From time to time I have told a few stories from my past. Harmless tales, not the spilling of beans that might embarrass or endanger anyone. And over the past few days, Z, who blogs here, and Tim, here, have been reminiscing about old-fashioned shops and shopping.

Their shops are in England and my childhood shops were far away on the other side of the world. But mostly, things were much the same.Except where I lived…

It was a dormitory town, built from scratch for construction workers, employed after the war on the hydro schemes along the Waikato River. For the first 2 (I think) years all commodities, ie foodstuffs, were brought in by truck and sold from the main dining room at the single men’s camp.

When the shops were built (1948? ) “shopping” was a little easier. There were 2 grocers, 2 butchers,2 greengrocers, 2 shoe shops (though only one did repairs), 2 drapers/haberdashers, 2 “milk bars” as New Zealanders called (and still do!) ice cream parlours/sweet shops. One bakery, one hardware store which sold everything from tin tacks to table lamps and could order bigger furniture items from the city. One “fancy” ladies dress shop, one fishmonger, one news agent/toys/stationery store, one Post Office and, eventually, one dentist. And one Bank agency which only opened one day a week. And one bus depot. Oh, I almost forgot  the pharmacy.The woman who ran that was one of my early heroes and I’ll write about her  another time.

About that time a maternity hospital with outpatients clinic was also built; surgical cases were transported to the main provincial hospital 80 miles away.

My family, like most others, had an Auckland newspaper delivered (by local school boys) 6 days a week. Sunday papers didn’t appear until the 70s.Or maybe the 60s. And we saved all the newspapers; those we didn’t use to wrap rubbish, fold around tender seedlings and other things were lugged up to the butchers and greengrocers. Good pocket money!

There was a chap who came in a truck every few months, tooting his horn and crying; “Bottle-o!” I forget what the return on an empty bottle was, but it was certainly worthwhile. We could return soft drink bottles to the shop that sold them and I seem to remember the refund being tuppence on a one shilling bottle of lemonade. Now, this didn’t mean you could buy the lemonade for 10 pence; trading standards forbade that. The shopkeeper had to sell at the designated price and “buy back” the empty bottle. Recycling far ahead of today’s trendies. You don’t need me to tell you these were glass bottles, do you!

And I remember old Mr. Warner, who came once a month, selling vegetables and fruit from a big truck. This was market garden produce and often items the local shops did not have. Mr. Warner always had morning tea at our house.

Once a week I’d take my mother’s grocery list up to the shop, hand it to the grocer or his assistant and say; “Could you deliver this on Friday, please?” He always could. And did. (In another post I’ll tell you about his delivery man.) The account would be settled at the end of the month. We had an account with the butcher, too, though sometimes I’d buy threepence worth of cat meat and pay cash.

Fish. Friday was the busiest day for the fish shop. This was when Roman Catholics eschewed meat on Fridays and the queue was always long! And because the fish came in early our family, though not adherents to Rome, often had Friday Fish, too. We also had a friend who was a mad-keen trout fisher. His daughter and I used to tie flies for him and we loved going fishing with him.

This same friend was also a hunter. He’s the chap who showed me how to skin a rabbit so that it could be stuffed.Handy tip: don’t stuff it with sand unless you want a thuggish heavy door-stop!

I’ve just remembered the biscuit tin! Most grocers would sell you a bag of broken biscuits, by weight. Things like Rich Tea and Sweet Digestive. Otherwise, all cakes and cookies were home baked.

Coffee. Scarce as hens’ teeth until well after the war ended and certainly not available in our town. But sometimes, Les, who drove the ambulance, would bring some fresh-ground coffee back from the city when he’d had to take someone to hospital. Otherwise, we had bottled coffee essence.

Milk was delivered daily by a contractor who ladled it from cans on his truck into milk billies at the gate. In the early days, people would put their coins in the billy. Like all honesty systems it suffered from dishonest people. Eventually, a token system replaced the cash.Tokens were not redeemable anywhere else. And before all milk was pasteurised we had the most wonderful top o’ the milk. Sometimes my mother would set some in a pan to clot on the back of the stove. We ate that with soda bread and jam and an admonishment not to tell everyone.Why? Because that’s what poor people ate!

Bread. In the very early days if you ran out of bread you made soda bread (like scones) or went without until the stores came in. But then, in the early 50s, 2 enterprising chaps who had won big money in a lottery set up their own bakery in a small town about 40 miles distant. One was the baker, the other (and his wife) drove the bread van. They delivered to our street Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. This was the first time we’d seen pre-sliced loaves! Still no plastic, these loves were wrapped in waxed paper.

And I’ve just remembered something else about the pre-plastic days – we all saved our butter wrappers for lining baking tins.

Mother bought fresh eggs from a woman on our street; I used to take a little hand-made basket which was a good size for 6 big brown eggs.

And we grew a lot of our own vegetables, but it took a few years for most things to become established. Eventually, Dad turned over most of the back garden to lawn and fruit trees, all self-sown from pips spat out by me and ringed with twigs til they grew.

And for “Big Shopping” like city clothes we made the 80 mile trip by bus….

For previous reminiscences,go here or here


  1. Inspiration as always here..thanks to you I can now make a rabbit skin cosh.
    That’ll solve the Christmas present problem for those within a three kilometre (walking distance with sand filled cosh) radius.

