Cornering the market in smocks, dockets and community care

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Our local shops are an important part of the fabric of society, and have played an often vital role during lockdown. We should cherish them, writes RICHARD PACITTI

Community centre: plastered in ads for lemonade and cigarettes, corner shops like this offered tick, smocks and some even used chits

I have been reading Babita Sharma’s book The Corner Shop, in which she tells the story of her family and life living above the shop.

Her book got me thinking about my own upbringing, as I too was born above a corner shop.  The shop where I was born was on the corner of Princess Road and Grace Road in West Croydon. The shop belonged to my grandparents, but my dad and my mum worked there, too, as they saved to buy a place of their own. The shop is long gone now, compulsorily purchased and demolished in the late 1960s or early ’70s as part of the redevelopment of the area. But memories remain.

Sharma’s family came to Britain from India in the mid-1960s; my great grandfather, Tomasso Pacitti, came from Italy in the 1880s.

Like so many newly arrived people to this country, Tomasso settled in an area where there was already a community from the homeland – people who could “show you the ropes”. And like generations of newly arrived people, he turned up with very little money and not speaking the language, but a determination to make a success of life here and to be able to offer opportunities to his family that didn’t really exist back home. By the time he died, Tomasso owned a shop, an ice cream factory and a fair amount of property in Princess Road.

Babita Sharma’s book outlines a life that will be familiar to generations

In 2014, I went with my extended family back to the small Italian village from where he had left and found out why he needed to leave – not just a lack of opportunities, but the very real possibility of destitution. We also discovered how he would have got to Croydon – along with his wife and young child, he walked. And we found that he was following a well-worn path from rural Italy to areas of London like Clerkenwell, Fulham and Croydon.

I found out a lot more about Tomasso because I got all the records of his naturalisation as a British subject from the National Archives – but that is another story.

Throughout history, people have come to this country looking for a better life and with a willingness to work hard, provide for their families and be resourceful.

Almost by definition, the folk who were willing to uproot themselves and their families and make a go of things in another country are likely to be resourceful and entrepreneurial. So, if they couldn’t find paid work, they started their own business, quite often a cafe or restaurant, or a shop. Here they put in the hours, served the local community and made a living for their family, but also put a roof above their heads.

So while Sharma’s family were from India in the 1960s, mine from Italy in the 1880s, you could equally write stores about the Windrush generation, the Ugandan Asians who came here after being expelled by Idi Amin in the 1970s, or more recently, those from eastern Europe.

One thing I remember when I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s is the light-brown buttoned coat always worn by the men working in the shop, which my dad always referred to as a “smock”. Think of Ronnie Barker as Arkwright in Open All Hours. Similar smocks were worn by the men who delivered the furniture from Bundle and Sons on the corner of Whitehorse Road, where I used to go with my mum as she paid monthly for the furniture my parents had bought on HP.

Much-missed: Turtles, forced to close in 2008

They were also the uniform of those who worked upstairs in Turtles, that marvellous Croydon emporium in Park Street.

Turtles was a wonder of a shop. You could get everything that you needed there. Downstairs there was all manner of craft materials and household goods, while upstairs you could get any tool or piece of household nicknackery you desired.

Not only that, if you weren’t sure what you needed to get a job done, you could ask one of the staff and they would explain things to you. They all seemed to have worked at Turtles forever, and all were experts in whichever part of the shop they worked in.

After you’d bought your hinge (you could buy just one, usually produced from a wooden box under the counter or from some other secret place – think of the shop in The Four Candles sketch from the Two Ronnies, except on a much bigger scale) or just two six-inch nails, or whatever, the upstairs staff would put them in a brown paper bag, write the price on it and you would pay at the till on the way out. I used to love this system.

The other shop system I used to love was where you would explain to someone what you wanted, or show the broken version of what you needed to replace, and another gentleman in a smock, usually with many pens poking out of his top pocket, would provide you with a docket. You then took the docket or the “chit” to another part of the shop where, as if by magic, someone would produce exactly what it was that you needed.

Even today, I have complete trust and faith in any shop where the people who work there wear smocks and produce dockets.

I am so enamoured of the docket that my wife has realised that instead of asking me to do a job around the house, if she issues me with a docket, I am unable to resist and will get on (eventually) with the task. If she just asks nicely, it probably won’t get done.

The corner shop always was, and still is, a local social centre. In the 1950s and ’60s, before most people could afford things like fridges, women (it was nearly always women in those days) did their shopping daily, buying just what was needed for that day.

Let him have it: this Tamworth Road wholesaler became the scene of one of the most notorious cases of the 20th Century

I can remember that in our shop, certain people came in a bought a single cigarette out of a packet of five that had been specially opened for this purpose. Quite often, the shops would let regular customers have goods on “tick”, a kind of informal credit, allowing them to settle up at the end of the week after they got paid.

It can be difficult to imagine a time when credit and debit cards didn’t exist, but then many didn’t have bank accounts and cash was the only means of exchange. The idea of paying for things using a mobile phone would have been science fiction.

Local shops were places where people met, chatted, found out the local gossip and generally kept abreast with what was going on. My mum talks about how, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, women would come into the shop in the evening on the pretext of buying the cheapest thing (a box of matches) or, if it was the summer, an ice cream wafer, and then would spend the next hour or so chatting until the shop closed at 9pm.

In our shop, the confectionery wholesaler was a company called Barlow and Parker.

Hearing the news that a policeman had been shot dead on the roof of their building in Tamworth Road as part of a bungled burglary was a really big story. My mum remembers vividly how everyone talked about it on the day after it had happened.

