Woolworths – or ‘Woolies’

A few years ago I wrote a post in this blog about High Street shops which have disappeared from our towns. This time I am focusing one single store, our beloved Woolies which disappeared for ever more than ten years ago. Readers in other countries might not be familiar with the chain but might well have similar stores they remember as fondly.

Woolworths started out in the UK in 1909 as F. W. Woolworth & Co., part of the American company that was established in 1879. The first store was on Church Street in Liverpool and sold children’s clothing, stationery and toys. Woolworths took off in the mid-1920s with stores opening as often as every two to three weeks. By 2008 there were 807 Woolworths stores. In November 2008 Woolworths Group entered administration with Deloitte, and by early January 2009 all of its stores had closed.

woolworths 1950's | The good old days, My childhood memories, Childhood  memories

As we lived in the countryside, towns with Woolworths were only visited occasionally which is what made the shop all the more exciting, especially to we three children.

When I was young a visit to Woolies was second only to a visit to Santa’s Grotto. Our trips to a major town with a Woolies happened only a few times a year. Cardiff, for example, was a two hour drive away so a it was major expedition on 1950s roads with three children in the back. Necessities were seen to first. If it was a Christmas shopping trip we looked for presents, if it was to buy new winter coats and shoes or new summer clothes for anyone – never the whole family at once, money was tight! – we went to C and A’s, Littlewoods or British Home Stores first. Then, when the serious shopping was done, we went to Woolies. Our reward for not moaning too much as we trailed around the shops was that wonderful treat – the Woolies Pick and Mix. It was always near the entrance so you could smell the sweet, sugary smell as you went through the door. My mum was really fussy about our teeth so being given permission to choose a bag of Pick and Mix was heaven! Near the sweet stall there was always a peanut roaster and my dad, who loved nuts, would buy himself a bag of hot, rosted, salted peanuts. They were measured out from the roaster into a paper bag. He was happy with his peanuts, we were more than happy with our bags of Pick and Mix.

Splendid 20th Century Pictures of British Woolworths - Flashbak

When we were very young, if we ever had a bit of pocket money to spend on one of these outings, my sister and I used to head straight to the jewellery stall in Woolies. We’re not talking Cartier here! They were cheap trinkets – and we loved them! My sister once spent her pocket money on a little ‘gold’ ring which promptly got bent and then completely stuck on her finger. My dad had so much trouble getting it off before the circulation in her finger stopped altogether! When we were older the three of us used to choose stationery or books or occasionally a record. Not an LP, just a single ( a 45), which would then be played to death when we got home.

Kingsbury Woolworths – Store 538 | Woolies Buildings - Then and Now

I remember that the floors were always wooden in Woolies. I also remember buying a Christmas tree decoration there once – which I still have.

William Pell - Career in Focus

Major shopping centres such as Swansea and Cardiff were such a long drive away from where we lived that it was always a full day’s expedition. Inevitably, this involved a lunch stop in a cafe or a cafeteria. Such a treat for we country bumpkins!! The Wimpy Bars were one of our choices, also a cafe called Peter Jones, and lastly, a big favourite – the Woolies cafeteria. The cafes we went to when we were on holiday were places where waitresses in black with white pinnies took your order on a notepad at your table – which had a tablecloth on it. Cafeterias, were new, modern, shiny, wipe-clean and self-service.

Retail – Woolworth's History – Strategy & Innovation

Years later, as an adult in the 1970s, I appreciated Woolworths in a completely different way. By this time I was living and working in a town and could go to Woolies any time. I could buy dress patterns and fabric, saucepans and crockery, even plants and bulbs for the garden.

In the 1980s, I would go to Woolies with my children to buy stationery, socks, PE T-shirts and bags for school. There was a photo booth there where I would get their bus pass photographs taken every August ready for the new school year. Whenever I was in town and needed something which didn’t fit in to any other shop category I knew I’d find it in Woolies.

As always, credit to Google Images and Wikipedia. I make every effort to use only images which are available for use but if anyone objects to the inclusion of any image in this post please contact me and I will remove it.

Planks of Wood and Lumps of Slate.

I was out for lunch with some friends yesterday and out of the five of us only two had meals served on china plates. This prompted a lively discussion and my friend Janet suggested that the topic would be a good one to cover in my blog. So here it is!

I don’t know if this has happened in other parts of the world, and I look forward to hearing from readers on this, but in the last decade or so there has been a bit of a trend in certain eating places to serve food on other things besides plates. This will not normally happen in higher end restaurants but more in the slightly up-market cafes and bistros. The sort of place you would go to do what I did yesterday and meet friends for lunch. At least, that’s my impression – others might think differently.

