P was born in Thorpe St Andrew in May 1940. Her father was an electrical engineer at Laurence Scott’s Engineering works. She attended Hillside Avenue Secondary Modern School. She left school at 15, in 1955, and was thrilled to get a job at Marks and Spencer in Norwich.
“M&S had very strict rules on cleanliness, personal appearance of staff, politeness to management and customers, no chatting on the shop floor, no chewing sweets or gum, (especially if you had nicked them from the sweet counter). If found guilty of any of these things, it meant instant dismissal. No second chances with M&S. I felt it was worse than school. Supervisors and departmental managers watched your every move.”
Although she found the work itself could be tedious there were plenty of laughs with the other staff members. There was a strict hierarchy in the store. The manager could be seen regularly walking through the store with an entourage of Departmental Managers, all young and eager to please “practically bowing and scraping”.
“In total I suppose there were at least one hundred and fifty sales staff. Seven porters worked in the basement, their job general maintenance of the store, unpacking fruit and foods, delivering the salesgirls’ stock, which had been ordered for their departments. Canteen staff (the manageress and fifteen staff) cooked our lunches daily. I do remember the food was extremely good, reasonably priced. Management had a separate room, supervisors had their own table in the canteen with the sales staff.
Office staff were on the top floor of the building, the third floor consisted of typists and accountants. On this floor was a room for hairdressing and a medical room. I have to say the staff were well looked after, every member of staff under the age of 18 had to attend a dentist at the top of St Stephen’s Street.
The basement area consisted of the porters’ area. Here food produce was dispatched, unloaded and sorted. Whilst in the basement you could always hear the clatter of the wheels of the big bins the porters pushed up and down concrete ramps. Moving on from that area, the pressing rooms – four women ironing stock every day for the sales floor, nothing was allowed to be hung on a rack creased. Opposite these rooms an enormous area of stock bins containing dresses, coats, skirts, blouses, jumpers, menswear, children’s wear.”
There was a lively social life – dancing at the Lido, Samson and Hercules, the Gala, Grosvenor Rooms. Many of the girls were dating Americans who were based at Mildenhall in the 50’s.
After a while, P was moved to the food section:
“[This was] the busiest department of the whole store. Large counters were placed in the centre of the section, one for cake, which was sliced the size the customer required, sold Swiss rolls, boxed cakes, fruit cake, Madeira etc. Another memory of silly things customers ask you: On this occasion another cake line had been introduced – boxes of what was called ‘junior Swiss rolls’. Whilst serving on this counter one day this woman looked at the Swiss rolls, then said to me “Are these alright for seniors?”
“My first counter to serve was the fruit counter, where apples, pears, bananas and grapes were weighed, oranges, mandarins and grapefruit sold individually. Here I can tell a tale of one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, one of complete ignorance. Here I was on the fruit counter, at 15 years old. I knew of grapes, but as a family we had never been able to afford them. So this is my first day on the counter, I am given a duster and told to clean and dust underneath the counter, in between the fruit and till, etc. Finishing this, I thought the black grapes look dusty, so taking my duster proceeded to wipe all the bloom off. It happened to be when [the Manager’s] entourage were inspecting the food department. Seeing the rage in his face, him saying ‘You stupid, stupid girl. What have you done?’, the smirking of departmental managers and supervisors, I wanted the floor to open and swallow me up. There was nothing I could say or do. I was just lucky that my ignorance didn’t cost me my job.”
In September 1956 P became a trainee window dresser, though she still had to serve on the counters on a Saturday.
“For the first year I was the fetcher and carrier, shown how to suspend garments in the windows, allowed to dress the food windows, which had to be done daily, dressing them in the morning with fruit, cake, sweets etc., dismantling it all before leaving off, paint pegboards on the sales floor ready for displays of things like accessories, blouses, showcards. Once climbing down from the ladder my foot went into the paint pot causing laughter to the spectators.
I had to learn how to prepare stock for the window. The windows were all backless and had to be neat at the back as well as the front; blouses had to be pinned at the waist, flicking the sides out to look like a butterfly, all had to look identical, had to be measured. Dresses all had to have waists nipped in, the belts secured with paper clips, this preparation all done in the display room. Dressing the window, the garments tied with nylon thread attached to a paperclip, were hung from ceiling hooks and fittings by holding a long bamboo cane up to the ceiling, allowing the paperclip to attach itself to one of the hooks and so the garment was suspended.”
Over the next two and a half years P progressed to the position of supervisor, but still had to work on a Saturday morning on the sales floor. As her fiancé was away on National Service in Germany, her job became more important in her life.
“I had had happy times at M&S; the staff were great over the five years I worked there, I had made many good friends, had many laughs. … [I remember one colleague who] used to love to bet on horses. Every day he would pop out to the bookies, saying to me, ‘If anyone asks where I am, I am buying pens or pencils.’ Got away with it every time, nobody asked for him. On another occasion – Woolworths next door sold ice creams – we were in the display room, hearing the door slam at the top of the stairs, him running down holding three dripping ice creams.”
