Powell’s store – Before Supermarkets
From 1938 until it closed about 1960, the major grocery in Beecroft was operated by Jack and Birdie Powell. In 1929 Jack Powell moved from the south coast of New South Wales and worked for some years for his brotherin-law Thomas Clark, who owned the Beecroft grocery store on the corner of Mary Street. After its sale Jack Powell opened a grocery store at 103 Beecroft Road in a former butcher’s shop. A few years later he built a new two-storey double-fronted shop and a residence on a sloping site on Beecroft Road next to the post office (now a restaurant). Behind the shop were the family’s living quarters and a storage area. There was more storage beneath, accessed via a trapdoor, and a garage for the new van Jack purchased. Above were bedrooms for the family of five. The shop was open five and a half days a week, and Friday night late shopping was introduced during the 1940s. The two Powell boys, Tom and Frank, helped their parents in the shop and had to lug bags of wheat, chaff and oats from the storerooms. Two female sales assistants were also employed and a man who helped deal with the orders. Jack was well-known as a horseman. He was instrumental in founding the Hornsby Pony Club which held camps at Castle Hill and Glenhaven for keen young girl riders like his daughter Margaret and kept his own horses on land next to the Methodist, now Uniting Church.
Companies sent out window dressers to create impressive window displays. Bushell’s, for instance, would organise a display of their teas, sent out from their warehouse in the city. Within the store, a long counter stretched on each side with shelves behind. The right hand counter was for the sale of groceries but the shop was not thronged with customers as the core business was taking orders by phone or by Jack, riding a horse, or another staff member calling personally at customers’ homes in the mornings. The orders were then made up and the groceries were delivered in the afternoons in Jack’s van to customers in Beecroft and Cheltenham, or next day to homes in West Pennant Hills.
As well as Bushell’s, another city warehouse sent out sugar, flour and similar staples, which the staff and family bagged into brown paper bags by weight. Sugar, for example, was delivered in hessian bags weighing 72lb (a little over 32 kg) and had to be weighed out on scales and packed into 2lb or 4lb bags. Grocers’ assistants were skilled in twirling a paper bag by either side of the top and then folding it so that the bag was tightly sealed. All prices had to be memorised and Birdie Powell, an expert in swift additions, kept the account books and was the final arbiter on prices. Some accounts were settled monthly but most customers paid on delivery. There were very few bad debts.
Arnotts delivered biscuits in large tins with hinged lids, from which they were weighed and packaged for sale, also in brown paper bags. Children would ask for a bag of broken biscuits, which were sold at a big discount.
Cheese arrived in a large round block with a thick calico mesh around it, from which pieces were cut as needed. Eggs, supplied by a poultry farmer at West Pennant Hills, were sold wrapped in newspaper. Sometimes, children found that a bag of boiled lollies had been inserted into the box of home-delivered groceries. During World War II, butter and tea were rationed and to buy these restricted items, customers had to produce coupons. If you ran out of coupons, you went without, so people were careful with their consumption – which is exactly what the government wanted, as so many resources were devoted to the war effort. Cigarettes, also rationed during the war years, were an important part of the business.
Produce, hardware and kitchenware, including buckets and mops, were sold from the counter on the left. Produce did not include fertiliser, as most people used poultry manure. Many people had chooks in their back yards in the war years. While Beecroft had butcheries and pharmacies it had only one greengrocer, as many people grew their own vegetables, fertilised with poultry manure and Mr Small travelled the streets and sold fruit and vegetables from his horse-drawn cart with a canopy. Milk carters and bread carters delivered daily.
However, the Powells had to contend with three rival groceries in Beecroft: one on the Mary Street corner near the school and two along Wongala Crescent between the Fire Station and Sparks Shoe Store. Jack Powell kept an eye out for new residents moving into the area and went around to solicit business. Among his best customers was Beecroft Grammar School in Copeland Road East, run by the Rev. Albert Booth. Mrs Booth did the housekeeping for the 40 to 50 boys, so she was an important client. Jack and Birdie’s son, Frank, still a Beecroft resident, recalls some Methodists asking his parents to send one of their children to Sunday School so that they and others from that church could in conscience switch their business from the local Methodist grocer, whose prices were higher. The Powells did not comply.
After more than thirty years of grocery retailing in Beecroft, the Powells retired. Self-service grocery stores with fewer staff and lower overheads replaced businesses like theirs and groceries were no longer delivered without charge. In the mid 1950s the Colonial Sugar Refining Co provided sugar pre-packed in sealed paper bags and Arnotts soon followed with biscuits in packets. There were no more broken biscuits at the bottom of the tin to provide bargains for children.
In the 1950s and 1960s new homes replaced the last of Beecroft’s nurseries, orchards and dairies. A service station was built on the site of Powell’s grocery but it too closed about four years ago, too small for modern highvolume retailing requirements. In its place an apartment building with shops facing Beecroft Road is currently being constructed on the site.