Retro columnist Monica Dyson: Mother would not have liked click and collect Sheffield

Who would have thought the retail experience would be so different today. Almost every aspect of it has changed.

Thursday, 8th October 2020, 12:00 pm

Much-loved stores closing, wearing of masks and, of course, shopping online. It makes you wonder if high streets of the future will be composed of click and collect depots instead of shops.

Customer service in shops when I was a child was very much like something from Grace Brothers of Are You Being Served? fame which was the much-loved television sit om from the 70s, with a remake more recently having a multicultural slant with new member of staff Kayode Ewumi as Mr Conway.

Unfortunately, many of the old family-run department stores have now vanished, yet we still look back with nostalgia to the days when shopping was a more glamorous affair, assistants knew their customers by name and your mother was addressed as ‘madam’.

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The department store of John Walsh Ltd, High Street, Sheffield, in 1950

The staff in each department knew their stock down to the very last pair of gloves, which was something, together with a hat, that mother always wore, even just going to the local shops.

The word ‘service’ meant much more in the old days than it does today, when the customer interacted with a salesperson who knew them personally, and often the whole family, by name.

Sheffield has a fine tradition of department stores. I remember my mother being spoilt for choice between John Walsh, Cockaynes, Cole Brothers, Marshall and Snelgrove and Atkinson’s when we had a trip ‘up town’. With Cole Brothers changing its name and its location, it seems that only Atkinson’s, operating in Sheffield for over 140 years, retains the family-type store that we all remember so well.

Interestingly, John Atkinson, who came to Sheffield in 1865, worked first at Cole Brothers before opening the department store Atkinson’s in 1890.

Banner's in Attercliffe at the time of its closing down sale in January 1980

It was always a good day out also when my sister and I accompanied our mother on the tram to shop at Banners Department Store in Attercliffe.

With its beautiful ornate stonework, particularly round the roof, the store seemed the epitome of style and had a big wooden staircase and an old wooden elevator which was apparently the first in Britain after London.

Opening in 1873 when there was a large residential population in Attercliffe, it was one of many high-class stores in the area but eventually, with slum clearance and the dwindling of the population, it closed as a department store in 1980.

What we loved most about Banners was the overhead payment system. It was called the Lamson Paragon rapid wire system, invented in the late 1800s and still in use in Britain up to 1976.

When you paid the sales assistant, the money was placed into little steel tubes attached to a complex arrangement of wires going round the store and overhead to the cashier’s office at ceiling level. The cashier wrote the receipt and sent it winging down to the sales floor again.

Craftily, you would receive your change in Banners tokens, sometimes called ‘Banners tanners’ which were little brass-coloured coins, thereby ensuring that you had to shop there again and you would possibly have been shopping with Banners cheques obtained from the Banners rep who called at your door.

The shop was a real old-fashioned department store selling just about everything you might need, from haberdashery to toys to ladies’ fashions, and it was where you could buy not only your school uniform for secondary school, but new Whitsuntide clothes to show off to the neighbours in exchange for money, and also material for mothers who were handy with a needle and could make your clothes.

Not only was your mother addressed with deference, but the sales assistants were addressed as Miss, Mrs, or Mr by their fellow workers, just like in Grace Brothers.

There were fashion shows at various times in the year. The ladies who modelled looked so elegant and mother looked so envious. It was rare that she ever treated herself to a new outfit as it was usually clothes for my sister and myself, she was looking for.

Sometimes, she couldn’t resist buying a new hat as women in the 50s rarely went anywhere without one. My mother’s favourite hat shop was called Madam Marie’s on Division Street, but they were usually just for special occasions, being a bit pricey.

Marie Norman was an accomplished milliner who produced beautiful hand-sewn hats and had done so since 1937 when she first opened her shop and kept it open all through the war years, until she finally retired in 1980.

The hats at Banners were not quite so beautiful but they were much cheaper, and the hat department was always full of ladies trying them on.

Our favourite time of the year was definitely Christmas. Not only was the toy department a treasure trove of delights, but outside there was Christmas trees on the roof of the store, sometimes swaying rather precariously in the wind.

These were erected in a time of no particular health and safety regulations and had lights on them. One year the trees blew down and took the power lines with them, causing blackouts on Attercliffe Road.

It is also believed that the roof of Banners was used to look for enemy aircraft during the last war.

What a shame that we no longer have the old-style shops. No treasure troves of hardware shops selling everything from screws to kettles and with the sales assistant always wearing braize smocks. And no longer shops like Banners of Attercliffe.

I do not think my mother would have liked sitting in front of a computer screen doing ‘click and collect.’

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