Days before the retail “tide” came to swamp us

WHEN I reviewed the latest book by Caister-based local historian Colin Tooke a year ago, I wondered how many more aspects of our borough remained for him to scrutinise for our education and pleasure.

My speculation has now been answered, for his latest subject is one of wide appeal: Shopping.

Whereas most of his works have featured a facet or area (holiday industry, the Rows, for example), his 2010 contribution to recording the past of the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston district is of encompassing interest.

For whether you love or loathe shopping, it now forms a major and inescapable part of our life. In the period covered by his new publication, Shops and Shopping, and subtitled “Recalling the history of shopping in Great Yarmouth, Gorleston and the villages,” people shopped out of necessity: Today it is almost a pastime, and “retail therapy” has entered the popular lexicon as a pleasant pursuit that can lift the spirits while sapping the bank account.

Shopping malls, where we can spend hours wandering from shop to shop in a comfortable climate while buying Christmas presents in cold December, and comprehensive out-of-town retail parks, are now commonplace, the norm to younger generations. This book will open their eyes to the way it was in my younger days, the era when most shops hereabouts were locally owned and run, and the high street multiples and chain stores were not omnipresent.

As names of retailers galore were mentioned in the Tooke text, I found myself prompted into making frequent silent acknowledgements of long-gone shops I once knew, or had heard about: Olivette and the Scotch Wool and Hosiery Stores; Bairds shoes; jeweller Aldred; Plattens’ department stores; grocers Pearks, Clowes, Beckett and Pitcher, Bussey, Barnes, Home and Colonial; Fieldings (cycles, gramophones); Jarrolds – stationer, book-seller and art supplier; men’s outfitters Tom Green, Hepworth, John Collier, Doughty, Sayer, Martins, Fifty Shilling Tailor; Matthes, baker; butchers Greenacre, Hunn and Mays; Leach and Hammond (hardware); furnisher Kelf; Southey’s (leather); drapers Skippings, Boning Brothers, Eagle and Green...

Most of these shops of yesteryear were evocatively located down my Memory Lane...

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For 15 years Mrs Peggotty and I wintered in the town of Estepona on the Costa del Sol in Spain, and loved shopping there because most retailers were local, the owners often behind the counter to serve and advise.

Back in England we read of surveys struggling to find a high street like Gorleston’s that so far has managed to stem the tide of the retail giants whose corporate interior and exterior d�cor is boringly identical in every town and city.

Colin Tooke reminds us: “The country’s small shops are being killed off by the rise of the large supermarkets and on-line shopping. Grocers, butchers, fishmongers, drapers and corner shops are just few of the many small retail outlets that have disappeared from the nation’s high streets as the large self-service stores take over. The same thing has happened in the villages where the general store was once the heart of the village.

“Today, shopping for most people is part of normal everyday life, but the shops as we know them have existed only since mid-Victorian times.

“Before that people bought their daily essentials, such as food, at at open markets, the market place being the centre of trade. Shoppers only bought what was required for immediate use.”

The author charts the local start of the major change – or major decline, in the opinion of some – as arrival of self-service shop Elmo in the Market Place in 1959.

Fine Fare was the pioneer national supermarket to open, occupying the former Woolworth store in Regent Road three years later. Tesco came to the Market Place in 1964, premises now housing Argos, the rebranded Green Shield Stamp catalogue outlet.

Yarmouth had its own shopping mall more than a century ago, the glass-domed Marine Arcade linking the sea-front with Apsley Road and housing 20 different shops, all locally-run and lit by electricity.

Within two years a second had been added; both are now part of an amusement arcade.

In 1925, the Central Arcade was built in the heart of town, between Regent and King Streets, still in business but with a new name.

Market and Broad Rows were once the route for carts working between the Market Place and Hall Quay, but the former was blocked by a redundant cannon and then paved, and the pair became a favourite for shoppers seeking many varying wares.

Bazaars were also in the ascendency a century ago, selling a wide range of goods at bargain prices, like an old penny, pioneered by the founder of Marks & Spencer, or threepence and sixpence by its Woolworth competitor. Inexplicably, the Domestic Bazaar in Regent Road priced everything at 6�d in “old” money...but a pair of shoes cost 6�d a shoe!

At one time our principal shopping area was King Street, writes this prolific author, the ground floor of residences being converted, with department stores like Arnolds (later Debenhams) and Boning Brothers (the present Marks & Spencer site) at one end and specialist outlets at the other.

The author takes a close look at trade signs, and at shops large and small in main and back streets in the old urban borough; he also covers village stores to the north of town.

As usual, the great strength of this book is its wonderful old photographs and illustrations, no fewer than 165 of them in its 112 pages, a forceful memory-jerker for older generations and a figurative eye-opener to younger readers who take the present retailing set-up at face value and are bound to be surprised to learn about the shopping experiences of their parents and grandparents.

The book is full of snippets of information, from which I have selected two new to me.

First, that during the war Arnolds’ basement was converted into an auxiliary hospital with 50 beds and operating theatre (my earliest recollection was a new-fangled self-service cafe in that basement postwar).

And second, the near life-size Highlander outside Norton’s tobacconist shop in Broad Row (a statue often relocated during the autumn herring fishery when young Scots driftermen “kidnapped” it) at one time held a small container from which passers-by could take a sample pinch of snuff.

Shops and Shopping costs �8.99 and is available from WH Smith; Novel Idea in Regent Street; Tourist Information Centre, Marine Parade; Veritas Books, Gorleston; Music Lovers, Gorleston; Offord, Caister Post Office; and also in Norwich at Jarrolds and City Book Shop.