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It was my fourteenth birthday, Monday 17 March 1930. when I sat the Store examination along with another 28 boys for the vacancy of Apprentice Grocer, and on the 18th March I received a letter in beautiful copperplate writing from Manager Joseph Marr telling me I had been successful.
I started in East Loan which was then called the Preston Branch and my First task was sweeping up and more sweeping up! It was a fortnight before I was allowed to serve a customer! Bennie Neilson was the Branch Manager and the assistants were Alex 'Poet' Grandison. Matthew Moodie. Katie Thomson and Tommy Bell.
The training was thorough. I was shown how to bag sugar, rice. lentils, peas and flour, cut butter into half pounds from a large slab and prepare the great big cheeses by stripping off the cloth and cutting it with a wire. An experienced grocer could cut the butter and cheese exactly to the half-pound or quarter, whatever was asked for. I was shown how to bone hams. cut cold meats on the slicing machine to the thickness required, ham and tongue were thinner than bacon, and how to lay it out nicely. Everything was done properly from folding a bag of sugar to cutting the knuckles out of the Belfast hams with special narrow knives. There were some pre-packed goods such as S C W S Shieldhall packets of semolina and custard. Bluebell Margarine from Twynholm and Go/d Margarine which was made in Craigmillar. The big cheeses and some of the bacon came from the Kirkpatrick Dairy in Thornhill. Danish butter came in big casks and after we knocked the hoops off them the boys got them for making "draygon" kites. Soap powders such as Al. Ammonia Powder from Grangemouth and Acdo tablets were popular, tubs of soft soap came from Mellis's and then there were Peerless soaps from Grangemouth. White Windsor and Blue Mottled soaps also. Brasso was used to keep the door knobs shining and Zebo to black-lead the grates. Pipeclay terracotta and White London sandstone was used to Finish off the clean steps.
We started work at 8am and finished at 6pm on Monday. Tuesday. Thursday and Saturday. Wednesday we finished at 12noon as we had a half-day, and Friday was 7pm. Annual holidays were two week in the summer months.
I liked the friendly atmosphere at the Store and the Boss. he was a great man to work for. Isa (Nisbet) started in 1932 pushing a Store milk barrow which was a heavy job for a girl. In 1934 she came to the Preston Branch Bakery section and it was then we got friendly but it was many. many years before we married. At Preston Lodge I sat my book-keeping exam and also a Co-operative history course for Store employees. Then I went to Bellevue Night School in Broughton Street. Edinburgh where I took window dressing and studied tea and cheese and found the late Sandy Harkess there taking the same subjects. I was given full training on the job but that still meant five years improving and another four before you were a fully fledged grocer - a total of nine years.
At the time I started there were no houses beyond Polwarth Terrace, so we served the area east of East Loan. The centre of the town used the Central Branch in the High Street and Summerlee folk went to the West End Branch also in the High Street and where the Lady Susan is now. The original Co-operative building was at the top of Harlaw Hill, looking up the Loan and the clasped hands still shown on a house wall are a permanent reminder of the start in 1869.
Prestonpans Co-operative Society served the local people with everything they were ever likely to need. The two smaller Preston and West End branches supplied mainly food, including bakery, and the present-day optician's shop was divided into two. One side was the confectioner's where Lily Paterson served and the other was occupied by the barber, Jimmy Ross. In Kirk Street. Hugh Stewart was in charge of the Joinery and also provided full funeral and undertaking services. There was a Blacksmith's in the High Street, opposite Safeway's, where Wull Boyd and Peter Ralton worked and Bobbie Blair was apprentice.
