Mrs Vera May Ashby was born in 1911. She was interviewed on 5 May 1981, when she lived at 130 Highfields Road, Witham. Her husband, Mr Cyril Ashby, also spoke.
For more information about her, see Ashby, Vera, nee Adams, in the People category.
The original recording of this interview is held at the Essex Sound and Video Archive. To listen to the recording, please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or 033301 32500.
[???] shows words that are not clear enough to interpret and so have had to be omitted.
[?] after a word shows that its interpretation is not certain.
Later explanatory additions by JG or the transcriber are in square brackets [e.g. explaining locations etc.]
Q: I was so pleased when Helen said Spurge’s because everyone who has talked abut the shops in Witham that’s the first thing they say ‘Oh there was Spurge’s, that was a wonderful shop.’ but I’ve never met anyone who worked there.
Mrs A: Well it was really, because it was the drapers shop in the town. I don’t even think we’d even got a Co-operative drapers, no of course we hadn’t, not then, I’m sure we hadn’t. They had this quite a big shop where Lipton’s is now, and the other butchers, you know [42 Newland Street] (Q: Oh the little one next to it – I can never remember which of those is which, I know where you mean.) Yes, there, and they also had a shop further down the road where, somewhere near the Post Office, it might be where the paper shop is, Mellon’s, now, where they used to call London House.[74-76 Newland Street] And they used to sell all the millinery there you see, millinery, and used to make hats and trim hats, sell artificial flowers for putting on hats and things like that. The shop that I worked at was the Manchester department, you know blankets, sheets, towels, all house linen and I was in the hosiery department after I’d finished my apprenticeship. I had to serve three years apprenticeship. I was in the haberdashery then where they sell buttons, cottons and all things like that. You know, little things, hooks and eyes, linen buttons which we don’t see now, and all, and then of course I was moved up into the hosiery department after I’d served my apprenticeship.
Q: Was that, that was getting better was it?
Mrs A: Oh that was getting better [laugh] yes, I had a lift up, and they also sold, further back in the shop was where they sold the ribbons and the laces. You know lace by the yard, ribbon by the yard. Not that you’d have to buy three yards like you do now, you could buy just what you wanted, you know. And dress materials and oh, knitwear, jumpers, cardigans. Upstairs was the underwear department and after they closed London House. They closed that after, I don’t know when they closed it actually. It wasn’t going when I started at Spurge’s. I think they must have closed that when the War started, First World War, but we had the millinery upstairs, millinery, coats and dresses, and underwear. (Q: It was a big place then.) Yes it was quite busy.
Q: So they sold ready made clothes as well then ?
Mrs A: Oh yes, they had ready made as well as buying material by the yard. Yes, the ready mades, well coats and dresses were upstairs and jumpers, cardigans and that were downstairs in the department where they sold material by the yard. They were really noted for their house linen. People used to come in for it from all the surrounding area to Spurges for house linen. They were noted for blankets, sheets and we used to sell sheeting by the yard in those days, yes, sheeting by the yard, unbleached sheeting and the bleached sheeting by the yard, and beautiful blankets and eiderdowns. and men’s shirting by the yard. You know, so that people used to come in and make their own, you know their husband’s shirts (Q: did they really?) Yes. And what else, oh ticking by the yard. You know to make the inner cases for pillows so the feathers didn’t come through. Oh, all sorts of linings you know for dresses, skirts and things like that. It was terrific.
Q: It was really like a department store.
Mrs A: Oh it really was, yes. (Q: There must have been an awful lot of people working.) Well no, not really. I mean, there was a Mr Stiff in charge of the Manchester Department, you know where they sold all the household stuff, and then there was the apprentice and there might be another one in haberdashery but not very often. Then I was in the hosiery and I think there were two further up the shop where they sold the dress materials and jumpers and cardigans and that. Of course the cashier and there were, I think there were just two upstairs. But when we were busy we had to interchange if you understand what I mean, like holiday time on Easter Saturday, Whit Saturday they used to be terribly busy upstairs. People all wanting new hats, things like that. We’d have to go up and help them out probably if we weren’t so busy downstairs you see.
Q: Did they make any of the things at all ?
Mrs A: No they didn’t make any dresses, but they used to make the hats, yes. They had the buckram shapes, if you know what buckram shapes are, do you ? [laugh] Well I can’t describe it to you. It was like a very stiffened muslin and it was just the shape of a hat you see and you could alter the shape, turn the brim up or turn the brim in, and then perhaps somebody would come in and they wanted a hat made to match a frock for a wedding or anything like that and they’d bring the material or have contrasting material and then the milliner would cover it you see, cover the hat. Yes they used to make hats, but that’s about all, nothing else.
Q: So there was somebody there, making … ?
Mrs A: Oh yes and I remember we had an order for, you know Mrs Coleman do you, have you heard? (Q: I know of her, but don’t think I’ve met her.) Well she used to live with her parents in the house which is Collingwood House, where the old people have flats now [15 Collingwood Road]. And one of his daughters got married and they came in and they wanted little sort of garlands made, sort of like little spring flowers to bring the colour in that their dresses were. And I remember the milliner made some sweet little sort of crown things you know of muslin and tulle and that, for the bridesmaids, they looked ever so pretty.
Q: So you said you had people coming in from a long way off and far away ?
Mrs A: Oh, yes from all the surrounding villages and there was one, the carriers used to come along, there was a Mr Stroud at Wickham Bishops. That would be the father of Mrs Mellon who lives in the Avenue, who lost her husband a while back. And he used to sit outside, sometimes he wouldn’t come in, he’d shout out for Mr Stiff. Had he got any parcels to go to any of the rich people up at Wickham Bishops who’d phoned through you know, saying they wanted this, that and the other, or we’d get orders for them. And then there was a Lady, Lady de Crespigny was it, oh she’d never come in. The butler, the footman or the chauffeur used to shout for Mr Stiff and he used to have to go out on the path and take her things out to look at you know, things like that. Oh we had to bow and scrape to people you know. It was not like it is now when you go in the shop and they say ‘Oh its over there,’ or ‘Down there. Oh isn’t there anything you like, I’m sorry but that’s all we’ve got’. I mean if we let a customer go out and, without a purchase of some sort, oh we got into terrible trouble, scared of our lives of Mr Stiff. Yes if we didn’t sell anything. (Q: Very different.) And every purchase we made we had to put it in a ledger thing in the front of our bill, I don’t know what you call it, you made the bills out on, you had a counterfoil. You had to put down the amount that you’d sold and at the end of the month you’d add it all up and you’d get commission, three pence in the pound on everything you’d sold. So that made it, made you really keen to sell stuff, specially Sale time.
Q: So you had Sales ?
