Recollections of Robins Stores Mentone

Smiley’s Cash Grocer, Como Parade West, Mentone.

Who was Harold Robins?

I have never made a study of family history, but from conversations through my life I understand Harold was a son of the Overseer on a property known as Overdale in the Kilmore district of Victoria. Harry was identified in his schooling as a candidate to become a school teacher and it appears he became an offsider (apprentice) to established teachers, this being a means of training teachers at that time. He was thus appointed to Mallee schools where he was eventually encouraged to become a share farmer, probably at Pine Lodge, east of Boigbet in the Sea Lake district. Along the way he had married Mary Dobbin, a descendant of one of the first two families (Dobbin and Dempsey) to settle the now town of Wycheproof.

Harry appears to have share farmed at Pine Lodge for several seasons, as his son Bill was born in Sea Lake in 1921 followed by daughter Esme (my mother known as Rita) in 1923. He then possibly spent a season share farming at Budgerum (between Kerang and Quambatook) before operating a store in Quambatook. Youngest child, Francis, was born in Quambatook in 1925. They had a brief period farming again at Mulwala before moving to Mentone and Robins stores around 1929.

Family anecdotes pre-my memory

It is likely that initially the store was the weatherboard shop fronting Como Parade (then known as Smiley’s Store) with a residence incorporated behind and the garden and driveway on the south side which gave access to the rear of the property. I haven’t researched when, but subsequently Harold purchased the two storey blue stone bank building on the North side and the bank residence became the family home with the banking chamber being a storeroom and office with the strong room used as a safe. The old weatherboard residence behind the shopfront became storerooms.

It appears Harry’s older brother, William Robins (known to most as Uncle Will to delineate from Bill, son of Harry), tagged along as an employee of Harry for the rest of his life post WW1. Uncle Will, who I spent lots of time with till I left home, was a 21st Battalion member who saw action in Gallipoli and France. He never married. Uncle Will talked about playing cricket for Boigbet and the store in Quambatook, so he was part of the family back then. Apparently, Uncle Will worked in the grocery part of the business and drove the horse and cart that delivered groceries to homes. He was an inaugural committee member at the formation of the Mentone RSL Sub Branch and one of the first Life Members awarded in the Sub Branch. He worked tirelessly to raise funds at the Sub Branch which were used to purchase sweets and cigarettes which he then transported most weekends to the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital and distributed to patients.

The cart horse was held in a small paddock/yard behind houses in Balcombe Road in an area which is now a carpark to the south of the Chinese restaurant and the BWS outlet. I do remember these horse yards, but by the time of my memory deliveries were being made by a van or trucks. Pony club horses I think were held in these yards through the 1950’s.

The depression years were undoubtedly difficult for most, but my mother often acknowledged that as store keepers the family were fortunate to have access to some of the basic commodities which were less easily procured by other families. Horse trading between other businesses could also occur to ensure access to commodities not carried at Robins Stores. Radfords butcher shop for instance. However, on the other side of the coin, Harry sometimes referred to the fact that if he had received payment for many of the accounts written off through that period he would have been a wealthy man. One anecdote refers to the fact that the trainer’s cheque for a well-known horse winning one famous race (I won’t identify which) around this time was directed to the Store to cover account arrears. I also heard stories from people, who were children through the depression, that they would have had no idea what was a lolly save for the generosity of Harry.

The Robins children were high achievers at the Mentone State School with Bill having obtained a scholarship offered to one student between Mordialloc and Caulfield after year six to attend High School which he commenced at Mordialloc. However, when Bill turned 14, his father, Harry, insisted he leave school to work in the business despite protests from the Head Master of the High School. My mother never forgave this decision and often brought up the fact that the Head Master visited multiple times to try to dissuade Harry from taking this action. Rita went on to be Dux of the Mentone State School in her Merit Certificate year (year 8) of 1937 and then also into the business working in the shop and the office, but mainly contributing to the housekeeping.

In those days, businesses closed for an hour at lunch time, 12.30 to 1.30 mostly, and employees were served lunch with the family. A housekeeper was employed to assist Mary Robins keep house and deliver the main meal to the family plus employees.

