Thursday, 27 November 2008

The Wonder of Woolies

I was shocked to hear of the demise of F W Woolworth's. I cannot imagine this country without them. It really brings home the state the world is in. But that isn't the reason I feel so sad, Woolworths paid an important part in my formative years. I worked for them for two years as a trainee, another word for dogsbody from 1957 to 1959. I was a naive village boy when I joined them. Two years later I was still a boy but one with far more idea of the real world, warts and all. I have written at some length concerning my earlier life for a future project. The following might interest someone in view of Woolworths administration. I trust its not a case of' 'Woolworths, my part in their downfall.'
Happy Days
All trainees at Woolworth’s started in the stockrooms and clawed their way to the top, a company policy based on the survival of the fittest. The work was hard but I approached it with the enthusiasm of youth.
Work at F W Woolworth’s was at times tiring, but perversely interesting. Marks and Spencer’s and Woolworth’s dominated British high streets for many decades, but in their own special ways. Mark’s was always thought to be that little bit special, appealing to those discerning customers who chose the best, be it food or clothes. Their staff and customers reflected this truism. F W Woolworth’s had no delusions of grandeur. Thus began my real education in life.
The majority of the staff was female, mainly working class individuals, often of limited education but mirroring the cliché ‘salt of the earth’. Their language was often coarsely sexual and my village ignorance and innocence were rapidly destroyed. The previous nights shenanigans were a favourite topic of conversation to brighten many a dull morning. ‘E ‘ad me on the kitchen table last night” one would gleefully relate, “An’ ‘e ‘adn’t even ‘ad ‘is tea!” Coupled with the fact that some wore little or nothing under their overalls in the hot stuffy stockrooms, and made no secret of such eccentricities meant I often saw work as place of boyish entertainment rather than a boring chore.
Added bonuses were the Saturday girls, schoolgirls employed to boost staff numbers on the busiest day of the week. All shapes and sizes, to be ordered about by the worldlier, or so we thought, full time young males eager to make an impression and hopefully a conquest. Some impressed by ownership of a motorbike, to be taken out on Sundays for walks up the fields and hopefully more.
The staff were diverse, the customers different. Consequently no two days were ever the same. Dishonesty was rife, especially amongst casual staff, something that challenged my strict chapel upbringing. Some fellow workers would shop, no payment offered for their food requirements before leaving the premises, risking discovery and instant dismissal. Others would place a shirt of their fancy beneath everyday clothes and brazenly leave the building with a cheery, “Goodnight everyone.” I remember well a till girl’s shoe coming off as she ran up the stairs. The cascade of coins tumbling down the stairs was embarrassing yet secretly amusing.
If some of the staff were dishonest, customers easily matched their guileful behaviour. Summer meant holidays and displays of summer items, including suitcases for those trips abroad in vogue in the late fifties. Twelve suitcases would be on display at the beginning, to shrink to nine or ten at the end; a large item to steal, especially in full public view. Not so difficult it would seem, as we eventually discovered. First obtain airline travel labels or similar. Stick or tie them on to the suitcase of your choice and, ‘Hey Presto’, holiday suitcase requirements solved.
The ingenuity of customers knew no bounds. Woolworth jewellery left much to be desired, yet to some its glitter beckoned. An old lady’s visits to the jewellery counter often coincided with items missing after her departure. It was obvious she was responsible but her modus operandi was almost to be admired. She always bought one item on her visits and placed her handbag on the counter whilst she paid. The clever part was the zip sewed into the base of her bag. The bag was conveniently placed on the items of her choice, and surreptitiously pulled into her bag on pretext of producing her purse. One item paid for and one for free, clever in the extreme. Amazing lengths to go to when one considers the small value of even Woolworth’s best jewellery.
Neither could the Woolworth’s clientele be accused of being boring, never mind normal. Seemingly every down and out in Derby frequented the Tea Bar, a motley collection of sad individuals whose highlight of the day was a tepid cup of tea and a bacon cob. Though the old man who at one stage wandered the shop floor had other than food on his mind. Wandering close, too close to any woman innocent of his intentions, his feet would be almost under the woman customer of his choice. Strange and perverse but deliberate all the same. For fixed to the top of his shoe was a piece of mirror, its purpose sinisterly simple. It was an aid the old pervert used to look up women’s skirts, which resulted in his non-too gentle ejection from the store, Woolworth’s loss and probably Mark’s and Spencer’s gain. Though we trainees could not appear to be too ‘holier than thou.’ Certain areas of the ground floor directly above the basement stockroom consisted of glass squares to increase the light below. Not all of the squares were intact or complete. Which unfortunately meant that the view from the stockroom included the underwear at best of any female unfortunate to pass over the area. A fact known to every stockroom worker, indeed, probably every male in the store. ‘Viewing the floorshow’ an unsavoury pastime that nevertheless amused the younger trainees, all of whom were male in those politically incorrect times.
We were supposed to be management trainees in one of the biggest retail companies in the country but our tasks and antics suggested otherwise.
Waste paper and cardboard was placed in a baling machine and removed at intervals. Only no one told me about the periodic emptying. And we certainly did not have baling machines at grammar school. (I honestly thought the paper etc was going into a furnace or similar I knew not where) The eventually extraction of the largest, heaviest bale in the history of waste baling after almost dismantling the machine said much for the capabilities of British engineering. Though I did think at the time the noise the machine was making plus the smoke as it strived to cope was somewhat perplexing and not a little alarming.
Promotion could be rapid as the turnover of staff was frequent.. I found myself at one stage, aged seventeen and a bit in charge of every plant and bush that entered the premises. The fact I had never even been previously in charge of a window box, no matter. My watering of hundreds of bedding plants with a powerful hosepipe resulting in a yard full of soil less plants.