Central Branch, however, offered all that a modern supermarket has. On the ground floor there was the main grocery, which also had fruit and vegetables and bread, scones, buns, pies and cakes. supplied from the Bakery down at the back of the building where bakers Jake Smith, Jimmy Paterson. Tommy Smith, Tom Kennoway and Joe Rowberry all worked with Jocky Edmond and Nessie Cruikshank in the Bread Dispatch. Also down the back was Colin Campbell. the Cobbler, whose staff were kept busy with repairs on all sorts of footwear from school shoes to miners' tacketty boots. On street level there was a separate butcher's shop where Jock Logie was in charge of George Marr. Jock Rowberry. George Cunningham. Ian McLeod and Alex Watson. From the street a marble staircase with a beautiful wooden bannister led up to the second floor where there was the office and then the millinery and ladies section with Miss Darg, Agnes Sanders and Maggie Knox. the footwear with Miss Thomson and Mr Alex Harkess had the gent's outfitting section.
Upstairs, as in the main shop downstairs, a system was in force which sent cash and slips in a small cylinder through a series of pipes to the cash desk and any change and slip being returned in the same way. Of course, the member's store number was needed at all times to be used on the slips so that the dividend could be calculated at the end of every half year. Care had to be taken when cigarettes were sold as dividend was given on the S.C.W.S brand of Cogent and Straight Cut but not on the other popular brands of Capstan and Woodbine. Woodbines were sold in small paper packets of Five but some miners bought them in boxes of 1.000 if there were two or three smokers in the family! Thick and Thin black tobacco were very popular with pipe smokers and others to chew underground as the miners were not allowed to smoke there.
Shop assistants complain about the difficult customers they have today but I think they were worse in the old days. One in particular used to come at five minutes to six every Saturday night and we all had to muck in to get her list of shopping together before closing time. We all wanted home on time then as it was pictures night! Anyway, this lady complained about the slice of fat bacon in her order when she had ordered lean but she was politely told that the slicing machine was washed and cleaned by 5.55pm so that it was ready for Monday morning. Anyone coming after that time just had to take what was already cut!
Eventually. I started driving after I learned on a Bean Store van with a gate change! Tommy Bogie and van were attached to the West End branch and my van duties were to look after all the wants of Preston branch, deliver orders, transfer goods from the Central branch such as bakery, to bring it up to Isa who later was in the Cash Desk which attended to the Dividend slips as well as cash. I was there until WWII brought changes to everyone.
One of the changes was the supply of milk. Penicuik Co-operative supplied it and there was a friendly rivalry between the two stores when they played a football match once a year. A Ford T-type van took the team and supporters to Penicuik but when we came to Lasswade. everyone had to get out to help it up the brae! In 1940 when fuel was in short supply, the milk started coming from Tranent Co-op Dairy farm but originally, of course. Prestonpans had its own byres and dairy in Castlepark grounds.
I left Isa at the Waverley Station in March 1940 and when I Ianded at Colombo. Ceylon in the July I found that my knowledge of tea created an unexpected diversion. There were about twenty-kiosks stationed along the grassy links and they were serving the 4,000 soldiers from the ships with tea. What else! When they asked if I wanted sugar and milk. I refused and said it should be taken on its own. I sniffed the tea and said that it was a Pekoe leaf and before I was finished I had tasted and named twenty cups of different tea until it was nearly coming out of my ears! I was quite chuffed that I was able to distinguish them all although my mates could hardly believe it!
After a spell in STALAG XVIII I arrived back home in June 1945. Isa and I were married and got one of the Store houses at Beach Cottage in the High Street. At work. I was posted to the Central Branch which I did not like as much as Preston. Times and people and standards were different and there was a lot of unrest.
Two Travelling Shops were created. Tommy Bogie in one and I did the other. This was a new concept and it worked well in Prestonpans but there were still a lot of undercurrents which I did not like and eventually I wanted away from even the van. I handed in my notice and Dougal Robertson told me there was a job at Hill Thomson's, the whisky distillers and so I went there in 1954 as a van driver. Through time it became Glenlivet and then Seagram's. so there were a lot of changes. I was made Manager of the Edinburgh warehouse and stayed there until I retired.
There is still a Store in Prestonpans. but it no longer has the influence that it once had. Too much competition, but that's progress!

The letter received by Henry in 1930 telling him he had passed the exam and that he could start work a." apprentice grocer.

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