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Dudley Market Place - A View from the Thirties

general view of market

This view of Dudley - taken from another of David Clare's postcard collection (undated and never posted) - looks almost the full length of the market at 11.25 on a sunny weekday morning in (we believe) the late 1930s. At least six Union Flags are flying, perhaps more than usual, so something may be being celebrated. One possibility might be St. George's Day, but no English flag (red cross on a white field) is visible. It could also be the change of monarch, since the mid-late '30s were when George the Fifth died, Edward the Eighth acceded to the throne, then abdicated to marry Mrs Simpson, and George the Sixth was crowned in his place. But unless these were the earliest flags to be flown, they seem to be too few for such major events, so this is likely to be a lesser occasion or just normal national pride in the days when we were still allowed to have it. The car in the foreground appears to be registered MA or HA 7569. MA was Cheshire, so HA is more likely as it was Warley. Perhaps someone remembers their family owning it.

Market place, south side  This close-up of the left (south) side of the picture shows Boots the Chemists, then Timpson Shoes and an unidentifiable store at number 30 (with large '30's at each end). The building these two share is not as modern as it might seem, as it was around before the trams even arrived (see the evening picture on the page about the fountains end of the market). But it has obviously been cleaned up to look fresher.

Next comes Peacocks Stores (clothing and footwear). Peacocks left Dudley High Street, but returned in late 2007 on the opposite side of the market, replacing the post office. They still have 400 stores and also own Bonmarche. Beyond Peacocks is what may have been (or certainly became) F.W. Woolworth and Co. followed by smaller shops, possibly including Lipton's and the Maypole. Although the ground-level frontages will have had several make-overs since, the

upper stories of several of these buildings still exist today.

The tramway has gone from the street, and the road has been resurfaced. We know that the last Dudley tram didn't run until 1939, but we don't know where it terminated in the town. However, the Dudley-Stourbridge tram route ended in 1930 and it's perhaps this one that passed beside the market. Certainly the road was rail-free by 20th May 1939, when a photo of a Territorial Army parade showed this road as smooth as we see it above. Of course, that means that the figures in the foreground are waiting by a bus-stop - though being very dark, the sign is hard to spot. There is no evidence of wartime blackout regulations: white stripes on posts and around vehicle mudguards are yet to come.

Above, we've closed into the background, brightened it and increased the contrast - that's why the sepia toning is stronger. Even this close, we can't add to what we've already said about the shops. The car in the shadows is one with a modified pick-up body - useful before estates (or shooting brakes as they were first called in this country) became commonplace. The car in the foreground is probably a 1930s Austin or Morris - and car enthusiasts will hopefully inform us which. The small delivery van is more likely 1930s than 1920s, but the lorry is older. In World War I, huge numbers of lorries were built by Leyland and others to replace the vast numbers of horses being killed or worn out on the Western Front. After the war, the lorries were surplus and the Government sold them off cheaply in large numbers. For thousands of men who had been taught to drive and didn't want to return to working in fields, shops, factories or as servants in houses, this was a one-time chance to start up their own transport business, and many seized it.

beside the market stallsAn unforeseen consequence of the cheap sales was that they wiped out the market for normal-priced lorries and nearly put Leyland and others out of business. However, Leyland reacted quickly and bought a lot of the lorries from the Government. These they cheaply refurbished for civilian use and thus kept their company afloat while building a new customer base. And gradually the more successful of these new entrepreneurs began to need more lorries and new manufacturing picked up again. This could be a war surplus lorry, though it's on pneumatic tyres and is more likely to be a mid-1920s development. Then in 1927, Leyland introduced a new double-decker bus on a far more practical lowered chassis that could get under many more low bridges, and changed the bus and lorry business overnight.

We've moved slightly to the right for this view of shoppers by the market stalls - all the women wearing hats, as they did well into the 1950s. In the background on the road itself, a child sits in a tub-shaped pram with small wheels, while two smaller prams hold children in the foreground. The carts would be used to load the market stalls and carry produce around. The shadows beneath the carts are not solid, so they obviously had slatted tops with gaps between the slats - that would make them cheaper to build, and on rainy days would allow water to drain away quickly. They also got rid of ice and snow - I have personal recollections from my teens of carrying crates of ice-englobed frozen cabbages on my shoulder and fresh melt-water invariably draining down inside my collar! The condition of the nearer cart is a reminder that this was a period when money was tight (though the economy was starting to grow again), and things got used until they wore out.

man on a ladder  Left: a picture to give health and safety inspectors a heart attack, but something we once all took for granted. It's barely visible in the main photograph; it's just to the left of the fountain, but well behind it. It shows a man on a ladder, working two floors above ground level, either washing the windows, painting, or making repairs. The pavement probably sloped there, so he would have a wedge under one leg of it, and - hopefully - a mate keeping it steady and protected from unobservant passers-by. It used to be superstition that it was unlucky to walk under a ladder. We always thought that the main ill-luck of having something dropped on you by someone working above was the self-earned penalty for being stupid in the first place, and had nothing to do with superstition at all!