Mrs A: Oh yes we had Sales, a Winter Sale and a Summer Sale when everything had to be marked and there was a big centre counter with all towels and remnants on and, oh it used to make me ever so keen to sell people stuff that really they didn’t want, or thought they didn’t want, you know [laugh]. In Sale time to worked your commission up because when I first went to work and when I was an apprentice I had a half-a-crown a week. Some of that I’d give to my mother. She didn’t want it, she said she didn’t want it but she was a believer in making people value things you know. I think she gave it back to me in the end. It was only a mere pittance. But I mean, what you could buy for half-a-crown in those days, and then after I’d served my apprenticeship I think I went up to about, oh under ten shillings. When I married I was earning only just over three pound a week and I saved with that and bought all my house linen. Because we had a reduction. They let us have it at more or less at cost price if we were getting married. And you’d sort of pick out things and put it by in one of the store rooms right at the back and then when Mr Spurge came along he’d add it up to see how much you owed and he’d knock so much off you see. So it paid you not to buy bit by bit, but to buy in bulk.
Q: This was a just a special concession when you were getting a lot?
Mrs A: Yes, when you were getting married and there was always an eiderdown for everybody when they got married. You could pick your own eiderdown.
Q: So you stopped work then ?
Mrs A: When I married yes. I didn’t, people didn’t work in those days. Oh goodness, I mean, how long have I been married, about 47 years [laugh] (Q: Really? You look so young.) Well would you believe it when I tell you I was seventy the other day, seventy last Friday. Its nice to be told I look young [laughter] [remark about coffee, not noted]
Q: Were you born in Witham ?
Mrs A: No, I was born at Shalford, the other side of Braintree. [more remarks about coffee, not noted.]
Q: So when did your folks move to Witham ?
Mrs A: When I was, well the beginning of the First World War. You see my father was foreman on a farm at Shalford and of course they didn’t call that essential work actually. We lived in this big farmhouse and so he had an uncle working at Blyth’s Mill in Witham and he got him a job there as rollerman. So we came to Witham when I was three, three years old, and my sister was not quite two. Of course, we’d never seen street lights or pavements before. My mother couldn’t get me in. I was walking up and down with what children used to call mail carts, you know not like ordinary dolls prams, up and down this pavement. You know I was so thrilled with it. She couldn’t get me in. I was walking up there in the dark. Which you couldn’t let a child do these days could you ?
Q: So where did you live then ?
Mrs A: In Collingwood Road. (Q: Oh, I see.) D’you know where Heddles used to be (Q: yes, yes. [48 Collingwood Road]) Right opposite there. I mean we thought they were lovely little houses but I mean the one that we used to live in was the one next to the one Mr Turner used to live in. Well, it really looks terrible now [probably 65 Collingwood Road]. I don’t know who lives there I’m sure. It looks filthy dirty but it is surprising how big they were inside those houses. I mean what mother used to call her scullery, with a sink and a copper in it , she’d boil in for clothes. Then there was a living room and then there was a hall and the living room was quite a nice size and then there was what we called the front room, you know facing on to the road, and we’d got four bedrooms if you’d believe it in those houses. One over the hall and one over the scullery place and one over each of the other rooms. Of course no bathrooms in those days. So they were quite large houses really, larger than they looked and very warm.
Q: So Blyth’s Mill, was that at the station then or down …
Mrs A: No, Dad started when it was in the Valley, you know what they call the roller mills. I think they’re, aren’t they building replica of it beside the house (Q: Oh there is something there.) It looks to me as though they are building a smaller model of it because it seems to have got the piece sticking out the side where they let the sacks down, you know onto the waggons, by a chain, you know pulley and chain. Dad was a rollerman there. He had a nasty accident, when he was putting the new silks on and I don’t know if he tried to do it without switching all the rollers off or something went wrong but his hand went round in it, his right hand too, was crushed all across the back. (Q: Oh dear.) So he could never use it properly after that but, still that has nothing to do with Spurges has it [laugh]
Q: Did he work there for the rest of his working …?
Mrs A: Yes, well then a new mill was built, you see, they did away with the old one and the built one up there [by the station]. He went there as foreman and worked there until he retired. When Mr Blyth died it sort of amalgamated with Ratcliffe, Newman and Clark, so it’s Newman and Clark’s now.
Q: So you lived there until you married ?
Mrs A: I was there until I was married, yes. Then I came up here and I haven’t lived anywhere else since.
Q: What were your parents’ Christian names in case I come across the names ?
Mrs A: Oh, I don’t know – it was Adams. My mother’s maiden name was Candler and her father and mother, well, my grandma, my mother’s mother she was housekeeper. Do you know where Lord Butler lives at Shalford ? Abbotts Hall isn’t it ? (Q: Mmm.) Well that’s where my maternal grandmother and grandfather worked. He was coachman and my grandmother was housekeeper and they lived in a little cottage not far off. They weren’t always in the house of course but when Marriott’s? The name was when my grandmother worked there, when Major Marriott was away and his wife and family, they used to go and live there permanently to look after the house. My sister and I used to love going over there for holidays when grandma was in the Hall. We thought it was wonderful. [Laugh]. (Q: Real local people.) Well we haven’t sort of moved far away really. I don’t know how far Shalford is. It’s between Braintree and Wethersfield that way, you know. I don’t know how far it would be. And my husband’s lived here all his life. He has never lived anywhere else.
Q: So your parents stayed in that house ?
Mrs A: After they moved to Witham, yes. They never went anywhere else.
Q: Did they keep fit for a long time, like you have ?
Mrs A: Well my mother no. I was always having to go down there and look after her. She had these strokes and different things, you know minor strokes, and she’d get over them, but in the end she was bedridden. She would never have been able to sit up without [???] a chair. The last one she had just took her off. We shut the house up for three months. My husband lived down there with me which I thought was awfully good of him. I had my hoover taken down there and my washing machine and everything. She hadn’t got any modern conveniences you see and I had to go down there and look after her because dad was still working but she was a frail little thing really. I mean I’ve got rheumatism something shocking and my hands and my back was bad this morning and I’ve got angina, I’ve got hiatus hernia and now they’ve found out I’ve got glaucoma. I’ve partially lost the sight in my left eye. (Q: Oh dear.) So, I keep pushing on. It’s no good to sit down under your troubles is it. No, I’ve got quite a lot to cope with actually.
Q: Have you got children ?
Mrs A: Only one daughter who lives in Lincoln, well the other side of Lincoln, Saxelby. She was down here for a long weekend and then they went home yesterday after lunch.
Q: So your Mother was quite young when ?
Mrs A: She was 72 when she died. Dad was 88 or 89 I can’t remember. I’m terrible on these years, dates. (Q: That was a long time ago was it ?) Oh, I don’t know how long Dad’s been dead now. [???] [???]
Q: If he lived till 88 how long [???] [???] when he started work it must have been very early days. (Mrs A: Yes.) He’d always been in the same line of business had he ?
