Half a Century of change in Food Shops

Location : Norwich

When I left school, my mother brought me into Norwich. I went to various shops to see if they need an assistant. We eventually found one, it was a baker and confectionery in Davey Place in Norwich [but the baker and confectionery is not there now], and that was when I was fourteen. And then I was quite happy there. I had to do jobs, run about, check things out, and kept the shelves and various things. I stayed there for about 18 months. And then one day I was walking at the lunch break in Gentleman’s Walk in Norwich, and I saw a notice in the window for an assistant. So I went in and saw the manager, and I was about just about 16 years old. He said “When can you start?” I said “Next week!” So I had to come back after lunch and said that I was not able to work much after, and they were not happy. But I got more money and a better future. Then I went and had very good years there until I married. I was there for 10 years. I went in during spring of 1941, until 1951. The name of the first shop was Ashworth and Pike, and the second one was J Sainsbury.

I wanted shop work because I enjoyed people, and I think generally we got to do all sorts of things. At Sainsbury’s, we packed butter, cut cheese from whole sides of cheese, sliced rashers for bacon, we weighed up sugar and tea and all dried fruits. The prices were quite different then. I started in the War time, and after 1946, things got better. More things came in from abroad which I was not accustomed to, so I had to learn about all these lovely things, like cheeses [I remember much, much better cheeses], various hams, German sausages [which I had never heard of during the War]. The wages at J Sainsbury were very good, more than anywhere else in Norwich. We were the highest paid shop workers. But it was a very strict environment, no Christian names were allowed, and must be addressed in Miss and Misters. The manager was very strict, and insisted on us saying Good morning Sir when you went in and Goodbye Sir when you went out! Women then just didn’t apply for jobs. When I left Sainsbury’s it was about £4, and when I first started it was about a pound, but it was enough, and we knew it was good. We used to have our lunch – a free lunch – because there was a cook on the premises [they don’t have it any longer, because the premises has moved].

Some colleagues were long-time friends, but sadly several have passed away now. We were busy. We started work at half past eight and we left at half past five, and we had one half day a week on Thursdays. Obviously no Sundays. Sometimes on a very busy day, we were asked to come in early and stay late, which we just accepted.

We had counters and we served the customers individually. We cut the cheese for them, cut the bacon, weighed the coffee and tea for them. Very personal service. We had two men who did the store deliveries. They went to various parts of the City; they didn’t go very far outside Norwich. We got a cross section of customers. Some were very nice, and some were not so nice. We knew everybody because they came in every week. There weren’t any supermarkets in those days. You just took the money and you had a drawer under the counter. You put your money in the drawer and a clerk came to take the money. Nothing was recorded. So we could have stolen money if we wanted, but nobody thought of stealing. But there were no records and it could have been done easily, but we were all honest. The manager was very strict but he was very fair. He got cross sometimes, but we were very good. I married in 1948, when I was working there, and they didn’t have married women as a rule. But they had to have some married women in the War. But when the men came back, the women had to leave. But because I had been there for long, I stayed until I was going to have a baby.

In 1973, I came back to work in Norwich for the Mecca, which belonged to the company The Lamberts. It was renowned mainly for its tea and coffee, but it also sold chocolates and biscuits and various things, and it also had a delicatessen. I worked during the Christmas period, and I was asked to stay on, until Christmas Eve in 1976 when it closed down. The lady at Mecca asked me to work with her at Wroxham in one of the café bars, and then the rest of those people who used to be at Mecca started up on their own and asked me to return. So I joined them. I stayed there until I was nearly 70 years old, in 1999. So they would ring me up in the morning and tell me so-and-so is ill, would you like to come and help us out? And it was lovely, I enjoyed the odd days. After the long spell out, it was a great change. The years had passed and the trading was much different. It was busy, but I only worked part time, and I made friends whom I kept from there. The shop was a tea specialist. We used to sell tinned biscuits, and fruits, but the main thing was tea, coffee, herbs and spices. Actually the customers we had there were rather special, surely upper class, and we got a lot of County customers-well-off people from the County we served. That was the last job I had. I made friends. I couldn’t have wished for anything better. And they got to know me as well through these years. Even after I got married, I was still called Miss J all the time. And sometimes they would come in and ask for the white-headed lady if they could not remember my name! We used to have quite a lot of customers from the art world, and when they came in to Norwich from the theatre, they would come in to get the food.

If I had not gone to work during war time, I would have learned much more. This had some impact on my work life.

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