General stores were a central feature of most country towns. They provided a wide range of goods and services, and were run by local families.
The general store in Meadows, in the Mount Lofty Ranges of South Australia, was built in 1860 and run by the Ramsay brothers for two years, then by Peter Murrie for a further 14 years. In 1876, the Ellis family took over the shop. This marked the beginning of more than a century of the Ellis family as the Meadows storekeepers.
Although the shop and attached house were sold in 1979 and converted to a private residence, some former residents of Meadows remember what the general store was like.
Childhood memories of the family’s general store
I had the pleasure of interviewing Barry Ellis, who could remember his family’s general store in wonderful detail. It is his grandfather, Stan Ellis, who stands proudly in the photograph below.
Oh, it was quite amazing, actually, when you look back on it. You walked through the door and the little bell dingled over the door, and the counters were laid out in a U shape right around the shop, and the centre part was actually quite empty and all the groceries were on the shelf, and you went to the counter and you asked for what you wanted and it was put on the counter and you paid for it. And in later years my mother and father converted it to a self-service-type store, so that was quite exciting for its time in a place like Meadows. But I remember as a child my grandfather used to weigh up the sugar and the flour, the biscuits, and the chocolates were always in loose packets and they were quite tempting to just go past and nip a chocolate now and again when Grandpa wasn’t looking. (laughs)
Not just goods…
But yes, it was quite exciting. You had groceries, hardware, haberdashery, magazines. They also had to have a poison licence to sell various types of pesticides, poisoned wheat and stuff like that that people used to use to control the mice and the rats in those days, and even some garden products had to be kept in a special box and so there was a licence needed for that. The local farmers used to come there and register their bulls, they used to have to have bull licences on the farms in those days, so that was something else that Grandpa did, and the policeman used to come down from Echunga and pick up those forms.
He had an agency for Bullock Cycles, which are I don’t think ever made now, but that was one of his agencies. He also was the agent for The Advertiser and people used to bring in – they’d put their birth notices and death notices in at the counter, so that was a few of the things I remember.
And then when Dad and Mum took the shop over they put in a refrigerator and they had malted milks and used to cut sandwiches and stuff like that, so that was the first time that was done in Meadows to the best of my knowledge. So it was a bit of a one-stop shop when they took it over and made those improvements.”
This is another example of how oral history interviews are a wonderful way of recording what jobs and businesses were like in the past. If you are researching particular businesses or industries from the past, why not check local, state and national libraries and archives for oral history interviews that may provide you with valuable information?
Reference: A Tale of Two Scots: The Story of Peter and James Murrie. Lois Watson, 2006. Peacock Publications, Adelaide.
Quote from oral history interview with Barry Ellis courtesy of the State Library of South Australia (OH 829-18).