Lazlo Ferran: Memories of the 1960s – Shopping

Shopping was confusing in the 1960s, even if you only had pocket money of one shilling to spend, as I did.

Threepenny Bit
Three penny bit (pronounced thruppence or thruppenny bit)

The old system of currency could be traced back to the Roman Empire and was based on the penny, symbolised by the letter ‘d’ for denari. Under this system, there were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings, or 240 pence, in a pound. Coins included three penny pieces (pronounced thruppence) and two penny pieces (pronounced tuppence) as well as quarter penny (farthings). Needless to say, for a kid whose mathematical skills were still developing, I needed one of my parents with me to shop for anything at all!

Of course, things were much cheaper then. Most things for kids, such as singles records (45 rpm), toy cars and dolls house items were much more than one shilling, so I could save up for a toy car roughly once every ten weeks.

We lived in a small town of about 20,000 people. I don’t remember any supermarket, so general shopping was a nightmare! There was a huge, central car park, which was always packed, so my mum would often drive around the one-way system several times waiting to get in. From here, it was a systematic shop up and down the High Street, going to the British Gas showroom to pay the gas bill (which, I might add, was often the only warm shop in the Chiltern Hills harsh winters), then to shops for smaller items like magazines, books, shoes, clothes or – if you were lucky – toys. Sometimes you would go back to the car with the bags of shopping before visiting the food shops, because there was just so much to carry!

Food shops were butchers, bakers, delicatessens (for milk and dairy products), greengrocers (for fruit, vegetables, spices, cereals and specialities) and, if you were lucky, sweet shops. By the time you had done all this, you were exhausted!

Shoe Fitting Fluoroscope
Shoe Fitting Fluoroscope

Shoe shopping was particularly interesting in the 1960s, which was just as well as I didn’t like getting new shoes; they were always too narrow for my feet and hurt for the first few weeks of wearing. There were these strange machines in the shops that reminded me of the Dr Who Tardis. You stood on a platform and the machine X-Rayed your feet to find exactly the right fitting for you. So basically we were subjecting ourselves to dangerous radiation just for a shoe-fitting, although we didn’t realise the danger at the time! The machines, I only found out recently, were called Shoe Fitting Fluoroscopes.

Although not strictly shopping, visits to the library were frequent, because books were expensive and beyond the budget of most kids. Even for a town of 20,000 people, our library was only about the size of an average shop and very poorly stocked. In about 1969 we finally got the library we deserved in a large, modern and airy new building. It took a while for the shelves to be filled, but soon I was able to hunt down speciality books on all sorts of fields within WWII, which was my great interest at the time.

Woolworths in the 1960s
Woolworths in the 1960s

Even the least persuasive child could usually engineer a visit to Woolworths and Co. Woolies, as we affectionately called it, stocked just about everything, but most importantly, it had toys, records and sweets. 7-inch, 45 rpm records were for single tracks, an A-side and B-side, the A-side being the hit single for say, the Beatles. A 45 rpm would be 9 shillings and 11 pence, the equivalent of 49p in decimalised currency (about 65 cents, US). A 12-inch, 33 rpm Long Playing record (or LP) was usually 19 shillings and sixpence, the equivalent of 99p. My first LP was Geoff Love’s Big War Movie themes, which I still have.

If my mum wanted fresh bread, I would have to walk about a mile down an extremely steep hill to Darvell & Sons bakery. There I would wait for a hot, new, white loaf from the oven, which a girl or woman in a white coat would put in a paper bag for me. Unfortunately, the fragrance of fresh bread always proved too much for me, so by the time I had struggled all the way back up the hill, I would have picked a large hole out of the bottom of the loaf, hoping my mum wouldn’t notice!

There was very little frozen food in the 1960s. The only one I can remember was fish fingers. My evening meal was almost always either fish fingers, sausages or cold chicken, mashed potato or chips, and either peas, baked beans or fried eggs, all usually served with a slice of bread and butter and a glass of milk.

