Well its been a long winter for me and my knee. Thankfully, things are improving and I’m now out and about again. In fact I think I’m back in a big way. My latest book ‘Assured Attention,’ a sequel to ‘Our Best Attention’ is almost ready for publication. There have been sneak previews on Facebook and Twitter. The People’s Friend have published five stories, some of which are set in Murrays (department store of distinction,) others are in more diverse settings including a call centre, a sports centre and a school. More are to follow. My hibernation has been productive.
Requests for talks and author events are coming in a steady stream and already the diary is filling up. Fine by me. I always enjoy these events and love hearing people’s reminiscences of departed department stores.
Life is full of surprises it would seem. Librarian hath spoken unto librarian with the result that I was invited to view the Jenners archive at the Central Library in Edinburgh. Obviously, my novel, ‘Our Best Attention,’ is fiction but its location in a large department store was inspired by my time working in Jenners in Princes St, Edinburgh. I loved working there and it has long remained in my memory. However, the memories contained in the archive went back many, many years before I was born.
Among the items I looked at was a complete inventory of the building from top to bottom. I was intrigued to find the ratio of shop floor space to the building as a whole to be really quite small. Only the first two floors were open to customers. The other four floors contained the staff bedrooms ( I found 102 of these!) staff dining rooms and a three bed sick room and medical room along with many workrooms and rooms with various other uses. Although this was a professionally produced inventory carried out by a London firm, it was unfortunately undated. Very frustrating. However, by careful cross referencing it looks like it must have been produced about 1906.
I also loved looking at the Christmas catalogues which dated back to 1902. There was so much to look at in the archive that I plan several return visits.
I’m going to be talking about my novel and the background to it at the Central library “Edinburgh Tales” session on 21st September. Look out for further information on the Eventbrite website.
Fashion was always a priority for ladies at Murrays of Edinburgh, department store of distinction. Various departments catered for different aspects of this from Lingerie and Corsetry to that holy of holies -Model Gowns with all varieties in between from Swimwear to Outdoor Clothing and even, for an unfortunate time, Furs.
In my best selling book , ‘Our Best Attention’, Mr Da Costa, the straight talking star of Model Gowns, dresses down Edinburgh ladies before dressing them up again in outfits that do them more justice than those they might have chosen for themselves. In the end the ladies actually revel in his rudeness and vie to be most insulted by him.
Of course this is just a story but reality can be surprising too. In the course of my author events I’ve enjoyed hearing ladies’ experiences of their time working or as customers in the old department stores. One lady told us all about how her grandmother was a model. This meant something different in those days: ladies didn’t try on clothes themselves, they would sit and watch as models paraded the clothes for them and those they chose would be made up for them in their sizes. No changing rooms for the ladies of old! In that particular store, the sewing rooms were located as far as possible from the kitchens to prevent contamination of the precious garments by cooking smells even those from the chocolate kitchen (yes there was one!) Those were the days!
Well who’d have thought it? Not me anyway. I just wrote the stories as stories. However, at a recent author event where the reminiscences came thick and fast from the audience, it was pointed out that ‘Our Best Attention,’ my novel set in a department store in the 1970s, was social history.
The book described a setting, a staff group and customers that are now, sadly, long gone. The loss of the whole ethos of service to customers and care for and about staff seems to have disappeared almost without trace in our modern world of minimum wage, zero hours contracts and, of course the internet.
Specific aspects of the book were pointed out to me. For example, the legion of ladies left without potential husbands after the first world war: no families, children or grandchildren for them. So sad. Miss McPherson in the chapter, “The Bequest,” is really a tribute to these often very kindly women. The concept of “Model Gowns,” the unquestioning ubiquity of a “Furs” department, and the employment of war disabled staff have all disappeared. No one starts their “wedding china” off any more with the hope of adding to it throughout a long married life. Can staff members simply arrange for a family member to be employed these days? Mrs Da Costa could in “The Square Peg” and Mr Soames did in “Operation Limelight”. Even the language has changed: no one is asked to “Come forward Miss Glover” as in “Storm in the Teacups” or even to always refer to each other so formally as always to use surnames.
Life for staff in department stores of the past was very different from now. At the time of the 1892 fire in Jenners store in Edinburgh, Scotland (one of the stores which were the inspiration for the setting of ‘Our Best Attention’ my bestselling novel), 120 staff lived on the premises. On the third and fourth floors were the bedrooms for lady assistants along with Reading and Drawing Rooms. The young men had rooms on the fifth and sixth floors with a spacious Reading Room and a splendid Smoking Room en suite. There was a manager for this accommodation who occupied a suite of apartments on the third floor. As time moved on, and space was required for expansion of the business, any staff requiring accommodation were moved to a spacious hostel purchased by the company until only a handful remained and other accommodation was found for them.