The war years put pressure on the business for employees as the men enlisted and I believe some women were employed around this time and my mother probably got her release from the housekeeping to the shop. My father (Tom Stratford) recalls seeing Rita holding an axe or shovel handle up at arm’s length studying the end grain and declaring this was a good one when she had no idea what she was meant to be looking at. A good handle has the end grain running up and down not across, he showed me later.

It was perhaps around this time a family friend known to Mary from Wycheproof, Mr Maurice Boyce, joined the team. Maurie ran a small produce section which was housed in a lean-to on the south side of the shop. Timber framed and flat iron lined bins held products such as wheat, oats, bran, pollard and poultry pellets. Maurie sold weighed amounts of these products into bags often provided by the customers. Hessian sugar bags were a very popular container to collect your half bushel of wheat or 20lbs or layers pellets. Maurie also made up the orders for delivery of these smaller parcels of products.

Another younger brother of Harry, Ernest known as Uncle Ern, appeared in Mentone sometime in the 30’s, I think, but he wasn’t involved in the business till maybe around 1950 or after. He was an administrator in the army at Albert Park during WW11 and he was also the Manager of the Mentone Picture Theatre for some time. My mother worked as an usherette and in the ticket box at the theatre as well as the shop during WW11 and after. Mum and dad lived with Uncle Ern in Elizabeth Street after they were married. Dad often laughed at a story of his little dog getting into a stash of unused theatre tickets Uncle Ern stored in his shed. Dad said there was never a better confetti display around the yard and into the side street as the wind dispersed the shredded tickets. Dad said Uncle Ern didn’t speak to him for weeks, which was a blessing in his eyes.

My early months were apparently spent at the shop, as my mother was really sick after I was born, and Mary and Harry looked after me while my father stayed beside mum at the Royal Women’s Hospital. Of course, I have no recollection but the housekeeper at the time, Jean Parsons, was credited with changing my first nappy when I was brought home from hospital. I suspect she had a big role through the day looking after me along with her other duties.

My memories start to kick in

Perhaps around 1955-56, with a bit of family reinforcement, my memories start to kick in. I know I spent quite a bit of my time preschool age at the shop or at least the residence behind the bank. Mum had a very long recovery after my birth and was doing some office work, and nanna (Mary) and the housekeeper probably shared duties looking after me.

I remember that I learned that I could sneak away from the backyard up the side of the shop and sit myself up on the produce bins in the lean-to with Maurie Boyce. As a single older gentleman, he must have been very tolerant becoming a quasi-baby sitter although he required me to sit in the one spot and just talk with him and not interrupt the customers. Eventually when nanna or the housekeeper missed me they would just come to the lean-to and I was allowed to stay until Maurie said my time was up. I remember there was considerable regret in the family when it became necessary for Harry to ‘let Maurie go’. As he was an older gentleman, he evidently had passed the age at which it was possible to obtain workers insurance, particularly as he was still handling bags of grain 180 -200lbs (80Kg+).

There are also fond memories of playing in the storerooms which were the old living and bedrooms of the residence behind the grocer shop. A very rough bush carpenter had made shelving mostly by stacking wooden one-bushel crates known as banana boxes on their side. Banana boxes were known thus as bananas were transported in these containers. Heavy canned items were on the lower shelves and lighter items, such as breakfast cereals, were on the upper levels. Of particular interest to me was the wall of almost proper shelving down one side of what was once a passage on one side of the residence. These shelves held the four-pound (4lb) tins of biscuits. Biscuit purchases were by weight ¼lb or maybe ½lb and the staff would head out back and weigh up the required amount into a brown paper bag.

There was a wonderful assortment and when a tin became almost empty there was always a few broken biscuits which were transferred into the ‘Broken biscuit tin’ at one end of the shelves. There was always a sale for these at a cheap price and I believe they were popular for recipes which called for crushed biscuits. If I could be around when one of the staff came to get biscuits, I was often allowed to select something from the broken biscuit tin, occasionally half a chocolate ripple was a great treat.

