Thank you to George Field, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, for sending
me his recollections of his grandfather's mobile
grocery van, and later, his self-service grocery van in Edinburgh.
Open All Hours
"How many readers remember the BBC comedy
series 'Open All Hours' from the
seventies, starring the wonderful talents of Ronnie Barker as
Arkwright, the miserly shopkeeper in his corner grocery shop? "
"My grandfather was an ‘Arkwright’
(without the Scrooge mentality) back in the fifties
and sixties, owning a small grocery shop in Gilmerton, near
Edinburgh. His name was Cecil
Beveridge and the shop was in Main Street.
It was a
narrow-fronted establishment, with display windows on either side of
the front door. Emblazoned across
one window in gold paint was the legend “Licensed Grocer” and on the
other “Purveyor of Fine Foods”.
Smells of Yesteryear
entry, your senses were assailed with those wondrous smells
of yesteryear - freshly ground
coffee, cheeses, kerosene; and the smell of sawdust on the floor."
"Grandpa would be behind the long wooden
counter, in his white dustcoat. My
Grandmother always made sure he went out every morning with a clean
At one end of the
counter sat the bacon slicer used for slicing not only bacon but all
sorts of fresh meats, nothing pre-cut in those days. At the other
end was the butter box. This was a three sided affair behind which
Grandpa would cut and pat your butter on a
marble slab into the required size.
played a big part in those days, being the ideal material for
preparing cheese, butter and meats in front of the customer, as it
was long-lasting and easy to keep clean."
"At the rear of the shop was a raised
area, the office, which looked more like a cubby house.
This was where all the bookwork was
done. Grandpa had a large ‘tick’ (credit) book. His customers
would get their weekly groceries ‘on tick’ until payday and I never
knew of a case of anyone not paying their account.
My Mother was the
‘office girl’, trying to keep track of the finances."
Helped in the Shop
"My time with Grandpa and the shop began
in 1957, when Mother and I moved from London to Edinburgh, following
my parents’ divorce, to stay with my grandparents. It was almost
accepted that I would help out in the shop, in return for my pocket
Over the next
four years, I learned so much from Grandpa.
They were really happy times. Very
soon, I was able to ‘block’ butter to within a few grams of the
customer’s order. No big deal you
might think, but it meant a lot to a 12 year old.
arithmetic skills were honed to perfection, as there were no
electronic cash registers back then and I had to add and subtract
quickly when dealing with customers. Thanks to those days, my mental
arithmetical skills are as sharp today as they were then."
"A couple of doors up the road was our
long, narrow above-ground cellar. This was where the block cheeses
were kept, along with the hanging hams, before they went into the
special cooker, to be cured for sale. Scraping
the external mould off the cheeses was a regular job for me each
Sacks of potatoes
lined one wall and it became my lot to bag them into ‘forpit’ lots
for sale. What is a ‘forpit’?
I hear you ask. It was an old Scottish term for a
measure of potatoes, which were sold in lots of one stone (14lbs),
half a stone (7lbs) or a ‘forpit’ (3 and a half lbs). Forpit = a
fourth part (of a stone).
I became so
skilled in this, that I was able to fill the paper bag to the
correct weight almost every time.
Sometimes, there were rotten potatoes in the sack and that was one
of the more unpleasant discoveries. In
the winter, that cellar had to be one of the coldest places on earth."
"Then came Hogmanay, that famous Scottish
celebration of the New Year. Being a
licensed grocer, beer played a huge part in the lead up to December
31st. Beer was mainly sold in ‘screwtop’ bottles, of a
capacity of about a litre.
The cellar was
transformed into a dipsomaniac’s delight, with rows of beer bottles
stacked on bread boards. I think each bread board held about 8 dozen
bottles of beer and they were stacked on top of each other 4
high. With at least 7 or 8 stacks down one wall,
so you can see how many were sold.
was, they arrived in crates of 12 and I had to stack ‘em up.
Then, after Hogmanay, back came all
the empties and I had to do it all again!
Yet, I do not recall a stack ever
falling over and smashing."
"Another task I had to perform in the
cellar was the regular cleaning of the
salt deposit off the hanging sides of bacon. This was in preparation
for Grandpa ‘boning’ the bacon, ready to slice and sell.
‘Boning’ was an
art and a wonder to watch. Using an
extremely sharp knife, Grandpa would slit all the rib bones from the
carcass, in one piece. Then he would
separate the thick skin from the meat, again all in one piece.