“I often, because a window dresser has freedom to walk around the store, spent time collecting stock for a window. One day in [the millinery] department the old girls would be trying on hats, some looking ridiculous. [The salesgirl] would say ‘You look lovely, Madam’, keeping a straight face, and deliberately with her hook-on pole put their hat on the hook above, taking off the hat the woman had just tried, the woman looking for her own. Looking concerned, she would ask what was wrong, they replying they can’t find their hat. She would say ‘Oh silly me, I have hung yours up on the hook’. I would walk away creased up.”
Opportunities at Curls
While working at M&S, P saw on a daily basis the attractively dressed windows in Curls (now Debenhams) opposite. In 1960 the opportunity came, Curls advertised for a senior window dresser. She took a pay-cut to get this job, but as she says, “For me it was meant to be. I left in September 1960 and moved on to Curls, met my future husband and never looked back.”
She had arrived in a different world:
“The display room was the absolute opposite to Marks, dreadfully untidy, but had an atmosphere of creativity and excitement. I felt I had come alive into an entirely different life.
So my new life began in this display room, which had two long seats where the window dressers sat, the room long and narrow, full of junk, a pair of shoes hanging up which had once belonged to a well-liked ex-window dresser, mirrors on another wall for all to check their make-up and hair.”
“Sixteen windows had to be dressed weekly, plus displays in various departments. A rota hung in the display room informing the display team who was doing what and when. At this time Curls had three sales floors, the fourth floor the wonderful studio, which amused me as it was in total chaos. A large room, one enormous table in the centre stacked high with white card, all over the place in all sizes. No such thing as neat piles. At least six drawing boards where all the handwritten price tickets and showcards were written by the studio staff. … This room was a hive of activity, really the hub of the store, as every department needed handwritten tickets which had to be ordered. It seemed that half the sales assistants who requested tickets were terrified of the studio staff, as there would be one of them moaning they had too much to do. There were many funny stories to tell about happenings in this studio.” [One artist painted cracks on one of the other staff’s glasses. Another abandoned his bicycle in the middle of Red Lion Street because he couldn’t cross the road in the traffic.]
“For the first week I worked in the windows and loved it. A whole new experience dressing windows with models and props. All windows in my day were dressed like theatre scenes in most stores. It was great to work in the fashion windows. These faced M&S. All had the same theme running through each window. Great to handle jewellery, cosmetics. I was also learning something new, not to put too much in the window, and grouping, gaining colour sense, plus using spot-lights to put emphasis on a special group of figures. At night the windows looked so impressive it became a competition in the city to see which store could produce spectacular windows. I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful the Christmas windows looked.
Every Saturday the window dressers sat in the display room preparing and making things for the following week’s windows, taking it in turn to answer the Tannoy requesting something out of one of the windows for a customer. If you were a window dresser, the best job in the store, you had freedom to wander around the store if there was nothing to do, which meant looking at clothes etc. You could nip out for a short while. We girls had an appointment each week with hairdressers in Red Lion Street, wore very fashionable tunics and tight black trousers, even supplied with gilt necklaces. We used to think we were the bee’s knees! I so loved this store. Each morning I arrived early, just couldn’t wait to start work.
After two weeks at Curls we had the fabulous job of decorating the Christmas grotto, I was totally amazed at how much this must have cost as yards and yards of different coloured nets were used and different fabrics, carpenters putting the whole thing together. The money spent on windows and projects in those days was phenomenal….”
P met her future husband, who was one of the artists at Curls. She moved out of her parents’ house to a rented flat. This meant she had to get an evening job in a pub to make ends meet. With regret, she decided to leave Curls and worked at Pilch’s sports shop for a short time. However, she was unhappy there because she missed the “wonderful windows of Curls”.
She soon moved on to Bonds (now John Lewis) as a window dresser. There she met some interesting characters, including one gentleman who performed drag acts at local Holiday Camps. She also encountered for the first time
“real snobs, people who came from moneyed backgrounds, two of the window dressers, who both made me very self-conscious of my Norfolk accent, taking the mickey and imitating my speech.”
Things were not easy, however, and she was tempted by the idea of moving to London. The only thing keeping her in Norwich was her boyfriend, whom she married in July 1962. They managed to scrape together the money for their first flat on the first floor of a large Victorian property called “The Mount”. She left Bonds on the eve of her wedding, as she needed more money now that she was married, and got a job at the Co-op, a store at that time considered old-fashioned and out of date, but in the process of being updated.
Time at the Co-op
Things were different at the Co-op:
“Here in the basement, which was large, were masses of old mahogany counters, large drawers underneath which contained dress fabrics, linens, etc. The display room was hardly big enough to swing a cat. I was shown the staff room, a decent size but so dingy, coat pegs all around the walls, a very large mahogany dining table placed in the centre, a large mirror on the back wall. You literally thought you were in the very early 1900s. The Co-op didn’t have a canteen, you had to supply your own food and drink at break times. … Even more of a shock was seeing the state of the models in the windows. I had been used to slim, tall, elegant mannequins, wearing exotic wigs. In front of me were headless mannequins that looked more like my ancient Aunties, with about a thirty-inch waistline. I felt I would be a laughing stock amongst my peers going past the windows seeing me dress such monsters.”
