It was a total fit-up, guv

20 May 2021

Howard Bradley lifts our spirits with a tale of duplicity from 1960s London

We have all been affected by this pandemic and it is a major feature of life today. But I wanted to get away from all that and instead take a look at an era when the only Corona we knew of was the fizzy bottles of drink that would be delivered to you home from a flatbed lorry.

When my father Eric Bradley opened our first unit drycleaning shop in London in the very early 1960s (by which time drycleaning machinery had been modulated and reduced in size enough to not require a factory) the company (now long, long gone) that fitted out and equipped Bradley’s suggested that during the shop fitting all the windows were whitewashed so that people could not see in, and that posters were made promising a revolutionary new business for the high street.

In the months that it took to fit out the business, the posters were changed regularly with a countdown and different teasers to create an air of eager anticipation in the local community.

Opening day

Back then, a shop opening would be a highlight for many people and added a genuine bit of excitement. For instance, when a new toy shop was opening near to my home, Adam West (Batman) and the Batmobile turned up to perform the opening ceremony

Imagine then the excitement when the grand opening day for Bradley’s day had arrived. Now picture the scene – the posters are taken down, the whitewash is removed from the windows and specially designed drycleaning posters are put up offering same day drycleaning on-site.

A new much-vaunted bakery down the road was also due to open only it turned out not to be a baker’s at all, but a unit drycleaning shop that had been supplied and fitted out exactly as ours was and by the very same company that did Bradley’s.

Con artists

Obviously, the reason the supply company suggested that we whitewash our windows and the ‘bakers shop’ theirs was so that neither would know that they were opening up yards apart with identical equipment. Not amusing at the time, to say the least. We did have the last laugh, though, because for the next two decades we never dealt with that company again and they went out of business,

Aladdin’s cave

Drycleaning back then was a very busy and growing industry and the giant Imperial Chemical Industry (ICI) had a massive site in Runcorn called Mond Division which was its dedicated drycleaning division. One winter in the 1970s I was invited to go for some training.

I set off very early on a freezing morning from our London home on my 500cc twin motorcycle. It was quite a long trip of about 180 miles but I soon thawed out when after a very friendly introduction to Dennis Lodge and Martin Gregson I toured their drycleaning facility. It was huge and amazing and for someone like me who had spent a childhood in the industry it was like Aladdin’s cave.

The huge premises were fitted out with literally every piece of spotting, drycleaning and finishing equipment made by virtually every manufacturer. It was just incredible as was the training which had Guild of Cleaners and Launderers Chief Pressing Examiner Jack Pratt to help and to teach. To this day I remember word for word his greeting which was that “his wife said that he was a lousy drycleaner but a fantastic presser”.

These were the times when perchloroethylene solvent was delivered to shops in ‘petrol’ tankers and pumped into large storage tanks. None of the plastic solvent containers that became familiar from the 1980s onwards.

Industry characters

I also remember with great affection and admiration the industry experts who would travel to one’s premises and spend countless hours imparting their knowledge and skills. Neville Gracey is a name that springs to mind. He was a chemist who worked for a drycleaning and laundry chemical supplier and he would travel with his case of neat chemicals and show how to mix your own formulae to treat specific stains.

I remember that as a test, we had a suit jacket that had a huge ink stain and Neville spent half a day with me showing how to get every single bit of ink out. I will be the first to admit that he had more expertise in his little finger that I have in my whole body even after all these years.

Jack Carter is another name that maybe a few readers of advancing years will still remember. He was a traveller which back then meant that he was a sales representative, but oh so much more than that. A jovial Northerner with a wonderful laugh he was also a WW2 veteran of the North Atlantic convoys to Russia. My late dad also being a veteran (RAF), they would chat together like old friends and only on his way out of the shop (after numerous teas) did Jack ask if there was anything we wanted.

I could probably fill a book with my many memories and anecdotes and maybe, one day, I will.


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