Going to Banbury in the late 1920s and early 30s was considered to be a special treat, although I grew up in Adderbury, which was only three and a half miles away. We had almost all that we needed in the village, with a Co-op, two high class grocers, another small shop that sold everything, including groceries, sweets, tobacco, second-hand pots and pans and even the odd piece of furniture. There was also a butcher’s shop and two bakeries where, before electricity came, we would cook the Sunday dinner in their bread ovens. About three times a week the bakers would deliver their lovely home-made loaves and the milkman would call with large buckets of milk which he would measure into a jug with a pint or half pint measure, while Amos the butcher brought meat round in his van twice a week. Then there was Billy Hobs, known as the oil man, but he brought much more than the paraffin needed for light and cooking: his van was a travelling hardware store with polishes of every description, brushes and brooms, mats, candles, spare parts for oil stoves, tin kettles, saucepans or maybe a pot mender to mend an old one. As he bowled along the streets, his goods would rattle and bang together and sometimes fall off the back. Another reason for not going into town was that Carrier Will Howes would bring back anything that was needed for twopence – less than half the bus fare, which was fourpence halfpenny return.
One of my first memories of Banbury was of my Dad lifting me up in the High Street in about 1930 and asking me if I could see the big Red Lion. When I said that I could, he said, “You remember that you saw it as they are going to knock it down to build a Woolworths.” This caused great exceitement and, when built, a new way of shopping. People had not been used to picking up their own purchases: in other shops goods were kept behind the counter and had to be asked for and placed on the counter by the assistants. I was taken to Woolworths shortly after it opened and all I could see was the high dark brown varnished counters – I was much too small to see the goods. Everything was either threepence or sixpence. Sandals or plimsoles would be sixpence for each shoe. At that time, they sold almost anything. In fact, there was a couple of quite elderly village characters who had been courting for a good many years. When at last Eva persuaded her Sam to tie the knot, he complained bitterly that he had had to pay seven and a tanner (seven shillings and sixpence) for a wedding ring not long before Woolworths opened; if he hadn’t been in such a hurry he could have bought one in Woolworths for sixpence. On Saturdays there was such a crowd in there that it was a job to fight your way round.
Of course, I did appreciate Woolworths when I got older, especially as we could buy so many things at a reasonable price and could see exactly how much everything cost before parting with our pocket money or later our hard-earned money. At one time they had a milk bar and we would treat ourselves to a chocolate milk shake on pay day.
Banbury Fair was considered a great event for both young and old. It was the only time some of the older generation came into Banbury and it was quite a gathering of the clans as people pushed their way through the crowds looking for relatives and friends that they had probably not seen since the year before.
The biggest crush was usually outside the boxing booth: I can remember being lifted up to see the Turpin brothers wearing their gloves and shorts and challenging anyone to beat them. I think there was a considerable cash reward but I don’t think many chaps managed to win it! It was a novelty to hear the music and see the bright coloured lights and the big steam engines that powered them. When we had had our rides Mam would say that she hadn’t any money left and that we would have to catch the bus home – though she would sometimes discover that she had enough to call at Needles for fish and chips to take home. Once, I remember, we actually ate them at a table inside the shop. The first time I went to the pictures was what should have been a trip to the fair; it started to bucket down with rain so my Mam took me into the Palace Cinema. The film was “The End of the Road”, starring Harry Lauder, I believe.
On the markets before the war, the stalls stayed open until dark. Each stall had bright flared napthene lights which made a loud hissing noise and had a large naked flame. Everything was sold off cheaply as it got later and I have known my Dad get a paper carrier bag full of fruit for about six pence.
My Dad did not approve of going to the pictures. He said that everybody who had been off work ill went to the pictures and you could catch anything. The only thing I remember catching was the odd flea, which was quite a common occurrence and the bites a nasty itch until caught. However, he could be persuaded to take me to see George Formby.
As I got older, I was allowed to go to Banbury to the Saturday afternoon matinee if there was a suitable film on; I remember going to see “Victoria the Great”. There used to be a man stand outside the Grand in Broad Street with a brown uniform trimmed with gold buttons and braid. He used to shout, “Fourpence and Sixpence in the Queue and tuppence round Pepper Alley”. There was always a lot of noise and some of the kids used to try and sneak in through the back way and sometimes we would see them being taken out. I did not often go myself, but I believe the Saturday morning kids’ shows were even noisier.