After cutting the side into smaller
parts, it was ready to slice and sell. ‘Boning’
literally took years to learn properly.
was no pre-packed bacon in those days. It was all freshly cut to
order. I was taught and permitted to use the bacon slicer
(carefully!), but boning was not the province of a young boy."
"Grandpa was very innovative. We had
several housing schemes in the Gilmerton/Liberton area that were not
served with shops.
It was common
practice for shopkeepers to go ‘mobile’. A
greengrocer would load up a small van and go around these housing
areas on a regular basis. Butchers and fishmongers would do likewise
and in the evenings a mobile fish and chip van would
do the rounds.
Now, a grocer’s
shop is bit big to take on the road, but Grandpa designed a large
van, capable of containing most of the items found in the shop.
"The mobile van was great success and much
appreciated by the people. Progress continued at the shop, with
Grandpa deciding to go ‘self-service’.
was in 1959 and a very bold move, but with minor changes to the
shop, the self-serve plan went ahead. This led Grandpa to consider
a second van, also on the self-serve basis.
discussions with Ford and ended up with a 5 ton pantechnicon,
designed by Grandpa and it was so revolutionary that Ford featured
it in their national magazine.
I remember going
to the coachbuilders with Grandpa, as he kept an eye on every step
Inside the Self-Service
had a single wide entrance just behind the front wheel with a
gondola (shelves) down the middle. You
walked around and paid at the front as you exited.
had even incorporated a double chest fridge/freezer across the rear
wall (powered by large carbon dioxide blocks that were re-frozen
each night in the shop freezer).
On the Road
"I well remember the first day it went on
the road. I was so excited to serve on it, that I went straight from
school to the area Grandpa was in and joined in the maiden trip.
Did I cop it when I got home!
The family did not know where I was
and I had homework to do.
However, I was
forgiven and spent countless happy hours helping out on the road.
I came in handy when Grandpa popped
off to visit a friend of his called Eddie Hanlon.
Hanlon lived by himself in a row of old folks’ units and on
weekends Grandpa would leave me outside in charge of the van whilst
he went and had tea with Mr Hanlon.
I continued to
serve customers who would walk from all over, knowing the van was
going to be there an hour or more. How I amused myself I do not
recall, although I was an avid reader.
I well remember
the nice lady a couple of houses from where we parked who would come
and get some potatoes from me and, shortly afterwards would return
with a bowl of the most delicious hot chips. It’s funny how some
things stick in the memory after all those years."
"Twice a week we would go to the Edinburgh
Market for fresh fruit and vegetables. It
meant rising at 4am and returning in time for breakfast,
and then off to school.
It was quite
common for the van to be on the road until 10pm, as Grandpa had a
lot of friends who like to chat. He was in the shop every day about
6am, re-stocking the vans and with only Sundays off, it was hard
work for all.
It was a
consummate family business, with my Mother, Grandmother, Uncle and
myself all doing their bit. I recall only one paid employee, a man
who took out the smaller mobile van, but I have no idea who he was."
Grandpa had some
unusual ideas in promotion. I recall once, when a new cat food was
released, Grandpa filled the window with a huge pyramid of the
product and then encouraged the shop cat to sleep in the window.
With suitable wording, sales went well:
'If it made our cat content, it will do
the same for yours.'
there was some new product (I don’t remember what) and Grandpa
whitewashed the entire window, leaving a little peephole for
customers to see the product. Memory fails me as to the outcome, but
I do recall a lot of people peering through the hole!"
"Grandpa eventually sold the business and
was asked to be manager of Grant’s grocery shop in Portobello. He
remained there until failing health forced him to finally retire,
after a long life in the grocery business."
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia:
February 8, 2008
also known to many as Eric
Thank you to Eric Gold, now living in East London
grocer van photos were fantastic. Look at
the products sold in the interior shot of the van,
and look at the prices (ha ha ha ha).
I remember the vans well but not the name of
the owners then.
we moved from Craigmillar to Moredun then Gilmerton the guy who had
the vans was called Mr Tomilly.
started off with a wee shop in Craigmillar near the Gaff (County
Cinema) then bought a van and did a
was a great friend of my uncle Paddy. I
spent hours looking at the wears and tears
Mr Rattery in East Arthur Place had a van too,
I remember one winter it crashed into the park like the coal lorry
and we emptied it (ha ha ha ha)."