• Brian Simmons

Away from School- More about my Leatherhead connection

There was of course a home life and and I was also learning (gradually) to be a bit independent.

Moulds where my father worked is the one with the arched window on the left.

Photo courtesy of the Francis Frith Collection

After the war ended, Dad would ideally have liked to return to the grocery trade in which he’d been trained but that was apparently not possible at that time. Too many forces returnees I guess for the number of jobs on offer.

He found work as an assistant in a long established family-run department store called Moulds. Situated in Leatherhead High Street, it was an imposing sort of place with double glass doors set well back from the street and flanked by large curved glass windows displaying everything from three piece suites to sharpening stones.

Above the doors on the first floor there was a large arched window where the toy department was located on eye level with passengers on the top deck of passing buses. I remember as a small kid going to the shop to see Dad at work and sitting on a rocking horse in the window looking down into the street as I rocked to and fro. It was pure heaven, or it was, until one day I rocked so hard that I made myself ill and threw up all over the place.

To a small child Moulds was a wonderland. Naturally the toy department was always a great attraction but I remember finding the hardware and ironmongery areas just as interesting. I would wander about staring in fascination at the tools and implements, cutlery and saucepans, sandpaper and sticky tape - strange sort of kid really. The worrying thing is, I can still do the same today. Now how sad is that?

However, the single most fascinating, and I thought just so modern thing about Moulds was the cash transfer system. Told you I was odd.

Most people my age will recall how some shops had a centralised cashier’s office connected to various sales departments by a sort of overhead wire system that was used to shoot little shuttles containing money to the cash office which were then returned with change and the receipt.

Moulds had an updated version of this that operated on a twin pneumatic tube system. The cash was popped into a small cylindrical cartridge that was inserted via a sort of spring-loaded gate into the suction side of the system at the point of sale. From here it whizzed around the ceiling clattering like a miniature Bakerloo line to arrive at the cashier from whence it returned in a couple of minutes via the other tube crashing out of the valve into a metal basket.

To me at the time, it was pure science fiction but they were actually quite common and remained in use until the 1960’s. After that I guess they perhaps started to trust shop assistants enough to let them use the tills.

Isn’t the Internet wonderful?

Thinking about this old cash system I idly entered “old cash transfer system” into Google where incredibly I found chapter and verse on their history. I also found out somewhat to my dismay that my Dad’s shop (as I came to think of it) was not in any sense in the forefront because they had apparently been in use since 1880 – in America of course. I also discovered that they are being re-introduced in situations like high volume retail and casinos as a means of removing cash from point of receipt and thereby reducing the likelihood of robbery.

If you are interested, look up the “cash railway website” – it’s pure nostalgia and heartening to discover that there are a lot of other sad old geezers out there with a fascination for odd and archaic machinery who probably also wander around the DIY stores looking at drill bits and sandpaper.

The love affair with this old shop started before I went to school because Mum would sometimes take us kids into Leatherhead and leave us with Dad while she went shopping.

However, after I started at St Peter’s, I sometimes used to walk into town after school and come home with Dad, perched on the crossbar of his bike.

Actually it was more than a bike – it was a ’Cyclemaster’. This was an inventive kind of motor-assisted push bike that had a special rear wheel with a small two stroke petrol engine built into it. It was quite a toy really and whilst it took a lot of the drudge out of pedalling uphill, if you opened it up a bit going downhill it could really fly.

I was probably about 8 or 9 and it made me crow with delight at the time but thinking back on it now the bike still only had normal cycle brakes so it was probably quite a risky thing to be doing.

Perhaps it was because my uncle Frank was an upholsterer that I also used to enjoy wandering into the upholstery workshop at Moulds. It occupied a corrugated iron shed behind the main shop; in fact it was perched on the edge of an old quarry into which most of the High Street waste seemed to get deposited. The workshop was freezing in winter and the three or four men that worked there used to keep a little pot-bellied cast iron stove burning in the centre of the room. I found my way down there whenever I got the chance.

Hello son” one of them would say “Put the kettle on will you

The big aluminium kettle boiled up quickly on a single gas ring connected by a length of perished pink rubber tube to the gas tap in the wall. A complete health and safety nightmare in today’s terms but it worked fine. Also, no-one seemed to give a second thought to asking such a youngster to boil and pour a kettle of scalding water. This was how we grew up, learning to be careful but capable.

I would make the tea in a blue china teapot with a spout so chipped it used to pour at an angle of 45 degrees. Then the teapot had to brew. This meant at least ten minutes simmering on the little stove until it was strong enough to take the skin off your teeth.