Eventually new mannequins arrived and, after a difficult start,
“… ideas for windows just flowed. … Ideas, ideas! Such as an underwater theme in a fabric window using lobster pots, nets, shells etc. Another theme throughout the windows, Egyptian, dressing the mannequins, making their faces up to look like Cleopatra, painting circles of card in Egyptian designs in reds, blues and gold, using them for the backdrop of each window.”
In January 1963, which was one of the worst winters recorded, she and her husband fell foul of “rachmanism”. In common with many old houses The Mount was bought up and rents increased to an extortionate level, so they had to move out. (Eventually The Mount was demolished and modern flats built in its place.)
“[We] loved this beautiful house, downstairs were beautiful patterned pantiles on the floor, a gorgeous wide mahogany staircase, large plaster columns supported the porch. Today that building would be on a preservation order. It was a superb example of Victorian architecture. We could do nothing to save it, nobody interested as this was happening in the 60s all over Norwich, taking down lovely old buildings, erecting tower blocks and ghastly office blocks.”
They moved into “Dickensian” rooms on Chapelfield Road, with no bathroom, sharing a kitchen and heated with a black leaded fireplace. They made the best of it and at least were close to her work and her parents.
“The saving grace for me, I loved my job, worked with so many nice, pleasant people. It was a happy store, my memory of the Co-op will always be a fond memory. Today the Co-op has almost disappeared, certainly the retail side. In my day it became a very fashionable place to buy clothes, the interior of the store not terribly modern but had a certain charm about it.”
Shortly afterwards they found a basement flat in Surrey Street. After three years, this was bought up by Mann Egerton to expand their business and it was to be demolished.
“We made memories in that flat: [her husband’s brothers] lived a few doors away; it seemed we always had company, plenty of friends, life was good. Didn’t have enough money at times to pay the bills, but it seemed something always cropped up, saved the day. Could never go and ask for money from our parents as both were poor. Here we had our first television. I remember clearly watching the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963. … Laundry was washed by hand, heating the water in a boiler given to us by my mother to wash the clothes, rinsed in cold water in all weathers. I still can remember how my fingers tingled with cold whilst hanging them on the clothes line outside in mid-winter.
Our salaries: I earned slightly more than my husband. One reason being I had a senior job and the Co-op paid better than Curls where he was still employed. Also he was two years younger than me, that made a difference. Our rent was £2 16s per week, rates 12s a week. I shopped at Sainsbury’s in St Stephens. My budget £5 per week – gas and electricity varied. I cannot remember exactly what we had to pay, our salaries, mine £9 17s 6d, my husband’s £7 10s a week. Any money over we spent on records and going out. Spent very little on transport, living in the city centre, just a walk down Surrey Street, both of us so near to our places of work, starting at 9am, finishing at 5.30 p.m., allowed twenty minutes morning and afternoon break, one hour for lunch and worked a five and a half day week – Thursday every store closing at lunchtime.”
She was successful in a regional competition for dressing windows:
” I did enjoy doing my theme copying the Impressionists’ paintings and techniques, painting umbrella forms on board, hanging them with umbrellas in coloured groups.
… Pleased I had won, I had no intention of going to London as I would then be five to six months pregnant. I didn’t get a prize or know what it was – they wouldn’t send it, I had to appear at the Hilton to claim it – but I felt it was nice to end my career at that point on a high.”
The start of parenthood and looking for part-time jobs
The couple’s first son was born in May 1965. They were struggling to make ends meet on one salary, so when the baby was three months old, our contributor got an evening job at Mackintosh’s chocolate factory. Unfortunately:
” I hated the job at Mackintosh’s, working on the belt for “Good News” chocolates. My chocolate I had to put in the box was called “nutty cluster”. For all of this time of working there the belt was moving from right to left. Fine, I could cope with that, being right-handed. On this particular night the belt was moving from left to right. That was it, I had had enough, this was the last straw. I just took a handful of nutty clusters, threw them up in the air, doing so declaring I had had enough, that was it, I was leaving. Hat, apron, overall off, left them on the seat and out the door going back home, saying ‘The job was driving me nuts’, so back to the drawing board to look for another job.
The only other evening employment, barmaid, proved too difficult, most pubs only offered part-time work, poorly paid – the same for waitressing. The only option I had was serving the doctors’ and nurses’ meals at the West Norwich Hospital, which lasted for a few months. In between this job and my next, a similar job, this time at the Jenny Lind Hospital, then on Unthank Road.”
In 1967 she gave up her job at the Jenny Lind.
Into the Rag Trade
“Now I had to think again. 1967 the flower-power era, such an exciting time to be young as we were.”
While at Mackintosh’s our contributor became friends with “M” who had lived near her as a child, who had been to school at Notre Dame. Parents well-off, went to school at the Notre Dame. She was married to an up-and-coming artist and their children were of a similar age.
