Lyme Regis during the Second World War

Recalling my Father’s Grocery Shop





Photos from WW2 illustrate shops similar to my fathers. He always wore a starched white coat. A few older staff remained but most customers preferred to wait and be served by “Mr Brewer.” The fruits and vegetables were displayed outside. Inside, biscuits were displayed in glass topped cases and other goods on open shelves, behind the counter. Sometimes the displays were full, sometimes empty

Staples like lard, margarine, dried apples, prunes and dates came in large wooden crates. My father was very careful in how he pried off the nails, and re-nailed them when the empty crates were exchanged on the next delivery. When the shop was closed, my father scooped out the food, patted the mass into manageable rectangles for slicing and weighing. I often helped by folding and cutting large sheets of grease proof paper into small squares. Individual rations were placed between two squares. Often there was not enough paper to fold under in the way you see in the photograph.

Every serving had to be measured precisely because each crate contained the exact weight of food corresponding to the store’s registered customers. When people who lived alone only got an ounce of margarine or butter for the week they would wait and add multiple rations together so the piece was bigger.

I was fascinated with the overhead money transportation system. My father placed customer’s money or credit notes in the copper cup then screwed down the top. With a pull on the lever, the cup flew across the shop to Mr Pitcher, our elderly bookkeeper who sat in a wooded cubicle with a glass window and the cash register.

Years later, after Mr Pitcher had retired, I went with my mother and father for a visit in his new flat. The bath tub was filled to the brim with coal. “Why is the coal in the bathtub?” My father enquired. “I don’t want to carry coal from the bin outside. The coal man brings it inside and dumps it right here.” An insight I remembered long into my days as a practicing Architect.

Grandma always made congress tartlets for our infrequent visits. She used the traditional decoration of the pastry cross on top. I still remember the delicious taste of homemade raspberry jam beneath the ground almond crust. I’d lick the fat from the butter and lard pastry off my fingers, when no one was looking

ORANGES Children only

Troops got the best cuts of meat and the most nutritious provisions

Because he owned the major food store in our town my father was exempt from going to war. Except for the Baker, the Fishmonger and the Butcher, “Mr Brewer” provided every kind of edible including bacon and ham.

They had a telephone but my favorite was the speaking tube that went between the shop to upstairs where my grandparents lived. My parents never explained why there were two grocery shops and I knew better than to ask

This image is from the set for the movie, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”

My father’s shop at 11 Broad St, was large, bright and modern. We lived upstairs. Our kitchen and dining room looked onto the street. The living room and bathroom looked towards the ocean. The roomy attic accommodated three nice bedrooms

Ralph Knight Brewer was my father’s full name. Transaction were hand written on these printed sheets and kept for all the years I can remember

Customer’s often left their ration books in a special drawer, behind the counter

The cobblestone pavement in front of our stretch of shops was above the road. Some customers had difficulty carrying provisions down the steps to the bus stop. Most afternoons a school boy made deliveries on his bicycle. To carry more packages, father ordered a tall woven basket for the front of the bike. When it arrived and was attached it to the bicycle the errand boy could not see over the top. We had a good laugh at my father’s expense.

The solution in the photograph would have been a better design

On Sunday, when the shop was closed my father went out to the back garden. He topped and tailed a big heap of beetroots and placed them into a large copper cauldron and poured water to the top. He lit the gas below the cauldron and watched for the water to boil. After maybe an hour, when the beets were cooked, he strained them onto a tray to cool and they were ready for customers on Monday. Fuel was saved by cooking in bulk

Next job was to wash all the floors and give the store an extra tidying up. My father liked to work undisturbed but I watched from a distance when he started to dress the front windows. Each week he changed the decorations in the display windows, one on each side of the door. Decorations were in short supply, stored carefully and reused many times in lots of different configurations. People walked by specially to see Mr Brewer’s new displays and what food might be available in the coming week.

After Sunday lunch he sat in the big chair and read the newspaper, usually falling asleep and snoring before he turned a page.

We always kept a cat to keep down the mice. When she had a litter, which was frequently, my father would drown the kittens in a bucket of water and leave one, maybe two for mother to nurse.

There was a rabbit hutch in the back garden. They were well fed with root tops. I never witnessed an execution. We ate rabbit, roasted, stewed, fried and any dish my mother could imagine

The saddest story I remember is when, just before we left town, I went with my parents to visit Mr Ball and his wife. Mr Ball was a long time employee and dedicated to my father. He had been dismissed by Sainsbury’s for stealing.

“Why did you do that?” my father asked.

“They never paid us a Christmas bonus.”

What Mr Ball said and the tears in his wife’s eyes I have never forgotten. After I went to California and owned a couple of small manufacturing business I paid all staff a bonus at Christmas AND July Fourth.

My grandfather owned a grocery shop on Combe Street (now Lyme Fossil Shop)

When my father retired we went to Bournemouth to live. I continued in boarding school. He sold the shop to Sainsbury’s. We heard stories of many customers complaining. They resented a chain coming to town and “missed Mr Brewer’s personal touch.”

The shop front has been extend for the set. The red brick above was untouched