Lilian’s story

by Kathryn Pink


Everyone knows Atkinsons. The aromas of their roasting coffee permeate the Lancaster air. Not the smells and noises of the river port, not the clatter of looms and the factory smoke. They are long gone. But Atkinsons remains, as it has done since 1837, providing the signature scent of the town.

The darkness of the shop, the chests full of wrinkled leaves, the jute sacks bursting with beans, the canisters with round lids and faded writing, the mysterious blends of tea and coffee, names recalling a lost empire and distant lands, the old machines for grinding and roasting, the heavy desk with a myriad of labelled pigeon holes – there are stories to be told here.

And Lilian knows more than most.

In 1937, a hundred years after Victoria came to the throne, Lilian began work as a clerk – Tea and Coffee Merchants – on a month’s probation. Sixty-seven years later, she was still there.

“My mum asked the Atkinsons rep if they would take a girl. I’d been at Bowerham and Greaves schools and left when I was 15, having done a commercial course. I earned 2/6d a week, and I gave 1/- a week to my mother for my keep. The hours were 9-5. Sometimes I had to go back for an hour in the evening if we had a big order to get out. I had to tell the police when that happened because we left the key to the warehouse at the police station every night.

We lived in Scotforth and I walked in every day, over Ripley Heights and up Regent Street. There were trams from the Boot and Shoe to Dalton Square, but 8 tokens cost 1/-.

At first, we sold mainly tea; coffee was for catering businesses. During the war, tea was rationed to 2oz per person per week; tea and coffee were rationed to businesses, but coffee was not rationed to the public. As a result people’s tastes changed, and after the war, coffee became more popular than it had been previously.

I dealt with people from all over the world. I bought the tea and coffee directly from source, from the plantations. I negotiated with traders in London, and later, Rotterdam. I sorted all the logistics, transport and warehousing. No day was ever the same. We aimed to keep things the old- fashioned way and treat everyone as an individual, valued customer or supplier.

Every Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. the tea was blended carefully by hand. Farmers would send in bottles of water from their farms and the blends tweaked to match the taste of the particular water. For soft water, Ceylon is the best. For the harder water, over towards Yorkshire, Indian Assam and Darjeeling is what is needed. And I was not allowed to wear perfume, because that would flavour the teas. That is still true for the staff working here today.

Thursday morning was the busiest. The Auction mart at the top of Thurnam Street, and the open market down Church Street brought in the farmers and their wives. The farmers’ wives sold their eggs, cream and butter. And they would come to Atkinsons. They might buy ‘Kitchen Tea’ a cheaper blend for the farmhands, or ‘Gunpowder’, a cure for all ills, a blood-purifier, a mixture of green tea and black in the ratio of 1oz to 1lb. ‘Blue Masque’ blend was popular. That was named after Mr. Riley’s horse. He was the owner of the shop then, and he came to work on a horse and cart, with a pet goat riding beside him.

Before the war we dealt mainly with ‘reps’ rather than individual customers. The three main ‘reps’ would buy the tea wholesale and deliver it to the outlying villages and farms. Mr. Parkinson covered Bowerham, Scotforth and Quernmore; Mr. Burrows covered the Silverdale area. Mr Richmond was blind yet he travelled round his area on foot, in all weathers, delivering without fail exactly what had been ordered.

The tea chests were piled high against the wall of the warehouse, and a winch used to get them down when they were needed. A scoop was used to get tea from the top chest which was the one that was opened. One assistant, having climbed to the very top, leaned too far over with the scoop, and fell into the tea. I was the only one there and I had to climb up the chests and pull him out feet first.

The sacks of coffee were pulled up to the store on a hoist and pulley. During the war, meat was scarce, and, like many, Mr. Riley, supplemented rations by shooting rabbits. But I was unprepared one day when pulling up the hoist to find that he had used the chain to hang the shot rabbits on.

When I started work in 1937, they were just beginning to widen China Lane and turn it into China Street. On the opposite side of the Lane from Atkinsons there was an undertakers, Walkers. They also had second hand shop where a lot of good bargains were to be had. On the corner of China Lane was a car park which was supervised by two members of the British Legion.. Before China Lane was widened, and the road down to the bus station made, we used to walk down New Road to the bottom of town. There were cottages along the road and along the riverside. It was not unusual to see dead animals along the river bank during periods of flooding.

One day I was sitting at my desk in the office. I looked down and realised my feet were in water. The water was coming in through the skirting board. I put down towels to soak up the water and rang the sanitary inspector. He put dyes down the drains and wells at the back of China Street to identify the source of the water. There were 5 wells then at the back of China Street. The men dug through the wall from the cellar of the building behind. They discovered the drain that was blocked and causing the flooding. The blocked drain was a very old one. It was a hollowed out tree trunk which led from the castle down to China Street.

We had fun. We did lots of walking. There were four cinemas in Lancaster. We went to the Grand Theatre every week, and there was a club which met on a Sunday night where we reviewed the plays we’d seen. I played tennis. I sang in St.Paul’s Church choir. The church had its own tennis court on Barton Road fields. There were dances every week in the Priory Hall next door to Atkinsons.”

And here we are now, in the Priory Hall, where Lilian might have danced on a Saturday night, and where now she reminisces about her long working life. Images of Lancaster today are projected onto the wall, and overlaid with older images of the same places, prompting further memories of times gone by, of old friends, and the lively social life she shared with them. It is now Atkinsons café. ‘The Hall.’ It is busy. Friends are meeting for a coffee and a chat. Others are meeting to work together, a laptop on the table between them. Visitors to the city have come upon the café serendipitously and enjoy the coming together of the old and the new. In the next room is the desk where Lilian sat for all those years. We go in. She sits at the desk, on her old chair. She remembers it all.


I was inspired to research Lilian’s story because initially I was intrigued by the idea of hunting out stories from Castle Park which is so full of history and which forms not only the core of Lancaster’s rich past but also the focus of any future heritage development in the city. However, when the opportunity arose to hear Lilian’s story – it should really be stories because she has so many varied memories of her long life – I wanted to know what she had to tell about working for so many years in such a specialised shop known to all Lancastrians and to many visitors to the city. Hers is the story of someone who at ninety ears old is still very much part of the city, lively, active, interested, and enjoying the company of friends far and wide. Aspects of her story will be familiar to many older inhabitants of Lancaster. But her real story is hers alone and now only she holds memories of life and work in Atkinsons over nearly seven decades.

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