Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Aunt Elsie's Shop In Tooley Street

Aunt Elsie ran the sweet shop on the corner of Tooley Street and The Old Green throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. She wasn’t really anyone’s aunt as far as I know but we all referred to her as such. Her full name was Elsie Bull and she lived with Her George at number 17, the front parlour of which had been turned into a shop at some stage and the window fitted with a smart wooden Venetian Blind that grew decidedly less smart as the years went by. One of our York Road neighbours maintained that there had not been a shop at all on that corner back in the 1920s and that the business had emerged with the coming of the Bulls to the neighbourood, from Margate or Ramsgate and why they had chosen to uproot and settle in Northfleet she had no idea. The Bulls did not appear to have a family but for a number of years a lodger called Joe lived with them and was said to be George’s nephew though he looked too old to be entirely comfortable as a nephew. At times, particularly on Bank Holiday weekends visitors crammed themselves into the back kitchen and the two upstairs bedrooms and on summer evenings drank beer in the back yard, sitting on planks supported by wooden fruit boxes. On these occasions there was a certain amount of jollity emanating from number 17 but other than that it was a quiet household with Aunt Elsie doing all the work because Her George only rarely appeared in the shop and my grandmother noted that he must have been a Lazy Bugger.

It’s possible that Aunt Elsie sold tobacco products as well as sweets because she would have needed a varied stock to Get By On during the many years of sugar rationing but I only recall the tall glass jars of Sherbet Lemons, Aniseed Balls, Bulls Eyes, Butterscotch and Hard Gums and I have no recollection of male customers requesting Hearts of Oak and Rizla Papers. By 1952, excitingly for her child clientele, the jars shared the shelf space with coils of Liquorice, Sherbet Dabs and Barratts Sweet Cigarettes and a little later with the newfangled packets of Spangles and Polo Mints. She was our most preferred source of all those products that were going to rot our teeth and generally we made our glass jar purchases two ounces at any one time and after a great deal of indecision. The sweets would be weighed with precision on the little brass scales and tipped into small white paper bags.

Aunt Elsie herself was a small dumpy woman of indeterminate age with red-brown hair, often half hidden under a hair-net. She invariably wore flowered smocks that hung loosely to her hips and fur trimmed slippers with slightly elevated heels that made her appear to topple forward as she walked. By the time we were twelve years old most of us were the same height as she was, the boys often towering over her. She always waited patiently behind the counter for us to make our important decisions, staring at us unsmilingly from behind rimless spectacles, her bosom, ample for her small frame, often heaving and her breathing laboured. My mother said she might well be harbouring the TB germ though Molly Freeman’s mother said it was probably only a touch of asthma and nothing to get too alarmed about. I have a sneaking suspicion that my own mother quite enjoyed alarm over illness but in any case I chose to believe Mrs Freeman. You could say that Aunt Elsie didn’t go out of her way to be all that friendly but overall she had been bequeathed with a certain amount of patience which she definitely needed with her youngest customers.

My eight year old brother was capable of standing lost in thought for ten minutes at any one time before he could be persuaded to hand over the hot two pence clutched tightly in his hand, in exchange for a long rope of liquorice. On one momentous occasion, however, quite uncharacteristically, he bought two Mars bars at fourpence each without much prior thought and even gave one to Hedley Davis who lived a few doors along from the shop. I knew at once that he had come by the money by foul means rather than fair and it had most likely been uplifted from my mother’s purse. Whatever lay behind the purchase it was a significant one because it wasn’t very often those under twelve or thirteen years of age could be persuaded to spend up large on chocolate items. Chocolate of any kind we usually left to the discretionary spending of the adults around us.

When Aunt Elsie was on shop duty between the hours of nine and five, with a break at lunch time, we were all at liberty to use the long expanse of her side wall that bordered the Old Green for hand stand practice and improving our dexterity for the ball games that required a hard surface. To do so once the shop closed, however, was to invite the wrath of Her George who would appear promptly, red in the face and shouting at us to Clear Off, which we usually did.
By the time I was fourteen Aunt Elsie had died quite suddenly of a stroke and after a while the shop closed because Her George was disinclined to carry on the tradition of service to the public that she had initiated. It turned out that if she had not presented the warmest side of her personality to local children, he positively disliked every single one of us. We were strangely dejected when the slatted wooden blind came down for the final time and we wondered what might have become of the many jars of sweets. Molly said that it was always possible Her George had a reasonably sweet tooth himself.

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