“A great friendship developed between the four of us, as families we got together. … Both of us could do dressmaking – between us designed and made six dresses, both of us having very little money, just managed to get enough money to buy the fabric. We, after the dresses were made, placed an advert in the paper, courtesy of my husband of course, offering the dresses for sale or to create dresses made to order.
That failed miserably, not one response.”
Acquaintances ran the coffee bar on Guildhall Hill, called “The Jacquard”.
“It became very popular with students and the young, enjoying the flower-power atmosphere, lots of hippies and girls wearing wonderful clothes. Very inspirational for [us].”
One of the backers of the bar, hearing of their failed enterprise offered them a room to sell their clothes.
“We couldn’t believe our luck, this was fabulous news. He then took us to this room, which had been used as an air raid shelter during the War, it had a corrugated, rounded ceiling with the sides reaching the floor. It had such potential, needed decorating and cleaning. No problem, it would be great.
So the Love-Love Boutique began in the coffee bar, thanks to G’s generosity and not wanting rent. [The four of us] set to work. We painted the corrugated structure in yellow, orange and pink, all stripes. M’s husband made incredible earrings of papier maché, painted them in great colours. G gave us some carpet for the floor, I had the old fashion pulley clothes airers, which hung above stoves and Agas to dry linen which we hung for the dresses. Had two pattern books of various fabrics from places such as Gordon Thoday, a big shop, which sold just dress fabric. Bought curtain fabric from Trevor Paige with big designs and flamboyant colours to make cat suits; ticking in navy and white stripe to make trouser-suits, skirts; also khaki drill from Butcher’s, fabric that was very cheap. As we sold a piece, we bought more fabric, even had a mini fashion show. M and I took it in turns to man it, alternating between selling in the evenings and lunchtime, girls ordered styles to be made in different fabrics. Being summertime, we machined outside in my back yard so we didn’t miss the sun, leaving the children to play in the house and yard. I have to say it was hard work as girls expected to get their clothes quickly. With two small children at the age of two we had our difficult moments. It was great for six months, then it all started to go pear-shaped. Students started to get involved with drugs which meant the police sometimes became involved, then, for what silly reason I can’t remember, M and I fell out, all very immature and daft. I know sometimes youth can be so stupid. Anyway we parted, had hardly made any money. It’s an experience I will never forget and something we tried – didn’t quite work out how we planned it.
Then came a lull in my working life until 1968. I worked as an evening waitress at Stannards which sold bread and cake in one part, a restaurant at night, this situated opposite Bonds. My husband earned a reasonable salary at this point. …”
When they were turned down by the Council who considered them “adequately housed” in their house in Queens Road (due for demolition), they decided to save for a deposits and buy their own house.
Saving for the house …and working as waitress
To save for the house, P looked for part-time work of any sort, either day or evening. On a chance meeting with her former boss at Bonds she was offered a part-time job there and with regrets sent her son, now three, to play-school on Earlham Road, which luckily he enjoyed. Although she loved being back, trying to fit a full day’s work into a morning proved difficult and she left after six months. In September 1969 her husband started his own advertising business in a shop premises. The gamble paid off, so much so that after eighteen months, they moved to a larger premises on Malthouse Road. By 1970, they had saved enough to begin looking for a house, her son had started school full time and she had a full time job on Tombland as a waitress for a restaurant chain.
“For two years out of the three that I worked at the restaurant I was working fifty-six hours a week.”
“In this period we bought our first house, at St Bartholomew’s Close. It had been standing empty for over a year and needed massive restoration – bought it for £3,000 – between us, friends, family, my husband’s salary, my tips, it was completed. It was not easy – It looked magnificent when finished and we loved it, and had fantastic neighbours.”
“The restaurant had a simple menu consisting of fillet, sirloin and rump steak served with chips, mushrooms and peas, or Dover sole, chips and peas. For sweet, ice-cream or cheese and biscuits. The restaurant served one hundred covers in two rooms, one front, the other at the back. Before a shift began you were given by the management a float of £5, this was used to pay for customers’ drinks, wine which they had paid for at the bar which you had to make sure you’d entered on your customers’ bill, otherwise you had to pay for it yourself, which had occasionally happened to me and other waitresses. The waitress was responsible for her takings which was handed over to the manager along with the £5 float at the end of a session. If the money was short it was your problem, you had to pay, losing all your tips which we all relied on.”
“Working there for three years I had many regular customers. One I remember very clearly … He came in every day, his order a rump steak, medium rare, no chips, just mushrooms and peas, leaving me a tip of two shillings. Customers came from all walks of life. Lunch time it was solicitors, travelling salesmen, estate agents and business men. Evenings the well-off customers who we used to call “posh”. I personally found (apart from the obvious, a good tip) them to always be pleasant and courteous, but you occasionally got the odd one, that sort that my father would term as “half-sixes”, a person who despised people with inferior social position, backgrounds and intellect.