Mrs A: Well until he worked in the mill he’d always worked on a farm you see. Oh and he played the organ at the village church. (Q: Oh did he?) Actually I think my Father before he married Mother was more or less Chapel because my paternal grandparents they sort of looked after the Chapel, they lived near the Chapel at Shalford, Shalford Green, and I think he was Chapel until he married Mum and he was always keen on music and he used to play the organ at the Iron Church, what they call the Iron Church at Shalford which doesn’t exist now. ‘Cos the proper village church was … It’s a rambling village Shalford, do you know it at all (Q: Not very well, no.) I mean there’s what they call Jasper’s Green, they used to call Jasper’s Green, then there were some houses and then you got sort of went past where my Mother and Father used to live White[?] Hall till you got to Shalford village proper. It was a very rambling place, more like Wickham Bishops is really. I mean it stretched a long long way and arms went out in all directions if you can understand what I mean.
Q: If he was keen on music did he do any singing or anything ?
Mrs A: He was in the choir with my husband. My husband was organist at the parish church for years. Yes, he was in the choir there.
Q: Music seemed quite a big hobby in those days ?
Mrs A: Well they had some, they hadn’t got much else to do had they. I mean, Sunday evenings when the regular thing was I think in most families if they’d got a piano or a harmonium, which my father had got a harmonium, they’d sort of sing hymns and things like that, amuse themselves on Sunday evenings. I think it was just their one hobby or one enjoyment. There was nothing much else to do, was there, and I think people were far happier than they are now actually.
Q: What did you used to do in your spare time when you were at work ?
Mrs A: Oh, I wasn’t a very sporty person, I didn’t do any sports or anything. I used to like country dancing, used to go to country dancing classes. And ordinary dancing but not a lot because Father wasn’t too keen.
Q: And of course you wouldn’t get much time off from the shop
Mrs A: Oh, no, no, no. I think we started at half past eight, or was it nine o’clock, and we’d close, when I first went there, no, I think we always closed from one to two lunch. And we never closed the shop till six o’clock. And if Mr Stiff saw people outside, you know looking in the windows, potential sort of buyers, he wouldn’t let us go and we had to stop there (Q: Goodness.). And there were some people who we labelled with different names, like, Mrs. Just-before-six, that sort of thing. We always knew if we say this particular person or two people outside, we knew that we wouldn’t get home, you know we wouldn’t close at six because they seemed to make a habit of coming just before you’d close. It was the same on a Saturday night, you see we used not to close until eight o’clock. I used to be able to go home to tea because I hadn’t got far to go you see. We had three quarters of an hour off for tea. Sometimes I’d take sandwiches and have a cup of tea there when the weather was bad. In the summertime I used to manage to go home. No, we didn’t use to close till eight o’clock. Easter Saturday, Whitsun Saturday, oh sometimes it was half past eight, quarter to nine we closed. You know he was a shocker, if he thought he was going to get a few more pounds in, Mr Stiff, he was the sort of manager there. Mr Spurge lived at Dovercourt you see (Q: Oh did he.) in the after years. He used to live over the shop and then he had a shop down at Dovercourt, Spurges and they lived down there. And there was a Mr Cheney came here and lived in the house. But then when he died Mr Stiff sort of was manager and Mr Spurge used to come up periodically and just have a look round and look at the books and that.
Q: So you didn’t see very much of Mr Spurge ?
Mrs A: No, we didn’t see much of Mr Spurge. Mr Spurge wasn’t living there when I started. It was Mr Cheney was there when I started.
Q: Was he connected with the shop or was he just ?
Mrs A: No, was sort of manager. Mr Spurge put him in there and he lived over the shop at the back somewhere, they’d got some rooms. (Q: And Mr Stiff?) No He didn’t live there, Mr Stiff. I don’t know, he lived in Millbridge Road I think, if he lived anywhere else before then I don’t know. I don’t know how long Millbridge Road has been going actually. (Q: Quite.)
Q: So when was it you started work ?
Mrs A: When I was about, well I left school at fourteen. I don’t think I was at home long, about 14½ . (Q: Then this apprenticeship ?) Went on for three years you see.
Q: Did that involve anything different in the way of work or was it just that you got less wages ?
Mrs A: No, you’d just had to get into the way of talking to people, serving people and knowing where all the different things were you see and learning to buy because we all bought for our own department. (Q: Oh did you?) The travellers used to come round. [remarks about drink and biscuits, not noted] Yes the travellers used to come round, Morley’s, can’t remember the name of the other people, Morley’s I remember. And they used to bring all their great big wicker hampers down on the train when I first was there. The carriers used to being them down from the station and dump these things and they used to try and sell you stuff and then they’d take orders and it would come afterwards. That’s how the buying was done, like that. But then, after a certain number of years, they didn’t bring all this stuff with them you see, they’d just bring it in a case and designs and just little pieces of material to look at.
Q: So when they had the hampers they’d have great big …?
Mrs A: Oh they’d have a lot, these wicker hampers would be full of stuff. Then they’d show you and try and sell you and get orders.
Q: Were these people from the makers of the different things ?
Mrs A: Yes, from St Paul’s Churchyard, most of the warehouses were. Round St Pauls. You can see some of them now I think. I think most of them have been pulled down but St Paul’s Churchyard is where all the warehouses were.
Q: It was quite a responsibility, buying your own things. I’d always assumed that the manager did that.
Mrs A: No. You sort of went through your stock, I mean, if well, the haberdashery wasn’t too bad. I mean if you knew you were short, because these dressmakers in the town, there was a, the two Miss Hills, and two Miss Cheeks, and a Miss Robinson down the town. They are the only three I can remember. Well they used to have what they called mourning orders come you see. People died and everybody went in black in those days and they’d come in for yards and yards of black material for making up the costumes for people and they used to sit, you know all day and practically into the night to get these things made for people. And they used to buy about a dozen or two dozen reels of black cotton at a time or white cotton and things like that. And the Miss Hills’s lived in one of the lodge gates at Faulkbourne Hall. Their father was coachman. He was another one who used to sit down outside, right up on his high seat, you know the carriages and we used to have to go out and get the orders. See who was it lived at Faulkbourne Hall, Parkers, isn’t it, Parker. Sir Christopher Parker in those days.
Q: So did one of the Parkers come in in the carriage as well ?
Mrs A: Yes, yes, well sometimes. Or sometimes Mr Hills the coachman used to bring the order himself. But he was always you know in his cockade hat.
Q: But even if it was just him you had to go out ?
Mrs A: Oh yes, I mean they were nearly as important as their employers in those days, yes with their uniform and that. I don’t know if they were treated very importantly by their employers but they thought they were important [laugh]. Yes, so you’d go through your stock and em you’d think well now I’d better have some blue sheen[?] or pink sheen, I’m out of that. Mostly it was black and white that you had to order a terrific lot of because there wasn’t a lot of coloured material about those days, not for underwear and that. People nearly always wore white, didn’t they flannelette things, wincyette things and cambrics for knickers and things, all those years ago that was different. I saw the fashions change, of course, you know, to the silk underwear and the ready made slips. The old corsets went out of fashion, those that laced up at the back and things like that, and other smaller ones came in. Of course when I first worked there silk stockings weren’t heard of, it was all these cotton stockings, lisle and when the first silk stockings came in, oh, you know it was quite an event you know. And even then they were thick, you know, really thick sort of silky finish, of course, nothing like these. Of course no tights in those days. Even the tights hadn’t come in when I left of course. (Q: They’re quite recent.) Nylon, no, was I there, no I don’t think I was there when the first pair of nylon stockings came in. No, I wasn’t there then.
