A Nostalgic Look at Life in Yorkshire in the 1930s
The days before the welfare state
In the 1930s, my grandparents both had full-time jobs to look after their two children, my mother Audrey and my uncle Kenneth.
This was before the days of the welfare state and if either of them had been unemployed, they would have struggled to feed their family. Welfare benefits for poorer people did not begin until 1942.
My grandad had worked hard to build up his own business since he was in his 20s, as he was a skilled upholsterer and furniture maker. Later, he had gone into a business partnership with his friend Albert Oldfield and they ran the upholstery firm, Trigg and Oldfield, of Wakefield Road, Ossett, for many years.
My grandma had worked in factories - and later during World War Two in a munitions factory - as detailed in my earlier Hubs.
However, I have only recently discovered that she also worked as a shop assistant in her youth, at Lewis's department store, on the Headrow, in Leeds. She had also worked on Leeds Market.
Grandma was one of Lewis's first employees in Leeds, as the store had opened only in 1932.
In later life, she went to work at Lewis's in Blackpool after my family moved to the Lancashire resort in the 1950s.
It was a cause for great excitement on the opening day of Lewis's in Leeds. Researching this Hub online, I learned how the department store was invaded by 120,000 excited customers in one day alone.
The construction of the store had required 2.2 million bricks; 5,000 tons of steel; 5,000 tons of cement; 13,000 tons of sand; 12,000 tons of gravel and 40,000 cubic feet of Portland stone.
At 40 feet higher than any other retail building in the city, Lewis’s also had the largest ground area of any provincial department store.
Working at Lewis's, Leeds, in the 1930s
When grandma worked at Lewis's, Blackpool, in the 1970s, she worked on the china department. Although the staff had to be smartly dressed, there wasn't a dress code and I recall grandma wore a dress or a skirt and blouse.
But back in the 1930s, there was a dress code for shop staff.
My mum, who is now in her 80s, recalled Lewis's was very strict in those days and grandma had told her how members of the shop staff were often fired for breaking the rules! I do not think there was much emphasis on employee rights and there was little chance of appeal.
Mum said, "In those days, all the female staff had to wear a black dress with a white lace collar. Someone would go round checking up on how everyone looked and behaved."
If any employee's family members went in the store, they were secretly followed by the security staff to check they were not stealing anything and their relative "turning a blind eye"!
Apparently, some members of staff had been caught selling small items (such as foodstuff) cheap to family members, or selling them "two for the price of one". They had been fired on the spot.
I suppose this is pretty much the same as today, except in the '30s, they were dismissed instantly for theft, whereas today, they would be suspended on full pay while an investigation took place and a disciplinary hearing held.
In those days, it was immediate dismissal and loss of income.
Mum also recalled how grandma would take her and Kenneth to buy cakes from Lewis's when they were kids.
"Downstairs, the whole ground floor was all food," mum said. "We always loved a cake from there."
The food hall, as it became known, sold just about everything, including lobsters at 9d each, although they were not something that my family would purchase.
Lewis's was one of the largest department stores in the north of England at the time, though only the lower floor was opened at the start, with the rest being completed by 1938.
Lewis's had started out as a small business in Liverpool in the 19th century.
Its founder, David Lewis, had settled in Liverpool around 1840 and had worked from the age of 16 as apprentice to tailors Benjamin Hyam & Co. Saving his wages, he branched out on his own to open a boys' clothing shop in Bold Street.
Following the opening of a second outlet, he then went on to launch the Lewis's empire.
The first Lewis’s store outside Liverpool opened in nearby Manchester in 1877, followed by further stores in many of the UK's towns and cities.
After Lewis’s death in 1885, he bequeathed large sums for the building of hospitals and philanthropic institutions.
Lewis's remained the biggest store in the centre of Leeds until it closed on 1 February 1991, when the company went into receivership.
In 1996, the store was taken over by Allders, but they too closed in 2005.
The history of Lewis's in Leeds, Yorksshire
Friendships forged at Lewis's
My grandma made some good friends at Lewis's and kept in touch with some of them in later life, long after she had stopped working there.
My mum recalled one of grandma's workmates, Eileen, became a close family friend and would spend her leisure time with them.
However, this led to an unhappy experience for my mum when she was little.
"Mum had a friend from Lewis's and she tried to teach me to swim at the baths," mum said.
The public baths were located on Cookridge Street, built by renowned architect Cuthbert Brodrick. who was responsible for many of Leeds' fine buildings in the 19th century, including the town hall.
Mum added, "When I slid down the slide, Eileen wasn't there to catch me! She had not told me to hold my breath of anything before I went in the water.
" I was shouting to her to catch me, but down I went, scared, with water in my nose and mouth! Of course, I floated back up and didn't drown. But no more for me after that!"
Eventually, my mum overcame her fear of water when she was a little older and actually taught me how to swim too when I was a child.
Leeds Market in the 1930s
Mum also recalled how my grandma had worked on Leeds Market in the 1930s.
