PLACES TO REMEMBER
Although, in this recollection of Swansea in the 1930s, there is a fairly detailed account of business premises situated in the central sector of town, this chapter is given over to those places of special delight – shops or business premises that had about them something that set them apart from the ordinary “run of the mill” places. These were locations with their own peculiar aromas or unique treats that enthralled youngsters over many years. They are not listed in any order of preference, but rather illustrate some of the facets that existed – few ever likely to return.
THE FAGGOT AND PEA SHOP was just above High Street railway station. The smell from the small, sparkling clean shop spreading across the main road, with beckoning fingers for all passing by, to savour its delicate offerings. Inside were small wooden tables and benches, scrubbed until the much used wood gleamed. On the walls were sailing ship models. They over looked a counter from whence came the glorious smell of faggots, mushy peas, boiled potatoes and bubbling brown steaming gravy. The meal, served on a large plate with a spoon, was bolstered with huge chunks of fresh bread, to clean the plate and divest it of the last spot of gravy. The food was always piping hot, causing one to blow across the plate in an effort to eat the succulent offering quickly. At a cost of a few pence, it proved to be a feast fit for a king, and if time was too short to eat it on the premises, them armed with a large jug, with the top covered, one could carry this sumptuous repast home to enjoy at leisure.
RALPH’S BOOKSHOP was in Alexandra Road, offering the world of adventure and literature to those with time to browse among its shelves. There must have been tens of thousands of books of all sorts, stacked on the racks – a lifetime’s reading on practically every conceivable subject. The strange musty smell of old leather and fading pages pervaded the shop. An hour perusing the volumes would fly past, nobody bothered you to buy. It was a sanctuary where love of books outweighed mere monetary considerations.
WOOLWORTHS in High Street, an imposing building, formerly the Hotel Cameron, 9 storeys tall, was bought by Woolworths in 1927. Its main boast was nothing over sixpence was sold. It was a store crammed with a multitude of stalls, covering a host of various goods, where assistants would serve you from behind the counter, not as now, lining up at the pay here centrepiece.
LEWIS LEWIS, also in High Street, by contrast, prided itself on the links it had forged with the past. The shop assistants were inevitably dressed in black outfits, while roaming around the building would be the store manager, whose function would be to greet customers and deal with their queries. It was a big family owned store, specialising in high class products of all types. Its many large shop windows faced on to the street, always among the best set out in Swansea. But one feature seared into the memory was its network of pulleys and metal cups that were suspended just below ceiling height, the entire length of the premises. Upon making a purchase, the money and receipt would be placed into the metal container. The handle would be pulled back and released, and off the container would go winging its passage over the heads of shoppers until disappearing into the cash desk, whence it would return with ones change. A memorable experience!
GALE’S THE GROCER in High Street might appear an unusual place to regard with affection, but it was a grocery shop far different from any other. The interior of the building was long, but narrow, the sides of the counters having tubs or crates of all forms of fruits or cereals on show. The counter was packed with huge cheeses and large moulds of butter, from which the assistants would deftly slice a portion, slap it between two wooden plaques, and weigh it in a neatly packed square shape. But it was the smell of smoked bacon, suspended from giant steel hooks in the ceiling that set this food shop apart. It was a wafting scent, intermingled with spice and soft fruit that simply begged to be sniffed. On the counter stood the steel plated bacon slicer, where a customer’s selection of bacon came out thin as tissue paper or as thick as a finger – it made no difference. The expertise of the bacon slicer never failed. At Christmas time, for the regular clients, there was always given, with the compliments of the management, a tea caddy full of Indian tea, a far cry from today’s supermarkets and their pre-packed cardboard tasting proteins.
HANCOCK’S BREWEY in Oxford Street, was a fascinating place to pass when beer was being brewed. The malty smell settled over the lower reaches of the town making one feel heady. Clumping along, pulling the huge drays laden with casks of ale, were the shire horses, generally grey in colour and laden with brass harness and small bells, which jingled to the lurching roll of the wagon.
MOSDALE’S TRIPE FACTORY in Hafod, provided an entirely different smell for the nostrils. Here they handled the intestines of slaughtered animals and converted the stomachs into tripe, a delicacy much sought after by those with fragile stomachs. The food would be cooked in milk and lightly touched with onions. By many it was thought delicious, but in the process of creating this delicacy, the smell was obnoxious. All windows and doors would be tightly closed, but still you could not escape the stench. The factory was supposed to be one of the most hygienic around, maybe it was, but, that in no way altered the situation.
THE ABBATOIR OR SLAUGHTERHOUSE was just off Oxford Street. It was yet another place that you walked past with fingers over your nostrils. Countless thousands of animals trod their last path along the cobbled stone way, the cries of those in their pens awaiting their ultimate end being pitiful to hear. Once in a while pandemonium would occur with a lively animal, generally a bullock, somehow managing to free itself and make a dash for obscure safety. It would race into the main shopping area of the town, causing panic stations in all directions, but the ending was never varied. The poor creature would be captured and taken back to its final resting place.