Q: People like the Parkers, were they regular customers ?
Mrs A: Oh yes, they were regular customers. You know, we had quite a high class trade actually. (Q: They’d buy quite a lot?) Oh yes and if we hadn’t got what they wanted we’d order it.
Q: Was that for the family themselves or the servants ?
Mrs A: Well, sometimes they’d come in for material for maids frocks or black stockings for their uniform, things like that. But I think it was mostly on the Manchester department that they bought house linen, and you know, towels and things like that. But we had got quite a high class trade at one time but by the time I’d left, all those sort of people had sort of gone. There was a decline of wealth by the time I married, I mean people weren’t quite so free and easy with their money. You see there was another war pending wasn’t there by the time I married. I mean when Hazel was born I was terribly ill, I was in hospital three months and they turfed me out before my time because they had to empty the hospital down at Colchester. I was in a private ward too because I was so ill. They thought war was going to start but that was the false alarm one, wasn’t it? And then I had to go back when she was ten months old for a prolapse operation and one thing and another and that the Second World War was just verging then.
Q: So you reckon the custom was quite a lot different then from what it was before ?
Mrs A: Yes, after I left yes. It was quite different. And of course a lot of people had accounts in those days, you see. The wealthy people, I mean they used not to pay if they bought the stuff a lot of people put it down their account. But of course we had a lot of ordinary customers that did pay as they bought things.
Q: So, if you had an account you’d pay, what …?
Mrs A: I think they went up sometimes. I should think it was mostly once a quarter, you know quarterly accounts.
Q: Did you have someone dealing with that specially ?
Mrs A: Oh yes, we had a cashier, we had a cashier in a little sort of office place at the top. You used to have to go there to pay your money in. You know, us assistants would make the bill out and then take the money from the customer and go up there and pay it in and get the change. Not like they do now, have a till on the counter. No, it was just the one.
Q: So they’d deal with sending out the bills and so on ?
Mrs A: Oh yes, she’d saw to the ledgers and things like that.
Q: So if there was any trouble getting the money in you wouldn’t know about it.
Mrs A: We didn’t know much about it not ourselves no, not the assistants, it would be the cashier and Mr Spurge.
Q: So if you had someone who owed money you’d still let them have stuff ?
Mrs A: Unless we were told differently, but I don’t ever remember anything like that, no, not bad debts in those days.
Q: So the cashier was a woman then ?
Mrs A: Oh yes, she was a Miss Rice in those days. The family is still in Witham I think, the Rices. She now lives as far as I know in Wickham Bishops, in Horseshoe Lane.
Q: And what about the other assistants, were they all women ?
Mrs A: Apart from Mr Stiff, yes. Oh and Mrs Wright, Connie Wright. She was a Miss Phillips, she still lives in Witham, but she’s a lot older than me. She’s older than my husband. She lives in White Horse Lane but I don’t think she’d be able to give you any more detail than me. (Q: No, you’ve got a good memory.) And of course I used to have the brass for measuring things. They used to have the brass yard, you know thirty-six inches let into the counter, brass, and you could measure like that. But sometimes Mr Stiff’’d have a cane with a yard measure and he’d measure it like that you see.
Q: So if people bought that amount did they take it away with them or did somebody …?
Mrs A: Oh, no we’d got a boy, a Sprawling, he wasn’t quite you know, but he was quite capable of taking orders out. We’d got a barrow with Spurge and Co on, Spurge and Son on, and they used to all accumulate up you know, these parcels and then he’d take them out, you see, he had to walk out with them. (Q: If it was outside of Witham?) Well there’d be the carrier, this Mr Stroud used to do it you see a Mr Stroud. An, oh they’d let you have hats on approval. (Q: Really.) They had these big hat boxes, they were about that high and about that big round. Sort of made of very stiff cardboard or something with a handle and you could get about four or five hats in these and customers were allowed to have them sent home to try with their dresses or coats or whatever they’d got to see if they liked them or see if their husband liked the hat you see. (Q: So if you didn’t try things on in the …?) Yes, you could try them on, you could try the hats on and the frocks, but if somebody wasn’t very well or they’d lost somebody, for a mourning order, you see or anything like that, they’d send stuff out then for them to try on. They were far more trusting that what people are now. I mean you can’t have things on approval now from a shop you see. I mean you’ve just got to make up your mind there and then if you want it. But I mean you could go to Spurge’s and try two or three frocks on or a coat on and say ‘Oh well I don’t know if I really like this, I don’t know if my husband would like it.’ and he’d say ‘Well would you like to take it on approval?’ you see, You wouldn’t do it with just anybody, of course. I think people were more trustworthy in those days. I don’t know. Because we never seemed to lose anything. We used go back, Arthur, we used to call him Arthur Sprawling, would go back for it the next day you see. Sometimes the customer would take things herself and then the next day this boy would call for them and bring them back and we used to have to make an ‘appro’ bill out. Got to put ‘appro’ on you see and then we’d put it down if they kept anything, if not it was sort of cancelled.
Q: You got quite a few people who weren’t so well off come in the shop, they weren’t all … ?
Mrs A: Oh no they weren’t always wealthy people, just ordinary people used to come in. We had quite a good trade as I say we were about the only shop of that type in Witham when I first started but then there was Hunwick’s started up where the London House was. She used to sell, on a smaller scale, you things more like we sold. And of course they were getting more people in Witham then. And then the Co-op you see had their drapery girls. And of course there was Heddle’s too [48 Collingwood Road]. That had been going on for some while and he was what you’d call a tallyman. They used to have travellers go round and people used to pay so much a week you see. That was what they called the tally trade. But you could go and buy and pay regular cash.
Q: So this shirt material for instance. Would people make shirts themselves or was that the dressmakers’ job ?
Mrs A: Oh no, my mother used to make my father’s shirts but the dressmakers would make them for some people. The Oxford, what they called the Oxford shirt, you know, hardwearing shirting for people on the land. My mother used to make, and she would make my Father’s pyjamas. People didn’t think about buying ready-made underwear really. I mean used to make their own flannelette nightdresses, striped winceyette, [laugh].
Q: I should think you had enough to do around the house and so on if …?
Mrs A: I think its amazing, when I think of what my mother used to do. I mean she wasn’t all that well and was rather a frail little thing but she used to make all our clothes until we got a bit hoity toity and didn’t want home made clothes, and she’d let us have the other. When you get about ten, eleven, twelve, you get conscious of your clothes and I think it was getting a bit too much for mum by then to make our clothes. She used to do all her own decorating, wall papering and so on. Well I think people did, didn’t they in those days. (Q: Had to didn’t they.)