Here I must tell a story of such a group of people. These were ten young farmers that had booked a table for 10.30 p.m. The manager accepted the booking knowing full well we closed at 11 p.m., putting them on a table in my section. They arrived, obviously had been out drinking, firstly when I asked them politely what they would like to drink all mimicking my accent. Because they didn’t have starters, four of the men left the table, came back about ten minutes later with starters from another restaurant on Tombland. By this time, I and all the staff were getting a little annoyed. By this time the restaurant was empty of customers. They had pre-ordered Dover soles, the chef eager to cook them so he could leave. Whilst waiting for the main course they start to throw bread rolls at each other, still taking the mickey out of me. I have to say never in my life had I seen people behaving so badly, their manners were appalling. As nobody could go home until they left we just had to sit, wait and endure this rudeness, the manager not intervening in case they should walk out and not pay the bill. Almost midnight they get up to leave, I standing with staff as we always did to say goodnight to a customer. They had paid and left money on the table, which I collected. No tip. As they passed me the last person gave me one shilling for a tip. I returned it to him and said, ‘I think you need this more than I do, Sir’.”
On other occasions you would have a male customer trying to embarrass the waitress in front of his girlfriend. Once I remember this happening. He asked for a carafe of red wine putting on his table. He said snootily ‘but it isn’t chilled’. I replied ‘You don’t chill red wine, Sir’. He remained quiet for the rest of the meal. Around 7 p.m. would be the time for commercial travellers to come in, who would try to chat you up. Middle-aged men, fat and sleazy, made your flesh crawl while you were serving them. They would ask what were you doing when you left off. I always said ‘Going back to my husband, thank you’.
We often had celebrities come in late evening from the Theatre Royal. One day, a lunchtime, two minutes before closing, the front door opened and in walked Cliff Richard and Cleo Laine, me nearly falling over myself. The manager arrived to greet them the same time as I did, he saying ‘Sorry we are now closed’, they were not at all pleased, mumbled and left.”
Parenthood again and a break from employment
P’s husband started his own advertising agency which went on to become very successful. In January 1973 their second son was born. They sold their house and bought an Edwardian semi-detached house in West Parade. “Once again massive renovation and disruption. Enjoyed every minute of the chaos. At least the builders did a lot of the heavy work.”
Two years on, 1975, (with an additional mortgage) they swapped houses with a UEA lecturer: In Newmarket Road, ‘… an enormous grey brick Victorian house stands before us. “He’s got to be joking. No way can we afford this.” ‘ Going inside it’s even more apparent we couldn’t afford this house. It was a mess regarding decor, with kitchen at the front of the house painted purple and orange with black and white tiles covering a wooden floor, toilet painted lime green and pink, union jacks on the back of four bedroom doors upstairs that had to be occupied by their four children, the hall dark, painted bottle green and brown carpet. They certainly had ripped the guts out of the house.”
“It was whilst living at Newmarket Road I discovered vintage clothing through a friend of mine, A. Many years ago, when we lived in Surrey Street and my son was three months old I had bought for ten shillings a twenties beaded dress that I loved from a charity shop, which used to be a chemist’s in St Stephen’s. By this time I had a car, my husband’s business going well, I had a little money to spend. A and I went to various places, such as an antique shop in Wrentham, Antique Fairs at St Andrew’s Hall, jumble sales on Saturdays, auctions, whilst [our children] were at school during the day. Both of us passionate about the clothes.”
After selling some of her vintage clothing to them, she joined a group of people who ran a shop in Elm Hill which sold vintage clothes, linens and Edwardian underwear.
“Now there were four of us independently trading from this very small room, which contained four clothes racks, a table of linens in front of the small window, shoes under the rails, clothes hanging around the walls and staircase. The arrangement was that each had one day in the shop to sell for themselves and the others, the extra day allocated for whoever wanted to do it. At that time most periods of vintage clothes sold, the teeny-boppers wanted the fifties clothes and stiletto heels, the teens wanted the sixties, University students wanted thirties and forties crepe dresses, day and evening wear, women in their thirties and forties were looking for linens and smart 1940’s clothes, men and teenage boys collarless shirts, coats and jackets. Then there were the collectors like myself, looking for Edwardian whites, classic 1920’s – 30’s – 40’s dresses, coats, suits, jackets etc. etc. The whole business to me fascinating, the wonderful feeling of anticipation, not knowing what you were going to find or where, handling the most beautiful clothes and fabrics, wondering, whilst handling them, who had made it and who had worn it, heard great stories from the owners who brought clothes in the shop to sell, the buzz when you had a great find. Talking to all the youngsters who had a passion for the clothes, some loved to just look, not wearing the clothes, some you knew had so little money, and reduced the garment to their affordability.”
“I put my heart and soul into the business, buying daily with previous day’s takings, laundering them on the same day, getting them into the shop the next. It was obvious with my buys I was pleasing the customers. Every time I took a black sack of clothes in the shop most sold straight away.”
During this time the family moved twice, after having a difficult time with restoring a house in Unthank Road in November 1981, they moved to their present house in Mile End Road.