Known as the Kirkgate Market, it was launched in its current form in the 1850s, although Leeds' long history as a market town can be traced back to the 13th century.
Kirkgate Market was also the birthplace of the world famous chain store, Marks and Spencer, for it was here that Michael Marks first set up a stall in the market, calling it a "Penny Bazaar", with the slogan, "Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny."
It became so successful he moved to Wigan’s large market in 1891. Three years later, in 1894, he took on a partner, Tom Spencer. Thus Mark’s and Spencer’s was born.
My grandma worked on the market for one of the local shop keepers.
This was immediately prior to her going to work at the new Lewis's store.
It was a family day out for young Audrey and Kenneth when they went to visit their mum at work, an exciting trip to the hustle and bustle of the marketplace.
"Dad used to take us on the bus to meet her," mum recalled.
"There was a little place selling tea - we always had something, such as lemonade or ice-cream or chips."
One of mum's lasting memories was of butcher's stalls with raw meat laid out for sale and no refrigeration.
"It was just there in the open air and sold cheap!" mum recalled.
I'm sure health and safety would have a field day today at the sight of raw meat on an open counter all day in the heat!
Grandma enjoyed working at the market, but eventually left. She told my mum, some time later, that her employer, a male businessman, had a soft spot for her. As a married woman, she wouldn't tolerate this.
Luckily, there were jobs a-plenty to be had and my grandma was not out of work ever during her working life, except briefly when she gave birth to my mum and my uncle.
When one job finished, she could walk straight into another.
The history of Leeds Market, Yorkshire
Leisure Time in Days Gone By
Leisure time in the 1930s was completely different from today, of course.
There were no cheap flights and package holidays abroad and not everyone owned a car, although my grandad was lucky enough to have one.
The family enjoyed day trips, including to Windermere in the Lake District, which I have documented in more detail in one of my other Hubs.
They also took holidays by the seaside, in Scarborough and Whitby.
They were always thrifty, as although they had enough money for day-to-day living expenses, they were not well off.
However, mum recalled how grandma's thriftiness once caused her very great embarrassment during a seaside holiday.
Grandma had learned to knit at a very young age and I remember she knitted me a lot of lovely cardigans and jumpers when I was little.
She also knitted clothes for herself and my mum and uncle Ken when they were kids.
Grandma decided one day to knit herself a bathing costume. In those days, it would have been very demure, a full one-piece swimsuit - she would certainly never wear anything revealing.
On holiday in Scarborough, the family all went in the sea and grandma was waist deep in the water when she realised her new swimsuit was feeling rather heavy and uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, it had become waterlogged and had stretched out of shape. Grandma discovered, to her horror, she had taken topless sunbathing to Scarborough!
When she looked down and saw, to her dismay, that her swimsuit had slipped down to her waist in the water, she had a horribly embarrassing time trying to exit the water and get back to her clothes while covering her modesty with her arms.
Knowing how demure my grandma's usual dress style was and how she had never worn anything even remotely revealing her entire life, I can only imagine how totally mortified she would have been at this unfortunate mishap!
Mum also recalled trips to the now famous Harry Ramsden's fish and chip shop, a business which had started out in a building described as a "striped wooden shed beside a tram stop" in Guiseley in 1928.
It was always a treat for them to go to Harry Ramsden's chippy in those days, where mum said they cooked the best fish and chips she had ever tasted.
She said the original chippy was down a long lane and was indeed very small and a far cry from the national chain of restaurants which Harry Ramsden's became.
Incidentally, years later, by this time a senior citizen in Blackpool, Lancashire, mum tried the new Harry Ramsden's restaurant on the promenade. However, she said nothing could match up to those early fish and chips, eaten out of the paper from the original chippy in Leeds.
When mum was 10 months old, the family had moved to a council house on a local estate.
In the 1920s, the first council houses had been built in Leeds, with more being built throughout the 1930s to house the growing population.
In those days, the street lighting was the old-fashioned gas lamps, which were lit individually at nightfall by one man going round them all, using a ladder.
In the morning, at daybreak, the man would come back and put out all the lights again, shouting, "All is well."
Mum said his cheery cry was like an alarm clock for the men, who knew it was time to get up for work.
Leeds' gas street lamps had first been installed in around 1819. Most were replaced, of course, by electricity later in the 20th century.
One of her most vivid memories was of an outside toilet and the toilet paper was old newspaper, which had been cut up and hung on a piece of string next to the toilet!
In 1938, they moved to a bungalow when mum was ten years old. It was a more modern dwelling and had its own indoor toilet, which was a luxury after the cold, outside WC.
There was a garden at the front and adjacent to the back garden was a huge farmer's field.
Mum recalled growing their own vegetables in the front garden when World War Two broke out in 1939 and families were encouraged to be self-sufficient due to food rationing.
My family eventually left Leeds and moved to Blackpool in the 1950s.
But my mum has always retained her fond memories of her youth and it is thanks to her that I am able to write these nostalgia articles on The Hub.