Q: So when you wanted better clothes you got them made by a dressmaker or did you buy them ready made ?
Mrs A: No mother, no not very often, we didn’t have them ready made. I used to have a lot of our clothes made by these Miss Cheeks. A row of houses that run that way opposite Crittall’s. Have you noticed them in Braintree Road. (Q: Along behind the others yes.) They used to live in one of those cottages the Miss Cheeks. ‘ Yis, yis, yes’ they used to say, ‘Yis, yis yis’. You know you’d say ‘I’d like this and that’ and they’d say ‘Yis, yis, yis’ [laughter]. Queer little people. They used to wear always in black, you know with the very tight waists and long black skirts and these little straw hats you know, sort of just sort of perched on top. They didn’t alter and they were really ancient people right even in those days they didn’t get modern at all. [laugh].
Q: So ready made clothes would be for people who were … What sort of people would buy ready made clothes?
Mrs A: Yes, well I mean I’m talking about dressmaking, having dresses made. Well I mean people still have dresses made now but I don’t think the ready made trade started very early. I mean it was going like when I started at Spurge’s the ready made trade was going then.
Q: But would that be regarded as something a bit superior or not so, or wouldn’t it make any difference?
Mrs A: Well, it’s hard to tell really. I think the ordinary run of people would make their children’s clothes if they possibly could because definitely ready mades were more expensive and perhaps not so hard wearing, not quite what they wanted.
Q: Because, these days, ready mades are, if anything its better to have your clothes made, it would be something quite special wouldn’t it, but in those days it wasn’t so different.
Mrs A: No, no, if you have them made now its because you want something extra special.
Q: You’ve got ever such a good memory haven’t you ?
Mrs A: That’s what everybody tells me. I can remember things way back but things that happened last week you know it eludes me. I think you are like that when you get older. You can remember far back better than you can at the present moment.
Q: You are very good at describing it – makes you feel as if you’re there almost. This Mr Stiff did he, he was there in charge all the time …?
Mrs A: All the time I was there, yes and he had been there for, he was in the War, the First World War, and I think he went there after the First War finished. He married a French woman actually. He died about four, five years ago.
Q: So he did work in the shop much the same as everybody else ?
Mrs A: Yes, though he was, I mean, if Mr Spurge wasn’t there he was the one you had to go to if there was a query about anything or special orders, or if you couldn’t, you had to see Mr Stiff as a rule if you couldn’t satisfy a customer before she went out or he went out, they were mostly women that we served, you were supposed to call Mr Stiff and he’d try and work round her. Which I didn’t think was good. It’s a principle that I don’t like. (Q: You mean to try and persuade a customer …) No, because I don’t know how you are, but if I go in a shop and I don’t like anything and they say ‘Oh it looks lovely on you, it suits you’, its not very often I’m talked round (Q: No, quite.) but if I am I never go to that shop again. (Q: No, you feel frightened of being pressured.) It happened to me at where Modes used to be, now the Four Seasons, when a Mrs Roberts used to work there [34 Newland Street]. She’d tell me that things suited me and I knew darned well they didn’t, and you know if I saw anything in the window I liked I’d never go in there. No, if people over-persuade you, and I think its wrong to over-persuade people really. I mean perhaps if you see people are dithering, but if you see that people definitely don’t like anything, I think its not good for you trade of your shop, not to over power them and make them buy something they don’t like because they’d probably only buy it to get out of your way. (Q: But in those days you felt it was.) Well we had to you see, Mr Stiff would get furious, he made me cry more than once, (Q: Really.) yes, you know, well he was a very, he was queer old bird really. (Q: You were all frightened of him?) Yes, I was frightened of him, I think we all were. You must cut this out, what I’m going to tell you. We used to call him, say he belonged to the ‘wandering hands society’. [Laugh] (Q: Oh really.) He was in the War you see and he married this French girl and our toilet was right out the back right through the warehouses and I’d never go out there once it got dusk because I bet if one of us went out there he’d follow you – I was terrified, absolutely terrified to go out there. I wouldn’t go if I could help it and we labelled him you know he belonged to the ‘wandering hands society’. But you know he frightened us too. He’d got a fearful temper and you could see, his eyebrows would stick out if he was, you could feel him watching you and sort of, he’d come from the Manchester department and wander round if he thought that you were going to let a customer go out without buying anything and you could feel his eyes on you, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. and then he’d butt in and sometimes he was successful but sometimes he wasn’t. Which I think is the wrong approach.
Q: Did he, take much part of the life of Witham outside of work or was he just business ?
Mrs A: Well, no, I don’t know much about his private life I don’t think he em. Well yes, he was the I don’t know if you’d call him Secretary, oh some club, the something Friendly Society that you can pay in and then when you’re ill you get paid. He used to run that for this area. The National Deposit Friendly Society. I think that was his only interest outside the shop. He was a queer little man really.
Q: So you didn’t have any of the Spurges in the shop at all when you were ?
Mrs A: Not really, no. Mr Spurge perhaps would come once a week. He was always there during stock-taking. We had to do our own stock-taking in our own department, I suppose they do now. I don’t know how they stock take these days. Used to have big sheets you know and had to put everything down and we had to work them out ourselves too. I mean well it was too much for one cashier to do.
Q: You got very good at arithmetic then ?
Mrs A: Well I used to like it rather, adding these stock sheets up and, of course, we thought it was wonderful in those days when we’d finished all stock-taking and done all these sheets Mr Spurge used to come in armed with a big slab of chocolate for everybody, you know the real big slabs like they used to be years ago. We used to think it was a wonderful treat.
Q: He was, you got on all right with him ?
Mrs A: Oh yes, he was quite nice. He was nicer than Mr Stiff. Well you had more respect for him I think, well he spoke very nicely and he’d got the bearing, not that he was any better than us I expect. But as if he’d had a better education perhaps than some of us had and we looked up to him more than we did Mr Stiff actually.
Q: And he lived in Witham for a little while before he went to Dovercourt?
Mrs A: Mr Spurge, yes, old Mr Spurge lived in part of the – you went in a side door, beside one of the windows and along a long passageway and I think there was quite a lot of rooms that ran out that way, which were the downstair accommodation and then there were the bedrooms upstairs that ran along the side of the millinery department and that upstairs you see. And old Mr Spurge lived there, but I vaguely remember him when I first started. When he was still living there then I think, for a little while or did he used to come up. My mind fails me there. But that’s where old Mr Spurge used to live and young Mr Spurge and then when they moved down to Dovercourt and opened up this shop there he went down.
Q: Did they have much part in Witham things when they were here do you know or were they …?
Mrs A: Well I really don’t know. I don’t know much of their private life, no.
Q: I suppose really shopkeeping took too much of his time. ?
Mrs A: Well, I suppose it did, I mean they didn’t have all the help that people get now, I mean they didn’t have secretaries and I mean well you don’t get many private firms these days, they’re all these big consortiums aren’t they ?
Q: Mmm. I suppose once you start up a business like that, finding the custom is quite a job ?
