The two houses at the southern end of Somerset Road were purpose-built as corner shops. Even today the ghostly shapes of the bricked-in shop windows are visible. At the turn of the twentieth century they were a general provision shop and a dairy, just two of the wide variety of local shops that meant many people rarely needed to leave the neighbourhood. The downstairs was the shop, with a flat over for the shopkeeper and his or her family.
This is one of the few surviving photographs of local shops. It shows 84 Somerset Road when it was the Somerset Cash Supply Stores, and the information with the photograph says it shows “Mr and Mrs Philpot, with Mr Philpot’s sailor brother”. The census return for 1911 records a 62-year-old widower, John Philpott, his daughter Alice and son Samuel, both in their twenties. It seems likely that this photograph was taken a few years later, during the First World War, by which time Samuel had evidently married and become father to the small girl shown in the picture.
Before this, in 1901, the shop was run by the Lane family. On census night in April 1901 Mr and Mrs Lane, their five children including a new baby, Mrs Lane’s sister who managed the shop, Mr Lane senior, and the month nurse who had come to help with the new baby were all in the house.
This one picture tells us a great deal about food and shopping at this time. The shop window is full of advertisements, including for St Ivel cheese, Bovril and Lyons tea (still brand names today), Aladdin Polish and several kinds of dog biscuit. But the most notable thing is that there are no fewer than five brands of cocoa (Rova, Epps, Rowntree, Clarrico and Lyons) available in one fairly small shop. Edwardian Walthamstow appears to have been fuelled on cocoa – and it is notable that cocoa (never “hot chocolate”) is always offered in café menus of the day).
It is just possible to see into the dark interior of the shop, where the goods are displayed on floor to ceiling shelves. There would have been a polished wooden counter, where the shop keeper weighed and wrapped everything individually. Nobody was expected to help themselves to goods from the shelves. The significance of this being a “cash store” is that many shops expected to supply customers on account, and allowed them to pay for their goods at the end of the month. This shop evidently did not.
Corner shops were open very long hours, including Sundays. But there is a notice on the door announcing that Thursdays are “early closing” days – this was usual at the time, and meant that all shops closed at lunchtime on the designated day and did not reopen until the next morning. This might have been inconvenient for shoppers, but at least allowed shop workers one afternoon off.
Older residents remember the Somerset Road shops – in the 1970s number 84 sold electrical goods. But by the 1980s local shopping was no longer the norm, the shops went out of business and the buildings became houses and nothing more.