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U3A Writing: Flea Ting Memories

…In the slump years of the early Thirties it was still not uncommon for a man to pop his overcoat or best suit which he would not be needing on a Monday and redeem it on Saturday after he had been paid…

John Ricketts recalls Mr Machin the pawnbroker.

On Saturday I caught a flea or rather a flea caught me and made a good meal out of me. When I stripped off my shirt to find the cause of the irritation and saw the bites I was taken back almost seventy years. I stripped naked and immediately put all my clothes into a tub of boiling water and as I seem to have rid myself of the attacker, you have no need to shy away from me.

Now for the memories which the bites caused. My parents knew a Mr. & Mrs. Machin. It’s strange how a name jumps out of your brain after such a long time. I was taken to their cottage once where I remember that they had a vine growing up and over the back door and it had bunches of green grapes growing on it. They were the first grapes I ever saw on the vine.

Mr. Machin was a pawnbroker – not the kind who sold dirty magazines or ‘adult videos’ but the kind who had three gold balls over his main entrance to his shop. The shop was on a corner and had two windows, one on each side of the main door. In the windows were various items for sale, unclaimed pledges. On the side street was a smaller door which had ‘Valuations Given’ painted on it. Most of Mr. Machin’s customers used the front door but he told us that his most profitable business was done at the side entrance.

In the slump years of the early Thirties it was still not uncommon for a man to pop his overcoat or best suit which he would not be needing on a Monday and redeem it on Saturday after he had been paid. Mr. Machin was in fact a money lender who took items as security for the loans he made. The poorer kind used the front door and received their pound or so loan but the middle classes who were ashamed of their necessity to visit ‘uncle’ used the side door.

He took us through the shop and his store room into his office at the back. The main item of furniture in the tiny room was a huge safe which took up half of the floor space leaving little room for a chair and a small desk. While we were there we heard the quiet ting of the bell over the side door. The main door had a large noisy bell. Mr Machin excused himself and went to serve his customer. Being a nosey small boy I peeped through the curtain and, before my father pulled me back, I saw Mr. Machin weighing something on a scale.

A few minutes later he came in carrying a pair of silver candlesticks. He got out a large ledger in which he wrote the date and a number. “So we have to rely on the tick number. Some come back and try to kid me that I have given them less than I have, so the amount is always on the ticket and in my ledger. Can’t be any arguments then”.

“Why do you weigh the things ” asked my dad.

“When it’s silver I give them the price of the bullion if I have to melt it down although I can always sell item like these at a profit. The saddest things that I get pledged are wedding rings. It means that they are really at the end of their tether. It’s usually the last thing to go and they are rarely redeemed. Look here.” He turned and opened the door to the safe and took out a tray with dozens of gold rings on. “I keep them for years but they rarely come back.”

Now to get back to why my flea bites made me remember Mr. Machin and his pawn shop. Someone told me, I can’t remember who but it was probably my brother who was eleven years older than me and on whose every word I grabbed, that when Mr. Machin took pledges of clothes they were not always perfectly clean and that some of them had fleas.

My informant told me that Mr. Machin collected the fleas and sold them to the people who had flea circuses at the fair grounds. I was probably a very gullible little boy but the next time I went to the fair I insisted on going into the tent where the flea circus was performing. In the tent was a table covered with a dark cloth. The man standing behind the table was acting as ringmaster describing what the fleas were doing. I can only remember two. One flea was attached to a kind of chariot which was many times the size of the flea and it slowly dragged it across the table. The other was a flea that did a tightrope walk. The showman lifted it up and put it on the wire. It had a wide metal bar to help it to balance and it slowly made it’s way over the wire. I remember not being very impressed and noticed how many people were scratching themselves on their way out.

In the intervening years two things have happened. Whereas pawn shops used to be very common, now they are very few and far between. In Birmingham before the war there must have been forty or fifty. By the end of the war I only knew one and that was at the top end of the market. The other thing is that there are no flea circuses, probably because there are no fleas – or very few.


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