Mrs A: Well I don’t know how long Spurges’s had been going. They had been going for a number, a number of years, but how long. And of course he used to go up to London buying as well as having these travellers and the girl in the millinery and that they used to go buying sometimes and in the dress materials. You know when the travellers didn’t come round so much they’d go out with Mr Spurge buying but I never went, I never went buying, no. To the big warehouses you see.
Q: Once they’d got going, as you say, there was special, got a name for himself ?
Mrs A: Oh yes, yes. But I really don’t know how long they’d been going. I mean, I suppose, I don’t know if it was Spurges’s was there when we first came to Witham when I was three years old, I don’t know. I can’t remember how long they’d been going.
Q: So when you went for a job there, how did you get the job ?
Mrs A: Well, my mother marched me in there. [laugh] She was in the town shopping one day and I think she went into Spurges for something and Mr Cheney used to like children and in those days I’d got long, fair hair and it was curly and Mother used to take great pride in the way she dressed us and he came up to me and patted me on the head and asked me how old I was and my mother said I’d left school and all that and that she wanted a situation for me. Oh no this was before I’d left school, that’s right. So my mother said that she’d soon be leaving school and that we’d be looking for some work. So he said, Mr Cheney said, ‘Well, bring her back to see me after she has left school’, he said. ‘I might be able to do something for her.’ And that’s, Mother took me in again and he took me on as his apprentice. See in those days you didn’t have to pay to be an apprentice, not in a shop. You were only just paid this half-a-crown a week. I can’t even remember if I had commission on my sales when I was an apprentice. I can’t remember that either.
Q: So you didn’t really consider anything else ? (Mrs A: No, no.) What else could you have done if you hadn’t had that, do you think ?
Mrs A: Well, I don’t know. They all said that I ought to have won a scholarship because, but directly I got an exam paper in my hand or in front of me, everything went completely and I went to pieces, I was not exam minded you see. But if I could have just gone on my, probably year’s work or term’s work I could probably have gone a little further forward. (Q: And done something different.) Office work, perhaps, or something like that, you see. But I was terrified of exams. They used to make me really ill, really sick. Some people are like that even now I think. A lot of children that’s why I think it’s a good idea this other thing has come in, these scholarships are finished with now aren’t they, more or less. (Q: More or less, yes.)
Q: Still shop work was regarded as quite …?
Mrs A: Oh, yes, it was I mean the majority of girls that I went to school with would land up with sort of housework or something like that you see. Which I don’t suppose Mother wanted me to do, I mean I quite enjoyed my work there, apart from being so terribly cold. It was the most, it was like working in an ice house, it really was. Of course the doors, they were these swing doors you see and the wind would blow them open and the draught was terrible and we only had these sort of, most of them were oil stoves standing a round you see, to warm the shop. We didn’t have any sort of heating as such. They had a coal fire up in the work room and we used to congregate up there till Mr Stiff came up after us and nearly pulled us down by our ears. [laugh], You know to get warm. We used to be allowed to go up there and sort have a morning break about eleven o’clock, cup of tea, or something like that and then we’d stay up there longer toasting ourselves in front of this fire and of course then feel terribly cold. I had chilblains right up to my knees and we thought that was from the draught. But yet we never really got a lot of colds or influenza. Because you see when we went out it wasn’t much colder than it was in the shop. [laugh].
Q: So did you go out shopping out now and again ?
Mrs A: [Talk about lunch, not noted]. [Talking to husband] Can you remember what date Spurges’s originated ? I mean you lived in Witham all your life haven’t you ? I mean I know it was …?
Mr A: There was a grocery store there wasn’t there ?
Mrs A: Yes, of course there was. I’d forgotten about that, next to the drapery there was a grocery as well. And then they had another one down the town. Yes I remembered that about London House. Do you think it was still here when we came as children, at three years old, when I came here. (Mr A: Oh, I should think so.) You think its going back as far as that. (Mr A: I can’t remember anything else.) No I don’t think it was.
[Chat about memory, retirement, growing old, buying clothes etc., not noted.]
Mr A: I went to school with your next door neighbour, Bert Godfrey.. (Q: Did you. He must be your age then.) He’s a little bit older than me.
Mrs A: He’s walking very lame now. His mother and father were very …
Mr A: His father used to push the barrow at Spurges.
Mrs A: Oh yes, yes, at Mr Spurges. I don’t know if Mr Godfrey would be able to tell you anything about that part of it. You know about the grocery part.
Q: There was picture in the paper a few years back of his barrow.
Mrs A: He might be able to put you wise on the date, as his father worked there all those years back. (Q: Yes, it goes back a good way that, doesn’t it.) Yes, I can remember him pushing the barrow round now.
Mr A: I played for his daughter’s wedding.
Mrs A: It all depends what age Mr Godfrey was when he started work there, I mean that would give you an indication how long Spurges has been going. (Mr A: He worked for Affords) Oh yes and the printers.
Q: Yes that’s right, reading, he said it makes it difficult to read a book he said, because he keeps looking for the mistakes. [laughter] – [to Mr A] – What did you use to do when you were at work ?
Mr A: I was in the Licensing Department at County Hall.
Mrs A: And before that you worked in the auctioneers at Braintree.
Mr A: Only for two years. I went to work about 1920 I suppose, went up to County Hall in ‘24. I worked for them 47½ years.
[chat about pensions, his working in the Licensing department, not noted]
Mr A: During the War, cor I worked every night from January to August and then said to the chief clerk ‘I can’t do any more – dead tired’. He said ‘I don’t blame you, I can’t stand it too’. Because they wouldn’t have me in the Army (Q: really.) The Chairman said to me ‘God help England if we ever want you’ [laughter]
Q: How very tactful.
Mr A: That’s forty years ago and I’m still alive to tell the tale.
Q: Dear oh dear, that must have been frustrating.
Mr A: [???] I didn’t worry. I haven’t hardly been to the doctor since.
[Chat about going to doctor, cooking dinner, not noted]
Mrs A: And we all wore the same colour frocks (Q: Oh did you.) Yes, we had new frocks once a year. We had to buy those ourselves and not necessarily the same pattern, design, you know the style, but our dressmaker used to make those for us and they used to have to last, well we made them last a year. They’d get pretty shabby by the time we left them off. The senior girls would choose the colour you see, between themselves and they say ‘We’ve chosen this for our frocks for another year. Do you like it ?’ And of course I’d say yes its all right with me. Now, of course, they wear anything don’t they ? (Q: Yes usually, don’t they, except in the big places.)
Q: Still I suppose it saved your own clothes ?
Mrs A: Oh yes, it does save your own clothes. They’d get messy, especially in those days if you were serving sheeting or sort of tearing it off. I mean you’d measure off say a customer wanted six yards of winceyette or something like that. You’d put a little nick in it and you didn’t cut it right the way through because it would tear better than cut. Dress materials you couldn’t do like that, only cotton. And, of course, you’d get all the dressing you know, and things like that.
