BACK in the 1920s, Southampton was very different from today’s modern city as anyone strolling down Above Bar, through the Bargate and into the elegant High Street would, more often than not, meet some well-known shopkeepers.

There was time to chat with Mr Cleveland the boot-seller, Mr Bastick the outfitter, Mr Brown the provision merchant, Miss Wiseman in the art shop together with Mr Shepherd or Mr Hedger, two famous names known for the quality of their furniture.

These days individual and unique shops that once prided themselves on personal service and knowing the particular requirements of longstanding customers have almost entirely disappeared leaving just the chain stores that can be found in most cities and towns up and down the land.

However, looking back to such times with nostalgia it is often too easy to forget a different side to life 80 years ago in Southampton.

Daily Echo:

Bounded on the north by East Street and on the west by High Street was a small area, for centuries a vital centre of the local population.

Entering by narrow streets such as Canal Walk, Back-of-the-Walls, Sugarhouse Lane and Oriental Terrace, any visitor could easily lose themselves in a bewildering crisscross of lanes, courts, cuts and alleyways.

Here were packed many hundreds of small houses, mean and dilapidated, often vermin-infested and unsanitary. These were the homes of several thousand people of whose existence most of the rest of Southampton seemed totally unaware. For instance, Fives Court had only three water-closets for its nine crowded houses.

Close to the Bargate stood the departmental store Mayes and in 1979 the well-known local historian and author, Eric Wyeth Gadd, recalled the imposing shop.

“As a small boy I had almost to be dragged in, for there was something sombre and forbidding about the atmosphere of the place,’’ he wrote in his book, Southampton in the Twenties.

“No grubby urchins from the nearby slum streets would ever stand and gaze into its windows. The steely-eyed uniformed commissionaire would soon deal with such nonsense, and if by some miracle he had been bypassed, the establishment’s second line of defence would have sprung into action – the ponderous, frock-coated floorwalkers.’’ In Above Bar alone a shopper could have a haircut, have teeth pulled or their photograph taken, pickup tobacco, and at one time there were no fewer than five different piano showrooms while there was always time for a cup of tea in the Cadena, Price’s, the Grosvenor, the Bungalow or many other quiet cafes.

Daily Echo:

However down in the Ditches, just off East Street, the atmosphere was very different as a visit here was to experience Southampton life at its most colourful.

Turn down beside the former well-known pub, The Horse and Groom, into Canal Walk and people were plunged, there was no other word for it. A narrow thoroughfare alive with vibrant, earthy characters.

Here were constant chatter, endless movement and the wise visitor made sure that fingers on his wallet were his own. Every step brought something of interest. Clothing shops boasting of gowns and of being costumiers were everywhere offering loud, extravagant and garish designs the kind of which were not seen anywhere else in Southampton.

Daily Echo:

One of the best-known shops was Matchams which sold ropes, nets, fishing tackle and hardware while nearby a stewed eel and pie shop was open for business as were horsemeat shops, several fishmongers, musical instrument showrooms, pork butchers, florist and refreshment rooms. Perhaps the most fascinating, especially for younger shoppers, was the homemade sweetshop where, Mr Bricknell, a wizened old man with a grey moustache and a flat black cap, scooped up humbugs and tipped them into paper cones.

Corner shops were the mainstay of the neighbouring community and they sold everything, from Mazawattee Tea and Keiller’s marmalade in stone jars to Coleman’s Mustard and tins of grate polish.