Just the job son.” they’d say and I’d sit there snuggled down into a pile of fabric off-cuts, once again drinking tea with the big boys. The only difference from my experience with the builders was that these chaps didn’t swear or at least not in my hearing.

Another reason that I liked to visit Leatherhead was because my Auntie Mag had a shop there and I was always guaranteed a welcome that invariably included a sticky bun or some similar magnet to a young child.

Opposite The Dukes Head pub in the High Street, the shop was a millinery and haberdashery store that seemed old fashioned even then. I remember the pale blue fading and rather flaky paint of the shop front with its window containing a somewhat sparse display of ladies hats on stands. It was one of these two but not sure now if it was right or left.

The name “Salon Thurloe” was in darker blue script over the window. To one side the recessed door opened with a loud clang from the bell that always startled me even after years of visiting and once inside I remember that it seemed like a step back in time.

Not brightly lit, the shop had a vaguely musty smell laced with a hint of Mag’s ‘Lily of the Valley’ perfume. A long glass counter contained wooden trays in tiers with a range of goods including buttons, pins, packets of needles and reels of cotton in a range of colours more varied than you can imagine.

Shelves and more glass cases around the walls contained fabrics and linings, rolls of lace and a hundred different styles of binding and trims while beside the counter a metal rotary stand displayed cards of buttons in more styles, shape and colour than you’d believe could exist.

If Mag was in the shop or if after a moment or two she emerged from the back room, the greeting was always the same, “Hello darling. How’s my favourite boy today? Got a kiss for your auntie?”

Then I’d be enveloped in a big hug which was nice enough although I wasn’t so keen on the kissing bit that always left a lipstick smudge on my face, nor on the perfume that was a bit overwhelming that close up. Overall though I liked going to the shop because the welcome was genuine and Mag was very kindly and always interested in what I was doing.

Behind the counter a faded blue velvet curtain covered an opening that led through to the back where Mag had her little workroom as she called it. Not that she did much work there as far as I could see but it was very comfortable in a pleasantly tatty sort of way. There were two old armchairs placed either side of a round cast iron stove beside which a tall scuttle of coke stood ready to top up the fire when necessary.

To one side of the back door a china sink and draining board and a very ancient gas stove provided a little kitchenette area where Mag made tea and from where she always managed to find one of those cakes.

The room was never bright as the only daytime illumination came from a small high-level window and a half-glazed door with opaque security glass but somehow the room seemed cosier for its dimness. The door led out to a tiny back yard with a couple of rusting galvanised dustbins and to the alley or service road that ran along behind the shops.

There was little spare space as most of the walls and floor area was taken up with stock that just seemed to have been plonked down on the next available spot and there it remained. God alone knows how she found anything but I don’t think I ever remember her having a problem with it.

Mag's husband, my uncle Ted had another shop called Wayside Cleaners just over the road. Whenever I visited Mag and she made the tea she would say “Pop over the road Brian and tell your uncle the tea’s made.”

Dad had two brothers. Ted was the youngest, Dad next and then uncle Reg. Like my father they were all mild mannered chaps. Of the two uncles, I knew Reg better as we visited him more often, probably because Dad and he had more in common. Reg worked as an electrical engineer for Buchanan and Curwen that had at a workshop in Leatherhead. Like Dad, he was very practical and seemed able to make or fix more or less anything needed around the house.

When I was bit older I used to go on my bike and visit him in the workshop for tea and a chat. Researching this I was pleased to see that the company is still in Fairfield Road and has grown over the years. In addition to sophisticated modern electrical installations they now offer a range of security systems too

My father was the tallest of the three and Ted the shortest but by far the most dapper. Dad and Reg had both been in the army and had the bearing to go with it and when occasion demanded could cut the mustard with the best in terms of appearance, but Ted was different.

He was smart almost to a fault and I never recall seeing him otherwise. Even behind the shop counter without a jacket he’d wear a smart tie and those elasticated metal armbands to keep his shirtsleeves at just the correct length – no more, no less.

When he was out and about he was the epitome of good style right down to the kid leather gloves, hat and cane – quite a dandy in fact.

Sadly, of the three brothers, Ted died quite young from a stroke. Hypertension runs in my father’s side of the family and took them all out eventually. A fact I constantly try to bear in mind with regard to my own diet and lifestyle although in Ted’s case the gin undoubtedly played its part.

Talking about Leatherhead I am reminded of the times we used to go there to the pictures or the ‘flicks’ as we probably said then.

Opened in 1939 and in the Art Deco style, The Crescent Cinema boasted a 1200 seat auditorium and was a regular destination of ours in our early and middle teenage years. Sadly with the increasing popularity and availability of television during the sixties the cinema which was owned by a local family had to close and morphed into the Thorndike Theatre after the actress Dame Sybil Thorndike.