“My first year’s business in Elm Hill, I started with twenty pounds and made £10,000. Now I travelled every day or most days buying, as I advertised for two years, spending huge amounts of money, also keeping a lot for my collection. On these trips I met fascinating people, for example: In November 1980 I had a call from a lady, asking if I collected suits by Michael. I said yes, but in truth I had never heard of the designer. She told me she lived in Bungay and in her very well-spoken voice, said I couldn’t miss the house as it was pink, stables running along the side of the house at the back. As this, the very early days of my business I only had £50 in my bank account and always my mind on a buy my husband’s words about spending my own money.
Off I go in my Citroen Dyane to Bungay, find the house which is large, drive down the drive to find the entrance, find it and the stables, realise that once more I could be out of my depth, knocked on the door, it opens, tumbling out come three dogs barking. Not afraid of dogs I talk to them and pat their heads. Mrs S behind them, who has one arm, tall, elegant and beautifully dressed, says ‘Oh my dear, how wonderful, nobody has been able to get near my dogs. Last week they savaged the postman’. Letting me in, she says ‘My husband and I are moving to Normandy. We are just taking one trailer of belongings. The rest you can see is to be auctioned here at the house, and we have a marquee at the back.’ We went through this large hallway, stopping at a doorway, looking into this enormous room, the longest table I had ever seen in my life, stacked with Coalport china, silver and many pieces of china, everything lotted up including furniture in the room. Moving on to the next doorway another large room containing two double beds, one full of lizard and snakeskin bags, individually lotted up and on the bed stacked very high clothes. I was gobsmacked.
The lady turning to me, said ‘Well dear, here it is’, moving the door. Hanging on the back was the suit by Michael, just an ordinary grey two piece suit, which she brings over to me. Then said ‘Of course there are all of these clothes on the bed as well.’ Just as she finished speaking the phone rang. She said ‘I will go and answer it, dear. Meanwhile pick out the things you want.’ I just didn’t know where to start. I could, I knew, sell it all – from the skin stilettos, can-can petticoats. Chinese jackets, evening dresses, one she told me her sister wore to be presented to the King of Ethiopia, her hats she had worn at Ascot, white bedspreads, literally all sorts. Thinking to myself no way could I afford hardly any of this I picked out two Chinese jackets, three pairs of shoes and the can-can petticoats. She came back into the room saying ‘Well, my dear, have you made up your mind?’ I looked at her, said ‘I have to be totally honest with you, all I can afford is fifty pounds, which I will give you for these items. The rest I know you could easily sell in the auction.’ She looked at me long and hard, then said ‘Well my dear, could you afford eighty pounds? … ‘Yes’. She said, ‘Then my dear, you shall have it all for being honest.’ I just couldn’t believe what she had said and started to protest, once again telling her she could sell it all at auction. Her voice raised, said ‘Do you want it or don’t you?’ Quivering I said ‘Yes, but it is too generous.’ She then said ‘Last week I had a man round just to look at some kitchen wear. His wife was with him, asked if I had clothes. She offered me fifty pounds for the lot, so you shall have them.’ Shaking, I wrote the cheque for eighty pounds and crammed my car to the brim. I couldn’t see a thing from any window and I sailed home on air, couldn’t believe what had happened to me.”
“Another story: I had a call from a lady who lived out in the sticks, in a tied cottage, her husband a farm labourer. The house very small, clean but very untidy. She small and round and very timid, showed me a lovely 1920’s cut velvet top in black. I paid her twenty pounds, my policy to pay half of what I would sell it for. She over the moon, asked if I bought wedding dresses. Yes, I did. Wanted me to buy hers. I asked should she not keep it or give it to a daughter? Said she had no children, went upstairs and fetched it. There in her hand a very small oyster coloured satin utility wedding dress in such a simple design. Almost in tears said ‘To think I once could get into it.’ I paid her another twenty, so plain it would never sell. I told her I would always keep it and in one of the fashion shows in the 1980’s that wedding dress, in a section of the show for 1940’s and the War years, was worn by a model who stood at the end of the cat walk and a boy dressed in naval uniform lifted the veil and kissed her. I would have loved that dear little lady to be on the front row to witness it. I still have that dress today.
One other story: I had a call from a lady in Bracondale, saying she was about to put this bag of clothes into a jumble sale, realised these clothes would be what I was looking for. She lived in a 1930’s block of flats on the second floor. Knock, opening the door a frail little lady who I find out is in her nineties. We walk into her lounge, she showed me the contents of the bag. It contained three 1920’s chiffon dresses. I offered her sixty pounds, thrilled to bits she accepted. Told me she has a lovely dress and jacket on the top of her wardrobe which she will ask her daily help to get down and could I call again. Three weeks later I have a phone call, would I come and look at the dress and jacket.
The purple dress and jacket was 1940’s, quite plain and uninteresting. On the floor three pairs of shoes, two pairs day shoes, 1940’s, but old-fashioned in style and the other pair evening shoes of flowered brocade, which I liked. Once again I offered half of what they could be sold for, the sum thirty pounds, twenty for the dress and jacket, ten pounds for the shoes. Taking me by complete surprise she said ‘”Well, that’s not very much, is it. I am sure you can do better than that.’ Taken aback I explain, trying not to insult her favourite ensemble, that the items were not the best of sellers and could offer her no more. Eventually, after me saying that, she agreed to sell them, but it did make me laugh as before meeting me they would all have gone into a jumble sale.
