I worked in a Co-op grocery shop prior to going into the RAF in 1953 for National Service, when I signed on, as many did, for an extra year to get £1 more per week - much more then than it sounds today!
Demobbed in 1956 I wanted something better that the good old Co-op but although the new supermarkets were obviously going to have a great impact on the market and were the future I am a people person and didn't want to lose my identity behind rows of shelves so a change of direction was required. I was told by the employment exchange that British Bata were recruiting managers, adding "they want a £50 deposit" which struck me a little strange. This I discovered was a surety to cover losses because managers were paid commission and any shortfalls at stocktaking were the responsibility of the manager. Being single (just) and wanting a change of career I applied, was interested and accepted by the company.
I began work with Bata at the Lowestoft branch where the manager, Mr. Leslie had just returned from managing a Bata store in Africa. Within a few weeks I made the journey to East Tilbury for my induction, staying in the Bata Hotel in company with a small number of others. I hadn't experienced anything like it before, the whole village was Bata to the core. Factory, housing, hotel, shops and I believe even a farm. All the workers went to work to the sound of loud marching music. I was reminded of that old Charlie Chaplin film.
There was a classroom in the factory where we were taught the rudiments of shoe maufacture and and such thought provoking words as 'upper manipulation' and 'bottom manipulation' also the Bata accounting system and a little instruction in window dressing. We discovered the mens monolith - a Bata special. A working shoe priced at just
£1-9-11 (£1.50 in present money). The sole was made from reconstituted vehicle tyres. Customer "are these soles long wearing?" Salesperson "long wearing? They've already done 30,000 miles". We were shown round the factory where it was obvious the workers were very used to visitors because as you approached them they handed you a sample without being distracted from the work in hand. I can't remember how long we spent at East Tilbury - I believe about a fortnight.
Instead of returning to Lowestoft as expected I was offered the manager position at the Exmouth market store, Clerkenwell in London which was to be my initiation into the world of Bata, shoes and the big city - in at the deep end. A small town boy from Norfolk who just three months prior was in EOKA's Cyprus, having spent just over two years previously in the Canal Zone and after a month in the shoe trade was responsible for a store in London!
I was fortunate in having two good cockney ladies as my part-timers, one in the mornings and one in the afternoons. The area was a poor part of the Metropolis, the shop standing in a market street with stalls all along the road. Outside the shop was Arthur selling secondhand furtniture in his secondhand black Abercrombie overcoat complete with black homburg hat - had he shaved the perfect city gent. He showed me his fathers gold watch that was his collateral to take to "uncle" if he needed money to buy new stock. His wife usually arrived at the stall late morning we presumed to collect the early takings to buy the necessities. Behind Exmouth Market was a colony of Italians who often brought a child along when shopping to translate. Mount Pleasant the main London post office was across the road to the left and Roughton House a vagrants' "hotel" a short way away. Get the picture?
At the end of the road was a pie and eel shop which I thought I ought to try. Eel, mash and liquor which hit my untutored palate in a way that I carry the scars to this day! On my way back to the shop there was an enormous funeral procession with the coffin followed by a long line of large cars. They stopped for a short time outside the pub almost opposite the shop. "What's that all about" I asked Mrs.West my afternoon part-timer. It was a local gangster who had come to an un timely end on his way to his final resting place paying his respects.
First job was to find get lodgings, so finding what I thought was the YMCA I went in and asked the receptionist if they had a room? "Not for you" was the bland reply. "What's the matter with me"? With a smile I was told "much as you may like to stay here this is the YWCA"! "Oh well,can't blame a fellow for trying"! I replied. She offered to make a call to the YMCA to see if they could help. The result was an address in Cricklewood, about half an hour by tube from the shop, so off I set.
