The Grocer’s Scales by Trevor Plumbly

The Story of the Scales

It’s funny really how things that you’ve lived with for years suddenly take on a freshness when you try to set down their history for grandchildren. The scales in the photograph below have been part of my life since about the age of five; they were in daily use by our local grocery store until 1970. Ballard’s Grocery was at the bottom of Frant Road in Tunbridge Wells, and at that time groceries were specialised shops selling food items such as cheeses, ham, tinned goods, spices and tea but excluding meats, fish and vegetables. I remember as a child being fascinated by watching one of the Ballards adding the shining polished brass weights to the scale or reducing the food side to enable the balance to swing back. The shop was manned by Mr Ballard Senior and Mr Ballard Junior along almost Victorian lines. They addressed each other as ‘Mr Ballard’ within the store and customers were always Sir, Madam, Master or Miss; first names or surnames didn’t seem to exist for them. Ballard’s Grocery closed in 1971; sadly it was just too old-fashioned to survive and I bought the scales and weights from Mr Ballard Junior for £30.

From Groceries to Convenience Stores

Speciality stores have all but disappeared these days. Except for the odd up-market delicatessen, few stores actually cut and weigh goods anymore. Cheeses and such like are mainly sold packed, so the pre-purchase tasting ritual that was part of the Ballard experience has gone, along with the practice of escorting ladies to the exit and opening the door for them, not as an act of servility, but as an expression of old-fashioned courtesy and customer value. These days, that sort of approach could only exist in a comedy skit. I suppose it was inevitable that local stores would change into ‘convenience’ stores selling pre-packed food and a variety of odd items we might find we need when supermarkets and regular stores are closed.

Advantages of Convenience Stores

Convenience stores still thrive locally with an ‘open all hours’ approach to trading and friendly helpful service which makes them more pleasant to visit than the local supermarket. Unlike the polite formality and orderliness of Ballard’s, the conversation borders on friendly gossip and the goods are piled practically floor to ceiling with no apparent system of stock control. There’s something quite refreshing in their ability to survive against enormous competition. It could be argued that we continue to pay their extra charges not only for convenience but also possibly for personal contact.

The Scales Today

Back in my home, the scales are just as prominently displayed as they were in Ballard’s Grocery. They have pride of place in my study and I keep them polished just as the Ballards did. My grandchildren are fascinated by the accurate mechanism and never tire of handling the beautiful brass weights. We use the heaviest weight as a convenient doorstop, while the smallest one is in my wife’s jewellery box for safe keeping, as it is too tiny for small people. In the Ballards time, they were essential tools of the trade, now…they’re a piece of history and a family story.

Mr Ballard's scales

The Ballards’ scales

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