My Grandfather, Ernest Pearson, was a coal miner who (after suffering from a collapsed lung) became a shopkeeper in Woodhouse, Sheffield.

This essay was written by my father, Alan Pearson, in 1971.  I hope it will rekindle fond memories for older readers, and educate the younger reader about how thing used to be.

The Corner Shop

The corner shops that I knew of before the war were not just ordinary grocery shops; they were micro—supermarkets. Shelves stretched from floor to ceiling and these in turn were divided into a honeycomb of compartments filled with a range of goods that you would expect to find in a tobacconist, a chemist, a hardware shop and a sweet shop all combined. Hanging from hooks in the ceiling, there were clogs, flue brushes and flitches of bacon. Cards hung from hooks on shelves with small round pill boxes stuck on them containing ‘Blood and Stomach’ and ‘Back and Kidney’ pills, the do-it-yourself medicines for those who could not afford to pay for the doctor in the days before the National Health Service. I often wondered whether they were anything more than a psychological cure, especially when a customer didn’t know which box to take. Of course the corner shop was a product of the time. When rows of terraced houses were built around the turn of the century the builder only thought of two things. How near could they be built to the factory or mine, and how cheap would they be; they were just boxes without bathrooms, kitchens and pantries. Hence the corner shops evolved to become the communal pantry, or larder, for the working class.

My Uncle, Joe Pearson, 
outside his father's shop. 
The corner shop had a much needed purpose, a place where single items of food and household requisites could be purchased the moment they were required. In the morning it was to purchase the fresh bread and vegetables for dinner. The afternoons were quiet until the schools closed; then everyone returned to buy such things as tea, sugar, cheese, jam and margarine for tea-time. After tea there was a last minute stampede, before the shop closed, to purchase bacon and eggs for breakfast, and cocoa and condensed milk for supper. This cycle was repeated every weekday except Saturday when there had to be additional purchases to last for Sunday. There may be an extra delicacy for tea, perhaps some boiled ham cut wafer-thin to share round a large family, or if ‘company’ was expected, a tin of salmon and a tin of pineapple cubes.

Some shops had a ‘beer-off’ license which meant that they had to stay open until 10 p.m., including Sundays. This gave them the opportunity to sell other goods as well. Even so the shop without a license would be pestered by a stream of customers knocking at the back door after closing time. A curious clause in the law made it illegal to sell less than a pint of beer to a child under the age of fourteen and the pint bottle had to have a gummed paper seal over the cork. Did the lawyers think the child could not break the seal? or was it assumed that a child would not have enough money to buy a pint of beer for itself?

The corner shop may also have had another license, purchased from the Postmaster General, allowing the shop to sell postage stamps without profit but this was only part of the many services available. The most important one, as far as the working-class were concerned, was that goods could be had on credit and paid for at the end of the week when the wage-earners came home with money. You didn’t have to search the shelves to find what you wanted, the shopkeeper brought it to the counter for you, and if your large family meant that you had a large number of items they were delivered to your home at no extra cost. Another service was the provider of change; pennies were needed to feed the gas or electric slot meter.

Most shops were the only places to have a telephone, unless you walked ten or fifteen minutes to the nearest public kiosk, but it wasn’t the walk that put people off going to the nearest public telephone, they quite often didn’t know how to use one, so the shopkeeper would make the call for them. Of course everyone remembered the telephone number of the shop so you had a message delivery service. This would range from a message from a hospital "Mrs So and So has had a baby boy and they are both doing well" to the late night message "Will yer tell me mum that ‘ave missed last ‘bus and will be stopping the night with Rosie ?" The latter message was probably an early warning of the first type.

The shops were centres for gossip, replacing the village pump, and the women would stop to chat amongst themselves. Men were served out of turn, especially as they normally only wanted tobacco. Police detectives sometimes called to find a clue in their fight against crime -had Mrs X been having a spending spree recently?

Today the rows of terraced houses are being bull-dozed away, and with them the corner shop. They are being replaced by supermarkets and shopping precincts. This is the day of the bulk buying, quick return, supermarket chain owners. Gone are the days of personal service.

2nd May 1971

If you knew my father, Alan Pearson:

Alan Pearson

or went to Pearson's shop at 155, Sheffield Road. Woodhouse, Sheffield, I would be interested to hear from you.

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© Bill Pearson 1999