The landlady was very Irish and showed me the room stating there was central heating which turned out to mean the hot water tank was in my room! I took the room and found there were two other lodgers, one French and one Indian who didn't last long because he had a habit of passing wind and was replaced with a Swiss lad in banking studying at London School of Economics. Harry spoke good English and he and I got on very well spending most evenings playing pool, joined on Sunday evenings after church service by our landlady and husband.
I was very keen to make a success of my first shop so I was quite happy to spend time after closing. One half day closing I was dressing one of the windows and went outside minus jacket to check my handy work, the yale closed behind me, the keys were in the shop and I was outside. There was a fanlight window above the door which seemed my best bet because with a ladder which I could borrow from the fire station a short distance away I would force it clamber through and all would be well. Problem, at the fire station I was told they could send an appliance and crew but it would cost about £30. Think again Dennis. On my way back to the shop I spotted a couple of men with a hole in the road. If I could saw through the bolts on the back door I could just push it open. "Have you got a hacksaw blade"? I asked. "This do mate"? "Great thanks a lot" A minor problem crossed my mind as I walked back - what if a break in was reported to the police and I was caught red handed? Phone police. "I've locked myself out of my shop, is there any way you can get me in"? "No sir we are here to keep you out" "OK, well I'm about out to break in so perhaps you would like to send someone along to watch me do it" "That's a very unusual request sir" "Well I thought if anyone saw me they would call you and you would have to come along anyway but if you come and watch me it could save a lot of trouble all round" "MMM where are you"? A sergeant on a bike duly arrived and I set to work sawing through the bolts top and bottom, a push and both doors came open. The sergeant got on his bike and pedaled away to tell his mates about the Norfolk dumpling he had watched break into a shop. The sequel was that a few months later my inspector noticed the back door was screwed and nailed up. "How long has it been like this".? "Oh ages but it's perfectly secure" My part timer hid a smile but not another word was said.
When I first began with Bata we had to do a complete stock take and valuation once a fortnight and balance the books with the sales, any shortfalls were paid for by the manager. Later this changed to once per month. This I used to do after closing Saturday and go home to do the extensions to balance the books. If when I finished there was a large error it would be easy but to find a small one could be time consuming.
I received word that I was to take over the Great Yarmouth branch before the start of the summer season and could at last return to continue our courting and preparing for getting married.
Yarmouth branch was identical to Exmouth Market in appearance and stock layout making changing branches very easy. There was no shortage of competition because in King Street, one of the main shopping areas, we had next door to the left, Turners and on our right True-Form. A little further down was Mansfield with Stead and Simpson equi distance away to the left. On the opposite side of the road and opposite me was Dolcis, four shops to their right Freeman Hardy and Willis, three doors away Timpsons. Seven shoe shops, four of which belonged to one company, the British Shoe Corporation owned by Charles Clore the "shoe king" of the period who specialised in buying shoe firms who owned their own shops, selling the property to finance further buying. All these shops within the area of a football pitch and others scattered around one of which was another Freeman Hardy and willis. This was the era of multiple shoe shops and we all relied on the summer season to survive especially Bata at Great Yarmouth. This was the nature of the business in the 1960's
Bata had an ordering system, like the rest of the business very rigid and controlled. The stock sheets for each style and size had a box divided into four sectors, pairs allowed, pairs in shop, order to make up to number allowed and a final box for the number delivered. all very simple but so much so that it didn't make allowances for shops such as mine who had we followed it would have had insufficient stock for a busy summer season where certain styles were needed far in excess of our allocation. I developed a system where I could tell what would be the big sellers from whitsun sales. As deliveries came in I would show no stock and reorder until I built up a large reserve of stock stored in big boxes anywhere in the store I could stack them. Towards the end of the season I would run down this reserve. This worked very well for me during my years there bearing in mind I was paid on commission.
