Sunday, 7 December 2008

F W Woolworth, Going Going, Gone but Not Forgotten.

Evidently Woolworths this week had a giant sale, selling everything and everything at half price, so I am led to believe. I missed out as usual, but there again crowded shops are hardly my scene. But my memories remain (see Nov 27th) and I am a little taken aback as to how many have indicated to me fond memories of F W W.
Not Exactly the Calm Before the Storm.

Many Woolworth employee’s were unusual and some even unstable. Some of us would pass the dinner hour in the snooker hall round the corner above Burton the Tailor’s. A non-too salubrious establishment and a game frowned on by some.
On one occasion being beaten proved too much for one trainee, John, bigger and older than we seventeen year olds. We returned to Woolworths at the end of our allotted dinner hour and our defeated colleague proceeded to exhibit his displeasure by hurling large tins of paint around the stockroom. Inevitably some tins and lids parted company, paint in large quantities by now coating the stockroom floor in every conceivable colour. At which point our demented friend demanded that we lesser mortals clear up the mess. No volunteers forth coming, John proceeded to grab the individual standing nearest to his awesome display and, with considerable strength forced the luckless individual’s face along the paint stricken floor. It was what could only be called a ‘wobbly’ of significant proportions, in fact the first time I ever saw a nervous breakdown occurring at first hand. Senior staff were called and with some difficulty John was ejected from Woolworths premises, presumably for ever more. Where he promptly compounded his misdemeanour by announcing he was going to wait for one of the female staff whom he claimed was his fiancée by virtue of a ring he had given her in the none too distant past. Even more alarming he insisted he would cut off the ring if it was not forthcoming when she left for home. Police assistance was needed, the whole incident bizarre even by F W Woolworths standards. That John had a history of unstable behaviour and had in fact failed medical school examinations would indicate a cross section of Woolworth employees contained some unusual characters indeed.
We, two youths in ill-fitting khaki overalls and a be-suited, slightly more senior trainee daily carried, unarmed, large sums of money in full view through the town to a local bank, our trips regular, time and route no secret; definitely an unwise thing to do, yet indicative of a more naive, less aware era.
On one occasion a customer found a maggot in a quarter pound of peanuts. I thus spent an entire afternoon sifting through numerous seven pound boxes of peanuts for other examples of the grubby intruders. For no way would Woolworth’s destroy the whole consignment, profit first and foremost the reason for their very existence.
Insect life was also of interest to Woolworth’s on the fruit and vegetable scene. We trainees were shown examples of exotic and often dangerous creatures likely to hitch a ride in bananas and other fruit from their tropical abodes. My education enhanced on learning they were in fact called arthropods. I was therefore delighted, early in my Woolworths education when I espied a large, ginger, numerous legged, lively arthropod in a box of newly arrived bananas. I coaxed him, for I had decided he was male into a matchbox with the aid of a stick, not an easy task due to his size and aggression. I transported my prize to the store manager’s office. Surely to be awarded praise indeed for initiative and dedication to duty. I burst into the office without ceremony, retrieved the box from my pocket and with a triumphant “Have you seen this!” placed the box on the boss’s desk and opened it carefully, a little at a time, until, fully opened, it revealed, absolutely nothing! Just an empty box a and a panic stricken trainee who spent the next fifteen minutes stripped off, completely and utterly engaged in a frantic search for an unhappy myriapod that was never to be seen again!
Though we were paid to work and did so, thus enhancing F W Woolworth’s considerable profits, much of our time was spent creating diversions that amused. Not surprising considering many of us were undisciplined individuals under twenty-five years of age.
Hurling empty tea chests from the stockroom flat roof three storeys up into the yard below we thought funny in the extreme, yet fraught with danger for individuals blissfully unaware of our intentions.
Boring overtime was on occasions lightened by the riding of my motorcycle round the shop floor, the echoing noise deafening, the shop filled with choking fumes. Alternately we would don skates and participate in races round the counters, reminders of childhood so reluctantly left behind.
We made Woolworth’s money, but not without cost. The stockroom assistant who fell through the ceiling of the staff canteen, amidst the rhubarb and custard certainly reduced the profits that week. A lift sent up and down the lift shaft with the aid of a matchstick inserted alongside a button worked well. That is, until the lift was overloaded, the lift minus human control hurtling to the basement, the sound of arrival horrendous, the repair cost expensive in the extreme. No one to my knowledge ever admitted as to being the culprit but the practice ceased forthwith.
At times appearing an ill disciplined rabble, we had a certain camaraderie that made the place bearable. There was little to encourage loyalty to Woolworth’s, the feeling was always that we were expendable. Indeed, if there was any doubt about this fact, a single instance proved the fragility of our working existence. Woolworth’s were a non-union employee, though we tried to support each other. But the only time that we tried the tactic of ‘one for all and all for one’ we were emphatically defeated, and quickly. Fed up of overtime at short notice, minimum wages and a general feeling that our efforts were not appreciated we went on strike. Result a telephone call from the manager to the Labour Exchange with the request, ‘Send me ten men.’ Result, probably the shortest strike the world has ever known as ten disgruntled employees returned to their labours, even more disgruntled.
So life at FWW continued, and diversions continued to spice up our rather mundane existences. One morning an earth tremor in February 1957 which ran for many miles through the East Midlands shook the building, causing tins and bottles to cascade down from the stockroom shelves. We, staff and customers were alarmed to say the least. But not half as frightened as the workmen in the culvert under Victoria Street outside who, fearing for their lives, not surprisingly, like startled rabbits, surfaced at great speed
A shoplifter, upended within the shop by overzealous floor-walkers however illegal was a talking point for many a week. Life was seldom boring for very long, hard yes, but boring, never.
At times I wished to escape and attended interviews for other jobs, for instance selling vacuum cleaners, no wages but £6 commission paid for each vacuum cleaner sold. Even the daily grind at Woolworths was preferable to such dubious employment and I would have probably remained there for several if not many years had not the fates conspired against me.

4 comments:

® ♫ The Brit ♪ ® said...

Hi Ken,
What a wonderful post! such wonderful memories... I laughed so much when I read about the creature in the matchbox!
It may have been something close to "slave labour" but what wonderful times you must have had at Woolies!
Urggggh maggots in peanuts! thank goodness that everything is packaged and sealed these days!
All the best!

Robert said...

As a child, I loved being taken to F.W.Woolworth & Co. (Ltd.?? I can't remember) in Belfast. Best toy selection in the city & lots of toys on interactive display (in the days before the word "interactive" was born/in common use).

As a teenager, I used to "forget" to pay for the odd packet of stamps from the philatelic counter. I've still got the stamp album, and most of the contents were obtained at "Woolies".

As an adult, I was contracted by Woolworth's furniture department to deliver furniture to "bad" areas of Belfast (i.e. areas which supported the IRA). The contract suddenly terminated when politically motivated hoodlums set fire to my furniture lorry and caused my fledgling business to collapse.

I suppose I have had quuite a long & varied connection with Woolworth's too!

Grumpy Old Ken said...

The Brit
Big sale tomorrow [Thursday} and evidently that's it. Sad, in'it.

Robert
You should write it all down. I'm a big believer in recording 'social history' if only for your kids.

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