Going to town

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By John Taylor - January 2011

I’ve been fortunate to have experienced the Durban CBD for over 60 years. Unlike the current noisy, colourful, crowded, and almost chaotic African place that it is today, the CBD of the early to mid 1950’s was a shopping area of restraint and formality, and I would like to share some of my earliest memories of “going to town” with my parents.

I’m certain that many Durbanites of similar age will remember “town” well. Until Musgrave Centre opened in the mid 1950’s, there was no such thing as a suburban shopping mall in Durban. There were usually local shops in the various residential areas – butcher, grocery store, chemist, bottle store etc, which were happy to deliver orders given to them telephonically.

Bread and milk were delivered daily, bread from a van that did the rounds, and milk every morning from a cart pulled by a sturdy Zulu. Milk bottles were made of glass and were returnable. These were put out every evening together with coupons, and when you woke up the following morning there was the milk on your doorstep! Fruit and vegetables were purchased from Indian vendors who did house to house rounds.

My parents and I lived in my grandfather’s house off Bartle Road in Umbilo, and every so often we caught the bus to “go to town”. My father had a car (not everyone did in those days) but preferred to take the bus. I remember that formal dress was necessary, the men wore jacket, collar, tie, and sometimes a hat, and I even recall my grandmother wearing gloves!

The bus ended its journey near the central post office, and from this point it was the same routine every time. My mother and I went into Tennison Burrows in Gardiner Street, where she collected various magazines set aside for her every week, and also purchased a carton of cigarettes. The place had a distinctive smell of newsprint, books, and tobacco, and was situated next to the Model Dairy which served all manner of milkshakes and ice cream confectionery.

Then there was a visit to the nearby bank (Barclays Natal Bank Branch?), which to me was quite intimidating. Banks in those days were a far cry from what they are today. The best way to describe them was similar to the goblin bank in the first Harry Potter movie – a cavernous building characterised by columns of Greek looking architecture, marble floors, wooden desks and counters. Everyone spoke in whispers, and all you heard was the thump of tellers stamping deposit slips and cheques. Documents were placed in a container that fitted into a compressed air pipe which blasted them to an unknown destination, shortly to be returned by the same apparatus.

Across the road from the bank on the corner of West and Gardiner Street was a pharmacy which I think was called Kahn’s Chemist. It had large glass jars filled with coloured liquid on display in the windows, which I guess was fashionable for chemists. One of my highlights was Castle Arcade in which there was a full scale model of a ship. I believe that this was the Armadale Castle, and I used to examine it closely while my parents went into nearby shops.

Up the street was Henwoods where you could buy all manner of hardware and tools. Across West Street and past the original Woolworths site and Standard Bank, was the Central Hotel. The smell emanating from the men’s bar was of spilled beer and cigarettes, but in a small arcade next to it was the Central Pie Shop from which my mother purchased a selection of delicious pies.

This was quite close to Kings Sports which usually had an impressive display of sports goods, fishing gear, and firearms in their windows. Beyond the old Murchies Passage was Cuthberts shoe shop, and across Field Street was where the large department stores were situated – Stuttafords and Greenacres on the one side of West Street, and Payne Brothers and OK Bazaars on the other. Further up was John Orrs and the Hub.These were imposing establishments, and my mother and grandmother would immediately head for the ladies wear sections to examine the latest fashions.

Apart from OK Bazaars which had a milk bar, each of the large department stores had grand tea rooms, where tea, coffee, and a selection of cakes were served by very formally dressed and efficient Indian waiters. While most of the department stores utilised overhead fans for ventilation purposes, Payne Brothers had installed the innovation of central air conditioning, and many shoppers entered the store simply for purposes of cooling down on a hot and humid day.

All department stores had lifts driven by a uniformed operator to take customers to the various levels, and upon arrival at each floor the operator would announce which departments were situated there. Payne Brothers had installed a further innovation as an alternative to using lifts or stairs – the escalator! I recall that it wasn’t long before all stores followed suit with air conditioners and escalators.

My favourite department store was Greenacres, and I recall going there in both my primary and high school days to purchase uniforms and sports gear, as they were the official stockists. Greenacres also had one of the first supermarkets as a department, with the difference to today’s variety being that once you completed your purchases the total was usually charged to an account, and they then went to an area from which delivery took place by van to your residence.

I remember that there were photographers working the pavements of West Street, and as you walked along they would photograph you and hand you a numbered ticket. If you so wished, you could go to a nearby shop a few days later to view the photograph, and purchase it if you liked its look. At the upper end of West Street shortly before seemingly endless furniture shops began, was Columbo Tea and Coffee, from which emanated the most enticing aroma of freshly ground coffee beans, and this was generally our last stop before catching the bus home.


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