In the winter being a seasonal shop I was starved of fashionable styles and had to rely on the old Bata favourites. Monoliths, winter boots, Rubber boots, slippers and other cheap shoes, while my rivals had the whole of the fashion trade. The first winter this caused some problems, more so because we didn't get snow or much rain. February was a tragedy with poor sales and one week in particular when we had an exceptionally bad week with not a single customer on the morning of our half day. I can't remember the actual turnover but it was pretty pathetic. Monday the reaction set in not with a delivery of the needed fashion shoes that I could sell but an "irate" inspector asking what I had been doing last week to drop so far behind last years figures, the window was a mess although dressed as always to the layout plan with the usual winter display of last years fashions from other branches. The usual Bata response. The manager has suddenly changed from being efficient to bad! He had to show me how he could increase sales bringing in more outdated stock from other stores and put on a sale with big reductions to try and pick up sales which did help a little although the real answer of some or even just a few fashionable lines as regular stock would have been a long term answer.
To avoid this silly situation happening again I saved sales in the last week up to Christmas when trade was brisk,taking the the figures just passed last years, putting the rest in the night safe bag and leaked it out to save any disasters in the killer months of January and February. Maybe illegal but the cash was on hand to be presented at any time - there is more than one way to skin a cat as they say,but I never did get any fashionable ladies high heel shoes. When you come to the year end the past is history and what you achieve after is key and I don't think there was a year that we didn't better the previous one with just a few hiccups covered in the winter.
I enjoyed the summer seasons which were great, trade was brisk and I was making money, any cash left in the night safe had been put into Easter turnover. There was a holiday atmosphere in the shop, sometimes serving three customers at the same time and helping out the summer part-timer till she settled in. Admin. was done at home in the evening so as to spend as much time as possible on the shop floor Monday mornings, visitors first shopping day (no Sunday opening then) sometimes the shop would get so crowded that there would be people waiting to get in. On good old hot summer days I would work in shirt sleeves, well before the time it became acceptable. I found it an atmosphere that was infectious.
Stars from the summer shows would sometimes come in. Once a clown from the circus wanted a pair of the largest shoes we had, size 11 - too tiny. Ken Dodd came in one afternoon with his girl friend showing his teeth and laughing - but no duster! Jimmy Saville sometimes would drive around the block several time in a white open top Rolls Royce. Marty Wilde came in one day with three other rock and roll singers of the day. There were several more who are lost in the mists of time.
We were married on my second year back at Yarmouth, 1958, in the Registry Office and spent our honeymoon in London. In 1962 our son was born. We didn't want to move from the town and found the wages insufficient now that we were a family, we sold our Austin A30 when our son was born and although I enjoyed my time with Bata I knew I had to look to pastures new. Being a people person the job of Sales representative was attractive and I started to find out more and look for openings. I didn't get the job with a biscuit company, nor Crosse and Blackwell, or Hovis.
I was becoming concerned with the future for shop workers because the money wasn't good and it looked like shops would be opening six days and maybe seven days a week which meant I wouldn't be in control all opening hours. Because of the Bata system of managers paying for any cash losses I wasn't happy. Eventually my luck changed and I saw an advert. in the Telegraph for sales agents for the brand leader in animal feeds
Now this may seem a strange change for a shop manager but I was born a country boy and we always gravitated towards the country also my love of animals meant the job of working with farmers and livestock was too good a chance to miss.
The girls at work must have wondered what was happening when one of them used to go to the newsagents for my Farmers Weekly. I read and boned up on the theory of animal feeding and husbandry in between my three interviews one of which was at their Head Office in Liverpool where after intensive interviews with about six others I was told I was accepted. I don't think the girls were too surprised when I broke the news.
It wasn't many long before my old shop was closed. Fortunately my career in agriculture that I thoroughly enjoyed and made me many customer friends lasted until I retired and took up local history and started my website www.gorleston-heritage.co.uk . Now alas there are few animal feed manufacturers and where there were about 100 representatives when I started there are now no more than 20.
Copyright Dennis Durrant 2009
Not to be reprinted in part or whole except for the use of the Bata Museum
Bata Store, Exmouth Market