Thursday, 15 December 2011

College for the Distributive Trades, Charing Cross Road WC2

It would be easy to dismiss the College for the Distributive Trades as a place offering five minute courses teaching checkout girls how to smile sweetly and say hello when you get to the front of the queue, but shop work in the 19th century involved an enormous range of skills in the days before the pre-packaging of everything.
In 1939 it moved into modern accommodation (by E.P. Wheeler) that it shared with St Martin's School of Art. The school was eventually amalgamated into the London College of Communication and decamped to Elephant and Castle, and the building was converted for Foyle's bookshop.
The door was decorated with eight carved panels by Adolfine Ryland, mainly remembered as an artist and printmaker.
The panels show occupations that are now as dead as tallow chandlers or cordwainers. Top left, a draper's assistant draws fabric from a bolt of cloth. Top right, a grocer's assistant puts lids on jars.
The trades that still exist are centre left and right, where window dressers work with lay figures.
The young man on the left wrestles with a torso, while the lady on the right adjusts a wig on a head.
But what a contrast with today's window dressers, who wear jeans and T-shirts - these butterflies are in full formal wear, and their hair is styled, dressed and held in place with regimental discipline.
By the 1930s, science had arrived in shopkeeping, mainly in food, to protect the public and improve the products with longer shelf life and better presentation. Of course, all the scientists were men. Adolfine Ryland shows the boffin on the left doing some sort of experiment with a retort, possibly pasteurising milk or something, and the scientist at the right seems to be examining a fabric under a microscope.
But women's employment was changing too. The seamstress at her sewing machine is doing a job regarded as suitable for underpaid girls since forever, of course, but the cashier examining a ledger at her desk (at the top of the post) is doing a responsible job that many men would have regarded women as too irresponsible and featherheaded to do just a few decades earlier.


Ann said...

What unique images. The evolution of trades are something we often chat about, remarkable how so many skills are just lost in time.

London Remembers said...

Welcome back. Ryland’s background is apparent – the panels would make lovely prints. I hope the building is protected, now that St Martin's School of Art has moved out. But the trades you mention have not died out completely: John Lewis still sell fabric by the yard, or probably metre, and you can take your own jars to Unpackaged in Amwell Street and get them filled there with loose dry goods.

Travels with Razz said...

I remember the College for Distributive Trades in the 1950s when it had regular courses for students working full time in communications, advertising, and marketing - for the CAM Diploma - (including press relations and public affairs).
Did any of this get carried over when the College merged with St Martin's/Central School?
Does any of it survive at the University of the Arts, London, now established at King's Cross, which appears to be the inheritor of this element of education?

'raine said...

I studied Window Display and Display Graphics at the College in 1960 and have fond memories of Charing Cross Road (the Jazz record shops were great), plus Old Compton St, Soho just behind the college, where we used to buy a picnic lunch to eat in Soho Square.
Also there were the most amazing coffee bars -
the 2 I"s, of rock and roll fame, the Phoenix in Soho Square - frequented by pseudo intellectuals! Also the Macabre, which was painted completely black, had no lighting or windows - the tables were coffins and one ate and drank goodness knows what. .And many more dubious dumps- great fun.
As you see I spent more time out than in the college (but valuable education for a 16 yr old!),
Memorable elements of the college were - the canteen .that we shared with the St Martins' lot -where the staff made the most amazing jam doughnuts and the tablecloths were covered with artwork.
The corridors were always interesting watching, due to the St Martin's fashion students exotic creations that they paraded around in...
Our part of the building was on the lower floors and a bit dark and gloomy. on the ground floor there was a large studio set up with dummy shop windows for us to practice display of the (mostly very drab and tired) goods. I never want to see silk scarves or empty beer bottles again! My favourite bit was the construction workshop where we could design and create "props" out of wood and other materials. here we made roman figures for the christmas Toga Ball - music by the "Temperance Seven" 20's jazz band - personnel mostly our tutors. They had several hits in the early sixties!
After working in a large store during sales time, I never wanted to do window dressing again and
branched out into Exhibition Design - much more
---so the College For the Distributive Trades gave me a good design grounding.

Travels with Razz said...

Surprised, delighted and warmed to find that others remember the College for Distributive Trades, WC2, in the late 1950s/early 1960s. So much atmosphere, downstairs at Dobells jazz records, the whole of Soho's music scene, Gerrard St before it officially became 'Chinatown' ... and so it goes on. :)

Marion said...

This brings back some memories , Berwck St market in my lunch hour , and buying lunch in one of the Italian delicatessens smelling of fresh coffee and bread . I too loved the St Martins corridors , some unusual characters wondering about , an artists model in huge purple cape and walking a Siamese cat on a lead was one as well as many others . I did the window dressing course but when qualified , only lasted a few years before switching careers

Anonymous said...

I attended the college during the 1970's and have fond memories of making all sorts of strange props in the basement. I also recall cutting lettering in polystyrene with a heated wire cutter - great precision required! We created some very impressive displays and I learnt lot about the basics of good design, grouping and lighting. I went on to have a career in display and fitting many windows in London's West End. Later I worked freelance for companies such as Monsoon, Addidas and the Berketex Group. Working freelance I had to chance to make my own props and come up with my own themes. I also owned my own shop for which I designed the branding including a logo and the interior design and fixtures. So I am grateful to the CDT for what I learnt and the many books from the library that taught me about the history of art.It would be impossible to have such a career now as stores and shops do not invest in displays and everything is based on pre-set fitting that anyone can install and replace.

Travels with Razz said...

Good to read of more memories of the CDT leading to creative work and careers. :)

Still going strong said...

CDT HND on Business Stidies )specialising in Advertising & Marketing). Principal Martin P Davis. Market Research Rawlings who took over when MPD retired I believe. Alan Betts Media, etc etc. Fellow students Richard Lewis, Mike Rand, Andy Shelley, Anthea Deuadale, Kerry, media mouse, Richard from Broadstairs.. where are you now? I had a good career in Advertising Agencies including Saatchi's and ended up in TV Production - great times. Roberta

Travels with Razz said...

Roberta ... ?

Michael Young. :)