It provided a much needed new venue for local and visiting thespians as the old repertory theatre in the High Street was in need of significant modernisation but there was little enthusiasm for such an investment following the murder there in 1968.

However The Crescent was still a popular cinema in the early sixties and after a trip there we had to catch a bus just round the corner in High Street right outside a record shop that always posted the latest ‘hit parade’ of pop music or Rock and Roll as it was at the time. So while waiting for the bus we would avidly read and discuss the relative merits of this or that particular single which by that time were on the new 45 rpm vinyl format as opposed to the earlier brittle old black shellac 78’s.

I do recall a very funny incident one day whilst waiting for the bus. A young couple riding a Triumph Tiger Cub motor cycle had to stop at the traffic lights right in front of us and the girl who was quite tall put her feet to the ground as they waited for the lights to change.

Now the Tiger Cubs, for anyone who doesn’t remember them, were very small machines. The girl was probably looking in Wakefield’s shop window but certainly not at the lights. So when a few moments later the lights went green, the guy in front let in the clutch and zoomed away, she was left standing astride in the middle of the road as though she’d lost her horse. Like many of these things it probably doesn’t sound so funny in the telling after the event. But you had to see it really and we thought it was just so funny we were helpless and fortunately so did the girl.

Probably a couple of years before we were going to the Crescent in Leatherhead we also used to go to Saturday Morning Pictures at The Odeon (Odious as we called it) in Epsom.

Apart from the predictable Mickey Mouse and Tom and Jerry cartoons there were two series that I loved. One was The Invisible Man and I was just so intrigued how they did it and created this suited figure with no head but with a hat perched on empty space and this void in the shirt collar where the neck should be.

The other one was King of the Rocket Men who was a slightly later (1949) super-hero contemporary of Superman who first kicked off in American comics in the 1930’s.

However unlike Superman, Rocket Man couldn’t just zoom at a moment’s notice because he needed to put on his rocket suit which was kind of leather jacket, metal helmet and this back pack with a couple of jet or rocket tubes.

All Superman had to do was nip round the corner and strip off to reveal his true and powerful persona.

King of the Rocket Men – c. 1955

Rocket Man was more believable to me as I’ve always had a bit of a scientific or technical inclination. So the fact that he needed mechanical assistance to fly worked better for me even if the rockets were a bit like ‘Blue Peter yoghurt pot’ creations.

When we were quite young, maybe around eight or nine we used to go by ourselves from Bramley Way to the pond at Lower Ashtead to dip out nets for minnows, tadpoles and sticklebacks. After a while I started to take more of an interest in fishing, perhaps because my uncle Frank was a keen sea angler.

From time to time I remember seeing more experienced anglers who were able to cast out into the middle and pull out some larger fish. I really fancied this and pestered Mum and Dad for a rod which they got for me and Dad showed me how to set it up and even took me along to the river Mole at Leatherhead which I enjoyed although with no great success.

I don’t remember ever being told that I shouldn’t venture any further afield by myself although I do remember being told that if I ever met anyone who frightened me or was worried about anything I should find a policemen. One day I had cause to bear this advice in mind.

By this time I was probably about eleven or twelve and had gone on my bike by myself to the river at Leatherhead and was fishing not far from the old fire station when a man started talking to me. He seemed a bit scruffy, almost like the tramps we used to see walking the Epsom Road as we waited for the school bus.

He was kindly though and seemed to know a bit about fishing because he showed me the depth to set my weights and float for that stretch of the river.

One of my fishing spots at Leatherhead behind Ronson’s

He talked about all sort of things but eventually the conversation included questions about my family and life at home.

He then said “I expect you’ve got a nice bathroom haven’t you?” I can remember thinking he could do with a wash himself but at the same time it began to occur that this was an odd thing to say and a bit more personal a question than I should be answering so I said nothing.

I won't say what he said next but it wasn't very nice and alarmed me so I said “I’ve got to go home now.” and immediately began to collect my stuff together.

“I’m sorry.” he said. “I didn’t mean to be nosey.”

“It’s alright but my dad is waiting for me in the town.” I lied and ran off along the path. Just under the railway bridge I came to the fire station where a couple of firemen were smoking outside. Maybe it was the uniforms, I don’t know, but I thought I should tell someone what had happened so I told them that a scruffy man had just been asking me about my willie.

“Oh did he indeed?” said one of them “We’ll go and have a chat with him. You go off home sonny.” And together they set off quickly the way I’d just come. I never did know the outcome but often wondered how it went. Probably better not to know. Perhaps they threw him in the river.

For more of my early life and later adventures please feel free to check out my little memoir available on Amazon

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