Another trip was to Sandringham: “… here I bought a dressing up box offered to me by the head gamekeeper’s wife, chairwoman for her local cancer charity. The box contained a collapsible top hat called an opera hat, a peach cut velvet dressing gown edged with marabou and a peach fine silk lace dress and jacket, 1930’s, which later I was to discover, whilst preparing for one of the fashion shows, to be a Chanel.”
On another visit she bought ball gowns which had belonged to a Duchess.
“… her maid told me stories of her life, travelling on cruises in the 1950’s and 60’s, wearing these beautiful dresses of red satin, black net, blue brocade and pale blue net, and lastly (the one I kept), a dress of muslin, handmade in Italy, daisies all over the dress, raised and looked real. I was told [she] wore it to go to the palace and dined with the Queen, who admired it. One of the evening bags, a box bag in black satin, studded, apart from the lid, with diamante, and face compact to match. ”
The Quayside Antique Collector’s Centre
“We heard that shortly on the Quayside, near Fye Bridge, an Antique Centre was to open for around forty stall holders. We had looked into getting a shop but rent and rates for us were astronomical. We had been very lucky at Elm Hill, paying a rent of twenty five pounds a month each for our attic room. … The building was wonderful, a very early Victorian school, very large, inside lots of activity, many people working, builders, carpenters. Eventually we found the manager of the project, who informs us the whole building is to become an Antiques Centre, with forty stalls and will be opening in March, units costing £35 per week. Then showing us the size of a unit on the first floor, ground floor space already booked. Seeing the size of the space it’s obvious with our stock we needed two units together, £70 per week. All of us nervous, paying so much rent, knew we had to do it if we wanted to continue trading. Already in the city we had competitors. … We booked our space, moved in just before March and were here for ten years. I was to meet the “good, the bad, the ugly and the not so ugly”, have really happy days, bad days, laughter, tears, mistakes and learning, finding out about people, the way they ticked. If nothing else a great learning curve.”
“The Quayside Antique Collector’s Centre, as it became known, opened 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, all stall holders having to do one duty day a week, serving for themselves and other stall holders.”
“… As you walked through the front door of the Centre on the ground floor two rows of units, full of antique furniture, china, silver, jewellery, cutlery, bric-a-brac, linens, one unit specialising in Art Deco. I have to admit it looked very impressive. Walking on a doorway which led to a room on the right. Here a dealer selling postcards, cigarette cards and ephemera. To the left through a door a large room for restoring furniture, and a door that led out to the yard, big enough to park six cars, wide gates opening out into Pigg Lane. At the back of the yard a large warehouse which was used for a time as Auction Rooms. Back into the main building the back hall led to a staircase and entrance to the first floor. On the landing the manager’s office, further along on the left the coffee bar, for customers and staff, a medium sized room, then through to the first floor. Here around twenty units, we having the first two as you walked into the room. Most of the units were a repeat of downstairs.
With both trade and business taking a downturn in the eighties, with an economic crisis and recession, most dealers just scraped by. Some stallholders left within the first month, others had Antique shops in the suburbs, trying to keep both their businesses going. In the ten years I remained there I must have seen a hundred people come and go.”
“My customers ranged from all walks of life, punks, the cult of then fashionable era of the New Romantics, girls buying everything in black, made from lace, brocade. They bought anything that was really different, also stiletto shoes, long black gloves of satin or net, some wore the fashionable Doc Martin boots. Then the students from Art School, the University and City College all having a passion for the clothes, students buying D.J.s and tails for balls. Boys buying military stuff, such as greatcoats, bomber jackets and jackets. Others interested in collarless shirts, 1940’s suits, coats, top hats, trilbies. I found them all fascinating, spent hours and hours in the ten years talking to them. Some became collectors like myself, some bought for fancy dress parties. It was fun dressing them up. We had such laughs.
I remember an occasion, this girl bought an outfit, a man’s medieval costume that had been worn and made for a stage production, it something I would have never worn, but I was in my forties and she only around sixteen or seventeen. Next day an irate mother appeared in the unit asking me what the hell did I think I was doing selling her daughter such a distasteful outfit. I explained her daughter was not under any pressure to buy, stating the outfit was an historical piece made in the early 1900s. Her reply ‘Historical! More like hysterical.'”
Along with friends and business contacts, P held a series of fashion shows:
“All the models were customers and daughters and sons of family and friends. It took place in the Orangery. Needless to say it would take far too long to explain how wonderful, exciting this first show was, the girls and boys looked stunning, the Orangery full of people. My husband did all the advertising for us and we had press coverage, raised over £1,500 for Cystic Fibrosis.
