|'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.