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Memories of Comber- Ann Clegg neé Coster

I was born in the “nursing home “ in Comber Square on 24 July 1946, so in this my 70th. year, I thought it time that I recorded some of my early memories of living in Comber. My mother was Madge Frazer who married William Robert Coster (Bill) a REME soldier, on 5 December 1942, in St. Mary’s where she had sung for many years and taught in the Sunday School.

A photo of Comber Square in 1940, showing the removal of the De Wind Memorial Gun
Comber Square 1940- the removal of the De Wind Gun

After the War they settled in what was then Market Street but soon became Killinchy Street, where they opened a shop in number 47. In those days it was a two up two down building, where the stairs to the bedrooms was immediately inside the front door, which led to some interesting times when folk were heard climbing the stairs while my mother was otherwise engaged in weighing out biscuits at the counter. It wasn’t a very secure place and this was always a worry to my mother but there was no space to put a door on the bottom of the stairs.

The shop took up all of the front room so the tiny back room was both kitchen and living room to begin with and it always had a musty smell. There was a stone outhouse in the yard where my father chopped wood and bundled it to sell for fire sticks in the shop. There was also a dry closet toilet with the usual pit up the long garden. We had an apple tree and a chicken run and hen house and I could stand at the very end on top of the bank and watch the steam train go by. The shop had a big counter and a side rack which held large deep tins of loose biscuits. You could buy loose biscuits in those days as few came in small packets. There were always lots of broken biscuits left over in the bottom of the tins and my mother used to give these free to children from the Chapel school opposite who would come in hungry but they never had much money. They also got my out grown coats, and shoes when they came in on wet days.

This was the time when there was still ration coupons and well before I started school, I had my first lesson in sorting and counting, by sitting under the shop counter organising and counting the different coupons ready to go back to the Food Office. My mother was a very generous woman and she would often let people try the newest sweets when they arrived. She bought directly from Cadburys and always looked forward to their travelling rep, arriving with the latest offers. One particular occasion I well remember when she was telling the rep. that she was having trouble keeping things on display on top of the counter as nimble fingers were helping themselves while awaiting to be served. As this was an adult problem as the counter displays were too high for the children to reach, she was getting very annoyed. The rep. said he could solve her problem so he went out to his car and brought in a large tin of Roses like the one that she had on the counter and from which she usually weighed out the quarters of sweets. But this time although all the chocolates had the normal wrappers, he unwrapped one and showed her that they were made of a chalk compound, used for advertising display purposes only. He also supplied a box of Cadbury’s milk chocolate bars in their normal wrappers which were used to advertise the products in hot sunny windows. These all went on display in the usual places but as substitutes for the real thing and within a week some had disappeared but after that none were touched and the nimble fingers went elsewhere. My mother often wondered if any teeth were broken as a result.

When my mother opened the shop she had to apply for a licence. It was a 7 day opening licence to sell confectionary and tobacco so there was no day off in the week.

As well as cigarettes, we also sold plug tobacco, something unheard of these days. The tobacco would arrive in a long block about the size a of twelve inch ruler or longer and it was marked out in sections and had to be cut with a very sharp knife. This was what the pipe smokers came to buy and then they had to shave off the flakes themselves to suit the size of their pipes.

We were the first shop in the town to be supplied with a Coca Cola fridge which was a large red deep box- like object which stood on the floor and had a folding lid which lifted right off for the delivery of the huge block of ice and then the bottles of Coke were packed tightly in around the “mountain” like hump of ice. This caused a great deal of interest locally and people used to come in just to take a look and their next question was usually “When will you get ice-cream?” Within weeks, mother had found Fuscos who were willing to supply ice cream of several different flavours, and also fancy lollipops and this of course meant that she had to acquire a proper freezer which took up space in what was a very small room. However the ice cream and the Coke put Costers Shop on the map as suddenly the passing cars started to stop for both and on a Sunday evening, the town walkers who strolled the Killinchy Road would stop for a wafer or a Coke. Father encouraged then by making two large wooden cut outs of lollipops which he painted and attached above the outside of the window.

Father’s next project was a much larger one that was to build a long kitchen on the back of the house with a proper bathroom at the end, all encouraged by the announcement that there would be a water main and sewer installed right along the street. That was a relief to my mother as it would give us much longed for space in the house but it would also put an end to the public pump in the pavement just outside the front door. On one occasion my mother had been called to use her first aid skills when council men took the pump off and went down the well and one was overcome by the gas. From that time on until the mains arrived she was always scared of what was in the water that we were all drinking from the well!.

The arrival of running water was a wonderful thing and mother was very proud of the new kitchen with its Tago stove to keep it warm, and the bath, loo and basin all gleaming white. She was forever taking people through to show them and that even included complete strangers. Now there were no public conveniences at all in Comber in those days so she often let total strangers go right through to use the toilet. Once father came home one evening and found the bathroom door with broken hinges, when some of these strangers had tried to open the door the wrong way round. After that, mother never let any stranger in there again. The greatest activity in our kitchen was on a Sunday evening when cousin Bertie Frazer, Eric McBratney and young men from the Boys Brigade and sometimes their girls, would congregate in there to make chips inside the base of mother’s pressure cooker as it was a good large pan! There were no meeting places in the town so they were quite at home in our kitchen and they even washed up. I well remember a favourite trick of those drying up was to take the clean plates round and put them back in the sink so whoever was washing up was doing a lot of unnecessary work. There was always loud noise and good comradeship and I never wanted to go to bed when they were in.

In December 1953, as a pupil at Comber P. E. School and while staying at my aunts’ house, I was taken seriously ill with meningitis and spent the next six months in the NI Fever Hospital at Purdysburn. Not long after I returned home I got measles and mother talked about moving to the country. One of the problems of our house was that there was no corridor upstairs and the rooms were too small to make one so the back bedroom led off the front bedroom which wasn’t very satisfactory. That and the fact that mother was feeling worn to a shred after my illnesses and the problems of the 7 day opening, led her, after a very hot and successful summer of 1955, to put the shop up for sale and we moved to what was like another world, a bungalow in Lisbarnett , with a big garden and plenty of room for chickens and fruit trees. For the next two terms I got the bus back to Comber each day to go to school, but with no bus shelter in Comber Square, I was often soaked to the skin by the time I got home. After a bout of rheumatic fever, in the summer of 1956 I took leave of Comber School for a big adventure across the border when I became a boarder at Dundalk Grammar School for the next four years – now that is another story!.

One thing I did take with me was my tennis racquet, and I am eternally grateful to Comber Tennis Club at the Memorial Hall where I learned to play from an early age.

Oddly enough after growing up in a sweet shop you would expect me to have a sweet tooth, but I was never allowed to help myself and had to pay for things with my pocket money. I still have a fondness for Mint imperials but I don’t often buy chocolate or sweets myself, except of course, mints.

Ann Clegg. February 2016.

Ann Clegg (nee Coster) and her husband Alan live on the edge of St. Ives in Cornwall where, in retirement, they run self-catering holiday accommodation.

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