Q: Of course it would be quite hard work humping all these big rolls of stuff about.
Mrs A: Yes, it was. Well we used to ask Mr Stiff if they were too heavy you know to lump about.
Q: So all the sort of shirting and stuff that you had you said that a lot of it was for farm workers and …?
Mrs A: Not necessarily farm workers but I mean the majority, unless you were well off, I suppose you could buy shirts in those days, yes, we used to sell them the Oxford shirts, that’s right. But, you know the women could make their own for their husbands and I suppose it worked out a lot cheaper for some reason or another. And the children’s you see.
Q: Yes, of course. You had quite a big a range of customers then really, although it was a smart shop ?
Mrs A: Well, it was a, it was a, actually I think Mr Spurge was a bit mean in that respect, I mean he never had a lot done to the shop. It was shabby really, though we’d got a lot of good quality things in there and we’d got good quality custom. And quite a lot of customers that weren’t wealthy. But he wouldn’t spend a lot of money on the actual shop. We didn’t earn colossal wages, but of course, you see a pound in those days well, goodness knows what it wouldn’t buy. (Q: Quite.) When you come to think about it I mean I married and I was earning only just over three pounds a week, you see and I bought all my house linen and different things. I know Mother never took a lot away from me, even when I was earning more but she’d brought us up to be thrifty and that was that.
Q: So you’d have quite a lot of people coming in the summer, pea picking and that sort of thing ?
Mrs A: Oh yes, and we used to have a Christmas Club too. You could pay in a Christmas Club and have that back and we were ever so busy then because people would come in with their Club Cards you see and buy mostly household stuff, you know towels and tea cloths or tea cloth by the yard, you know, linen by the yard. Yes, that was a very busy time and I forget how much they got in the pound you know on this Club Card. (Q: I see.) But we used to have quite a big custom on that. (Q: Quite a good way of saving.) Yes that’s what it was. We didn’t get a lot of the, we didn’t get the travelling peapickers in the shop. You know, not those on the road. (Q: Didn’t you?) No, but oh a lot of people in Witham went pea picking and fruit picking. I mean with the schools, you see, you’d go to School on a Monday morning and when the peas started coming and you’d live in hopes that there wouldn’t be many in your class and you’d soon break up. You’d go in on a Monday morning and perhaps there’d be three missing in your class and three or four in another class you see and you’d come to perhaps the Thursday and perhaps there was hardly anybody in the school at all so you just had to, the school just had to close. They just left willy nilly. I mean they didn’t ask the master if they could take them pea picking, they just took them and … (Q: Did you ever go?) Well, my mother, well she did, Eva and I, my sister (she died of cancer as a matter of fact, a number of years ago) were crazy to go. Mother didn’t want us to go, but we were so keen to go that we went and my mother with the next door neighbour, but we didn’t go much. Mother couldn’t stand it and even I soon got fed up with it, after the novelty wore off you know.
Q: No, quite. So the travelling people would come as well as the locals ? (Q: Oh, yes, the travelling ….) But you didn’t get them in as customers. Did you not encourage …?
Mrs A: Well, I don’t think they were the type of people. They probably got them in the grocery shops but they weren’t the type of people who would buy things we were selling you see but they were always looking out people to give them things weren’t they, to wear, these travelling people.
Q: During the Sales, you’d still have, things would still be a reasonable price. You wouldn’t have bits and pieces that you would sort of …?
Mrs A: We didn’t have things in specially for Sales. Sometimes we’d have a special line of pillowcases or towels or sheets in for the Sale but it wasn’t rubbish. We didn’t buy a lot of rubbish in. On the whole it was the general stock, you know, you’d go through it and anything that hadn’t sold very well and you knew it never would sell, we’d price down you see and I think the ordinary stock probably you’d get so much in the pound off.
Q: Did you have prices marked on ?
Mrs A: Everything was priced. Every towel had got a ticket on it. And in the Sale. All had to have Sale tickets put on. Besides the other one. So it made quite a lot of work before the Sale started. (Q: Quite yes.) Everything had to be marked.
Q: Because food shops they didn’t seem to have prices shown on the stuff. People just seemed to know what things were going to cost, but you had everything marked.
Mrs A: What years ago ? Everything was marked. Well, I mean in the food shops, it was weighed out as you wanted it wasn’t it, and they were all in these wooden drawers and the price was on these wooden drawers wasn’t it.. Well, it wasn’t packeted up like they are now and biscuits were all loose weren’t they and the price was on the tin they got them from.
Q: Oh, and did, I’m sure somebody told me once that there used to be those charities who’d give out tickets to people to spend in certain shops. You didn’t ever have that ?
Mrs A: No, I can’t remember anything about that at all.
Q: It’s a long way back and well, perhaps it was mostly food.
Mrs A: Well, my husband can remember collecting bread for the people in the cottages opposite the church there and he used to collect a loaf for his grandmother that lived in one of those row of cottages [28-40 Church Street]. Used to have the bread taken there you see. That was some charity that had been left.
Q: And again I think, oh its not quite the same but I think the Miss Luards used to have sort of sewing parties ?
Mrs A: Oh yes, sewing parties and that. (Q: do you know where they got their stuff from?) No, I don’t know. I don’t remember anything about that. It might have been before my time, because I mean I belonged to the Miss Luards’ Girls Friendly Society. They used to run the Girls Friendly Society in Witham and they used to get up a play, a sort of pantomime thing, once a year. Well, I was nearly ready to, well, I’d left school then, yes I’d left school, when I belonged to the Girls Friendly Society, and they were elderly then so I’m sure I wouldn’t have remembered anything about those sort of charities. (Q: It must be further back that I was thinking of, yes. I know there were a lot of charities years ago that had been handed down. The only one I can remember anything about was the bread. It was delivered to the church.
Q: I suppose most of it would be food. Did you have any of the other big houses as well as the Parkers, like Lord Rayleigh or the Du Canes.
Mrs A: Oh yes, the Du Canes, yes, Lady Du Cane, she used to sit outside and bark her orders out you know. [Laughter] Occasionally she’d come in and everybody would be scurrying around. Mr Stiff would be bowing to her, ‘Yes my Lady, no, my Lady’. We’d make faces behind her back [laugh]. If people, we knew different people were very difficult to please we used to call them tabs, (Q: Really.) tabs was the name we gave them if they, you know, they’d take ages to buy a pair of stockings or a pair of gloves, or buy some dress material and ‘Oh here comes old tabby’ we’d say, tabby Rice, or tabby So-an-So.
Q: Was she difficult to please, was Mrs Du Cane difficult to please ?( Mrs A: Yes, occasionally..) There used to be quite a big family lived there ?
Mrs A: Yes and the De Crespignys you see at Wickham Bishops.
Q: But they would tend to come in as well as sending their servants ?
Mrs A: Oh, yes, sometimes they’d come in yes and pick out things. Perhaps at Christmas time if they wanted to buy gifts for their staff you see and personal things perhaps they’d come in for, things like that.
