It was with mixed feelings I read yesterday of the Government’s intended plan for removing all cigarette vending machines from pubs, restaurants and bars. Not because I smoke (I don’t), but for the fact the way cigarette machines have shaped and influenced my life. The article was even more poignant being Father’s Day, and I wondered what my father would have made of the whole smoking issue.
My father’s boss, Mr Weiss, a Swiss music box maker, developed the wooden mechanism inside these wall-hung machines of the 1950s and 60s and also made the outer wooden cabinets. It was Dad’s job to delivery and fit these across the whole of the UK, often away for days at a time. It was also his job sometimes to restock the machines in and around London with cigarettes and, in later years, machines dispensing stockings, chocolate, and a couple of other items as a child I didn’t understand.
To earn extra pocket money, my elder siblings and I would sit around the kitchen table with a pile of coins in the centre. It was our job to slit the cellophane wrappers with a razor blade and slide in the correct change, each of us having a different brand to fill. Weights. Senior Service. Capstan. Players No.6. Whatever money was left over at the end was divided between us. (If ever you were shortchanged in a packet years ago, please forgive us, it was never intentional!)
I believe Mr Weiss’s firm was the only one in the country at the time making these, if not he was certainly one of the biggest suppliers for his machines were in every pub, club, bar, restaurant and hotel in the country and regularly supplied television and film studios. As kids, we could often be heard to shout out: “There’s one of Dad’s machines” whilst watching Emergency Ward Ten, Z Cars, even Crossroads, and many, many British films.
Another customer was the The Golden Egg restaurant chain. One in particular regularly invited us as a family to have Sunday lunch there. It was, as I recall, either on, or very near to, Hammersmith Roundabout. We always had chicken and chips followed by little paper dishes of jelly with tinned cream. We were often the only ones there; having Sunday lunch out was not common practice then for most people.
Dad always bought his van home; a little grey Austin A40, Bedford dormabiles, a white Thames, later white or blue Transits. As a consequence throughout the 1950s and 60s, we were fortunate to have a means of transport always at our disposal. Not many families at that time owned a car. In the road where we lived, we were the first to have one, albeit a van, and the first to have television but we were by no means wealthy. Both my parents always had to work, my mother at one point holding down two daytime jobs and sewing at home as a third. But I do believe as children we were privileged in many respects, all thanks to the cigarette vending machine.
For special occasions, Mr Weiss would let Dad use his car for the weekend. I remember a green and cream Austin Cambridge, very plush, with green leather seats and a walnut dashboard, but most times we went off in the van. Back then, the engines of the larger vans were always housed between the driver and passenger seat. In each, Dad rigged up a padded, wooden seat to go over this; where I sat. On long journeys it got very hot but I always had a good view. My brother and sisters sat in the back on old armchairs or settees or old car seats Dad put in. Seatbelts were unheard of! The Thames van had red rear seats running along the sides, and red and white gingham curtains at the windows which he pulled closed when on delivery.
During the school holidays we would often go with Dad on his delivery runs. He’d take us the “scenic” way, showing us pretty villages and unusual places, castles and churches, Stonehenge and many, many other places of historic interest and seaside towns up and down the country most children during that era never had the opportunity of visiting. We once came to Bristol, enjoying sandwiches beneath the Suspension Bridge, never, ever imagining I would end up living there. We visited a ferret farm near Lowestoft, to Newcastle where an aunt and cousin lived, then on to Gretna Green, across Shap Fell, travelling up the M1 the second day it opened, a private zoo with leopards and chimpanzees. We never went on summer holiday as such, but spent days away at beautiful Cornish or Dorset villages on the coast whilst Dad went on to make his delivery. We’d stay in a caravan or more often at a friendly B&B or farm.
Sunday afternoons during the summer we would often go to Devil’s Bunch Bowl in Surrey to gather bilberries for Mum to make into jam. In autumn, we would go to Box Hill to gather the sweet chestnuts for roasting back home on a shovel over the coal fire. Happy days climbing up Leith Hill or exploring places called Sunday Street or the Silent Pool, or visiting relatives in Hemel Hempstead, Watford or Ewell. We’d regularly go for days out to Margate, Southend, Brighton or West Wittering.
Dad never had to pay for petrol and when later, my mother got her first car, a red and white Triumph Herald, Mr Weiss insisted on paying for her petrol too. He was such a kindly man, to us kids more of an uncle than our Dad’s boss. When Dad went to collect his wages, he often took me with him to Mr Weiss’s home or to the factory across London in Leightonstone. Mr Weiss always gave me half-a-crown as pocket money. This was always appreciated and never, ever expected.
So for these things alone: the memories of family trips, places we visited, the fun, being able to see and enjoy the countryside, for the clothes we wore, food we ate, toys we played with, the humble cigarette machine paid. I mourn its passing.