Working Lives

Toys and Sport at Jarrolds (1935-1976)

Location: Norwich

Alan describes working in Jarrolds’ toy and sports department for 41 years and the many changes he witnessed during that time.

Early life

In 1912/13 my family moved to Lowestoft and I went to school there in Lovewell Road, and then to a small college in Beccles. I started work in Lowestoft and, after eighteen months, I moved to a wholesale draper in Bowchurch Lane, Cheapside in London but, after five years I was sacked, along with four other people. That was a bad time. Then I was fortunate to get a job with Jarrolds and was there for 41 years.

The beginning of a long career

In 1935 I started work at Jarrolds as an assistant in the toy and sports department where I had to keep the floors clean, serve the customers and look after the store in general. To begin with I earned £4.15.0d per week. When I became a buyer I earned £12.10.0d with gradual increments thereafter. The working hours were from 9am to 6pm and on Saturdays till 7pm. Thursday was half-day closing. There was no selling technique, I simply did it and everyone was satisfied with what I did.

The staff canteen was simply a deal table in a small room with seating round the edge of the wall and all you got was a cup of tea or coffee. Now the staff restaurant is exactly the same as the customers’. It’s furnished the same way and you can choose what you want. In my day there was no meal served to staff at all. A lot of people took sandwiches and had a cup of tea and would spend their lunch break there. We had 1¼ hours for lunch so there was time to go into the city and shop for things that Jarrolds didn’t sell. Woolworths first opened when I was a boy in Lowestoft when they had threepenny and sixpenny stalls all round the country. Things have changed out of all recognition over the last seventy years.

Promotion in the toy and sports department

After a few years I was asked to become a buyer for the toy and sports department and I did that for twenty years, until I retired in 1976. When Lego came on to the market things gradually changed as it pushed other products out. There was also a lot of competition between Matchbox and Dinky toys who still held their own, which was good. Sindy dolls were in their infancy when I started. Meccano and Hornby trains were very popular and we sold lots of jigsaws, small toys for children and quite a lot of pedal toys such as cars and toy cycles. They were the mainstay of the toy trade until I became a buyer.

In the sports department we had tennis racquets, tennis balls, table tennis tables and all the paraphernalia that went with it. You would always try to sell a customer something else or something a bit more expensive. If they wanted a tennis racquet you would show them Dunlop or Slazenger and point out why one was more expensive than the other. Better gut, better wood and all that sort of thing. Things are different today. People just go and pick things off the shelf.

As the buyer I was responsible for running the department, purchasing goods and, sometimes, even selling them. You supervised the staff who were very good and you were responsible for all that went on in that department.  Knowing what to buy was a bit of luck sometimes but you knew what people wanted and, of course, you got information from other sources, like the manufacturers. Fortunately I made a reasonable profit each year so I was one of the successful buyers. I don’t think the buyers let the firm down. People say it’s very hard to do business today but it was just as hard in those days.  I went to Harrogate once a year, Brighton once a year and London twice a year, spreading my wings a bit. I was responsible for all the staff selling and, fortunately, I was lucky, I never failed them or myself. It was a combination of what to do and how to do it and a bit of luck at the same time.

Jarrolds’ competitor was Stevens in Swan Lane who were very good and had a very large sports department. They also sold jigsaw puzzles and other games, especially at Christmas so there was quite fierce competition between the two stores.

Exciting times as Jarrolds developed

When I first started Jarrolds was only half of what it is today. In Exchange Street, between Jarrolds and the Corn Hall, there was an ironmongers shop, Vanstones, which, I believe, Jarrolds owned. When the Corn Hall came on the market Jarrolds bought it and expanded, opening up a men’s department and gramophone department. That was an exciting time.

At one time Jarrolds had a lounge department on the second floor where people could go and rest, and there was also a library run by Miss Sneadon, and a small haberdashery department. They have all gone now. They even had a chemist on the ground floor. It’s really very different to what it was. You can’t imagine what it was like 50 or 60 years ago, before the war.

I think Jarrolds is the best known store in Norfolk. 98 out of 100 people who are intelligent and have been to Norwich would know Jarrolds was there. They have a prime site, near the market and the City Hall.

Staff relations

Latterly we saw more of the owners. We had a meeting about once a fortnight to discuss things and they would make suggestions for the different departments. We got on well and we never let the firm down. They never had to sling us out because we were not doing our job properly. That was the best thing.

Staff are better treated now than years ago when you could be sacked just like that. There’s workers’ protection today. Back then, if one of your staff was doing something they shouldn’t, as a buyer I would have to caution them. If that didn’t work you reported them to the staff manager and, if he wasn’t satisfied, or no more could be done, the person involved got a letter. If he didn’t improve he could be sacked so they went through three stages before you could turf them out. Of course if it was a very serious matter it would be instant dismissal. I think workers today are much more protected than we ever were. They should be grateful for that.

How things have changed

Since I retired in 1976 the book department moved into another section of the store and commercial stationery, which used to be in the main store, is now in a separate building in Exchange Street.

You don’t have to sell anything today. If you want a book you go in and browse to see what you want. If people want a pen or pencil they look for it themselves. Jarrolds opened a restaurant in 1921 on the top floor and now they’ve got three restaurants. Nowadays hundreds of people wander through the departments and go for a coffee or for lunch, and on their way they might see something and make a purchase without needing any assistance. When I was a buyer I never went out to lunch. We had lunch on the premises and that was that. You only went out to lunch when you interviewed a traveller and we’d go to a restaurant in Jarrolds ‘cos it was convenient. In my day if someone went to Jarrolds or Buntings, which is now Marks and Spencer, or to W.H. Smith’s, it was to purchase something. People never went into a shop or store unless they wanted something.

Today the display is very good, much better than it ever was and window dressing is even better.

I don’t remember what I earned when I retired. To tell you the truth when I retired my pension was more than I earned. Jarrolds have been very good to me and until a year ago there was an increase every year so I have been very happy.

Alan (b. 1911) was talking to WISEArchive in January 2006. He died at the great age of 101 in 2012.

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