    Butter paper for cake tins…and brown parcel paper for cooking rich fruit cakes.

    The groceries were ordered once a week, mother sitting in the chair provided for customers by the wooden counter, and would be delivered one day later. Sugar came in blue paper packages.

    Early on, milk came from a can on a cart…you had to go out with your own can and paid up on Saturdays.

    Mother used to defy convention and shop for clothes, fabric and sundries at the Co op, where the money used to fly between counter and till in little metal containers on, I think, a pneumatic system.


  2. This sounds remarkably familiar. Every woman baked, every woman made jam, preserves, chutneys, every woman sewed. Almost everyone had a vegetable garden, and fruit and vegies were swapped around the neighbourhood. We had chooks who roosted in the hedge and it was our job to find and collect their eggs.
    To this day I cannot deal with figs because it was my job to collect the rotted and rotting figs that the silvereyes had bitten into and flung to the ground.


    • That was much the same in our town, but not for the first few years when gardens were being established. Harsh climate, poor soil. Not saying I want to return to those days, but it was a good grounding, I think.


      • Yes, a very good grounding. I think we are lucky to have these memories. I lived on a flower farm in a rural area out of Sydney, Australia. We had cows so didn’t buy milk. We had a separating machine in the dairy room, and there was Jersey rich cream and our home made butter which was made in a wooden butter churn. I still have the butter pats that shaped the block of butter. Washing the dozens of parts of the separating machine was a twice daily chore which I avoided if possible. My daughter now has the separator playing an ornamental role in her kitchen. My Viennese mother and grandmother made our bread and pasta, dried field mushrooms to make soup in winter, made cottage cheese, Grandpa made the best dilled cucumbers ever and produced ginger beer (sometimes explosive) and Dad made some pretty good wine. The rabbitto man came around hawking skinned rabbits, the iceman brought huge blocks of ice for the ice chest, and the clothes prop man brought long sticks to prop up the washing line. Oh, and we had the only flush toilets in the street. Everyone else was visited by the ‘dunny man’.
        Great memories, Di.


      • Oh! The home brews that exploded in the scorching hot summers!
        I did make butter when staying on an uncle’s dairy farm. We(cousin and I) forgot to salt it!


    • Zigs, you are positively citified compared to our lives! Oh! And I almost forgot about the coalman…I learned some choice swear words from the coalman who got a tad cranky when folks didn’t leave their coal bins open for him! 😉


  3. I remember my mum wrapping my sandwiches in grease proof paper before the advent of sandwich bags… something I still like to do every now and then [for picnic type occasions] because it makes me feel nostalgic.


    • Picnics were “the real deal” then. Water boiled over a driftwood fire, sometimes sandwiches or maybe bacon and egg pie, fresh fruit.
      And almost always, after a long day out,fish n chips on the way home.
      (And I do hope you’re not being forced to have picnics til the power’s reconnected!)


  4. Marvellous, and you’ve triggered yet more memories for me. It’s the planting of the spat-out pips and waiting for them to grow into fruiting trees that strikes me most though!


    • The fruit trees were 2 Golden Queen peach and an apple I now realise was what today we call Gala.Others were unidentified, but pretty in spring and shady in summer.
      I forgot to mention Mr.Mulvay, who sold menswear from a truck (he had a proper shop 25 miles away, but came once a month, before our shops were built.)


  5. And since I’m ten years younger than you and here in the States, my childhood memories are of those of the milkman who came every morning to pick up our empties out of the tin box by the front door and then would leave more milk in glass bottles. Who does milk in glass any more? And the mailman came twice a day during the week and once on Saturdays. And running wild through the neighborhood with a pack of kids my age. We would roam for miles and our parents never thought twice about as long as we were home for supper.

    Can you imagine kids even looking up from their laptops and various electronics to even poke their noses outdoors these days?


    • Bottled milk arrived late 50s, I think. And, yes, we all played with complete safety.Well, we knew the dangers of the lake and certain unstable areas, but the best of it was the fact that, if you did have an accident, any of the local people would help.


  6. What memories Di, very much like my childhood in North Queensland, except for the ice man who used to deliver blocks of ice for the ice chest!


    • We could have done with an ice man before we had a fridge! Our butter was stored in a terracotta pipe, sunk into the ground;enough butter for one day was cut from the block and brought indoors.


  7. Thanks so much for letting me know you’re blogging again and talking about this great topic. I’ve been talking about all the jam & marmalade I’m doing up again this year and yes, the most recent post is about the honour system at local farm stands. I can recall so many of the things you’ve just written about and you’ve introduced me to some other more unique things as well that must be more in your area of the world — I love reading and learning about these things. Thanks so much for the heads up!


    • I know! I grew up with coffee essence and absolutely loved the “proper” coffee when it was available. Funny thing, though…if my mother and I were in the big city for the day, we always had lunch at a tea rooms which didn’t “do” good coffee. Maybe it’s why I am now such a coffee addict! 🙂


  8. Those of us raised in The Colonies had very similar early experiences. I remember the milk delivery, Mr Tong’s vegetable truck and Jim Trim, the itinerant gardener in the ’60s. And our local village (Horseshoe Bay), though smaller than your town, had a similar makeup of shops and services.


    • There were(still are, I expect) a lot of shingly bays along the lakes where I lived that are much like parts of western Canada. Except for climate, that is!


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