Parisgirl said...

One of the great highlights of my visits to the UK has been shopping at Woolworths. La Fille has grown up in Ladybird knickers, vests and socks, boasts several pairs of Woolies' black plimsoles and has a craft box full of paints, brightly coloured pipe-cleaners and lolly sticks, and glitter pens. I don't know what we're going to do now.

Grumpy Old Ken said...

Pleased you have found your way to my site. need some customers! Would love to put you on my list of blogs. My mother in law is French, comes from Lille. Has lived here since the war but still very french at times.
Remember from school two things only.
'Ou et Toto, ou et t'il' and 'Hon, hon fait du klaxon de taxi, hon, hon' And I bet I've got that wrong.
Like your blog and mother in law will love it.

Anonymous said...

Hi again, I found you through that stinker Billy! Glad you like the blog and thanks.
My mother-in-law has one phrase in English: "The Cat is Very Beautiful", which she also learned at school. Now who ever thought that would be useful and why?
Pip pip!

Anonymous said...

PS. You'll see I've returned the favour!

MikeH said...

Woolworths were also an American institution, and I was sad to see them disappear as I grew older. When I moved to the UK, I was surprised and pleased to see them here and have the opportunity to shop there once again. But now, it seems, I have to say good-bye to them again.

ADDY said...

Hi Ken. Thanks for visiting me. I too was horrified at the demise of Woolies, as we lovingly know it. If they can't survive in these hard times, who can? Your reminiscences of your early days in Woolies were very interesting.

Stinking Billy said...

ken, having spent 3 days in the Bottling Plant of Newcastle Breweries as a lone 16 years old apprentice painter and decorator, I can fully appreciate how a young lad can be unmercifully embarrassed by a hundred females. Man, was I glad to finish the job and get the hell out of there!

® ♫ The Brit ♪ ® said...

Hi Ken,
I found your blog through MikeH!
I too was so shocked with the end of Woolworths... my youth was spent at that store with my Nan and I remained a loyal customer until I left the U.K. 10 years ago.

I loved your recount of your time spent working there and it reminded me of my own "apprenticeship" in the British print! a time full of randy women and dirty old perverts! haha
I will return to read more!
All the best!

Grumpy Old Ken said...

Look at the date shows how dilitory io am at the moment

Bet your children are bilingual. will be fantastically useful when work looms.
I still can't believe towm without woolies.
its dpressing in a way, the demise of Woolies but shows nothing ever lasts for ever, including us!
I can't ever imagine you being intimidated, even at sixteen!
The Brit
What amazes me is the sheer number of people touched by Woolies in one way or another

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