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Long before the dawn of DIY shopping

PUBLISHED: 17:17 03 April 2008 | UPDATED: 10:47 03 July 2010

WHEN THE SERVICE WAS PERSONAL: HT Bennett's grocery shop on the corner of Salisbury and Churchill Roads in Great Yarmouth almost a century ago.

WHEN THE SERVICE WAS PERSONAL: HT Bennett's grocery shop on the corner of Salisbury and Churchill Roads in Great Yarmouth almost a century ago.

EIGHT ounces of your nice Cheddar, please, a packet of Anchor butter, bag of sugar, quarter of Horniman's tea…oh yes, and a jar of strawberry jam - Robertson's if you've got it because my daughter collects the golly stickers.

EIGHT ounces of your nice Cheddar, please, a packet of Anchor butter, bag of sugar, quarter of Horniman's tea…oh yes, and a jar of strawberry jam - Robertson's if you've got it because my daughter collects the golly stickers.

The grocer would line them up on the counter as you went through your shopping list, and the customer would either put them into her basket or the shop's brown paper string-handled carrier bag (remember those?), or leave them to be boxed and delivered by the errand boy. That's how it used to be.

Members of younger generations heading to our superstores where the range of wares is incredible would probably scoff to learn that in my childhood before the war the representative from grocer Busseys regularly called by cycle at our family home in Gorleston, dressed in suit and gabardine raincoat (and wearing bicycle clips) and carrying a small leather case full of paperwork, including his order book with carbon paper between the pages so he had a duplicate copy.

His mission was to collect our grocery order that would be delivered to our door. Busseys, with shops in Bells Road and High Street, later became Devereux but has long since departed.

Wartime rationing that endured for years after peace came meant that on many items the grocer - whose shop was probably only a stroll from the housewife's home - simply produced the week's allocation, provided the customer was officially registered with him; there was no shopping around for rationed provisions. After that, the customer asked for this or that unrationed item, and he brought it to the counter.

We were registered with Charles Howard's double-fronted grocer's angled between Middleton Road and Pound Lane in Gorleston - today One-Stop, an all-hours convenience store. This was before the Magdalen Estate council houses were built opposite his shop.

He was a rosy-faced chubby chap who was helped by his wife, and they always knew which of the shoppers crowded at the counter was next to be served. The supermarket delicatessen ticket numbering system in use today had not been devised.

White-aproned and chatty, he scuttled around, fetching goods from shelves or the back storeroom, slicing bacon and cheese and cutting ½lb packets of butter so he could keep within the ration (how did we exist on 2oz of butter a week?), piling wares on the counter and totting up the prices without an adding machine. The availability of most lines was so restricted that a basket was usually big enough to accommodate the weekly shop.

Now and again, when we stayed temporarily with my grandmother in Newtown, we registered with Bradshaws on Salisbury Road, managed by Dennis Starkings.

When the self-service principle crossed the Atlantic, personal attention was sacrificed for convenience and a progressive fad, and it was not long before the supermarkets moved in. Impersonal do-it-yourself shopping was here to stay, and with it came the death of the family grocer.

Admitted, most towns had their share of chain grocers - Maypole, Home and Colonial, David Greig, Lipton, International, Star, for example - in high streets and neighbourhood shopping centres, but they were simply bigger versions of the one-man

operation and all had staff behind counters. None, as far as I recall, had expanded into the total shopping concept where everything was available - they did not even sell fruit and vegetables, for example; for those, you went to the greengrocer.

Already in this column I have looked at the demise of both the family butcher and baker shops in urban Great Yarmouth and Gorleston. The family grocer has gone the same way, and the sadly picture across the UK was encapsulated in two headlines in a national newspaper: “The 'slow death' of high streets” and “Up to 3000 traditional shops quit high street in seven years.”

A survey last year found that Britain wanted to turn back the clock, with two-thirds of those questioned “favouring the traditional local grocer”, a sentiment prompting comments that if customers had supported them when they were under threat from the big boys, they might have survived. Customers didn't, and the small shops shut for good.

In my 1937 Kelly's Directory, no fewer than 87 “grocers and tea dealers” were listed. My 1972 Kelly's names 57, down by about two-thirds, but by then they included some that were supermarkets in their infancy, like Downsway (Market Place) and Fine Fare/Elmo (Regent Road, Gorleston High Street) described as “self-service”.

The incursion had already begun, but even the most dedicated grocer watcher would scarcely have envisaged the impact the newcomers would have within a decade or two.

2008? Thomson's directory has only two entries under “Grocers” - Losobrazelaera in King Street and Snacks4U (Regent Road). But we are abundant in convenience stores that, I suppose, are a self-service development of the local family grocer.

Nowadays, the market is dominated by the national giants Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda, all with stores in Great Yarmouth, and lesser players like Somerfield, Lidl, Aldi, Waitrose and Rainbow/Co-Op, all but one of which are here. Later this month, GorlestonSomerfield store is closing and will evolve into a Morrisons, now classed as one of the “big four”.

Back in 1958, exactly a half-century ago, the Mercury reported that the Angel Hotel in the Market Place was demolished after providing bodily comforts for travellers and others for three centuries, making it one of the oldest inns in the borough. It was replaced, said the Mercury, by a pair of new shops - Scotch Wool and International Stores.

That grocery chain already had three outlets in the town, including another on the same road for which it had no closure plans, one in Nelson Road North (acquired from Busseys in the 1920s), and the third in King Street, the former Star Supply Stores that became part of the giant International that in 1958 had 1,000 branches including subsidiaries with other names.

But radical change was imminent.

The era of the private grocer and provision merchant was, perhaps, underlined when, while I was browsing through a 1957 Mercury, I noticed a report about a teenager who was probably the borough's youngest grocer.

Eighteen-year-old Terry Welch, who launched his own business in Nelson Road Central when he was 15, had a problem. It was nothing to do with the threat from supermarkets or which wholesaler to deal with: he was trying to ascertain what would happen to his shop and business when his call-up papers for National Service arrived soon.

I do not know whether or not he attended that year's annual dinner of the Yarmouth, Gorleston and district Master Grocers and Provisions Trade Association at the Goode's Hotel, but as a member of the local trade he would have been included when they were praised by the mayor, Mrs Kathleen Adlington.

In an after-dinner speech, she said they were well abreast of the time despite many changes, including the trend towards self-service which “although beneficial in some ways, will result in another loss of the personal service and contact that only a master grocer can provide.”

How prophetic she was.

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