WAY’S BOOKSHOP in Union Street, held special delights, not because it boasted the best in clean, modern books, or masses of stationery and painting accessories, but because of the endless spinning columns of foreign stamps, all wrapped in transparent packets, on display. Here the entire universe was at one’s fingertips, exotic countries long since gone. In those days, the British Empire, with its splash of red, appeared to cover huge chunks of my atlas, and it was a constant thrill to save enough pocket money, and, after considerable thought, spend it all acquiring postage stamps from some far flung corner of the globe. Stamps from Persia, Abyssinia, Tibet, Ceylon and many other countries were obtainable. Now they have been swallowed up and given new names or else have sunk without trace.
DAVID EVANS, in Castle Street, at Christmas time put on show its splendid bazaar. Here you would see the latest and best mechanical toys perform their gyrations. Massive wooden forts with soldiers made of lead or wood, depicted every army there ever was. It was a treasure trove of toys that more often than not were out of the reach of the ordinary working man. Also among this galaxy of exotic gifts stood the might working models of meccano with the centre piece a huge model railway line with hordes of passengers and goods trains whizzing past at a formidable speed. It was a spot where boyhood dreams aspired and where patience was born.
There are many other places that linger in the memory, buildings that have disappeared under great concrete or have been transformed into public gardens.
BEN EVANS department store dominated the skyline of Castle Bailey Street, with a globular styled structure and enclosed arcade, which was a shelter from the rain. It was a quality business selling the best of products and, inside, the spaciousness of the premises was matched by the elegance of the fittings, including ornate winding banisters that headed towards the sky.
EYNON’S and R.E. JONES were pastry makers, whose products had a great reputation. Here it was possible to purchase a half penny bag of stales, a hotch-potch of cream slices, currant buns, jam tarts and anything else that had not been sold the previous day. The mixture of battered pastries, slightly curling at the edges might appear revolting, but at that time it was, indeed, pure nectar.
Towards the rear of the Central police Station, just off Orchard Street stood on of the few remaining blacksmiths in the town. His name vanished from my mind many moons ago, but the recollection of the blazing fire, mighty arms hammering out a tune with his hammer on the anvil or deftly shoeing a horse is etched firmly on my mind.
CHIDZOY’S, the fruiterers was a draw on Saturday evenings. Here they would sell cheaply any perishable food remaining on their premises. The days of refrigerated counters and deep freezers were still some way off.
SWANSEA MARKET, which remained open until late in the nights, would see butchers adopt a similar procedure. Joints of meat and poultry would be slashed in price, enabling the vendor to at least recover some of his money.
Opposite the Civic Centre stood the TRAM DEPOT, and, if no-one was watching you could stroll around among the trams waiting to be pressed into service, hoping to collect any tram tickets that were lying around.
This was a period when Swansea appeared to have an assortment of shops and business premises where conformity did not exist. Individualism was the word, possibly in the belief that a more adventurous approach would attract additional custom. Singly, they probably amounted to little, but collectively they helped add character to a town already well served in that role.
The recollections of Swansea are many and varied. The large number of pawnbrokers that all made a living, the sign of the three brass balls hanging outside the shop window, proved a lifeline for many a despairing person. One of the last to remain active in Swansea was Mendelsohn’s in Oxford Street, but even one of his ornaments was ultimately stolen.
This was an era when postal deliveries were made on Saturdays and mail collected from pillar boxes on Sundays. Banks were open, for those fortunate enough to have an account, on Saturday mornings. On the way towards the docks, Weaver’s Flour Mill, a massive structure, that so far has defied all attempts to reduce it to ashes, was in full swing. The railway sidings alongside the building had a constant flow of goods wagons transporting products away.
British Home Stores opened their first store with a memorable treat in the form of candy floss on sale.
In New Street, not far from the Central police Station, several of the householders supplemented their living by selling toffee apples.
The Kardomah Cafe continued to give forth the beguiling smell of ground coffee and had on offer the mouth watering mounds of cream-filled pastries.
Alexandra Road Arcade and Goat Street Arcade always attracted window gazers. Both arcades were packed with a surprising number of small shops, which offered all types of goods at bargain basement prices.
Among all this conglomeration would be heard the clip clop of horse drawn wagons or the scraping noise of people delivering shop goods, laden on trolleys or barrows of all descriptions.
The town, in daytime, always seemed to be busy, and in the night, when the many cinemas, theatres and public houses closed, the late revellers would stream away in their hordes to catch the last bus, tram or train home.
Motor cars were to be seen, but they were the prerogative of the wealthy. For the greater majority it was public transport or a walk home after a night’s entertainment, though few felt energetic enough to put one foot in front of the other.
The town must have silently blessed the arrival of Sunday and the peace and calm that came. The church bells chimed away across deserted streets. The chapel hymn singers sent their messages of hope soaring over shuttered shops. It was tantamount to being another world.
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