From the early 1980s until about 2009 we had a long series of mild winters, so many people never knew really knew what they could be like. And many will never have experienced the number and density of fogs we used to have, either. In towns these were often augmented by domestic coal fire smoke - hence "smog", a deadly combination, as the smoke couldn't rise. 12000 people died in the Great London Smog of 1952, and probably many people in other conurbations such as Birmingham and the towns around it would have suffered at times.

Hence the Clean Air Acts of the late 1950s/early 1960s. Fog was a hazard for workers on ladders, of course, and as a small boy on the way to school I personally recall fog so thick that I walked into a ladder before I saw it - and was roundly cursed from just a few feet above me by someone I also couldn't see. Given the frequency and seriousness of ladder injuries in the past, tower vehicles and those with extending arms have been a very sensible development in more modern times for higher work, even if short ladders are still more convenient for nearer the ground.

This is the north side of the market, looking towards Hilton's shoe shop on their corner with Stone Street. Looming in the background is the tower of St Thomas's church. Note the high chimneys on the left-most buildings - now a steadily disappearing sight as buildings get replaced or their brickwork decays and the chimneys get taken down for safety.

Just right of centre, the curved-top double frontage was originally a normal building, but in 1926 an opening was driven through the middle third of the ground floor to create the Fountain Arcade through to Tower Street. The lettering across the top is an advertisement. In 1900, the nearer curve read "United Counties Bank", but it changed over the years. For example, in 1958 the far curve said

North side of the market 
"Dudley and District Benefit Building Society", whilst the nearer one said "We help you to become your own Home Owner". In 2005, both areas were blank. The Society had been founded in 1858 and was located in the Fountains building from the 1870s until 1965, after which it moved to its current location in Stone Street.

In the bottom right corner we can see a Belisha beacon marking a new pedestrian crossing - there would be silver square studs marking the lane of the road crossing, but no stripes or zig-zags. The beacons are named after Leslie Hore-Belisha, a 1930s Transport Minister who decided his colleagues in Parliament wouldn't approve of his new crossing idea - so he waited until they'd all disappeared for the summer recess, then had them installed before they could get back to argue. The first ones went on the London streets (with a press picture of him of course - after all, he was a politician!) in 1935, but it was a good idea despite early confusions between motorists and pedestrians, and it quickly spread. The black and white stripes on the poles were original, though the orange globes were not initially lit. The now characteristic black and white zebra bars would not generally arrive until 1951, though Dudley had yellow bars on this one in 1949, probably alternating with dark blue as part of the scheme introduced that year. Black and white was probably cheaper. The crossing ran right across the street from this point, close in front of the fountain and then under the front wheels of the lorry that we've just discussed above. The stripes aren't there in this photo, so this crossing gives us both an earliest and latest date (1935/49) for the photo even if we could believe that all the other marks of a war had been cleared away (for example no white blackout stripes on vehicle mudguards, and no obvious sign of uniforms). But a time-frame of 1935/39 is far more likely.

UniversalUniversal Stores was probably part of Great Universal Stores. The name changed in 1930 but the store here does not reflect that (perhaps the change wasn't seen as urgent - and money was getting tight). We do know that this was a modern building. By 1953 the building had become British Home Stores - later simply BHS - and in most recent times until late July 2011 it has been an indoor market.

To the left of the picture is a bank. We haven't worked out when it was built, but at this point it was probably the Midland Bank, later to become part of HSBC. However, it could have been a smaller company that eventually got taken into the Midland Bank - we won't know until we've checked a few directories!

To the right, we have B. Marsh and Son. They could be descendents of the Marsh business seen earlier in Market Place - Castle Street end but it's a different shop along the row, and more likely to be a coincidence of name.

Shopping, tills, and tube and wire systems for sending cash around over customers' heads

In June 2007, we got asked about old-time shopping where the customer's money was put into overhead tin cans. Nowadays you probably won't see this outside a museum, but the idea was used quite a lot at one time, including some shops in Dudley. The system I remember from my early boyhood was actually in Bo'ness, West Lothian, where all my mother's family lived. The idea was that only the cashier used a till or other change system. The shop I knew had a U-shaped counter with the entrance door in the open end of the U. Most of the U was counter display, with assistants behind it, but one top end of the U terminated inside a caged office, probably with a lockable door at the end of the staff aisle, so that even the assistants couldn't get in - just the cashier.

