As I continue my talks to various groups around the Lothians I continue to hear fascinating stories from previous staff members and customers of the old department stores. The illustration above is of Maule’s en gala for the coronation of George V and Queen Mary (I think!) This was the original company which build the shop at the West End of Princes Street. It became Binns in 1943 then was taken over by House of Fraser in 1953 and renamed Fraser’s in 1976. Sadly, its rebuilt version was closed this week. Last night I heard from an ex staff member that staff had their pay compulsorily docked to contribute to a wedding gift for Hugh Fraser.
Over to Jenners. Also with a large question mark over its future. I gathered from one proud parent that her son, then a student, was a delivery driver for Jenners. Allegedly this young man was instructed to drive via only the ‘nicest’ areas of town even if this meant long unnecessary detours. Possibly an early form of mobile advertising?
The famous Sir Will Y Darling the politician and owner of Darling’s in Princes St informed the mother of one lady present last night that one must always change the buttons of a new coat. Despite not quite understanding why this was somehow important, the lady always did this! He must have known something that we don’t!
Almost my favourite story, heard from an audience member, relates to RW Forsyths. I gather that the commissionaire always knew the customers, always looked after their umbrellas on arrival and, without fail, always returned exactly the right umbrella to the right lady. Customer service indeed. Those were the days.
‘All Change!’ is the title of my latest story published in the People’s Friend yesterday. Its about a whole lot of changes going on at Murrays Department Store of distinction set in Edinburgh in the 1990s.
Its also applicable to my own situation right now in the second decade of the 2000s : I’m having another total knee replacement next week so am expecting a rather immobile Summer. However, judging by my appointments diary I’m in for a very busy time in the Autumn of this year and the Spring of next. Its most gratifying to find how interested people seem to be in our old department stores. Its certainly given me a lot to look forward to on recovery.
Meanwhile there are so many books to be read -or stories to write…?
Well that’s what I have been doing. I’ve been talking at a whole host of events and visits to all sorts of groups and at lots of different locations from libraries to bookshop to housing complexes. Anywhere that people want to hear about the ‘Disappeared Department Stores of Edinburgh’ and my inadvertent wandering into this area of social history I’ll be rabbiting on. Its been a two way street too: I’ve heard fascinating reminiscences of people’s experiences on both sides of the counter in these wonderful old stores. I’d never have guessed that my novels would lead to this interesting new facet to life.
A few more events coming up. Hello Leith Rotary tonight and Morningside Library next week. Already lots of bookings for the autumn and next spring too. Just have to get this next knee replacement out of the way. Oh well. I’ll have lots to think about during my enforced convalescence.
(The rabbit featured is a carnelian netsuke that I’m very fond of.)
Well the Autumn session of talks and events has kicked off in style. A cheerful evening at Juniper Green WI set the scene. Lots of nice ladies with happy memories of the old stores.
To Morningside next week for another talk then a session at the Portobello Book Festival in their historic fiction slot the following weekend. Its all go.
Meanwhile People’s Friend have published another of my stories. U3A keeps me busy in various groups and, in my other life, I still run my groups for late diagnosed men and women with Asperger Syndrome.
‘Assured Attention,’ book 2 in the series about a large Edinburgh department store now moving into the 1980s, was launched on Monday 31st July at Blackwell’s Bookshop, South Bridge, Edinburgh.
An attentive audience appeared to enjoy the interview of the author carried out by Gordon Lawrie from Comely Bank Publishing and came up with some interesting and challenging questions of their own!
Not least among these was which person would Jane Tulloch choose to read the books for audio recording. Hard to say. There are male and female voices required. Jane’s choice of Judi Dench was purely a default selection. Perhaps? Hannah Gordon might have been best? Food for thought anyway.
It was a very friendly evening all round. Blackwells, as ever, did us proud.
In the hiatus before the publication date of ‘Assured Attention’ I’ve been researching some of the old department stores of Edinburgh. What a lost world! I’ve looked at the long lists of departments that used to be considered necessary. Looking at the image above of the disappeared J& R Allan store on South Bridge, for example, its clear that mourning was a major consideration for businesses back then. The appropriate dresses , hats and gloves vital purchases for the serious mourner in those days.
When was the last time you bought a ‘mantle’? I don’t think I ever have! Moving on into the 20th century I was surprised to see ‘Smoking paraphernalia’ included as a specific department in one large store. O tempora. O mores!
I’ll be presenting my findings at The University of the Third Age meeting on 19th July and once again, perhaps in an extended form (as I keep discovering more!), at ‘Previously- Scottish History Festival’ in November.
Illustration from the collection of Malcolm Cant.
Central Library, Edinburgh.
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.
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.
Changed days and not always for the better.