Mike Charity: working at Woolworths

PUBLISHED: 09:27 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 15:47 20 February 2013



with a brown overall and a yard-wide broom, Mike Charity's first job was with a dynamic and glamerous American company...

So, 'Woolies' which over the years we have come to love is no more. This icon of the High Street has caused a lot of wondering of late, not just for it's owners and staff but also the circling sharks hoping to get the best bites as they pick over the mix of some 800 stores in the UK.

I also have had Woolies on my mind for we go back a long way - indeed as far 1951.

In that depressing after-war decade I reached the age of fifteen and with no Eleven Plus exam success behind me it was time to get a job. The headmaster. Mr Challenor of Lord Scudamore School, Hereford. (it sounds more posh than it was) would wander into the senior classrooms with a list of posts in the town's shops and factories. One morning he mentioned a local iron-monger's was offering work for a trainee at one pound, five shillings a week, I thrust my hand in the air and was duly accepted. Some days later the head returned with another list of vacancies including a stockroom assistant's job at Woolworth's offering two pounds ten shilling per week. Again my hand leapt skywards- "Charity you already have a job me lad" bawled the Head, "Yes Sir", I replied, "but the pay at Woolworth's is twice as much". Despite his exasperated grimace it was the the 'Wonder of Woolies' for me.

On my first day I was unceremoniously issued a large brown overall coupled with a yard wide broom. The overall's previous occupant must have been over six foot tall with the arm muscles of Charles Atlas, for neither overall nor broom complemented my five six inch stature. Then it

was 'Meet The Manager' time. Mr Stevens can only be described as a suit who contained a man, the broad striped Burtons tailoring gave the impression he had been melted down then poured through the neck of his shirt into the stiff double breasted outfit, the whole effect finished off with military style polished shoes and flamboyant neckwear. Standing there red faced, bewildered and smothered in floor to ceiling brown smock, complete with pantomime broom, he gave me the standard newcomers pep talk. Rigidly speaking from within the restrictive suit he told of a great future ahead, I was to follow the rules, show interest, work hard, then reap the rewards of team spirit and effort. Now in full flow he expanded his theme, "Michael, you will never see the post of manager for a Woolworth's store advertised, we all started out just like you, on the broom, in the stockroom, that way we learned every aspect of the business. If you do well in the stockroom you will be promoted through the ranks to floorwalker, assistant manager and onward until you too become a manager- I wish you well"

To be honest the only thing I was wishing for at that point was the two pounds ten shillings a week - career dreaming would come later.

The rules he mentioned were formidable. It was Woolworth's policy when opening their doors for business, that was considered and treated by staff as their first ever day's trading. Hence one was unable to leave work on the previous evening until the multitude of counters were replenished with the vast range of goods on display. Knee deep in knickers, stockings,

socks and sweets, we filled up trolley baskets and guided them down the aisles. Up until then I had mistakenly thought slavery had been abolished, for next we had to bale up all the paper and tons of cardboard which piled up after counter restocking, these huge bundles bound with wire were transported via the creaking lift to an external collection area.

Oh! I nearly forgot the blasted broom. It was there to sweep the store twice daily, once at midday and again at 5-30 in the evening. I could cope with the girls giggling about my smock, or making lewd remarks in the lift- but I dreaded wielding that broom. The shop length and it's aisles seemed never ending, as I pushed the ever growing pile of detritus before me, then I would hear the comments from customers, 'poor lad look at him struggle with that brush' or, 'they could make him two overalls from that and have enough over for a pair cushions'. But there was a perk from all that sweeping, the odd dropped coin mixed up in the rubbish I duly considered mine as extra payment for such an ignoble task. Occasionally an old gent or lady would stop me and say " Laddie there's half a crown in there" I would gently reply, "It must be your eyes, it's a piece of silver paper" then sweep on to the stores end and the sanctuary of the dustbins with my booty.

Initially I was excited to be employed by a dynamic American company and I would boast to my chums that my new 'boss' was the world famous Betty Hutton, a debutante who on her birth inherited the business and was known in the society pages as 'The Million Dollar Baby'

But the novelty soon wore off, the boredom of baling and broom pushing, pushed me in other directions I'm glad to say. Three months later when I was leaving ' Mr Stevens The Suit' brought up several reasons for staying in the Woolies fold.. He told me of his nice home in a desirable area of Hereford, his new large television and smart car, all this could be mine to enjoy in that far off future. I pointed out that I did not see how he enjoyed anything, because he seemed to spend all hours at the store and was hardly ever home in front of the tele or sat in the car. He replied with a smile, "Your a cheeky little beggar" gave my a pound note and sent me on my way.

Except for the excellent wages, working for Woolies had for me not been all that wondrous.

But I still have a soft spot for the store that left me astounded when they offered a virtual cornucopia of confectionary as wartime sweet rationing came to an end. Whereas once we were unable to obtain sweets and chocolates of any kind, now our bedazzled minds and salivating mouths were incapable of deciding what to buy!

Later when Bill Haley And The Comets rocked into our lives from across the atlantic, along with crooner's Johnnie Ray and Frankie Laine, we invaded Woolies on Saturday's armed with Friday's pay packet to buy the coveted vinyl 45's that belted out the vocals on our Dansetts.

In those days Woolworth's was a much desired outlet, a store for all seasons with stock for all reasons. Sadly over the years it has lost it's commercial heart, the once classic aisles with behind counter friendly assistants, replaced by jumbled piles of merchandise, a sort of 'where does it start and where will it finish' mess of commodities, a shopping obstacle course where there were no winners. Under such haphazard management Woolworth's lost the will to live and the strength that once made it a giant of the High Street. What was really needed was several Mr Stevens - complete with suits!

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