Memories of Knight and Lee in the 1930s - centenarian Mary recalls bustling pre-war Southsea department stores

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AFTER the announcement that another of Southsea’s historic department stores is to close, Kinght & Lee’s oldest former employee has spoken of her sadness at hearing the news.

In April The News reported that Debenhams on Palmerston Road is to close in 2020 as one of 22 stores nationally facing the axe. Across the road the John Lewis-owned Knight & Lee store will open its doors to customers for the final time in July.

Mary Garland, 102, from Emsworth, is the oldest employee who worked for Knight & Lee in Southsea.'Picture: Sarah Standing (290419-6049)

Mary Garland, 102, from Emsworth, is the oldest employee who worked for Knight & Lee in Southsea.'Picture: Sarah Standing (290419-6049)

For centenarian, Mary Garland, 102, it marks the end of an era for the once bustling retail hotspot. Mary worked in Knight & Lee as a dressmaker during the 1930s.

Mary said: ‘I was very sad to hear about the closure of Knight & Lee. I have fond memories of working there – there was such a good camaraderie between the staff. With Debenhams now closing there will be no more shops of this type in Southsea.’

After starting work at the store in 1932, Mary remembers the original John Lewis take over.

‘I was there when the John Lewis Committee first came to view the store. I remember John Spedan Lewis carrying out the inspection while we were all at work. As staff we all wondered what was going on,’ she said.

Mary, second left, when she was younger

Mary, second left, when she was younger

Mary started at the store in 1932 at the age of 16 after graduating from college.

‘I saw an advert in the paper and decided to just go for it,’ she said.

Knight and Lee’s origins were in Queen Street, where a lace-making business was started by William Wink in the 1830s. In 1857 he died and his son Frederick took over, eventually moving to the more fashionable Palmerston Road. 

In 1887 brothers-in-law Jesse Knight and Edward Herbert Soden Lee purchased the business. They gradually bought buildings along Palmerston Road before rebuilding the store as one, and eventually selling up to Knight and Lee in 1933.  

Mary, right

Mary, right

During the first four years of her time at Knight & Lee, Mary trained as an apprentice dressmaker.

‘It was hard graft,’ stressed Mary.

‘As an apprentice I had to be in work for 8am where my first job was to pick up all the pins from the previous day. We would then work until six in the evening – sometimes seven if we had a rush job come in. One of the most common last minute jobs was for funerals. If someone had died locally then there was suddenly a demand for black dresses. We also had to work till 1pm on a Saturday, although, unlike today, all the shops were closed on a Sunday,’ she added.

One of Mary’s clearest recollections was Rural Day – when ladies from the surrounding countryside would travel into the city in search of new fashionable garments.

‘It would always take place on a Monday with ladies visiting the store from surrounding towns such as Chichester. They would buy lots of dresses which were then sent upstairs to be fitted. They wouldn’t be allowed to leave the store until they were a perfect fit,’ she recalled.

As an apprentice, Mary would earn five shillings a week – the modern day equivalent of 12p. Unfortunately for Mary a significant proportion of her hard earned wages were spent on the local bus service from her home in Cosham to Southsea.

‘The bus wasn’t cheap. It would cost me threepence a week (3 pence) for my return journeys. Fortunately my father eventually put his hand in his pocket and bought me a bicycle. Sun, rain and snow I would pedal that bike to work every day,’ said Mary.

To earn her wages, Mary had to make do without the mod-cons used in the mass production today’s clothing.

‘Everything had to be stitched by hand. There was no electricity or sewing machines. The iron used to press the clothes was heated by a gas burner. If the temperature got too hot then you would have to dip the iron in cold water. I lost count of the number of times I burnt myself,’ recalled Mary.

Mary worked at Knight and Lee for seven years until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

‘I remember it all vividly,’ she recalled.

‘We were all sat round the radio as a family when Chamberlain broadcast his speech that Britain had declared war on Germany. It was really quite scary,’ added Mary.

The onset of war saw a decline in the availability of materials and less prosperous times as the war effort gathered pace and the impact of rationing hit the retail sector.

‘A letter came round to all employees asking us what we planned to do during the war effort. I put down that I wanted to join the Wrens and after that I was given the push,’ explained Mary. 

Although Mary never returned to Knight & Lee she continued to make use of her skills as a seamstress.

‘I ended up making 12 wedding dresses for my nieces as times were tough in the aftermath of the war and it was too expensive for people to buy new dresses,’ said Mary.

Nine decades on, while the prosperity of Southsea’s major shopping precinct is in potential terminal decline there are no such concerns for sprightly centenarian Mary.

‘The secret to a long life is to keep active, eat good food and to have a good husband,’ said Mary.

‘Oh – and the odd tipple of sherry,’ she added.