Robert Davey

This interview with Robert Davey, conducted in November 2020 by Sue Spiller, is part of the The MERL Cultural Commissioning Life Stories project in partnership with Age UK Berkshire, helping capture Reading's hidden histories.

Meet Robert

"It was Hobbs laundry, the main place was Goldsmid Road, the factory part of it and the family owned shops all-round the town. Uncle owned it, took over from Grandfather at the end of the war. At the beginning Hobbs came from our Great Grandmother, Mrs Hobbs. She started the business at the end of the 19th Century in a small way. But it was when Alfred Sage, my Grandmother’s husband got involved that it really started to blossom, he expanded it greatly. He expanded the factory, at the start the house at 100 Oxford Rd was just a receiving point for the laundry, their first shop. Uncle Charles was born in London, the Sage side of the family all came from the East End of London but Mum was born in Reading so they were here around the end of WW1. 100, 102, 104 Oxford Road – Grandad Sage bought 100 Oxford Road brand new, he could have bought all three buildings for £500 each. 102 Oxford Rd became Lords Hotel and then later Alfred Sage bought it and turned it into a proper laundry shop. Unfortunately Grandfather was a chain smoker and died in 1945. He is buried in Cemetery Junction. Uncle inherited the business and ran it. He was in the Army, Royal Artillery in Italy and they wouldn’t let him come home for the funeral. He took over the laundry when he got demobbed, ran it and sold it in the late 1980’s. He expanded it and modernised it a bit more, installed boilers, launderette machines and other things for pressing the clothes and bagging the laundry to go back out to the shops again.

Rear of 100 Oxford Road Reading, Alfred and Iris Sage

We lived at 102 and had a couple of rooms above 100 Oxford Rd, but Grandma lived there until she died. We slept above Grandma’s rooms and Mum and Dad slept above 102. Living above the shop we didn’t have a front door, it was quite good, you went into the shop front door and then there were stairs, you went through a door in the shop to get to them. In the 1970’s Uncle decided to make our shop a launderette and dry cleaners at the back of us then with washing machines and change machines at the front, it was like that through the 70’s and 80’s. When Uncle sold up, Mum was still working there. Our Uncle, Charles Sage had served on the former Reading County Borough Council from 1959-66 and 1967-70, and on Reading Borough Council from 1974-90. He had been Mayor in the Municipal Year 1979-80, and an Honorary Freeman of the Borough since 1991.He died in 2003.

All the laundries had different names, all with different abbreviations so that when the laundry was collected they were stamped with a code for each shop so it was handy for delivering, you knew exactly where it had to go. Before it was a launderette, the shop had a big counter and when the clothes got processed they got dropped down a chute. In the basement, Grandma was working and would process them further, put them in a trolley and then put it in the lift and it would come up at the front of the shop. The van parked in front of the shop would then be filled. When they turned the laundry into a launderette they used the cellar as offices. Even when washing machines came into the homes, people still needed dry-cleaning and alternations done so we continued with those services along with the launderette. My Brother Philip worked there behind the counter on a Saturday morning for quite a bit of time. We didn’t really want to go into the business, Uncle’s wife’s family were more interested. Many of our shops ended up as Suprema shops.

Laundry ticket for Hobbs Laundry, Goldsmid Road, Reading

The iron railings in front of the Oxford Rd house got taken away in WW2 and they ended up in a pillbox somewhere. They didn’t get melted down, they were used to reinforce the concrete in the pillbox. The railings got replaced by a brick wall instead which unfortunately got knocked down by a speeding car, it was a Ford Capri, lost control and smashed into the wall. The car ended up in the front garden. The Holly Tree in front of 100/ 102 Oxford Road was planted by my Mother around 1930.The border between 98 &100 Oxford Road had an air raid shelter in the back garden. It was quite a tall thing, reinforced concrete flat roof and brick sides. It was still there in the 2012 when we sold the house. We used it as a storage space.  

Exterior of 100 Oxford Road, Reading

Mother was in the Civil Defence during the war, as an auxiliary nurse – she had a badge with NA (Nursing Auxiliary) on it and got kidded that it stood for ‘No Angel’. She worked at Battle hospital during the war. When she enlisted, she had a driving licence so she was offered a job as a motorcycle dispatch rider but she panicked and didn’t want to do that. She had her licence before our Father, she had a Standard Flying 9, a maroon one. She worked for the AA at the beginning of the war, doing maps, blocking out the little map bit at the top and just leaving the directions but it was declared non essential work so she had to do something else so that’s when she ended up in Battle Hospital instead. There is a photo of her she would be about 18 at the time.

Iris Sage, photograph taken during World War 2

I was born in Dunedin Nursing Home near Prospect Park and 6 years later my brother was born in Battle Hospital. I have been told it snowed when I was born, in April 1951, and it was the same day Dad took his driving test. He passed his test and drove to the nursing home to see us and he was beeping his horn all the way. The nurse said ’oh, I think he’s passed his driving test!’  

Our house wasn’t heated, we had the heating from the launderette during the week. Aunty Kay, Uncle Charles’s Wife came to visit once around Christmas time and asked if we had underfloor heating – ‘no, we’ve no heating, it’s from the launderette!’ Pre the launderette, it was fires in the front room and we had a coal cellar, having deliveries from the coal man, wood as well. Then the launderette came in and all we needed were electric fires for the weekend.

We had an old iron bath upstairs in 102 because it had been set out like a hotel room which had been part of Lords Hotel originally. Just a small hotel with four rooms. In 100, Grandma had an outside loo and inside the bathroom was in the basement along with a kitchen area. There were two bedrooms above it and then a further two above on the top floor that which I remember someone living in during the 1950’s but I can’t remember who they were.

Garden of 102 Oxford Road, Reading, Stan Davey and Robert Davey

At the back of the house there was a big building – The Oxford Ballroom and it had a house attached to it. The family there, their son was keen on dancing so they built the ballroom. It had two rooms so there was two types of dancing going on – ballroom and perhaps Jive. It got used for laundry do’s and dad used it for children’s parties for Courage’s in the early 60’s.I remember once the BBC doing a programme from there, being a little boy and seeing all the BBC vans parked along the street, broadcasting from them. That would have been the mid / late 50’s.

Hobbs Laundry Party, Hobbs employees

When they demolished the houses in Providence Place for the car park in the 60’s, we had a flood of mice. I can remember sitting in our kitchen doing my homework, there was a mousetrap in one of the cupboards and every five minutes it would go off, you took the mouse out, reset the trap and it would go again within five minutes. We used to have rats and mice a lot with the warmth of the launderette. Grandma used to drown them in a bucket of water and we had cats too to catch them.

Oxford Road was always a busy street, we had trolley buses going up and down there until the late 60’s. There was always something going on. More noisy at night, never quiet. Battle Inn pub was a Simonds pub. Once a week a horse drawn cart used to take the beer there and then head back to the brewery. There were garages behind our house where we used to go and play as kids, we played around Providence Place and we had a sandpit at the back of our house as well.

Robert Davey

It was a fairly safe area but we did get robbed in 60’s & 70’s. People would come around from the back and try to get into the back of the shop. On one occasion Dad managed to confront them, he went into the shop and they had left so the Police drove him around the streets trying to identify them. Somebody stole Mum’s handbag from the shop in the 80’s and a Brass Band Tuba went. Both my Brother and myself played the Tuba in Spring Gardens Band and it was my Brother’s tuba that got taken. I was away on holiday at the time.

I used to play the tuba in a Brass Band. It started from Grove school, I tried the base trombone, couldn’t get on with it so they gave me the tuba instead, and I joined Spring Gardens band. In the 70’s I had to give up because of work. We practised at The Cross keys near Debenhams, in a hall above the pub. The hall is gone now. We played Brass Band music with George Watkins conducting. We started as school bands and then the best went on to the major band. We practised on a Tuesday night. On the Beatles ’Penny Lane’  - there are two trumpet players, one of them was Derek Watkins and it was his Grandfather who taught us to play the tuba. Derek played on all the Bond films until he died. ‘Skyfall’ was his last film.

There was a major crime in Reading, this would be the 60’s and the Police were getting nowhere so they set about fingerprinting every male in the Reading area between certain ages. I can remember having my fingerprints taken, I must have been a teenager, maybe 18 at the time. I believe they caught him in the end. In the 70’s there was an incident up Zinzan Street and the Police used the first floor front of 102 Oxford Rd for surveillance. They had big binoculars and I lent them a big telescope. There was something going on but I don’t know what it was. 

Map of Oxford Road, Howard Street to Waylan Street drawn by Robert Davey

The house on the corner of Howard Street and Oxford Road was a Doctors - Hazelton, Wright & Jolly, then the church, Providence Chapel. Next door there was a Solicitors, then there was a newsagents, Townsends. There used to be George’s furniture shop, Lloyds bank on the corner which became Domestic Electric Services. On the other corner was Brennans which was an industrial clothing shop and that became a Bookies. There was the Agricultural Union office and a hall behind it which is pulled down now. There was a Bakers on the next corner and Stock & Shepherd motorcycles. There was Williamson’s the vet too, where we used to take our cat. There was a Take Away food place next to the motor accessories. I can remember going there for the shop for lunches on a Saturday – faggots, peas and chips. On the corner of Alfred Street there was a sweet shop. There was a wholesalers called ‘Mann’s’ in Eton place. It sold all kinds of things for shops like washing powder, sweets, tinned stuff. This was before supermarkets. The Sales Reps all had little Morris Traveller cars all identical, all in a row along the street, dark green I think they were. Saunders the Butchers, along from Quality Wear, was an old sawdust on the floor premises with a separate counter for taking the money and the bills were all put on spikes, I think it became Gilberts. And there was a flat above it which did watch repairs – Frederick Halliway that must have been in 50’s / 60’s.

At 98 Oxford Road there was Quality Wear shop. Elsa Riez, her family came from Germany and they never got out of Auschwitz. Where the hairdressers is now, next to Quality Wear, there was a fast food shop and at one time, there used to be a general store selling everything – brushes to washing powders. ‘Collins’ it was called but it was gone by the 1970’s. It sold everything a bit like a Pound Shop today. He sold toy soldiers as well, sets for them, wooden Stingray jigsaws, I remember those being there. And there was a little tape recorder thing with two spools, we bought one of those there, just reel to reel. It was the sort of shop every area has, they still have them here further down Oxford Road. There was Cyril’s Junk Shop too. We always went there as well, we always gave that a go because he had a lot of second hand records and bits & pieces. I found a copy of ‘Sergeant Pepper’ in there, going back to the 60’s, where you got all the vinyl stuff. I bought a bayonet in there once and that starting my collection of World War Two items. The building next to Trinity Church had been a garage in World War Two, but I don’t know when it stopped being that. I can remember it being a Wallpaper and Decorator’s shop and I remember going in there to help select wallpaper for the house. After that it became an Undertaker’s ‘Lovegroves’ with a workshop at the back. After they vacated, it was ‘Richer Sounds’.

Philip Davey's wedding party, outside Oxford Road Methodist Church

The OddFellows Hall was where we had our wedding reception in 1981. The church was opposite where we lived, Oxford Road Methodist church. I was a communion steward there and I had been going there since I was a child. Originally, we went into town to St Mary’s Butts. The Oddfellows was a friendly Society set up in the 19th century. Our Mum was an Oddfellow, and Mum managed to hire the hall for my Wedding. It became a community place where everyone could come together for all kinds of social activity.

It was mainly local shops with people living above the stores. I started working in 1968 and they wanted to pay me by cheque so I had to go an open a bank account at the Lloyds Bank. It upset Mum a bit because she wanted to open up a bank account for me when I was 21 like her parents had done for her when she was 21 but I needed the account before then."