The Bassett Road Shops in the 1930s

Remuera Rotary Historical Essay Competition —  by Angela Caughey of Remuera.

The grocer, on the right hand corner of Bassett Road, was Mr. Thomas. He was of middle height, with short-cut grizzled hair standing straight up. He was missing a tooth or two in his welcoming grin, but his hard-worn hands and broken dirty nails showed that he had tried a trade or two in his time. A calico apron, slipped over his head and tied round his waist, protected a collarless shirt with rolled up sleeves. That was all the customer saw, until he stepped out to help with a heavy sack, when hard-wearing dark trousers and heavy leather boots appeared.

His shop was an odd-shaped quadrilateral, with the street door near the right-hand corner of the base. A dusty, wooden counter faced that door, running across the back of the shop. On its near end sat large scales – a shiny, elongated bowl held in a chain hanging from one side of the fulcrum, and a circular iron flat tray on the other. Round iron weights stood ready, used to give the exact amount of merchandise requested. An embossed, silver-plated till sat on the far end of the counter. Each time Mr Thomas punched its keys with the amount of a transaction it gave a high-pitched ‘ting’, and its drawer opened with a clatter, for him to drop the coins or notes into its divisions and pick out the change.

Behind the counter and on shelves all round the walls were tins, jars and sacks of his stock. “A pound of white sugar, please.” Mr Thomas would but a pound weight on the iron tray of the scales, select a brown paper bag from one of the different sizes on a shelf behind him, open it with an expert flick of his wrist and place it in the shiny scales bowl. Then he would grab a small ladle, scoop out sugar from a sack on the floor nearby and tip it into the paper bag, adding more in a small white stream until the silver bowl balanced exactly against the pound weight. Tossing down the ladle, he would take the paper bag’s corners in both hands, lift it out, twirl it over and over, and set it down on the counter nicely closed for its trip home.

Next, “A tin of golden syrup, please, Mr. Thomas,” and he would go across to the other side of the shop and bring that back to join the sugar on the counter. “Half a pound of round wine biscuits, please,” would see him lift a large, square tin of Bycroft’s biscuits from the floor on to the counter, open it, put another brown paper bag into the scales bowl and drop them into the bag, adding more until the biscuits and weight balanced. In the same way, he would twirl the bag shut. It looked very neat. If the shopper’s list was long, Mr Thomas would walk a considerable distance round the shop, getting each individual item separately, chatting about local news all the time, while the next customer waited with varying amounts of interest or exasperation.

Next door was Mr. Queenin, the butcher. He was quite different from Mr Thomas, although he had an almost identical cash till on his counter. They both were of medium height, but Mr. Queenin was slim, quite, not very forth-coming and he had clean hands, washed often in an enamel bowl of water on a back bench and dried on a towel on a nearby hook. Always dressed in crisp white shirt and trousers, his apron had the typical butcher’s broad blue and white horizontal stripes and was held in place by his leather belt and holster on his right hip, from which protruded the handles of a few wickedly sharp knives. His strop, which he used on each knife before cutting, hung from a chain on the belt on his left hip. His dark hair was sparse, the lingering strands brushed across his bald pate. His face was pink and he kept his chin tucked in, so that his blue eyes looked out humbly from under his greying eyebrows.

There never was a Mrs Thomas in evidence, but Mrs Queenin was the complete opposite of her husband. Tall, buxom and rosy-cheeked, she wore noticeable glasses and make-up, permed brunette hair and flowered frocks, and was a chatterbox with customers when she was in the shop. In the butcher’s window a few different joints of meat, chops and sausages lay on which mesh among sprigs of parsley.



Customers went in through a self-closing, fine metal-mesh, hopefully fly-proof, door to the right. Inside, sawdust lay thick on the floor, and clean white tiled walls and painted ceiling kept the place feeling fresh and cool. There was an enormous walk-in refrigerator at the left back, entered through a thick, airtight door with a long chrome handle. Carcases were kept on hooks hanging from slip-along rings, on iron bars in its icy atmosphere. Bars and rings featured down the left side of the shop, too, usually holding partially dismembered side of mutton or beef hanging by one hock, or strings of sausages.  Stainless steel trays containing offal sat on a counter under them, and an impressive wooden block, nearly a metre high and over a metre in diameter, sat there took on the floor amidst the sawdust. It was always awesome to watch Mr Queenin swing down a carcase, lay it on the block, pick up his heavy steel chopper (which usually lay ready for use) and, with a few accurate blows cut through the bones, and then saw off the part of the beast to be sold. He sill had all his fingers. Many butchers did not.

His scales were more up to date than Mr Thomas’. All in white enamel, there was a sensitive weighing platform connected to an upstanding rectangle, much narrower at the bottom. This had a glass panel on both sides, showing a graduated scale of the price per pound. When the meat was placed on the platform, a needle in this panel swung across to the weight and allowed the customer to join Mr Queenin in working out mentally what the final cost of the cut would be!

Once the price had been agreed on, Mr Queenin would slap the meat onto a piece of greaseproof paper, slap that onto brown paper hold on a roller at the end of the counter, cut off the appropriate length with a knife, wrap the meat up quickly and pass it over. He would take the money in his meaty hands, deposit it in the till and hand out any change.

Mr. Just next door was the greengrocer. Tall, with curly black hair, brown eyes and a fresh complexion, he was film star handsome (although tending to being slightly portly). He had a very young boy and girly, fairly close in age, who occasionally hung around, and a petite, pretty brunette wife who helped serve. His weighing machine type can be seen suspended in supermarkets today: a metal tray under a large round face showing weights (but his showed pounds and ounces). His fruit and vegetables were also displayed in much the same way as today, except that nothing was pre-bagged and he put everything into paper bags and also twirled them in the expected shopkeeper’s flourish.

The last shop on the right was the dairy. The owners did not stay long enough to register their names, dairy owning then being the tiresome, stressful occupation it still is. The dairy sold milk, cream, bread, butter and other similar etceteras, soft drinks, milk shakes (a spoonful of flavouring and half a pint of milk were tipped into tall, narrow aluminium containers, which were clipped onto the whirring mixer for about a minute and the results drunk through straws), penny, three penny or six-penny ice creams in two or three flavours, scooped out into cones held by the shop-keeper’s hand, and sweets. These were taken out of the large display jars, also by hand, and dropped into small white paper bags, weighed and twisted and handed over to little people spending their pocket money. Liquorice allsorts, jellybeans or jelly babies, jibes, minties, toffees – there was lot of temptation in view, with Jaffa’s in boxed being ‘modern’ newcomers. A special treat was a ‘creaming soda’. The shop-keeper would put a penny ice cream in a glass and pout over a bottle of soft drink – any requested flavour. Drunk through a wide straw, taken from the open dispenser on the counter, like for the milk shakes, it was heavenly! Boxed chocolates sat on the back shelves; but many people’s favourites, the Queen Anne brand, could only be bought by a special trip to the Sanitarium shop in Newmarket!

It was depression times, few people owned cars and so they walked or trammed everywhere, carrying their baskets or pulling baskets on wheels. These four shops met most of the neighbourhood’s immediate needs.