.

Anyway after a few years, after I finished with fruit and veg, I went over to the grocery side and we used to deliver groceries round village shops in and around Norfolk as well as one or two bigger shops. But eventually, I’m afraid, the supermarkets started up and took a lot of the trade

In the summer you done round the coast like Cromer and Sheringham or Mundesley.

In the winter you just done the actual village shop, but in the summer a lot of these businesses had shops on caravan sites or something and that was very, very busy. That trade extended the life of the village shop and helped the businesses. The first supermarket I can remember was Asda on Drayton Road and gradually they took effect.

At Copeman’s there was a shop fitting department. A lot of the village shops were over-the-counter, and Copeman’s used to send a team of shop fitters in and they would fit the shops out so they became self-service.

Some of them used to call them ‘minimarts’ and that sort of thing and that did help a bit I suppose but I’m afraid with more and more supermarkets being built I think people then gradually became more affluent and there was more cars and they gradually went away.

Also at this time a lot of the village shops were also the Post Office and they used to get a salary for doing that. But the Post Office then started to close a lot of village shops and you either had to go to the next village or the town for the Post Office. With the loss of salary and the supermarkets I’m afraid a lot of small village shops just closed down.

When a shop keeper announced that he was going to close down, in the villages there was general outcry to be honest, because they’d had a village shop for years and years but people started to go to the supermarkets with their cars maybe once or twice a week and buy everything.

They said they needed their local shop basically for anything they’d forgot at the supermarket or maybe the odd pint of milk or loaf of bread and I’m afraid the village shops just couldn’t survive on this sort of thing. So although they needed the village shop a lot of people didn’t really support them.

They didn’t do enough trade to keep going. I don’t think the shops actually went bankrupt or anything but that was very sad at times. You went to them regular and they were your friends. I went to many birthday parties and weddings and retirements and different pieces and you were a friend.

When you’d finished unloading, you always had a cup of tea and generally had a chinwag about the weather or put the world to right so they became your friends, it was very, very sad. A lot of the shops, they simply closed down and the shop keepers used to live there and they just simply converted the shop into a front room or another bedroom or something like that.

They blend in very well with the other shops, I mean people wouldn’t know, but I can drive through villages now and I can say ‘well that used to be so and so shop’. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know that was a shop. Unfortunately now a lot of villages haven’t got nothing; they haven’t got no butchers no bakers or anything I’m afraid. It’s very sad.

The shopkeepers were very much the local community but now a lot of people go to the supermarkets perhaps once a week and do a big shop. You can buy everything at the supermarket but I think in those days, and that’s mostly the ladies you know, used to go to the shop every day. They’d just buy whatever they needed on that particular day and then the next day they would go again and buy something else, you know.

Also in those days shops had half-day closing, in the country Wednesdays was half day closing. If you had deliveries to make, often the shop keeper knew you were coming and they were round the back doing something or messing about and they knew you.

But Wednesday afternoons in the country, every shop closed for half day and in Norwich Thursdays was half day closing.

You could drive through places like Diss or Harleston and they’d be absolutely deserted on a Wednesday afternoon apart from the garages.  And they didn’t open Sundays either.

The shops they were very friendly. I got some happy memories but some sad memories.

I remember a few years ago when I used to deliver to round East Dereham and Shipdham and that way and when I went in one week the couple who had the shop at Shipdham and I went one week and the bloke said to me right out of the blue ‘I’m afraid we’re selling the shop.’ ‘Oh are you’, I said, ‘I’m sad to hear about that’.

They didn’t have no children they weren’t very old. He said ‘I’m afraid that the marriage is not working out how it should do and we’ve decided to split up’. He said, ‘I feel very sad but my wife wants half the money ‘cos that’s hers as it stands. I can’t afford to pay her off so we’ve got to sell it’.

I can remember the case of another shopkeeper not far from Dereham. He was a real old-fashioned shop keeper. He worked even when the shop weren’t open; he’d be there early morning’ til late at night, he was a very hard worker and he had a lovely business in a village called Toftwood.

One day he said to me ‘John,’ he said, ‘I’ve sold the business. I’m going to retire’. I says: ‘Good for you Bill. You deserve it mate’. He says ‘We got a little bungalow down the road,’ he says, ‘I hope you’ll come and visit us’ and I went a couple of times to his bungalow in Shipdham.

I went there once and they says ‘poor old Bill ain’t very well’. This was only six months after he’d retired. I said ‘Oh, what’s the matter?’. They said ‘Dunno. We just heard he’s not very well’ and I went a few days later and he said ‘oh guess what, poor old Bill has died.’

I said ‘you’re joking!’ I says, ‘He worked hard all his life. He’s put his heart and soul into it looking forward to his retirement.’ Some people say that’s a change of conditions or working whatever that affects people but I don’t know if that’s true or not really.

You used to hear about life and you got friendly even with the shopkeepers. You went through the village and people used to put their hand up to you so, there is that side.

Like you say, the village shop was the hub of the village really. That was very sad. Also in the village shops, if you couldn’t get into the village shop, you had an order book and you’d give that to the shop keeper and the order would be made up in the back of the shop and that would be delivered in a car or dare I say, on a trade bike. I don’t know if anybody watched Open All Hours which was absolutely classic as far as I’m concerned with Ronnie Barker and Arkwright’s.

And I don’t know who actually advised them on the programme itself but that was more or less spot on, that really was. How David Jason used to go out on the trade bike with the piles of boxes for delivery. I suppose he was like the typical grocer shopkeeper, they were characters.

Whoever advised that particular programme obviously knew all about it because that was just how it was. And the people used to go in and she used to know if they’d have a small loaf of bread or a large loaf of bread and that sort of thing; that was absolutely typical of the early shopkeepers you know. Happy memories really the majority of the time.

But unfortunately as I say, shops closed down, I’m sorry to say, Pordage’s have gone and Copeman’s have gone and Lyons cakes have gone and Harris’s have gone.

There’s just one or two shops now which do sell groceries and other things. There’s what they call a cash and carry where they have to go themselves and buy the stuff that they sell but there’s very few people that actually do deliveries to shops now. That’s very sad but they were happy days as I say.

Supermarkets these days just don’t hold the same appeal. When you had your village, some had petrol stations, not many, but there were the butcher and the baker and they all stuck to their trades but unfortunately or fortunately whichever way you like to look at it, supermarkets sell absolutely everything. You can go and buy a television, you can fill up with petrol, you can buy a loaf of bread, you can buy clothes, you can literally buy anything. They just took the lot, they just took absolutely everything

They have taken the fun out of shopping. It’s a bit of a rat race now in’t it? Everybody nowadays seems to be in a hurry, it was a slower pace of life, generally, I think than nowadays.

In them days no one ever got on to you if you was out a long time, or sometimes you had to wait at the shop to be served and you was a bit late getting back. That was just accepted as part of the job. Whereas if that happened today the governor would stand there waiting for you and say ‘Cor, where have you been?’

You know, in them days. As I say my first boss called Jack Leggat, he’d actually done the job. He started at the bottom like I did and he worked his way up to the Manager so he knew exactly what was going on but I don’t think nowadays they sort of come into these supermarkets and they’ve been taught behind a desk and that sort of thing. You don’t get the personal touch either, obviously.

As I say eventually Pordage’s finished and Copeman’s finished and that was just basically the end. Well I driv’ a few years after that but eventually I just stopped driving heavy goods licence.

That was the end of it I’m afraid.

John (b. 1945) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 7th October 2015

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