My aunt’s lock up Shop

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The author recalls his aunt’s lock up shop, post war rationing, the wonderful aroma of unwrapped foods and an effective homemade burglar alarm blog-lock-up-shop3 

         MY AUNTS’ LOCK-UP SHOP

A couple of my aunts, assisted on occasions by an uncle, took over a lock-up grocer’s shop on the corner of Jenner Street and Shakespeare Terrace in what was then the run down Leeds suburb of Burmantofts.  It was shortly after the end of the war, about 1946/47.  I recall on my first visit to the shop – I would be eight or nine – thinking how dreary the prospect of the area was.  There was an abundance of rotting woodwork and broken masonry with not a hint of greenery to break the monotony – unless that is you counted the tired green tiles of the Rock Inn opposite. These depressing surroundings did not however become manifest within the residents themselves who enjoyed a wicked sense of humour in spite of their decaying habitat. The shop was located in the middle of an absolute warren of back-to-back terrace streets. The property consisted of: the shop itself and a stock room, which was crammed with so many cartons and tins that my aunts were forever barking their shins and coming home covered in cuts and bruises.

The thing I remember most about that shop was the conglomerate smell of bacon, cheese, butter, tea and the like. In today’s world of wrapped foods such smells are lost to us but in the 1940s it was quite a different matter: bread came unwrapped so did butter; margarine, cheese, ham and the like arrived from the wholesaler in bulk and had to be sliced up and weighed on site with the aid of a little pyramid of brass weights and a set of balance scales. The cheese would be cut with a wire and the ham sliced with a long slender knife. These implements had to be very sharp with the result that cut fingers became an occupational hazard. I suppose all the unwrapped food, cut fingers and lack of refrigeration would be considered a health hazard today but it didn’t seem to harm anyone at the time.

Rationing was still in effect in those early days at the shop.  Customers had ration cards, which aunt Doris kept under the counter. There were so many points allowed for fats, sugar, sweets, meat etc. When a customer came into the shop to purchase one of the food items on ration, Doris would have to mark off the ‘points’ on their ration card.  She would cross the squares out in blue pencil and say: ‘Right Mrs…do you realise that leaves you with only …points left for the month on ‘marge.’ Margarine was the staple diet for most of us in the war, not many of Doris’s customers ran to butter. I particularly remember bread units, ‘BUs’ as we called them. They had to be cut out of the ration book with a pair of scissors and sent to the Ministry of Food Office. I would help her count them out and band them into hundreds at the weekend, ready to be sent off. Inspectors were always on the prowl to ensure fair play but the black market still managed to flourish.

The shop ran on ‘tick’ or the ‘slate’ as it equivalent was called in the pub trade. Folk in the area were invariably broke after the weekend so they would ‘tick’ up goods on credit at the beginning of the week and supposedly settle up at the weekend when their husband’s wage was paid in or perhaps their pension – not many married women actually went out to work in the 1940s. Settlement from some seemed to drag on and on until it became an embarrassment for them to keep on asking for the money, especially if they knew there was some other priority which made them unable to pay. A few would do a ‘moonlight’ or fall sick, perhaps even die still owing the money. Other times the sisters would take pity on some poor old soul and just let them off because they knew they would have paid if they could. Somehow or other they always seemed to come out the losers with the ‘tick’ system but it was a necessary evil; the shop could not have functioned without ‘tick’.     

There was one old lady who would sidle up to the potato rack and keep slipping an odd potato into her basket. They knew she was doing it but never let on. ‘Poor lass, she must be desperate,’ they would say.  Another poor chap had an affliction, which made him nod his head violently all the time making it difficult for them to know what he wanted, he’d be holding the queue up but they always persevered with him and never made him hurry. This caring attitude and the knowledge that folk would always find a sympathetic ear made the shop very popular. The customers took to them and they became firm favourites of the community and it seems confidents to the whole area. People would come in and pour out their secrets, problems and particularly their aches and pains. The shop often resembled a doctor’s surgery when they all got going about their infirmities and operations but it usually ended up with a great belly laugh all round. Often the place would be full of women but no one buying, they had just come in for a ‘cal’ and perhaps a pinch of snuff- you could tell the snuff takers by the residue of brown powder beneath their noses.  The sisters just put up with it all with a smile, they realised that for some their major social event of the day, just to escape the household drudgery for half an hour and have a ‘cal’ in Doris’s shop.

         All three were slight of build but their popularity meant they were never short of champions among the husbands of their younger customers should a bit of brawn be required. Not that there was many altercations, the yob culture was still a distant nightmare away but as a lock-up shop it was always vulnerable to burglary, particularly when the shop was empty after they had left for home. Cigarettes were the attractive item of the day.  The neighbours would try to look after their interests at night when the shop was unattended but they couldn’t be expected to be on guard all the time of course. Locks bolts and bars didn’t seem able to keep the criminal fraternity at bay but a brilliant home-made burglary alarm was devised by piling up the large tin boxes that the biscuits came in and placing them tight behind the doors. Taking advantage of their slim physics the last sister to leave would squeeze out through the narrowest of gaps between the door and the boxes. When an intruder came along and forced the locks he would believe himself to be in but he was in for a shock for as he pushed open the door to make good his entry the biscuit tins would be sent cascading across the floor. I’m told the resultant noise was loud enough to bring the willing neighbours running out crying; ‘Quick! – shop’s being broke into.’

            It was quite a trek for them to travel from the shop in Burmantofts, to their home in Knostrop. It entailed a mile walk at each end and a number 63 bus ride from the Hope Inn to The Cross Green Hotel the middle. As they dare not leave the day’s takings in the shop overnight they would carry it home and back to work again next morning in an old gasman’s bag. Amazingly, considering all the years they made that journey, they were never   mugged once! What’s the price of that happening today?

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