As late as the 1930s there were clear standards for staff to maintain. Dress was a matter for female staff to provide for themselves but this had to adhere to a set style and hem length. Male staff were issued with a box of 12 starched collars: six to last the week and six to be sent to the laundry. They were expected to work long hours-almost a 12 hour day in some cases but there was fun too.
Despite the hard work, staff could join a wide variety of leisure activities. There was a golf club, a tennis club and a dramatic club. Shakespearean plays were performed in the gardens of Charles Jenners’ house at Duddingston.
It’s hard to imagine the all-encompassing nature of employment in such a department store in these days of self service and automatic checkout systems and, of course, internet shopping. For staff in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, our modern way of shopping life would have been every bit as unimaginable!
(Information from ‘Jenners: A Short History 1838-1988 and from ladies attending author events)
One of the most popular chapters in the book “Our Best Attention” is set in the Tea Room of a large department store and concerns the nefarious activities of a group of Edinburgh ladies. People are always asking about the ‘Tea Room Ladies’ and whether they will reappear in book 2. Well, the short answer is that, yes, they most certainly will. This is due partly to my enjoying writing about this particular set of ladies, and partly because I love Tea Rooms! I always have.
At a recent author event, a former employee of a certain large department store brought me in all sorts of memorabilia. This included information about the restaurants and tea rooms there. Well it was a goldmine for me!
An 1895 advertisement for the “Luncheon and Tea Rooms,” a novel feature of Edinburgh life, described them as having, “everything served in first class style at moderate prices.” The elegant mezzanine floor with a gallery was treated in Alhambra style and decorated in cream and gold. A Writing Room, “fitted with every requisite for Ladies,” was immediately beside the Luncheon and Tea room and beside that a cloakroom where, “ladies may leave their wraps or have parcels addressed to them from other shops in town.”
All was clearly well for the ladies of Edinburgh. However, things weren’t too bad for the staff either. One irresistible fact I discovered was that staff could opt to have meals included as part of their pay. “Those who did ate lavishly and without restriction. A man was employed solely to carve the joints which were served to the staff. This was his only task and was a full time occupation.”
A happy staff then to provide the advertised, “refined service of the dainty and varied meals.”
Fish Suppers? In a Library? Well yes. That was the invitation from dynamic Diane Yule of Ratho library near Edinburgh Scotland. I was asked to join the ladies (and gentleman) of the ‘Book and a Blether’ group who regularly meet for a fish supper followed by a talk or a discussion about a book. This week the ‘event’ was me coming to talk about my bestselling novel, ‘Our Best Attention’. After the consumption of the fishy feast, some others joined us and I did my usual thing. This time it was enlivened by the contributions of a local lady who had brought along some memorabilia of a certain posh Edinburgh department store.
The evening went with a swing and I left feeling very optimistic about the future of libraries. If they are all such cheerful and busy parts of the community their days are not over. Phew!
Over the past few weeks since the launch of “Our Best Attention” a number of things have happened. A guest blog on Gransnet (www.gransnet.com) led to a huge response and lots of, presumably, grans wrote in with reminiscences of department stores all over the UK. In addition, I’ve been talking at a number of author events and have met lots of really interesting people who also had tales to tell.
Among the stories, I heard of an elderly lady observed in a large, posh store in London (Harrods? Maybe) ordering a single kipper -and having it delivered! Another lady told of her aunt who used to live in the ladies dormitory in the attics of their local department store. One can only imagine the sort of life she must have led there. So many untold stories.
One person’s mother worker pre WW1 in the ribbon department of a large Edinburgh emporium. Its hard to imagine a whole department devoted to the sale of ribbons but hats and costumes needed trimming in those days and matching ribbons were a matter of tremendous importance.
World War 2 was another theme that arose in our discussions. A Gransnet member had memories of their large department store being bombed out and all the departments being dispersed among local big houses and nissen huts. How must that all have been organised? Moving the stock, informing staff where to report, keeping a grip on the financial side as well as the sheer admin around paying the staff not to mention the problem of coupons. In a time before the internet and with telephones relatively few and far between its so hard to see how it was all managed- yet it was. Full marks to British bulldog spirit. Ladies shall shop!
General sadness was remarked by many at the marked reduction in variety of china and glass. People remembered going to their local department store to choose their ‘wedding china’ and how they built it up over their married lives. No more it would seem. We buy our china now in chain stores and plain white reigns supreme. Ah well. You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone!
I have a feeling that as I go along to the various events I will hear more stories of departed department stores and their staff and customers. Can hardly wait!