Eight decades ago Kirkcaldy’s former town hall was completely transformed into a modern day store and a new era for local shopping began.
Ever since it first opened its doors to customers on August 19, 1938, Marks & Spencer has been a staple on the High Street in Kirkcaldy.
And this weekend staff are set to celebrate as the store toasts its 80th birthday.
It certainly created some excitement among Langtonians when the opening of Marks & Spencer was reported in the Fife Free Press on Saturday, August 20, 1938.
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The article said: “For some time the structural alterations have been a centre of interest, and it was not surprising, therefore, to find large crowds paying visits of inspection to the store.
“The area covered by the counters and island stalls is extensive, measuring roughly from the frontage to half way down Tolbooth Street and the fittings are of an attractive nature. “As for the articles on sale, the variety is as large as one expected, ranging through a wide variety of goods.”
It continued: “Upstairs have been placed the administrative offices and stock rooms, which include vermin-proof food rooms. For staff requirements there is a kitchen and canteen, cloak rooms and a rest room.”
One staff member who recalled the store’s first day of business was former staff member May Etherington (later known as May Hutchison after she married).
Sadly, May passed away in 2012, but her daughter Irene Thomson remembers her mum talking about securing a job at Marks & Spencer in Kirkcaldy.
Irene said: “She saw an advert for staff in the newspaper in 1937.
“She was called for an interview and offered a job. She did her training in the Falkirk store and started working on the counter at Marks in Kirkcaldy selling nylon stockings when she was 19.
“I remember her saying that when the Second World War broke out things changed at M&S as rationing was introduced. They just had to sell whatever came in, whatever was available. It was at this time she became a firewatcher.”
This involved some of the female store employees at Kirkcaldy being part of the ARP (Air Raid Precaution) or fire watching teams that took turns to keep watch on the store roof at night.
Their role was to sound a warning in the event of bombs/incendiary devices falling nearby or onto the store, and to try to prevent or limit damage.
There are several accounts of fire watch teams at various stores successfully dealing with incendiaries with buckets of sand or putting out fires with water before serious damage was caused.
It was dangerous work but was just one example of how M&S employees played their part on the Home Front during WW2.
Irene said: “My mum said that being a fire watcher was cold and miserable, particularly during the night.”
Marion Cotterill was another staff member who served as a firewatcher at the Kirkcaldy store in 1940-1941 and she described how the staff shared the duty – that if it was your turn during the week, you still had to be on the counter the next day after being on duty all night.
Irene said that as well as firewatching, her mum was also given an opportunity to dress the shop window - an opportunity she relished as she was very creative. May painted a picture of a young girl blowing a dandelion clock which proved to be very popular.
Irene added: “My mum always used to say that you got the best quality goods at Marks & Spencer, that everything was of the best quality.”
Meanwhile, Ellen Brand, who worked for the company for more than 50 years until she retired in April this year, gave an insight into what it was like being an employee at the Kirkcaldy store in the late 1960s.
Ellen began her career at M&S Kirkcaldy in 1967 when she was just 15 years old, having been keen to work for the retailer after leaving school.
At the time, the left-front of the store was undergoing a major extension, and Ellen was recruited as a sales assistant in ladies knitted dresses and suits for six months before being transferred to hosiery where she worked for the next decade.
She said: “I always remember the fruit counter in store back then. It was presented with all the apples tiered up. They all had to face a certain way and they were all polished so everything was very shiny.”
Ellen said the store employees had a great social life at that time.
She said: “The store used to close at lunch time on a Wednesday for half day and the staff would go on bus trips. The buses would leave fron the front door and you would go for runs or have quizzes. We did lots of social things – there also used to be a dinner dance at the Station Hotel.
“The High Street used to be heaving back then – it was a really wealthy town centre because of the linoleum trade and mining. It was amazing how busy the store was.”
As well as organising outings for the staff, bosses also had a hairdressers on site in the store and a doctor, dentist and chiropodist would also hold regular clinics to carry out staff check ups.
Employees were also given subsidised meals.
Ellen continued: “You used to get three-course lunches which included home-made soup, roast dinners, cakes and biscuits.
“There were two cooks working in the kitchen to make meals for all the staff and the managers used to have their own separate dining room.
“There was also a hairdressers in the building but you were only allowed to get your hair done in your lunch hour. I always remember seeing the girls coming out afterwards and their hair was all pristine!”
In its heyday Ellen estimates around 150 staff were employed at the town store and while there have been structural changes to the store over the years, she believes it still has a lot to offer customers today.
She added: “I think it’s brilliant that Marks & Spencer has been in the High Street for 80 years and hopefully it will still be here for a long time yet, for at least another 80 years.”
Changes and celebrations
There have been a number of changes to the High Street store over the years.
An extension to the rear of the store was carried out in May 1955, followed by another to the front in August 1967.
A cafe was first introduced 11 years ago, and seven years ago, it underwent a revamp.
There are currently three long-serving staff members - June Grubb, who has worked there for 45 years; Arlene Elder and Kathleen McCallum both 35 years.
This weekend, Ryan O’Donovan, store manager, said various anniversary activities are planned including the presentation of a hamper to one of the store’s most loyal customers who has shopped there since 1938, special lunches for staff and raffles in store and a fundraising bag pack will be carried out by Love Oliver, one of the charities the store supports.