The effect of the economic war on the national economy was devastating. The farmers suffered immeasurably due to lack of markets. For instance, they were told by politicians to “throw the calves in the ditch”, and I vividly remember seeing two calves being sold outside our shop for one shilling and sixpence, and a three year old bullock being sold in the street for thirty shillings. Milk was being poured down the drains – literally – and the object of the whole exercise was “to starve John Bull”, cutting off all our own lifelines in the process, and it lasted long enough to shrink the Cronin business to near extinction.
The Shop 1938 – Part Two by Geoff Cronin
During this period, my grandfather died, the mill was sold (for buttons) to appease the bank and “the Convent” and its lands were also sold, leaving only the shop and a shrinking trade in bread.
Next came the Government order controlling the price of bread, a vote-catching ploy. The price of flour and other ingredients was not controlled, nor were wages, fuel etc. Our staff shrank to four or five, and the writing was on the wall.
The family home had been in Woodstown from 1928 to 1942, and about 1936 my father was taken ill with mastoid trouble in both ears, and spent almost 12 months in hospital in Dublin. During that time, my mother cycled into Waterford very early each morning – 8 miles – and ran the business, cycling home to Woodstown each night. My father had ten operations on his ears and throat, and seven of those were done by Oliver St. John Gogarty, and three were done by Dr. Curtin, a surgeon at the Eye and Ear Hospital in Adelaide Road, Dublin. Gogarty was a high-flying social figure at the time, and had his own private aeroplane and his own nursing home in Baggot Street, and he charged the earth for his services. My father paid him £300 for one operation, which was not successful and ended up having the job successfully done by Dr. Curtin, whose fee was £30!
Anyway, the final chapters concerning the shop in John Street are detailed elsewhere in this saga, but to give you some idea of the scale of operations, I shall enumerate the staff, which consisted of the following:-
- Three shop assistants cum bookkeepers
- Three van men
- Three porters cum cleaners and delivery
- Thirteen bakers
- One engine attendant and
- Three housemaids, who lived in.
- The balance of forty was employed in the mill and the grain store on the docks.
I should mention also that our bread was famous for quality and our Christmas Bracks were known worldwide. I can remember tea-chests being filled with bracks and shipped to Australia and America. When the bakery was in full swing, we were using a hundred sacks of flour per week, which was two hundred ten-stone bags and at the end this was down to two and a half sacks per week.
During the war – which was known as “the emergency” – the law was such that no white flour could be milled or used to make bread. The order of the day was brown flour and brown bread – known as “Black Bread”. This regime went on from 1939 to 1947, and the law was rigidly enforced, any contravention being met by heavy fines or imprisonment.
Things, however, had become desperate, and we (my father and I) decided to enter the black market in white flour to try to save the business. My father’s expertise in the milling business came into play here, and through various contacts, a length of milling silk was obtained and he and I went to work each night after the shop closed, and worked until 2 a.m. sifting the regulation brown flour into its components, i.e. white flour, bran and pollard, and everything had to be cleaned up and hidden before the bakehouse staff came on duty at 4 a.m. The white flour could then be sold for one pound per stone – the brown flour cost approximately three shillings and six pence per stone, and a very small amount of white bread was baked twice a week to cater for invalids and such like.
The drill was that I would get up first in the mornings and open the shop and start the day’s work, get the one van loaded and deal with the early morning trade. My father would stay in bed until about eleven and then appear in the shop.
Now my father was a short man, only 5 ft 4½ ins. tall, but he was fifteen stone in weight – 46 ins. in the chest and 48 ins plus in the waist – and after a late night was often too tired for formality. He just kicked off his shoes, loosened his tie, and dropped his pants where he stood, and fell into bed practically fully clothed, minus shoes and pants.
On one particular occasion, when I opened the shop in the morning, a Jewish businessman from Dublin arrived and quietly asked me for eight stone of white flour in eight separate bags. I took out a ten-stone bag from hiding, and weighed out the eight bags onto the counter, stowing the remainder under the counter. I then took the money and proceeded to close up the eight bags which the client was taking out to his car. Our most trusted employee, Jimmy, was standing by keeping an eye out on the street for anyone who looked like a government inspector.
Just as I was closing bag number eight, Jimmy whistled from the street, and in walked a man unmistakably an inspector.
“I want to see the proprietor!” he said, in a peremptory tone.
“Just one moment, sir” I said, as I handed bag number eight to the customer, who departed swiftly.
“Jimmy,” I called, “This man wants to see the boss. Would you run upstairs and call him please?”
Jimmy knew exactly what was going on, and he duly went upstairs and woke my father with the announcement that there was an inspector downstairs in the shop.
As described by Jimmy afterwards, “The man leapt out of bed, jumped into his trousers, shouldered his braces, and stepped into his shoes while donning his jacket, glasses and hat.” Thus composed, he arrived into the shop, every inch the proprietor, and invited the inspector, who incidentally had declared himself, to accompany him into the office. Meanwhile, I told Jimmy to take the half sack of white flour to the shop next door, and say he’d collect it later.
The inspector had been seated in the office with my father standing over him. The man seemed to go quite pale, and got up to leave, with my father following him. I didn’t hear what had been said earlier, but as he got to the door, my father took him gently by the arm, and nose to nose, said quietly “I wouldn’t come back here if I were you – it would be very VERY unhealthy, and another thing, Mister, this country will never be right until people like you are strung up by the arse and shot like a dog in the street.” The man walked away, very quickly, and he never came back.
My father stood at the counter, his face flushed with a dying anger and I saw him struggling to get his hand into his trousers pocket, unsuccessfully, and no wonder, for he had his trousers on back to front! Jimmy saw his predicament and guffawed, and then I saw it and I laughed out loud, and then my father, standing on his dignity up to then, spotted the problem and groaned “Oh Bloody Wars” before exploding into laughter.
So ended a very funny episode, which I recall with great affection for my father.
About Geoff Cronin – 1923 – 2017
There were few jobs that Geoff could not turn his hands to, and over the years he mastered an impressive number of professional undertakings. Master baker and confectioner, mobile cinema operator, salesman, band leader, senior executive and master wood turner, storyteller and writer.
Geoff Cronin published his first book in 2005 at age 82. The Colour of Life is a collection of stories of life in Waterford during his childhood and early adulthood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. This was followed by two further books that related tales of further adventures in Waterford and Dublin.
Thank you for dropping in today and you can read the previous chapters of The Colour of Life in this directory: