Michael Jones JewellerThe Early Years
The pledge office was situated at the back of the shop of Claude Jones with the entrance on Earl Street. Earl street was one of many rows of similar streets in an area known as the Mounts in Northampton: red brick terraced housing from a Victorian age with a coal hole under the front window where the coal-man would empty his sack of coal into the basement. In 1965 it was a run down area where the streets would be filled with the aroma of soap on Monday wash days, and full of acrid smoke from the chimneys in winter.
Pawnbroking has a long history, dating back to ancient civilizations. The practice of lending money in exchange for personal property as collateral can be traced back to ancient China, Greece, and Rome. In these early forms of pawnbroking, the loans were typically for small amounts and were intended to help individuals with everyday expenses. During the Middle Ages, pawnbroking became an important source of credit for merchants and artisans in Europe. The Catholic Church also played a role in the development of pawnbroking, as it established pawnshops to provide loans to the poor. In the 15th century, the Worshipful Company of Pawnbrokers was founded in London, England, and it was granted a Royal Charter by King Henry VIII. This organization regulated the pawnbroking industry in London, setting standards for the interest rates that pawnbrokers could charge, and it also established a system for the redemption of pawned items. During the 17th and 18th centuries, pawnbroking became increasingly popular in the United States. Pawnshops were established in many American cities, and they provided a valuable service to immigrants and the working class who had limited access to traditional forms of credit. In the 19th and 20th centuries, pawnbroking continued to evolve, and many pawnshops began to specialize in the buying and selling of specific types of items, such as jewelry and watches. With the rise of alternative forms of credit, such as credit cards and online lending platforms, the pawnbroking industry has changed in recent years, and it is no longer seen as a last resort for those in need of financial assistance. However, pawnbroking is still a legal and regulated industry around the world, and it still serves as a source of short-term credit for many individuals and businesses.
The pledge office had a plain door with a grubby tarnished brass plaque with 'PLEDGE OFFICE' stamped on it in raised letters. The door was always kept slightly ajar with an old world war I shell casing as a doorstop, or sometimes fully open so that customers could sneak inside in a swift darting movement, so nobody would notice.
Pawning your precious belongings was frowned upon in those days, so the customers often sneaked in like a thief. The words thief fits, as sometimes the provenance of the articles was dubious , not necessarily stolen, but sometimes 'borrowed'. The waiting room of the office was quite austere, dull and bitterly cold during the winter months. On the back wall was a bench, which was really just a dull, dark green painted plank of wood ,that the customers could sit on if they were waiting behind a queue. On the wall an unredeemed railway waiting-room type of clock, ticked the seconds away; it was the only entertainment in the room.The pawner faced a wooden wall with a an aperture cut across it and a shelf on which they could place their possessions that they wished to take a loan on. The shelf was relatively high up with the staff looking slightly down on the client as they stood on a raised floor. . On the shelf was a hand-bell secured with baling twine so the staff could be summoned if not there. An ashtray was also there, full of dog-ends from the roll-ups, Woodbines, Park Drive, Players Weights,or other cheaper cigarettes. This gave the office an unmistakable odor of stale cigarette smoke.
On the other side of this wooden wall, the manager or sometimes an assistant would deal with the pawner. In front of them they had a box with the tickets and heavy leather-bound ledgers in which they would meticulously enter each pledge. Under their feet were worn dilapidated rubber mats, because a lot of the electrical goods tested were perhaps not of the best safety standard . To test an electrical goods the plugs were taken off ,and the electrical wires inserted through a hole in the top of a two part Bakelite plug, into two brass cotter pins. This was then screwed together to form a reasonably dangerous plug which was inserted into tan electrical socket. I happened to be there and a woman brought in a record player.' Whatever you do take good care of this as it's very precious to me. It was a gift from...'. I plugged it in, switched it on and 'woof' sparks flew out and acrid smoke started to emit from the device.
This was the last client I would serve in the Pledge Office.
Things happened in the pledge office that I hadn't normally seen in ordinary life; it had a touch of the Dickensian about it. There was a man who always came in on a Friday night just before closing time, with an alarm clock. He slouched on the counter with his alarm clock clenched in his nicotine stained fingers, staring through his bullseye glasses which were held together with a grubby piece of Elastoplast. He went out with a few shillings, and would reappear on Monday morning to redeem his clock. Goodness knows why he did it but he was possibly more poor than I realized , and probably bought a single pint of beer. On another occasion there was the woman who came crying hysterically. Before she came to the pawning part of her trip, she said “Look look my husband's done! He threw hot custard over my tits straight from the pan!” She opened the top of her blouse and revealed her red raw blistered chest . Poverty and abuse induced by alcohol seemed to go hand in hand in Earl Street.
Downstairs in the Claude Jones shop, 30 yards from the pledge office, was a basement full of clothing that hadn't been redeemed, but was discreetly offered for sale. One day an Irish navvy came looking for a suit. He was a thin and relatively short man with a heavy accent. His skin was pale with a flushed complexion which contrasted with his unruly mop of red hair. He was allowed to go down into the basement unaccompanied. When after a few minutes had passed, he reappeared at the top of the stairs transformed from a thin man into a fat man wearing a redeemed serge suit. This was because he had put a total of three suits on, one over the other, As he paid for the top suit, John the manager, sardonically suggested that he might like to return the other two suits before he got boiling hot.
The pledge office had stairs leading up to the storage floor. Here all manner of possessions were stored, there was bedding which people have brought in. There were rows of blankets and sheets piled one atop of other ,each had a pawn ticket attached with a long pawnbrokers pin. Goodness knows what happened. Did they sleep on the floor ? There were clocks of all sorts, ones with chimes ones with pendulums. There were radiators,radios, TVs, fans everything you might think of, except you probably wouldn't think of top hats. Well there were top hats, and collapsible ones which had an umbrella like system to raise and lower them. Row after row of household stuff sat there waiting to be collected. The pledge office had a system of three tickets, two were colored bluff and blue, I seem to recall, but this is irrelevant as they were there for the lesser value articles. The crème de la crème was put a white ticket. It was on a whitish piece of card that only the expensive transactions, most of which would were quality jewelry pieces, were completed. When a client failed to redeem the pawned the article it would be polished and cleaned and then would go into the second hand jewelry window with a ticket denoting its cost. This enlisted a healthy profit, as the ticket had a code representing the cost of the article, enabling a bit of bartering. The code was 'work an smile' the 'W' being equivalent of 1 the 'O' being the equivalent of 2 etc.. Zero was normally denoted by an 'x'.
The manager,John, had his own special code of (NBG). When asked one day by a curious customer, who could see see the difference between this and the other codes, what the meaning of NBG, John was unabashed.” No Bloody Good” he said. The man had been looking at a small silver pocket watch that was in dire need of repair or scrapping. “Oh” he said, “ I'll take it”, so off he went with his NBG ticket still attached to the watch.
Normally pink tickets were issued for chattels under a certain value in pawnshops in the United Kingdom. Pawn tickets are issued to customers when they pawn an item, and they serve as proof of ownership and a record of the transaction. The white ticket is the official document that is issued by the pawnbroker. The white ticket includes information such as the name and address of the pawnbroker, the date of the transaction, the name and address of the borrower, the item pawned, its description, and the amount of the loan. The white ticket also includes the date by which the loan must be repaid and the interest rate charged. The white ticket is important because it serves as the legal contract between the pawnbroker and the borrower. The pawnbroker will keep the white ticket in their records and will return the item to the borrower once the loan has been repaid in full. If the loan is not repaid, the pawnbroker has the right to sell the item to recoup their losses. It is worth noting that in recent years, with the rise of alternative forms of credit, such as online lending platforms, the use of white tickets in pawnshops has likely decreased. Additionally, social attitudes towards pawnbroking have also changed, and it is no longer seen as a last resort for those in need of financial assistance.
The white ticket people tended to be slightly wealthier. They often turned up and parked their car outside and then tiptoed in to the pledge office, looking furtively from left to right in case somebody had seen them. Once inside they would come up with the raison d'être for the pawning the precious article. The reason had been well rehearsed and normally a complete fiction, nevertheless it took minutes of patience to listen to the drivel. Once they had achieved the pawn, they would scant the street from side to side out of the pledge office door before scurrying into their vehicle, or more audaciously going into the jewelry shop as though they had made a mistake of going in the wrong door. At this level of social standing a pawnshop was an absolute no-no.
One day a phone call came out of the blue from elsewhere in the country. The voice at the other end had explained that they had a white ticket which had expired. The question they asked was what did it realize at auction. It was explained to the enquirer that we didn't send anything to auction, but instead, sold it through our secondhand jewelry window. The voice continued, “ Well I have been advised that by law the article should have gone to auction and that any residue after, you have taken the interest and costs of setting to auction into account, should be given to me.” Suddenly everybody went quiet. Then they looked up the law, and yes the caller was right that the articles sold on the white ticket were supposed to be set to auction The price realized would then have the amount of interest taken off it and the costs of sending it to auction plus any other costs but the remainder would go to the person holding the white ticket. A problem a big problem. This problem with this customers was resolved. Within minutes half the jewelry of the second window was packed into registered envelopes and posted off to the auction houses, as this could really blow up. After all it was five years since Mr Claude Jones had died, and he was the only one who would have known the rules. So that was the situation. But these problems were suitably resolved because the Chronicle& Echo newspaper had bought the site where Michael Jones shop and the Claude Jones shop stood. Soon this would all be demolished and everything would go including the pawn shop. So that was the end of an era; once the shops had gone the business was just jewelry and watches.
It was a snowy day when a woman with a dingy headscarf appeared in the pledge office. She sat down on the rudimentary banch and started to weep.She rocked from side to side with a repetitive sniff like a metronome."What's wrong?", we asked in a sympathetic tone. She stood up abruptly and peeled apart the top part of her grubby coat. Looking us in the eye she pulled her jumper down to her bra. Her chest wes red raw with blisters.
"Me husband threw a pot of boiling custard at me tits", came her reply. Apparently, with the aid of plenty of alcohol, her husband was less that pleased with the quality of the evening's cuisine that she had conjured up.
She then pawned an article for a few shillings, shuffling out of the pledge office, probably hoping her husband wouldn't convert the ticket money into drinking vouchers. Under today's laws the husband would have been locked up, but in sixties Britain women's rights were well hidden.
I wasn't supposed to be in the pledge office, but I just found it fascinating as an ex art student. Here was the lowlife of the Jones business and then at the other end, just yards away, was the high-life of expensive glitter, in the palace of Michael Jones. The pledge office wasn't a happy place as people didn't smile very often. They'd come in with the worldly goods to hock for a few shillings, most of them some were regulars coming in every week just trying to make ends meet, paying off the interest every six months.
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