When you selected your goods, a list of them was made on a bill (as I recall), and the bill and the customer's money put into a can on the overhead wired track on the side away from the cashier. When the can was released, some mechanism whizzed the can round the U above everyone's heads until it came through a small hole into the cashier's cage. He/she checked the bill, possibly wrote the sales in a ledger, initialled the bill as paid and put it (or a receipt - they may have spiked the bill for later checking) back in the tin with the change. This then whizzed back to the staff and the awaiting customer.

It was slow, of course. In those days people suffered it. But as the 1950s progressed, bigger shops needed something faster - like allowing staff to use the tills themselves, and depending on the till roll for a record. Not all staff would be honest but inaccuracy was the more likely problem. But customers got served faster so they preferred that to waiting, and any small losses at the till were balanced by the greater sales. And when staff were inaccurate, the tills could get too much money in them as well as too little, so those errors roughly balanced out.

This description of cash on overhead wires got picked up by Malcolm Johnson of Australia who commented that they used to have flying foxes where he had worked at the beginning of his career. Flying foxes were not the brand name, and don't relate to the briefly raced but phenomenally successful Flying Fox racehorse (English Derby winner in 1899). Instead, it's a name for a zip wire - a simple transport system where you hang off an overhead wire cable (using a proper grip and support system!) and whizz down to a lower level. A bit like taking a cable down a mountain on a coat-hanger without waiting for the cable car... (don't try this at home!). From this link came the flying fox nickname for the overhead cash system, but the system itself was designed by an American called William Stickney Lamson from the 1870s onwards and licensed through his company, the Lamson Store-Service Company.

According to Thomas Lawson, Lamson bought up all his rivals and used his company's wealth to crush any opposition: "Its arrogance, audacity, and crimes were the themes of the newspapers and courts of the day," notably from the [New York] World which "was relentlessly denouncing the rascalities of the Lamson outfit." This only ceased when the company was reorganised during the 1890s and Lamson thrown out. But it didn't change their dominance of the market, and their systems were common in the US, the UK, New Zealand and Australia, and probably many other countries as well. There were plenty in the Midlands, and one apparently survived in Kingswinford until 2002, though we don't know if it was still in working order.

The same company also produced a vacuum pipe system, and a modern variant of the idea was used to and from the tills in the Tesco's Dudley supermarket at Burnt Tree Island until it was demolished in January 2011 to make way for a bigger one opened in October the same year.

Steve Cox emailed us from France in mid-2011 to say the original type (or some variant of it) still existed in Foster Brothers' clothing shop between Fountain Arcade and Stone Street until the early 1960s. It seemingly fascinated him as boy as much as the wire system had fascinated me!

And in 2013 Jonathan Buckley wrote "Until the age of 12 I lived above the Brighter Homes paint & wallpaper shop at 234 Market Place, Dudley (later the post office), so I've been fascinated by the postcards you've found, and your commentaries on them.You ask if any readers have memories of any shops that used the overhead wire system. I do, but I'm afraid I cannot remember the name of the shop in question. It was a grocery & food shop, situated (as I recall) between Teddy Gray's and the end of the Market Place. I was born in 1956, so the fact that I have vivid memories of the little canisters whizzing overhead suggests that the system must still have been in operation in the early 1960s. Sorry I can't be more precise."

>> Can anyone offer a closer identity of the shop or recall any other Dudley examples? Just email to the DudleyMall address below if you can. Thanks!


Malcolm Johnson also pointed me to a discussion about Blanchards store on a Sheffield site at This included the following snippets of relevance:

"I remember the 'money tube' system. The [Sheffield] Cooperative had one as well; as a child I found it fascinating... you paid your money and they put it in a tube and into a chute which made the tube disappear. It came back later with your change and a receipt" "[It] was an air tube system developed by Lamson Paragon. Tubes containing cash were carried by air suction through pipes to their destination. The cashier would empty the tube and return it to the counter by the same system. .....Today you can see the Lamson system by the side of each paypoint at places like Wilkinson's..."

"The cash tube system used to frighten [my wife] as she was only a very small child. The polished brass used to hiss like a snake and she always thought it would suck her in!! The sales assistants... placed the receipt and cheques or cash into the polished torpedo which opened at each end with rubber stoppers on. Off it went to an upstairs office where the clerical staff sat on high chairs with ledgers in front of them entering all the sales. While the money was being sorted, the assistant would parcel up the goods, then with a hiss it came back and shot out and landed in a wicker basket."

"[As a girl] I worked at Blanchards when I left school aged 15, in the cash office at the top of the building, sending change down to the customers via a metal tube down a chute... I remember one day some young men from a cafe down the road were hanging about in the menswear dept and they sent a white mouse in a tube up the chute. I opened the tube expecting money and the mouse ran out. I don't know who was more scared - me or the poor mouse..."

If anyone else has memories of these systems - especially if they're in the general Dudley area - please email them to us at Thanks!

Text: Harry Drummond

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Postcards from David Clare's collection.

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