The shooting led to what many people believe was one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in English legal history, when Derek Bentley was hanged for the murder of the police officer, Sidney Miles, even though at the time the gun was fired, Bentley – who had learning difficulties – was already under arrest and was telling Christopher Craig, the 16-year-old who pulled the trigger, to hand the gun over to the police. The case hinged on whether Bentley’s call of “Let him have it” could have meant “give the gun to the police”, or “shoot the police”.

Lockdown lifelines: many local shops have provided a community service these past 18 months

This was a story I grew up with and everyone locally knew well.

When I applied to do a law degree many years later, part of the interview process was to write an essay on whether the death penalty was ever justified. I wrote about the case of Derek Bentley to support my argument that it is not. I must have come across as pretty knowledgeable on the subject – anyway I got in.

In her book, Sharma also talks about the regular customers who came in for a chat and for whom the trip to the local shop to get a newspaper was perhaps their only contact with another person. She talks about “Uncle Arthur”, who would visit the shop every day for his paper in the morning and evening (yes, there were evening newspapers then), and how it was these visits that gave structure to his day. In return, he became a “guardian angel”, keeping an eye on things and providing company and banter to keep Mrs Sharma entertained.

More recently, as part of my work in mental health, I grew to understand the role of the local shop in providing structure and purpose to people’s days, providing social contact as well as the daily exercise to and from the shop. For many, the daily chat with the local shopkeeper might be on the only time they speak to another human being.

During lockdown, our local shops have been a lifeline. Not everyone has access to online food deliveries or can manage to stand in a queue for 20 minutes just to get a loaf of bread and a pint of milk.

Campaign: even the local council is trying to encourage us to cherish our local shops

Our local shops provided that service and were often open at a time that the bigger shops were closed.

The permissible reasons for leaving home, including to get essential items of shopping, meant that our local shops fulfilled a huge social purpose, as well as a practical one. I started using ours a lot more during lockdown and have tried to continue my support even though the bigger shops have reopened.

In using our local independent coffee shop, it’s been heartening to learn that, since lockdown, their trade has actually increased and that people have chosen to use this shop over the local chain. Conversely, I remember having conversations with people about what a shame it was that the local butcher, greengrocer or florist had shut down, with them admitting in the same breath that they didn’t actually use these shops very often. Of course, they always meant to and they liked the idea of the shop being there.

We should value and treasure our local shops. If we don’t use them, we will lose them.

So, hurrah for the corner shop and the people who run them!

They deserve a round of applause just as much as other key workers. For as much as they are a place to buy stuff, their shops are social centres, the lenders of last resort, a place to stay in touch and a community mental health resource. We should cherish them.

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6 Responses to Cornering the market in smocks, dockets and community care

  1. mikebweb says:

    Your clearly a youngster! Turtles was in Crown Hill, on the right as you desend,roughly were the back entrance to Debenhams is(was) THAT was the REAL emporium, Park Street really was second best, but better than nothing, as now. I am currently trying to purchase a replacement “stay open device” for a upper cupboard. B&Q look quite blank, though they are very helpful – os there a DiY shop in Croydon at all?

    • croydonres says:

      Try Champions Timber in Sutton or Melvin Clarke in Carshalton. You should find what you need.

  2. Sue says:

    Lovely article. Very sad that so many not taken over by Tesco or Sainsbury.

  3. Lewis White says:

    Thanks to Richard for this historically informative, human-experience-illuminative, mind-expanding article.

    I have not walked from Italy to England, nor done anything like his forebears’ entrepreneurial and sustained hard work of that kind, but I recognise entirely the covid-era truth of his words about the importance of the local shop as a social centre–and a destination for a much-needed walk of reasonable distance. In my case a cafe run by— an Italian ! I must ask him if he walked to Croydon all the way from the heel or toe of Italy (or maybe the instep) –or came by Easyjet.

    In normal times, my….er… HIS ! cafe is a haven for locals who enjoy a chat and a laugh with the owner and fellow customers. We enjoy a common bond of camaraderie, and in many cases, some link with Italy, or anywhere remotely Mediterranean. But that is not essential. All are welcome.

    In lockdown, purchase of a takeaway coffee and sometimes a packet of pasta or other Italian product was a legal chance for a masked chat (rare but essential exercise for the lungs and vocal chords) , and was a physical goal of huge importance as a reason to get out of the house without aimlessly walking round the streets. A mental health saver– a sanity saver ! A true life-saver !!

    So, many thanks for highlighting this truth–and also the truth about the massive benefits this country has enjoyed by the cultural enrichment and employment we have gained from people and their cultures from across the world. Once upon a time, thousands of UK mens and women’s hairdressers were from Italy or Greece– all called “Tony”……. now they are more often from Afghanistan, Kurdistan and adjacent parts of the globe. Italian ice cream parlours and cafes from Kent to Wales and Scotland are thankfully all still there— and sooo many Cypriot (both Turkish and Greek) bakeries and Turkish kebaberies, and “Indian” (in fact often Bangladeshi and Pakistani ) restaurants and Sri-Lankan pertrol station owners and workers , and Gujurati and Sikh newsagents and corner shops in Croydon and UK (and world wide).

    Not to forget the fact the degree to which people coming to the UK since WW2 from the Caribbean, Indian sub- continent and Africa, and indeed, the Middle East, Portugal and Spain have been and continue to be a granite rock on which our NHS is built.

    Yes, these communities have grafted, over decades, and made not only new lives for themselves and their families (and valued education) but have made our national cultural life so much richer. They deserve their success. Thank you !

  4. Mole says:

    Nice stroll down Memory Lane. Still miss Turtles hardware emporium!

  5. Krishna Bosco Fernandes Maharaj says:

    Excellent article – brought back many memories.

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