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‘Pop goes the weasel!’: A look back to Barking’s penny stores and pawnbrokers

PUBLISHED: 17:00 21 January 2020

Woolworths and Central Hall in Barking. Picture: Valence House Museum and Local Archives Centre

Woolworths and Central Hall in Barking. Picture: Valence House Museum and Local Archives Centre

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After the festive period, gift giving and indulgence follows the contrastingly bleak month of January and a period of self-deprivation: alcohol free, less calories and reduced spending... It is time to look back to thriftiness in Barking’s past - shopping here 100 years ago involved pawnbrokers and penny stores.

Harry Tailors in East Street. Picture: Valence House Museum and Local Archives CentreHarry Tailors in East Street. Picture: Valence House Museum and Local Archives Centre

During the nineteenth century Robert Willet inherited a drapery business from his father, John, who became a pawnbroker on North Street by 1881.

Around this time, Philip Barton owned the Unredeemed Pledge Stores at 5, East Street. He sold items that had been pawned and not reclaimed.

Moneylending has ancient origins but was considered disreputable for centuries and only recognised legally in the UK from 1800 onwards.

The industrial revolution fuelled the need for pawnbrokers, which supplied extra income for people with regular, but low-paid work.

A pawnbroker's sign. Picture: Simone PanayiA pawnbroker's sign. Picture: Simone Panayi

Pawnbrokers were not used by the poorest people, who had nothing to "pawn", but by those in financial difficulties or whose regular wage was not enough.

Many families slipped into the trap of pawning their Sunday best outfits on Mondays to pay the weekly bills and redeeming them on Saturdays (after pay day) to wear for the weekend, church or chapel.

The song, often sung to children, which begins: "Half a pound of tuppenny rice, Half a pound of treacle, That's the way the money goes, Pop goes the weasel!", dates from around 1850 and implies that the coat ("weasel and stoat" in cockney rhyming slang) was regularly given up for the purchase of food.

Pledging belongings (to "pawn" comes from the Latin pignus or "pledge") in return for a loan, to be repaid with interest, was one way to avoid the much-feared workhouse.

Frank's Tailors and Abbey Lodge before Woolworths. Picture: Valence House Museum and Local Archives CentreFrank's Tailors and Abbey Lodge before Woolworths. Picture: Valence House Museum and Local Archives Centre

There was a large, foreboding workhouse in North Street from 1788, where inmates were usually separated from loved ones, kept on meagre rations and forced to work on mundane tasks.

It was a haunting reminder of where poverty could lead to, until 1836.

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If the debt to a pawnbroker was not repaid within the agreed time-limit, items were sold to cover the cost, on set days and often by auction, although the pawnbroker could set the reserve price.

Front elevation of Woolworths. Picture: Valence House Museum and Local Archives CentreFront elevation of Woolworths. Picture: Valence House Museum and Local Archives Centre

The typical pawnbroker's symbol of the three golden balls may have its origins in the Italian Medici family, famous for banking and money-lending, in the fifteenth century, the Lombard bankers or Saint Nicholas who, gave away three bags of gold to help young women avoid destitution.

You can see three gold balls hanging at 27 East Street - pawnbrokers and moneylending remain part of high street services today, perhaps revived by the bad publicity for "pay-day loan" companies.

There are some interesting photographs of number 27, when H Frank, the tailor, continued to trade from his shop whilst the new Woolworths block was being built behind it.

Many residents will recall that before Sam99's, 23-25 East Street hosted Woolworths - a stalwart of British high streets. The American, Frank Woolworth, believed that a good penny store, (influenced by penny bazaars like Mark's and Spenser's) ran by a Yankee, would go down a storm.

The first one opened in 1909. The original Barking store-front advertised Woolworths as: "3d and 6d stores", and numbered 328 of more than 800, including 50 built in 1928.

The last UK Woolworths closed in January 2009, and after more than a hundred years of inflation, it is apt that the three-penny store is now a 99p store.

The grand pilasters (imitation columns) along this row still stand proud and will hopefully be cleaned up to enhance their original beauty as part of the National Lottery Heritage Fund's Barking town heritage project.

With thanks to Barking and Dagenham Archives, Lesley Gould, George Westbrook and the Heritage Volunteers.

For further information visit yourcall.befirst.london/barking-heritage

To discover more about local history - visit the Archives and Local Studies Library at Valence House Museum, Dagenham.

For further information on the history of Woolworth's go to woolworthsmuseum.co.uk


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