  • The commonest one is food served on a lump of wood or what I would use as a chopping board or bread board. This doesn’t feel particularly odd for a sandwich/ ploughman’s sort of meal, but some of the others are definitely peculiar!

wooden board  Meal served on a wooden board.

  • Pieces of slate are also spotted in these sort of places.

slate    A piece of slate serves as a plate.

  • Yesterday one of us had food presented in a basket. This reminded us all that the very first cases of this sort of food presentation happened in the late 60s/ early 70s when pubs (it was only pubs doing this) started serving bar snacks in a basket. The three usual choices were steak, chicken or scampi with chips. This was the first time steak and chicken had been served in small bite-sized pieces which you could spear with just a fork. Basket meals were SO new and SO trendy! My first one ever was when I was a student in a pub in the centre of Nottingham called the Blue Bell.

basket 2      basket

Other things which turn up on tables are:

  • Chips or side dishes served in small metal buckets.

buckets    bucket and barrow

Three buckets in a wooden crate.                      Side dishes in a bucket and a wheelbarrow.

 

  • Milk for tea and coffee in a mini milk churn.

churn    A wooden board and a milk churn.

  • Meals served on a flat cap – yes, I have really heard of this one although it hasn’t happened to me yet! I assume there is always a plate or a washable layer inside the cap – and that the cap is unworn.

cap

  • Food presented on a fireman’s shovel – another one I have heard about but not experienced.

shovel

  • I have had a meal served in a frying pan before and it was obvious that it wasn’t even one used for cooking the meal but a decorative one used as a plate.

pan

 

Here are a few others I have yet to experience. Some I’m not in a hurry to try.

fryer   hubcap

trowel

bat   shoe

 

Pictures all sourced from Google Images. If anyone sees one which they object to me using for any reason, please contact me through the blog and I will happily remove it.

 

Memorable Firsts.

This one is for my friends Judy and Heather (aka Flo). It’s a slight departure from my normal posts as it fast forwards a few years. Instead of talking about life in the 50s and 60s this post talks about the differences between rural life then and city life in the early 70s.

In September 1969 I began my three years at university in Nottingham. Times were changing rapidly in the late 60s/ early 70s  On top of that, I was moving from rural Wales to England; from a tiny community miles from anywhere to a bustling city. This is about some of the things I experienced for the first time during the three years I was a student. These experiences are forever linked in my mind with the city of Nottingham and on a recent visit to the place I decided to revisit those times in my blog.

Service Buses. In the area where I grew up there was not a bus service in the way towns and cities have them. We had a local coach firm called Thomas Brothers who provided the school buses for children in outlying areas They also ran a weekly coach from the villages village into the town a few miles away. The coach left from outside our village post office on Fridays (market day) at 11 am and left the town at 2pm. Regular buses with numbers on the front and, in particular, double decker buses were such a novelty! I loved being able to walk from my uni down to the main road and catch a bus into the city centre.

Thos bros coach.jpg           nottm-bus

Tea bags. On my free Saturday afternoons (I even had lectures on Saturday morning in my first year!) I loved to wander around the city centre and in and out of the shops. Shops like that were a two hour drive from where I grew up and major shopping trips were made infrequently. My afternoons in the city centre always involved a cafe stop. I can still remember the names of two of my favourites which were called The Gingham Kitchen and The Pepper Mill. There is still a Gingham Kitchen in Nottingham but I haven’t been able to find out whether it’s the same one or not – I remember the name but no more.

gingham kitchen.jpg

It was on one of my cafe visits when I first came across a tea bag. I asked for a cup of tea and was given a cup of what looked like milky water with a strange object floating in it. It took me a minute to work out what I was meant to do!

Indian Restaurants. During my first term a group of friends suggested we went for a curry in town. I had come across curry before – made at home using curry powder – but had never been to an Indian Restaurant. I was helped by friends more sophisticated than I was to choose suitable food from a bewildering menu. My starter was Onion Bhaji and I thought I had never tasted anything better. I don’t even remember my main course – and I still love onion bhajis.

onion-bhaji

 

Colour TV. In early 1970 one of the big events was Apollo 13 which was to be launched on the 11th of April. The hall of residence I was in did have one TV which was black and white. Students at that time didn’t have TVs in their rooms like now. In the days leading up to Apollo 13’s launch word got around that the Union Building on the campus was going to acquire a colour TV especially for the event. I can remember cramming into the main common room on that day – as excited about the colour TV as I was about the space launch!

1970s-tv                            apollo-13

Guinness. I had drunk beer when at home in Wales – and still do! – but I was introduced to Guinness during my second year and absolutely loved it.

guinness        guinness-ad

Pizza. My first taste of pizza was during my three years in Nottingham. I had read about this Italian favourite and thought it sounded like something I would enjoy as I’ve always loved bread, tomatoes and cheese. A friend (who had tried one before in London) and I went into an Italian cafe and ordered one between us. This was partly because we didn’t have much money but also in case we didn’t like it. I loved it!

‘Twin-Screen’ Cinema.

I have always loved going to the cinema. Although my home town was tiny (pop 2,000) we were lucky enough to have a cinema. It was in a building which had once been a chapel and the films we saw were always at least a year old but that didn’t matter to us. During the break between Pathe News – also out of date! – and the main film a still photograph of the local garage/ filling station popped up on the screen and stayed there until the lights went down again. When ‘big’ films arrived in our cinema, long after they had been released in the cities, there would be people standing in the aisles and sitting on windowsills. I particularly remember this from Tom Jones, the Bond films, Bonnie and Clyde and Dr Zhivago.

nottm-cinema  gaumont.jpg   gaumont-inside

In Nottingham I discovered the joys of a cinema with a proper foyer, a refreshment stall and the latest films. Some films I remember seeing at the time in the two Nottingham cinemas shown above were The Boyfriend, 633 Squadron, The Virgin and the Gypsy, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Staircase and The Battle of Britain. The cinema on the left was the more modern of the two and was a twin-screen cinema. I thought this was amazing! I have learnt through researching for photographs that it was actually the world’s first twin-screen cinema. The second one shown (exterior and interior shots above) was the Gaumont. I also absolutely loved this cinema for its interior. Originally built as a music hall, I now know, it had ornate plasterwork, gilt, brocade, balconies and boxes.

Microwave oven. One evening I was in our campus sports centre. I was there for social reasons not sporting ones! In the cafe I decided to order myself a pie. At that time I was particularly partial to a chicken and mushroom pie made by Pukka Pies and this cafe sold them. To my amazement, the pie was placed in a small glass-fronted oven and then spent a few minutes rotating on a turntable and puffing up at high speed as if time had been fast-forwarded. In awe, I accepted my pie which was piping hot and enjoyed it. It was several years before microwaves became household objects and I realised what I’d seen.

 

1977microwaveoven     pukka-pies

Spaghetti Bolognese. In my second year I left the hall of residence on the campus and took a room in a rented house in the city shared by a number of other students. In the autumn the annual rag magazine was printed. In it was a recipe for spaghetti bolognese which was something I’d heard spoken about but hadn’t tried. Being self-catering was novel as halls of residence in those days were mostly full board. I decided to cook this amazingly exotic-sounding dish for a few friends. I have no memory now of how the meal turned out but I do remember having to go out and buy things I hadn’t bought before like olive oil, garlic salt and tomato puree.

10 Pin Bowling, Pinball, Bar Billiards, Table Football.

table-football                    barbilliards

pinball 1.jpg               Three games I discovered and played during my student years – Table football (often called ‘rods’, bar billiards (does this still exist?) which was not quite billiards, pool or snooker but played on a similar table top, and pinball which always reminded me of an old wooden game we had at home called bagatelle. Ours was very like the one below.

Vintage-Bagatelle-Board.jpg

Cling Film. I went into a university cafeteria one day to buy myself a sandwich for lunch. The sandwich was handed to me wrapped in a very thin soft plastic which appeared to cling to itself. This was my first sight of cling film.

cling film.jpg

Some of these experiences were new to me because I’d moved from the country to the city; others were new inventions and developments. I hope they trigger some interesting memories for readers.

R.I.P. BHS – gone but not forgotten.

In the UK this week we have heard the sad news that the chain of shops known as BHS (formerly British Home Stores) closed all its stores yesterday for the last time. I wrote a blog post some months ago about shops and brands which are no longer around, so excuse any repetition but I felt I had to pay tribute to good old BHS. It is the latest in a long line of shops and cafes we in Britain grew up with which have now disappeared.

British Home Stores 1950s Cardiff

Here are some more.

Littlewood's,                                          richard shops

 

City Kardomah Cafe New Street Birmingham                        TimothyWhites

 

Wimpy             etam

dolcis          Home-and-Colonial-Store-Leek

 

johnmenzies        C & A

 

lewis'         army_store88

 

co-op        We still have Co-op supermarkets but there used to be Co-op departments stores too.

 

 

National Milk Bars      One for anyone else who grew up in Wales and remembers this chain with affection. This is the one in Machynlleth which I have been to many, many times and which only closed a few years ago.