The toy shop was, of course, an Aladdin’s Cave of wonders! Ours, Littons, was wonderfully furnished with wood-panelled walls and wooden cabinets. On the right-hand side were all the items a girl could want, toy prams, bicycles, dolls, dolls houses etc., while on the left were bicycles for boys, models and a whole load of toy cars, all displayed in glass cases. Behind the serving counter, along the back wall, was a long cabinet, stacked to the roof with Dinky Toys, Corgi, and Matchbox boxes, all brightly coloured and begging to be bought! I remember the proprietor being a jovial guy, who never minded taking time to help you choose your purchase.

A special occasion would be a trip to Trewins in Watford. Trewins was a department store, which had an even wider range of toys than Woolworths. My mum bought me a plastic toy friction-drive de Havilland Comet, which you could drag across the floor to wind up the clockwork drive and then release to let it run across the carpet on its own. These must have been the most popular present in Trewins that Christmas, because there was a whole table stacked with them. Later, my mum bought me a cattle truck, made by Budgie and still later, I bought a Corgi Ford Mercury Station Wagon.

A very special occasion, once every year, was a trip on the Underground train to Hamleys in London’s Regent Street. Hamleys proclaims itself the ‘Finest Toy Shop in the World’ and at about 7 floors over 2 buildings, it was a child’s dream. I reckon the ‘lost kids department’ (I kid you not, it existed) must have been very busy, because kids were always becoming separated from their parents. A Hornby train set ran right around one floor, but my favourite was a radio-controlled North American B-25 Mitchell that hung, motionless, from the ceiling. Every year I would look longingly at this beautiful, silver angel of the air, and wonder how I could get one. I am sure this is what led to my future hobby of first control-line model aircraft and later, radio control.

Green Shield Stamps
Green Shield Stamps

If you had survived all this shopping, there was the long struggle back to the car – there were no shopping trolleys then – and the drive home. But this wasn’t always the end. There was often the stop at an Esso or Shell garage, where my mum would get Green Shield stamps when she bought a certain amount of petrol. My mum would stick them in Green Shield Saver Books (or get me to do it, with a lot of licking) and collect them to exchange for things from the Green Shield Catalogue.

There were also coins and cards you could get with petrol, such as the Shell coins representing vintage cars, a collection I completed, and the Shell holographic World Wildlife cards, a set which I collected but never completed.

Shell World Wildlife holographic cards
Shell Word Wildlife holographic cards

There is one last memory of pocket money that I want to mention. It may have been around 1975 that I first saw something entirely new in a small toy shop in a nearby town; a Tamiya kit of the Chieftain tank. Until then, model tanks, especially ones which were motorised, were not to scale and mostly pretty crude representations of the real thing. I was lucky in that my granddad was an experienced engineer and expert modeller, so he built me a (Scalecraft) Centurion tank, which was motorised. It ran for a few years, under constant repair, until either the motor or the drive wore out. I had long since lost it by 1975. The Chieftain was not only a detailed scale model, but it could be motorised and even radio-controlled! I had to have one! I saved and saved, but it cost £7.49, which was a lot of money for a child then. Tamiya was a Japanese company, and this was the first of their models I had seen in the UK, so there was no alternative but to seek some kind of part-time work. I was lucky again here; my mother was a magazine editor, so she offered me work collating the magazine by hand. It was hard work, but after about 13 weeks, I had enough money. I went to the shop with every last penny I had and guess what? The kit’s price had gone up to £7.99. Well, I was devastated, and exhausted. I must have decided something cheaper would be less work, because I never did buy the Tamiya Chieftain tank.

Decimalisation Day pack (this without 50p coin)
Decimalisation Day pack (this without 50p coin)

In about 1968, decimalisation was announced. This would make life much easier! Now, there would be 100 pennies to the pound and no more shillings. There would be a new 50 pence piece and no ha’penny bits, threepenny bits or farthings (which was worth 1/4 penny in old money). The old ‘d’ would be replaced with the ‘p.’ We were all excited with anticipation of the new world and had daily lessons at school using toy cash registers. On TV there were programmes about decimalisation almost every day, and when the day finally came in 1971, every child in the UK was issued with a small wallet, containing a mint example of each new coin. I think complete ones must be very rare now, because every kid I knew spent the lot within weeks; after all, a pound was 2 weeks’ pocket money in those days!

What toys did you have in the 1960s? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

There is a permanent page for Memories of the 1960s here.

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