Although the villages did not depend on the town for food, they would have needed to buy clothing and shoes. The Co-op was, I would think, the nearest we had to a department store and sold most everything in the drapery line. Children were not often taken to choose their clothes: mothers would buy what they thought was suitable. A lot of our clothes were home-made; Pilsworths had a good selection of materials. Our school had a clothing club, which meant children paid a few coppers each week and when the schools broke up in July, vouchers would be issued. Mam always had ours made out to the Co-op as they sold shoes as well as the other drapery.
Living in a village, there were quite a few things we found different in the town. I remember being taken to the town’s toilets: the flush toilets and stiff white squares of toilet paper in china white holders were a novelty to some of the country folk, not forgetting the enamel notices offering a substantial reward for information on anyone using these toilets suffering from venereal disease. I did not understand anything except the reward and once asked my Mam how we could obtain what seemed to me to be a small fortune and was quickly dragged outside. There was always an attendant with her mops, Brasso and cleaning cloths. All the taps were highly polished and I am sure she would have been capable of dealing with anyone who threatened to damage her domain.
Unless a child had been fortunate to pass the scholarship and go to what was then known as Banbury County School, the rest of us left school at the age of fourteen. My turn came in July, 1939. My mother had a small tea shop so I did not go to work straight away. It was a lovely summer: I had a stall outside and I sold what must have been hundreds of soft drinks and ice creams. A great many people went on cycling holidays and I remember a sense of foreboding as they were saying that they were making the most of this year as there would be a war. Soon we were measured and issued with gas masks; sand bags and paper strips on all the windows appeared in the town. A few weeks later we were at war, our village had a whole battalion of soldiers arrive, and huts sprang up it seemed almost overnight.
After a couple of years, Mam closed the shop and I went to work at Spencer’s corset factory, which made surgical corsets and belts. There were very strict rules: no talking allowed on any of the benches. This was when I really began to love Banbury; I met girls of my own age and began to go to the Saturday night dances at the Town Hall, where we danced to records of well-known bands of that time. There were crowds of RAF personnel coming into the town from several surrounding airfields, as well as all the soldiers, and, surprisingly, not very much trouble. There was no alcohol sold on the premises, but we were all quite happy with the powdered lemonade or coffee and a sausage roll. So there was no shortage of partners. In spite of clothes rationing we always managed to look nice. We queued at the market stalls in our dinner hour or on Saturdays for makeup or curtain material to make into a blouse. Many a lad came home on leave to find his grey flannel trousers had been made into a skirt by one of his sisters. One time a stall came with a lot of bomb-damaged Celanese underwear, mostly camiknickers, all soaking wet and sooty but only half coupons and certainly too expensive for us to have bought in new condition. However, they washed up nice and clean and we really appreciated them. It was also possible to buy seconds in silk stockings (nylons had not come our way then) and after careful examination find some where the mend did not show. We had many devious ways of stretching our clothing coupons.
As well as the dances in other villages and the Town Hall, there were the three picture houses: The Grand in Broad Street with double seats at the back for courting couples, the Palace in the Market Place, now a bank, and the Regal, which is the only one left out of the three and now has another name. With so many of the armed forces coming into town there were always long queues to get in, but that was all part of the fun. There were several good musicals and we watched Betty Grable, Alice Faye and all the glamorous film stars: we fell in love with the men and dreamed we could look like the girls. When the Pathe News came on we booed the Italians and the German soldiers and cheered our boys.
It was a sad time, a romantic time; it was easy to fall in love with the boys in uniform and a strange feeling knowing that in a few weeks or less they would maybe be killed in action. We also heard the same of lads we had known all our lives.
Even during the war years there was a fairly good bus service from Adderbury into both Banbury and Oxford, the last bus being at 10.30 p.m., but most of the time I used to cycle. Bikes could be left at Caves store in Bridge Street and collected quite late on dance nights. I think he charged us about 6d. Front lamps had to be half covered with black paper and the street lamps, where there were any, very dim, but we still managed to find our way around quite safely.
I still remember the words of one elderly lady when she said, “If there be a war things will never be the same again”. How right she was.