Loyalty - A Thing Of The Past? (8 August 1975)
Our village grocer-cum-postmaster-cum-newsagent and tobacconist suffered from a chronic flatulence. A short, tubby man of around 50, he wore a white pinafore and walrus moustache. What fascinated me as a child, however, was that each time his knife sliced through a piece of ham or whatever, he emitted a loud and rumbling “B-hoy!”. Since when a grocer’s boy has been to me no mere boy, but a “B-hoy.”
And where are they today? They seem to have disappeared. Of course, any lad leaving school today is no longer really a boy. He is what my grandmother used to call “Just a hobbledehoy, nayther a man nor a boy.”
But to get back to the counter: I guess grocers’ boys of whatever age have disappeared with the large scale disappearance of small, independent grocers.
When I came to Bletchley there were still quite a number of independent grocers in the town. One by one they have nearly all faded away – beaten, I suppose, as much by the vastly-increased rents and rates for good sites as by the supermarkets and self-service stores.
Apart from the Co-op’s branches, there were two grocery businesses which were larger than most, both of which have since disappeared.
One was Bushell’s, whose premises were in the old Fenny Stratford Town Hall. They ceased a good number of years ago following the death of the founder, the still well-remembered J D Bushell.
The other shop was Moss’, in Aylesbury Street. This was a branch of the Hitchin-based W B Moss and Sons Ltd. They arrived in the town in 1898 – 14 years before Bushell’s – and carried on longer.
Bushell’s and Moss’ were keen rivals, but they fought each other fairly. Before the arrival of self-service, the grocery trade was very labour intensive. Customers soon knew not only the owner or manager, but also each member of the staff. And those staff members had a loyalty to their firms which today would seem well-nigh incredible.
This came to light in somewhat amusing fashion in 1952. In that year J D, as Mr Bushell was affectionately called, completed 40 years as a grocer in Fenny. The Gazette noted the fact.
We also noted the remarkable length of service up to that time of five of his seven assistants – George Guess and Jack Benbow both 39 years, Mrs Nellie Munday 36 years, Bob Carter 31 years, and Les Brace 25 years.
In addition, there was J D’s nephew Len, who had been engaged with the firm or with the co-firm of Bushell and Thurlow in Queensway for a total of 37 years.
We pointed out that this record of mutual appreciation between employer and employee would be hard to beat. We also said we would be pleased to know of any other local firm of any kind who could show a comparable record.
There was only one challenge. From Moss’ of course. They listed the following:
- Plumb, 54 years with Moss’, plus 3½ years with John Coles, from whom Moss’ took over: W J Matthews, 38 years, S Whipp 37 years, F Stevens 34 years, Miss M Scobie 32 years, S Curtis 30 years, E West 27 years and W Sylvester 24 years.
In addition, there was the branch manager, David Swain. He began with Moss’ at Hitchin in 1898. After three years he came to Fenny as assistant. Four or five years later he went to Shefford as manager. And 16 years later he came back to manage at Fenny thence-forward. A total of 54 years with the firm – “and I’ve never lost a man to any other grocer in all my 45 years as a manager!” he told me.
These two businesses were not exactly identical in nature. J D built up a considerable wholesale trade, which started during the first world war when he was asked by the Ministry of Food to act as a distributor. Moss’ on the other hand, had a flourishing off-licence trade.
A genial outgoing man, of generous proportions, you would have thought J D had always been a little bit in the money, so to speak. But not at all. He was an orphan when he was apprenticed to the grocery trade at Reading, earning £1 a month, in trust, and his own way to make.
For 10 years up to coming to Fenny he was manager at Buckingham for a wholesale and retail grocery firm, doing his travelling by pony and trap. Then he took over Mr White’s purely-retail shop at Fenny and also the two assistants and a boy.
But he truly believed that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. At 17 he won an all-England event by throwing a cricket ball 105 yards. He played soccer for Buckingham Town in every position. Coming here, he played for the Fenny Stars.
In summer, he ran a private cricket club which developed into a regular Wednesday club at the old market field. Next he was invited to play golf at the Aspley Guise club and in seven years brought his handicap down to three. He was also a good shot, both with a rifle and on the bowling green.
Yet all his days he remembered the first customer he ever served over a shop counter – a recollection that formed a vivid comparison with conditions in 1952, let alone those of today.
A lady came into the shop, remarked that he was a new boy, and asked for 6lb of sugar and an ounce of tobacco.
He passed the goods over the counter and did a mental sum – “Six pounds of sugar at 1¼d is 7½d, and an ounce of tobacco at 3½d – that will be 11½d, madam, please.”
To which madam replied: “I congratulate you on looking after your employer’s business so well, young man, but you have charged me a halfpenny too much.”
The result was a lecture from the “first hand” about reckoning mentally, instead of on paper.
Strange, isn’t it, how memories of things like that stay with us all our lives, while we clean forget matters of much greater moment?