Legion Stores, Birstall
We owned a small local shop in the 1950s; Legion Stores at 13 Front Street, in Birstall, just north of Leicester in the English East Midlands.
The shop was in the oldest part of Birstall, quite close to the River Soar and opposite the very old St. James Church; relics of a Saxon window were found during major restoration works in the 19th century. The peel of church bells always takes me back to childhood Sunday mornings, either in the old shop, or at number 5, an old cottage we’d later rented, just down the road.
For the first few years that we had the shop food was still rationed and Mum used to bone and slice the bacon and measure out all the rationed portions of cheese and meat.
Mum and Grandma did most of the serving in the shop because Grandad didn’t like working behind the counter; he didn’t have much patience and always said he couldn’t put up with the ‘chatting women’.
Almost everything had to be weighed and measured out by hand, hardly anything came pre-packed. Things like sugar came in big bags and were measured into small bags for the customer, bacon was sliced by hand and parcelled up, cheese, lard and butter had to be cut into chunks, weighed and wrapped.
In the kitchen at the back of the shop we had a small butter churn, like a small wooden barrel with a turning handle that we used to make our own butter. I don’t actually remember if we churned the butter that was sold in the shop, although I do remember my Mum and Grandma patting the measured chunks of butter into blocks with wooden paddles and wrapping them in paper.
Particular delights for me were the rows of jars full of sweets, unfortunately out of my reach. Something I could actually reach were the eggs, dozens of them in stacks of trays. My mother told me that one day I picked up some of the eggs and when she told me to put them down, I just dropped them on the floor. I bet the cane that she kept behind the bread board came out that time.
One of my favourite parts of the shop were the rows of little wooden drawers behind the counter and below the shelves of sweet jars, tins and jams. These drawers were full of various dry goods, such as salt, with small metal scoops used to measure the contents into bags. The drawer I liked most of all contained lots of button badges, these must have been given out by the suppliers, because I seem to remember them advertising things like Saxa salt.
The shop did steady business and just about paid its way for a few years, but self-serve food stores started to become popular in the 1950s, gradually turning into the chains of supermarkets that most of us buy our food from today.
By the late 1950s the old shop on Front Street wasn’t doing very well, loosing customers to the newer shops in the village at Sibson’s Corner, so when Mum and Dad moved in 1959, to a new house on a new estate off Greengate Lane, Grandma and Grandad Manterfield gave the shop up and moved into the old cottage that we’d rented at 5 Front Street.
So that was the end of our little retail experiment, but it left me with many happy memories of a quieter time in a small corner of a very old village.