Stories about Shops

Shops in Chesham in the 1940s and 1950s

Bill Howard

What is now the fish and chip shop opposite the bottom of Lowndes Avenue used to be a general store owned by Winnie Barnes, a regular stop-off on the way home from school to spend our rationing sweet coupons on sherbet dabs or huge gob-stoppers!

These latter would probably be banned on the grounds of health and safety these days, as once you had forced them past your teeth there was no way of extracting them again until you had sucked them smaller.   They changed colour as the layers were sucked away.

“Give us a shot at yer gobstopper”, a good mate might say, and the half-sucked sweet would be ceremoniously passed over with a stern warning to suck it only as far as the next colour.  Woe betide any recipient of this kindly offer who ignored this limitation and strayed into a subsequent colour!   As the old saying goes – ‘They don’t know they’re born these days!’   Len Pearce had a general store in Sunnyside Road opposite the end of Higham Road and further down was Webb’s stores.

A Bone, Broad Street
A Bone, Broad Street

Alf Bone had a newspaper and tobacconist shop in Berkhamstead Road, close to Jesse Wright’s factory and opposite my maternal grandmother’s terraced house (number 245).

We used to buy our fireworks from Bone’s.  No controls then on errant youngsters and we delighted in tormenting the girls with casually lobbed Brocks’ Bangers or the totally unpredictable ballistic qualities of the Standard Jumping Betty!

These days it would attract a costly, time-consuming but totally ineffectual ASBO.  Then it was a summarily administered clip round the ear if you were foolish enough to be collared by an observant adult.

On one side of my grandmother’s house was Miss Hobb’s sweet shop.   In there, the sweets were all in big old glass jars and she would make up individual ‘pokes’ of paper to hold the ounce or so of whatever you selected.  With a deft operation of her fingers she quickly transformed a small square of paper into a twisted cone or ‘poke’ as we called them.   She had an old-fashioned bell on a spring which ‘dinged’ as you entered the door – I can still hear it now!

On the other side of number 245, about two doors down, was Batchelor’s hairdresser.   ‘Batchy’, as he was known, had somewhat limited tonsorial skills, the ‘pudding-basin’ being his favoured – indeed only – style.

He used hand-clippers, and to remove the accumulating trimmings, he would blow hard and frequently on your neck.    As he was an inveterate smoker who never removed his fag from his mouth (his hands being fully occupied with clippers and comb), this blast was generally accompanied by stinging pinpricks of red-hot ash!

The shawl placed round your shoulders did nothing to stop the rest of the hair going down your collar and you thus spent the remainder of the day with the agony of excruciating itching.  When ‘Batchy’ died, we transferred our allegiance to Walt Atkins who had a shop behind the Market Hall (as was!)   We lads were invariably greeted with, “How do you want it today boys – back to the wood?”   No matter how many times we heard it, we always seemed to find it hilarious!

On the corner of Broad Street and Townsend Road, opposite the old Police Station, was Davis’ chemist’s shop, which processed many local family photos. Rather curiously, they also periodically sold Dinky Toys. Those ‘in the know’ would be alerted when a delivery was expected, usually around Christmas time and were able to peruse a catalogue in advance, prior to ordering.

This would have been just after the War. Purchases were strictly rationed to one or two models per person and you had to be there at doors open time to guarantee getting your choice. In retrospect, it seems very strange that a chemist’s shop should be involved in toy sales.

Across the other side of Townsend Road was L J Stronnell’s cycle shop. As youngsters we were rarely without our bikes, which gave us a wonderful freedom to wander far and wide. Les Stronnell was a popular character and was a great source of help in maintaining our ‘steeds’.  The shop was really no more than the lower floor of a terraced house, with a store out the back for his equipment.

Rather like the Dinky toys, new bikes had to be ordered from a catalogue, no large stock being held, and the subsequent delivery was awaited with mounting excitement. Most youngsters did not acquire a new bike until well into their teens, having to make do with second-hand ones or family hand-me-downs.

Consequently, Les Stronnell was much in demand for recovered spare parts to keep these ageing machines in roadworthy condition. His workshop was always a cosy haven in cold weather and one could generally be sure of a cup of tea there as well.

The picture of the bus on the ‘flyer’ about the transport film also brought back lots of childhood memories.   I believe those buses were built by a company called ‘Dennis’ and carried a chrome model of a Red Indian’s head, in full feathered head-dress on the radiator cap (as children, we were not troubled by the current politically correct trends which would require the term ‘Native American!)

We used to catch the ‘Bellingdon bus’ in the Broadway outside the Lamb and Flag pub.   I recall that, if we had some time to wait and the weather was inclement, we would repair to the warmth of ‘Peggy’s’, a little cafe in Blucher Street, somewhere between Billy Sills’ shoe shop and Hearn’s the hairdresser.

Hearn’s was regarded as quite ‘up-market’ and I never passed through its portals, being dispatched by my thrifty parents and clutching the necessary thruppence, to the previously mentioned ‘Batchy’ (‘No Boys on Saturdays’) and later the jovial Walt Atkins.

