Columnist Alan Hayman explains how his family story is linked to our local Marks & Spencer

WALKING into a local branch of Marks and Spencer always gives me a frisson of nostalgia.

Before the Second World War, my dad was a young manager at their former Clacton store, selling top quality food and clothes to the seaside holiday-makers.

Nothing cost over five shillings, or 25p in today's money.

Trade was booming and life was good for the M and S team in sunny Clacton.

Then Adolf Hitler spoiled it all.

When war came in 1939, dad joined the Forces and marched off to do his bit.

As a good employer, M and S held his job open and when peace returned, he became assistant manager of their Colchester branch.

Oh, perhaps I should mention a company romance that had blossomed along the way.

Dorothy, a trim and lively staff manageress at Marks and Sparks, had succeeded in tickling dad's fancy.

After a wartime courtship, they decided to tie the knot and that paved the way for my debut at Colchester Maternity Home as a Baby Boomer in 1948.

Meanwhile, back on the shopfloor, there was a sudden need for expertise in fruit buying.


Columnist Alan Hayman

Perhaps I should explain why.

Nowadays, most retail managers are tightly controlled by their head office, with no freedom to find goods from local suppliers for their individual stores.

That wasn't how things were in the grim 1940s, when food rationing left many shops looking empty and bare.

M and S discreetly told their store managers to buy stock locally by any legal means, with no questions asked.

The pressing need was to fill the shelves with attractive goods to get the customers in and spending again.

So with Tiptree's fields of soft fruit within driving distance of Colchester High Street, that meant taking a day trip to buy strawberries. Lots of them.

Dad and his colleague, a genial Irishman called Pat Caffrey, chugged off in their elderly Austin Seven and soon found a Tiptree farmer with a ripening crop in his fields.

"How many punnets would you gentlemen like?" he asked.

After testing a strawb or two for quality, Pat cheerfully replied, "Ah, we'll be taking the lot".

Suitable sums of cash changed hands and the whole crop duly arrived in stages by Austin Seven.

That summer, it was Strawberry Fields Forever for the lucky shoppers at Colchester M and S.

However, all good things must come to an end.

Dad's local retailing career ended when he moved to the company's London HQ.

Years of gruelling commuting followed, when he caught a dawn train up to town while I was still in bed.

M and S executives were paid well, but the job took its toll and he took early retirement on medical grounds with a handsome pension.

This story has a quirky tailpiece, after dad was sadly left an elderly widower with me as his chauffeur.

We'd sometimes go to social events that Colchester M and S ran for their retired staff.

Dad still had a twinkle in his eye and several widowed ladies he had known back in the day on the shopfloor were all over him.

But a burly gent who had run the store's warehouse was less affectionate.

Dad’s role had included holding regular fire drills, when everyone had to stop work and report to an evacuation point.

A tedious but vital routine, it was not always welcomed by the staff.

"Are you that bloke that stopped my lorries unloading with your fire drills? I've waited 40 years to give you a piece of my mind", the warehouse pensioner grimly announced.

And he did, though I wasn't sure he had any to spare. Mind, that is.

Anyway, dad let it wash over him and kept his usual good humour.

After taking incoming from the wartime Luftwaffe, an irate warehouse guy barely registered on the scale.

Today, M and S are still trading on the High Street when several big rivals - Debenhams, Woolworth, C and A - have gone under or retreated online.

Gazette: Day of celebrations to mark 100 years of the store in Colchester.
marks and spencer
mayor helen chuah and manager garry easter ( cor)

Day of celebration - M&S has had a presence in Colchester since 1911, with its High Street store first opening in 1931. This lovely staff picture was taken in 2011 to mark the 100th anniversary

Here's why - they have constantly responded to changing public tastes, they've treated their staff well and they've delivered value for money.

When Michael Marks started his bazaar in Leeds market in 1884, his slogan was cheap and cheerful - "Don't ask the price, it's a penny".

In the long years since then, the firm's moved steadily upmarket.

In the latest change, they are quietly moving away from textiles and into smaller out of town food stores.

But other challenges may lie ahead as technology advances.

If Amazon start using drones to deliver fresh food to their customers, will M and S try to beat them?

Nothing’s certain in retailing, but I'd like to think so.

Dad would be proud if they do.