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. :)

Anonymous 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. :)

Laura Davis said...

Oh my has this brought back memories...!

I'm currently re-vamping my CV so searched for CDT and found this. I attended a 2 year course for Window Display in approximately 1972/73. I remember the display studios and the polystyrene cutting in the basement which Anonymous referred to. another technique I remember learning was to build up a 3D image by layering cardboard and other materials then covering them with crinkled tinfoil and rubbing them with black ink to make it look like it was made of pewter. I did a knight on his charger. I also recall making a beautiful owl collage which I was very proud to have displayed in the foyer. Guess I should have been flattered that it was stolen...

When I attended we also went to lessons in Leicester Square. The building then became the home of Capital Radio - not sure what's there now. The CDT building is no a huge Foyles. The carving still exists though the entrance is no longer used.

It amused me that there was a Jacey cinema next door showing dodgy films. :-)

Travels with Razz said...

Good memories. Not clear where these panels are now. Any thoughts? They are credited here to the British Museum, but map location travels to the newish BFI offices off Tottenham Court Road. There were similar reliefs on the Habitat building further north on Tottenham Court but that I guess was just coincidental, possibly a reference back to the Arts & Crafts Movement.

Unknown said...

I was an overseas student from Trinidad & Tobago and have very fond memories of my time there. I left in 1976. My course was in window display and remember working in a very cold and gloomy basement. Thanks to Facebook I made contact with two of my friends from that time. For many years I worked in Trinidad as well as Barbados decorating many many windows. Now the industry has changed tremendously.
Loved exploring the neighbourhood, especially Neal Street and surrounding arears. I have been back to London many times and noticed the many changes.
I still have my student ID badge!!

Paula Francis-Lau

PS another overseas student from Hong Kong gave me her HK address and casually said “if ever you are in my country look me up”.
Well I was there in 1978 and did just that. Unfortunately we have since lost touch☹️

Unknown said...

I attended CDT 1985-87. Awesome friendships made and fantastic memories. Only have kept in touch with a couple of people. Wish I were able to find the rest.
Helles Poy

prak said...

i also went to CDT between 1979-82 have fond memories there,where you guy's, chris ashley,derek holley,clive woods,nick, martin levy,amanda francis,jane, louise satin,rita shah,rebecca, liz,tatisha shah, please post here.

Anonymous said...

Came across this and it's great to read these CDT memories in Charing Cross Rd.
I'm not sure if anyone will remember, but one CDT teacher there - Norman Fisher who taught there from 1968-1992.
Some students I believe had to be monitors to grab him from the pub to teach them in the afternoon. Most of his students went on to do really big things.
Norman was my father.
Sadly, he passed away in 1994 but it was strange going up to London sometimes with him, walking down Oxford street and have all these pretty window dresser girls run out of the doors after him for a cuddle and a catch up.
On the occasions I went to see him at work, in the basement, there was always an air of creativity, style, happiness and sawdust. I particularly remember the old gaslights which half-hung off the wall as you went down the final stairs from the main lobby. Such a wonderfully crazy, old and talented building.
Laurence Fisher

Travels with Razz said...

What lovely, delightful memories of Norman Fisher and the CDT.
It all belongs to what seems in retrospect as another less-pressurized age
Can't be easy looking back like this, Laurence, so thank you particularly for doing so and posting your moving memories here.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why I googled CDT and found this - probably something to do with me re-organising my workshop and reminiscing with my wife about my dad's work. That place in Charing Cross Road wasn't just a college, it was a institution. I still remember the smell of the vacuum forming machines!

Travels with Razz said...