Another old shop I remember is an outfitters opposite the bottom of Station Road, called ‘Tree’s’.  (House of Tree) I remember it particularly well because whenever my mother visited the place, to spend her precious wartime clothing coupons, I would be told to sit quietly in a seat by the counter until she had completed her selection and fitting.

Tree’s was equipped with one of those vacuum-pressure Lamsen tubes into which a sort of ‘mini-torpedo’ containing the customer’s money payment was put, along with the invoice, to be whisked away into the bowels of the establishment for processing.   Shortly afterwards, heralded by a terrifying whooshing, the returning container would crash back into the counter terminal with a mighty bang and jangling of small change.   It used to terrify me but I had to remain glued to my chair as instructed until my mother returned.

In the meantime, each satisfied customer precipitated this terrifying activity with its inevitable, accompanying personal nightmare.  I don’t think I have ever really got over it, as even now the sound of a roaring Lamsen tube, much like the sound of an air-raid siren, still makes my hair stand on end!

I seem to remember that the Co-op had those overhead wires that carried little brass-bound, turned wooden containers full of customers’ payments or returned change.   Operated by a handle pulled down by the sales assistant, it sent the container whizzing across the ceiling to the cashier.

A technically enchanting and overtly benign system that was unlikely to alarm horses or terrify small children – unlike the dreaded Lamsen tube in Tree’s emporium!  [nb from local historian Keith Fletcher: “That was called “a rapid cash transfer system” and they were quite common in department stores built in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The one he recalls was spring loaded but there was also a pneumatic system which fired the monies from the cash desk up to the office above.”]

There was a sort of access yard alongside Tree’s, on the corner of which and against the shop, was a large pudding stone.   No doubt it disappeared when the area was developed in a later period.   In fact there used to be a few significant pudding stones in the town, in addition to those incorporated in St Mary’s Church, but I imagine they have all disappeared now.   In this pragmatic day and age they no longer hold the mystical attraction they once possessed and which had doubtless ensured they remained undisturbed for fear that no good would come from tampering with them.

There was Plummer’s shop in Germain Street, who in the 1940s still made carbonated drinks with a machine on the counter. You bought and consumed them on the premises before handing back the bottle. Hygiene considerations were of no great concern to a young generation whose immune systems were robustly developed on a diet of communal gob-stoppers!

Also in Germain Street was George Harley’s. His was a small general store, opposite Gooding Brothers blacksmith’s shop by the old Embassy Cinema. George was a somewhat dour fellow who always wore a rather grubby dustcoat, fingerless woollen mittens and half-moon glasses.

Ranged along the front of his counter were those old-fashioned square biscuit tins, among which would always be one containing broken biscuits which were sold cheaply to us boys. I remember being in there on one occasion to buy some aniseed balls (one of his specialities). Waiting my turn among several adults, I was idly spinning my penny on the top of one of those biscuit tins, fascinated by the sound it made, although in retrospect it must have been rather annoying for the rest of the customers. Suddenly, George’s voice rose above the cacophony ….. ”Alright, sonny – we know you’re there!” I was mortified!

On the corner of Germain Street and Red Lion Street was Wright’s Seed Merchant’s where, somewhat curiously I suppose, we could buy catapult elastic. In those days, most young men were equipped with a catapult and a mighty Government-surplus jacknife, with one of those ‘things-to-remove-stones-from-horses’-hooves’. It would never do in these days! But I don’t recall any serious mayhem.

At the time of the Festival of Britain (1951), the town held an exhibition of its own industries and commerce (Howard Bros had a stand).  Part of this exhibition was in a large marquee alongside the Park boating lake (‘Skottowe’s Pond’ as it was known), where now St Mary’s Way runs.  One evening a bunch of local lads (of course we didn’t have vandals in those days, did we!!!) let down some of the marquee guy ropes.

Unfortunately for them they were collared by the security personnel and thrown, fully clothed, into the pond.   A fitting punishment for the miscreants but one which today would, I fear, attract a fine for the security staff and handsome compensation for the vandals.

My mother would not allow me to use the old Chesham swimming pool, as there were great concerns about contracting polio when I was a child. Little did she realise that my friends and I were frequently given to visiting a murky and highly insalubrious pond at Hollybush Orchard in Bellingdon in order to catch newts and tadpoles!

I wondered about a feature that used to exist up Hivings Hill.  Set into the left hand bank (heading downhill) between Ridgeway Road and the lower corner of Captain’s Wood, were some curved wooden bollards.  The outer faces of these were fitted with a thick iron band, much like an iron tyre on an old cartwheel.  As boys, we were told they were to act as an emergency stopping device for heavy carts which might run out of control.

However, I imagine they were more likely to have been put there to discourage damage to the banks and adjacent property boundaries by carts and other vehicles cutting in too close.  They too have now probably long gone, victims of road development, but it would be nice to think that the odd one has survived – they were about three feet high as I recall, and pretty substantial.

Great-nephew of the Howard Brothers, who founded the Woodware firm 2008-9. Bill has lived in Scotland since the 1970s.