Saturday, 16 April 2016

"...the ruination of England..."

'Tradition and Change: shops and shopping in St Ebbe's since 1900', Elizabeth Richardson, 1976

Elizabeth Richardson, who wrote a text about shopping in St Ebbe’s since the 1900’s, gave me an old tape recording of conversations with elderly people created in the 1970’s. One of the interviews was with her grandmother, ‘Granny Gibbs’, who ran sweet shops throughout Oxford, including one in St Ebbe’s along with Uncle Harold Robinson, was had been employed at Cape’s Dept Store in St Ebbe’s.

Granny Gibbs had seen huge changes to Oxford in her lifetime, and had understandable difficulties accepting the way the modern world was moving on. Here is an excerpt from the recording.

Elizabeth: “How did the shops keep things like butter and that fresh… Did they have fridges?”

Harold: “They used marble slabs. Which are cold. They would keep stuff on that. They didn’t have fridges in those days did they?”

Granny Gibbs: “…the ruination of England is ‘fridgerators and tinned food, I’ll tell you that…”

Elizabeth: “Well, I think refrigerators are a good thing, but I’m not sure about tinned food.”

Granny Gibbs: “You see the food already in the shops has been put in fridges, and then you puts it in your own and… oh, I don’t know…”

I shared this comment at a reminiscence session with people who used to live in St Ebbe’s. They immediately responded that people used to buy their food fresh. They would go shopping every day, buying food in the morning ready for the meal that evening. Residents of the old St Ebbe's didn't depend on electricity guzzling fridges stuffed with ozone depleting CFCs to keep their food fresh (Granny Gibbs was strangely prophetic about "the ruination of England"). They had an efficient food chain from supplier to shop to consumer with numerous small businesses to buy from.  

In our reminiscence group eyes lit up as people remembered the cheese shop, the fresh fish shop, the grocers where you could buy finger bananas. There were memories of fish and chips; too expensive for a family meal, but a treat for young people who were earning a little money of their own. A few members of our group remembered Hawkins Faggots & Peas shop at 4 Church Street. Elizabeth Richardson wrote about this institution of St Ebbe’s in her 1976 study ‘Tradition and Change; Shops and shopping in St Ebbe’s since 1900’:
“Faggots and Peas – the very mention of the delicacy is enough to make the mouths of the older residents in the Oxford area water nostalgically. ‘The smell…gosh never mind the flavour. You couldn’t get there quick enough!’….The people of St. Ebbe’s were always popping in for a ‘haporth’ of rice pudding or ‘twopennorth’ of cold faggots.” 
Richardson describes people queuing up for 
“a plate of faggots, half a sheep’s head, tripe and onions, pig or sheep’s trotters with peas and baked potatoes to be eaten in the little dining room behind the shop. There was a large round table which would seat about a dozen people and which was always spread with an immaculate, starched, white table cloth.”

When I was a student I lived with a 90 year old lady – ‘Auntie Molly’ – who had been my father’s guardian when he was a young boy. She often said that food tastes different now; that it doesn’t taste as good as it used to. This was before organic food became fashionable, and I can’t help wondering whether the fresh, local and probably organic food that she had when she was younger did taste much better. It probably wasn’t that her taste buds were failing. The residents of St Ebbe’s may have been eating cheap cuts of meat, but I'm sure the overall quality and freshness of their food would easily compete with our organic veg box deliveries and 'best' ranges at the supermarket. And Ma Hawkins clearly knew how to cook their offal to perfection.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Memory Lane

Helen Fountain, reminiscence officer for Oxford City Council, organized two fantastic ‘Memory Lane’ sessions bringing together people with connections to St Ebbe’s to look at photographs and share their memories.

Many interesting stories and reminiscences were shared. One of the photographs in Helen’s presentation showed the childhood home of two participants, Janice and Diane Stewart, who were born in St Ebbe’s, but re-housed at Harefields after the slum clearances. 

Here they share their memories of the transition from St Ebbe’s to a new home in the suburbs.

Janice:      “My Uncle worked [at the gas works]. We lived by the gas works. We were born in St Ebbes and we lived there until 1965. We were the last two houses standing in Bridport Street before they were condemned. We moved to North Oxford, to Harefields, near Cutteslowe. We moved there in ‘65 to a brand new house.

Gas holders at Oxford Gasworks, 1963
Photograph copyright Oxfordshire History Centre, Oxford County Council

My mother didn’t want to go to Blackbird Leys. She wanted to stay. Nothing against it, but she didn’t want to go to that area because a lot of people had gone. They offered us a place in St Ebbes in Preachers Lane but the community had gone. And she wanted to move away. Years later on they offered my mother and father to move back, but she said you could never re-create what had been. It was such a community. You never locked your doors, everybody helped each other and it was wonderful.”

Diane:      “We got a bathroom for the first time.”

Janice:      “I was seventeen when we’d moved, and we’d never had a bathroom and our toilet was in the garden and we had a tin bath in the kitchen.”

Janice:      “When we moved in it was ‘who’s going to have a bath first?’ It was such a luxury.”

Helen:       “Why didn’t they just put bathrooms in?”

Janice:      “Well, my father approached them, my dad did. They wouldn’t hear of it. And the four houses which were joined together where we lived were built in 1888, and the thing that happened, my sister went through the floorboards in the front room. And my dad was absolutely livid, and he got barred from the council. Her leg was bruised and scraped… so that’s when they decided to move.”

Bridport Street and the Gasworks   
Photograph copyright Oxfordshire History Centre, Oxford County Council

Janice:      “That’s our house. That’s Bridport Street. And you see where the board is over the arch. That was the…”

Diane:      “There were two houses that had already been boarded. But the house on the right of that, that was ours.”

Janice:      “That’s our house, the only house standing.”

Diane:      “We were the last four houses standing in St Ebbes. Well they demolished [St Ebbes] around us.”

Janice:      “We were just those. It was just us and Miss Kemp.”

Friars Wharf with old gas holder.  
Photograph copyright Oxfordshire History Centre, Oxford County Council

A picture of Friars Wharf is shown by Helen.

“That’s the town houses, that’s the ones they offered us. Ours was still standing when those were built. We didn’t want to stay.”