The next five shows were performed at St Andrew’s Hall, each taking three months to prepare, having massive support from dealers at the centre, manning our stall, selling tickets, my husband designing posters, tickets and paying for large adverts in the press and press coverage, as all these shows were for charity. Every show had twenty models, some of whom did every show from 1986 to 1992. Sometimes we had twenty five, showing almost two hundred outfits from the Edwardian era to 1970’s. None of the models were paid, we had a lot of support from our family, my husband’s brothers printing the posters and tickets, our sons modelling some shows, their friends and girlfriends joined us. My younger son recorded all the music for each era.
In preparation each model came to my house to try on outfits, to pick out what suited them best, trying on dresses, coats and suits for day and evening wear, all accessorised for boys and girls. The models all looked incredible, coming from different professions and backgrounds, and you can imagine we had many laughs. Because [my business partner] and I had the same sort of sense of humour and taste in clothes, the fittings of the models were relaxing for both us and them. We looked upon them like our sons and daughters. They had one fitting, came back if alterations were necessary. Some girls had thirteen changes of outfits that had to be hung in sequence, night and day from Edwardian to 1970’s.”
“Every show they only had the afternoon of the show to rehearse, but needless to say they did a marvellous job. [We] worked with three dressers, to get the models on the catwalk in one of the back rooms of the hall. Always there was such a buzz. Although there were feelings of tension, anticipation and nervousness with us all, it was such a happy venue, all of us enjoying it, mothers in the audience watching their sons and daughters in tears, being so used to seeing them dressed in jeans, Doc Martin boots, now on the catwalk so elegant, beautiful, smart and stunning.
By the last Fashion Show we had raised for the charities Cystic Fibrosis, Leukaemia, Cancer Research and Children in Need, over £10,000 (more if the greedy Council didn’t want so much to hire the hall – would never reduce the cost for charity events). However I am left with great memories and video footage of the events, plus photographs and press cuttings.”
The Centre was a great place for real characters, and some interesting buys.
“During these years we had some fantastic buys, one when [a fellow stall holder] gave up his business in Bethel Street. I borrowed £3,000 from my father, so we could buy him out in 1988, paid my father back within three months, selling it on to two dealers. A regular buyer had a costume hire business of vintage clothing in London, her clothes used for many well known films, one of which was Woody Allen’s Radio Days, our gents’ 1940’s suits were used on the set …”
“Another highlight for us, we went on a call to a lady in her seventies, in 1987 her mother had died, she being a nurse in her youth at the time of Nurse Cavell. She had several of her uniforms to sell. This was in Clarendon Road. Arriving at this large Victorian, three storey house, very untidy and dirty, we are escorted up to the attics, which you could only describe as a scene like Miss Haversham’s, cobwebs everywhere. The lady opened a cupboard, it was full of old chemist’s bottles, washing powder, boxes of Omo, Rinso and Persil. Apparently, we were told, boxes of margarine had been found from 1940 during the War. It was incredible.
We were shown three big leather trunks full of dust. Inside the trunks the nurse’s uniforms and beautiful Victorian costumes and hats, accessories, boxes of flowers made from velvets and satin, ribbons, mostly Victorian, satins, velvets and silk. Never had I been on such a high, across the attic a large rail containing dresses and suits of the 40’s and 50’s, full of dust, all of them still possessed their original labels and the price. One of the trunks contained dressing up clothes, being told these belonged to the lady as a child. We bought it all for three hundred pounds, not knowing until it came home to mine if lots were damaged.
On the way down from the attics we passed an open door, we were asked to look inside, the room full of toys, the fireplace open, masses of soot and cinders had fallen into the room where some of the toys lay. It looked just like a child had just left the room after playing with the toys, which consisted of dolls, cuddly toys, a child’s dresser, tea-sets, train set and games. Beside the doorway five lovely cuddly toys, a cat, bulldog, fox, Scotty dog and a hound, which we offered to buy and we shared them, paid £10 each. We wanted to buy it all but couldn’t really afford any more. Decided to tell a fellow dealer about it, who went along and only bought one item, we couldn’t believe it. A lot of the pieces we bought were used for the Fashion Shows, the Victorian costumes, the flowers for head dresses and trimmings, all had a use, some had rotted but most survived.”
In January 1992, P and her business partner moved to their own small shop in Bagley’s Court off Pottergate, and then into an Antiques Centre in St Benedict’s. Then,
“I continued solo, enjoyed my customers and some of my colleagues, kept the business going until 1996. Fashions change frequently and youngsters were losing interest in vintage clothes; the clothes, a lot of them sizes 10 to 12, were too small for many girls, not just because of weight but bone structure, were somewhat bigger. Girls loved the clothes but couldn’t get into them, so I felt now was the time to finish, walk away from a business that I had loved.
I had made money – a lot in the early days. I had a great collection, met some incredible people, who have made me rich in memories, teenagers I met in the business who have been inspirational, dealers from all walks of life, some honest, some dishonest, some becoming friends. It has all been a great learning curve. At the age of fifty six in 1996 I retired with hundreds of memories, good and bad.
As an ordinary person coming from a poor background I feel I have had a privileged past, which I so appreciate. At times my husband and I have been stretched to the limit, both physically and mentally, but worth every second of every day in working and achieving it together.”
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