Q: Still, I suppose it was quite good for a shop in Witham to get their trade as they could probably have gone to London or something ?
Mrs A: Oh yes, but it had, well I think Spurge’s really had got a good reputation, that had got a good reputation for quite a few miles round, you know, for their clothes, especially like, as I say n the Manchester Department. People used to say oh you can’t beat Spurge’s for towels, or sheets or sheeting by the yard, blankets and things like that.
Q: And all that stuff came from these London warehouses as far as you know
Mrs A: Oh yes, they used to nearly all come from the warehouses in St Paul’s churchyard, as a rule. They were all. I think we used to have some things from up the North but I can’t remember the names of the firms. Its so far back and as I didn’t have anything to do much with that sort of buying it doesn’t sort of stick in your memory. You just see the stuff come in and have to unpack it and mark it off and put tickets on and that and that’s about all you knew about it.
Q: And was it when you were there there was a shop down further down the road or did that move up, the millinery ?
Mrs A: I can’t remember. I think by the time I worked there the millinery was in the big shop that I worked in. I think London House must have been closed during the War, during the First World War. I think probably that’s when they closed. Then they amalgamated you see. I think it was probably when they did away with the grocery shop and they enlarged the drapery department more. (Q: Yes, of course.)
Q: So where did you and your family use to do your shopping before you were married. Where would your Mother shop ?
Mrs A: Well, in Witham. We never really went out of the town to do any shopping. (Q: Like groceries and so on.) Oh the Co-op was …. No it wasn’t the Co-op no, no Mother used to go down to London House, that’s right, for our hats to be trimmed when I was a child. I remember one particular hat. It was after the First World War. Mum and Dad thought they’d like take us to the sea for a holiday and they booked a week’s holiday at Dovercourt. And people used to dress up for holidays in those days. You know have new clothes for holidays. Well, Mother bought us new hats, these sort of Panama, coarse Panama things that turned up at the back and she bought them at London House and they trimmed them with some very wide satin ribbon of a rusty colour. I remember them with big bows. I can remember that as plain as anything. [laugh] And then I think we had some with cherries on, bunches of cherries on, that came from London House, that’s right. It’s funny how things come back to you.
Q: So clothes tended to more different, individual, really. You wouldn’t have hundreds all the same like you would today from a department store ?
Mrs A: No, oh no. They were more individual than they are now. I mean you wouldn’t have a rail of say size 32 up to 40 all in one style. I mean they didn’t carry such a stock for one thing but they weren’t so repetitive in their fashions as they are now. I mean you go into Debenhams now, I think its an awful shop, you see rails and rails of things all the same. It’s worse than Marks and Spencer’s I think. (Q: Yes, yes.) for shopping now.
Q: So I suppose if someone came in and they liked a dress but it was the wrong size or something ?
Mrs A: Well, you’d re-order for them, we could order you see. I mean if we couldn’t satisfy a customer regarding clothes. Oh yes, there was always ‘Oh we can get it for you, madam’ you know, and get some down on approval. We could get some down from the warehouses, if it was a special order and then the warehouse would take back what the customer didn’t want. Oh yes we did a lot of that. Because, you see they didn’t carry the stock in those days.
Q: No, I suppose the same with the haberdashery and stuff then. If someone came in and wanted something very particular.
Mrs A: Well, we’d mostly got practically everything that they wanted in the haberdashery. I mean we sold all different coloured cottons and buttons and buckles and linen buttons and white bone buttons that men used to have on their pants and things like that, and tape. We’d got practically everything that people wanted but sometimes they’d come in for gloves that we couldn’t fit them up you know and we’d say ‘We can get them for you, madam’. Or stockings, we had a pretty good range once the coloured stockings came in. But … and materials, I mean we could get a length of dress material special. So many yards if we couldn’t fit anybody up you know. Same for patterns and the same with curtain materials, you know, cretonnes and things like that. You’d get patterns through and if we hadn’t got any in stock, ‘cos as I say we couldn’t carry a stock of things like they do in the shops now, because there wasn’t the population that there is now in the town you see, and you’d get patterns down rather than carry a heavy stock you’d get patterns down and customers would choose and say they wanted so many yards of that one and we’d get it for them. And, if Mr Stiff thought it would be a good seller, probably get a whole bale of it you see. But otherwise just get what, the warehouses would do it in those days. But they won’t now you see. (Q: Of course not, no.)
Q: So you did do curtains but you didn’t do carpets or anything ?
Mrs A: Yes, yes, (Q: Oh really.) Yes we had rugs and I don’t know about big carpets I think we could get those in for people. But we used to do rugs and I can’t remember about, I don’t think we stocked lino, no, we didn’t. It was rugs, bedroom rugs you know and sort of in front of the hearth, fire. That sort of rugs, we used to keep those.
Q: Its quite amazing really. ‘Cos, as you say, Witham was a small place, you wouldn’t expect it could keep such a …
Mrs A: No, but it was custom that came in as well. Hatfield Peverel you see. They didn’t used to have any shops then and Terling, people from Terling. They’d come in on their bikes. There was very few motor cars in those days. (Q: True.)
Q: Then, Mr Spurge, you told me, retired to Dovercourt.
Mrs A: He more or less retired to Dovercourt and looked after his business there but he used to come up you know periodically. (Q: Did he have any other shops ?) No, no I don’t think he had anything else, only the shop similar to the one he’d got at Witham down at Dovercourt. I never saw it actually. I never went inside it.
Q: It’s funny how these names have disappeared completely isn’t it ?
Mrs A: Well, I think there are so very few private firms now. I mean you go to Chelmsford there’s, I don’t know if there is any private shops there now. I mean even the shoe shops belong to big chains don’t they. Oh Goslings[?] I think there’s Goslings there now still but I mean all there are a few little private dress shops, you know ready-mades, but I think, Smith’s has gone, that used to be more as Spurges used to be years ago. Smith’s of Chelmsford, very similar to Spurges, used to sell practically everything and the old fashioned type of shop and the old fashioned type of assistant that would really put themselves out to serve you. But you don’t get that these days now.
Q: Because the owners of the shops, i suppose they must have made a reasonable living out of if.
Mrs A: Well they must have done to keep carrying on yes. There wasn’t the taxing that there is now you see. And, as I say, they didn’t carry all that heavy stock, not a terrific lot of stock. I mean, when we were stock taking, we used to come across the same thing perhaps year after year, year after year, you know old fashioned stuff which we couldn’t sell and used to have to be marked down but all for the Revenue, I suppose it was then but I don’t know but we didn’t have a lot of bad stock. As I say we never bought in, not for Sales like they do now. I mean now they buy dresses in specially for Sales, don’t they. Lot of rubbish they buy. I mean the ordinary stock you don’t see do you if you go to the Sales. Though I think Shelley’s in the town are pretty genuine. They mark so much off their stuff don’t they.
Q: Well I must let you get on with your lunch.
Mrs A: Well as long as you have got all you want.