Alongside the biscuit shelves was a small table, again fashioned by a rough bush carpenter upon which the bulk honey barrel sat. This was perhaps one third of a 44-gallon drum in size, although my memory may be exaggerating a little. The bottom ten inches or so was just hollow with the actual bottom of the honey container starting above this point. Inside the hollow portion was fixed a small light globe just below the tap, and there was a clear panel under the tap. Apparently, customers would bring in their own jar to be filled with honey and the light ensured a warm spot at the tap so the honey would run freely and the clear panel provided light so one could see the level of honey in the jar.

There was also a large hay shed which took up much of the rear of the property, backing on to what is now Granary Lane, that I liked to escape to and climb the stacks of hay and straw. However, due to the risk of falling bales this was off limits and I soon learned a good wack was in store if I was caught in the hay shed. Vehicles also came through from the front street to collect bales and bags and could drive through to the rear laneway and this traffic was considered a danger to me. I do remember customer confrontations being amusing when somebody entered from the rear laneway and there was a head to head confrontation up the side of the shop, who should back out of the others way?

A milestone I remember from the mid/late 1950’s was the modernisation of the front of the grocery shop. It had two narrow hinged doors which were on a frame recessed three or four feet into the store. The trend was more open and lighter shop fronts and so my father, foreman of Kilburn’s Joinery Works in Nepean Highway, Cheltenham, was charged with designing and building a more modern shopfront. A single wider sliding glass door was constructed at the joinery works and plans were made for installation on a particular weekend. There was to be no disruption to trading and so at 11.45 on the designated Saturday all family members, including myself, were given roles to dismantle all stock on display at the front of the shop and move it to the rear. At precisely noon, doors were shut and at 12.15 my father and Frank pulled up out the front with the new door and frames on one of the Robins delivery trucks. Before dark, the front of the shop had been dismantled and the new shopfront installed. Sunday required only some paint touch ups, and with a little more space and more natural light, new stock displays were established for trading first thing on Monday.

The front of the Robins Store with members of the Robins family.   Mary Robins, daughter of gate keeper at Balcombe Road railway crossing, William Robins in white apron, Frank and Bill Robins.  Note the advertisements for Lux - ‘Won’t shrink wool’‘Sunlight - best soap Nature’s  own confection’, and Robur Tea.

Deliveries of hay, straw, chaff, etc. mostly came on the train in the early days. Wagons were left in the siding on the east side of the Mentone station and the goods were unloaded manually and transported via trucks to shedding at the store.

Harry also leased the grandstand at the Mentone racecourse to store hay and straw after the closure of racing. It was not so much a grandstand, but there was a sloping embankment which the upper levels had been concreted into a series of wide steps with a rear wall to the west and roof of corrugated iron. I have vague recollections of a day when Harry was looking after me and we went in the large ute, a real buzz for me, to the racecourse to collect some bales. As Harry was pulling bales from the stack there was a collapse from above and Harry took an impressive tumble finishing up pinned under several bales. My warped sense of humour caused me to break into fits of laughter and I could not understand why Harry didn’t just push the bales off. Finally, the course curator thought Harry, who normally blew in and out quickly, had stayed longer than normal and he came over to investigate. Fortunately, bruised body and ego were the main casualties, although I was not popular for laughing and I was reminded of this fact for years after.

Being baby sat overnight at the shop was a highlight for me. Bedrooms were on the second story with the two front bedrooms facing Como Parade and I enjoyed just sitting in the dark watching the trains, vehicles, and people passing below. This was a lovely spot to spend a warm evening. A walk down Como Parade and Mentone Parade just looking in the shop windows after dark was also a highlight when staying overnight. Uncle Frank some years later told me of an evening when he was looking out the front window of his room when a gang of young blokes were confronted by the local police constable on the footpath along-side the station gardens. The policeman challenged these blokes and, believing he was not being observed, despatched each of them in various directions to their homes with a pretty fair lathering with a piece of poly pipe or something similar. Frank thought this a good lesson for the gang and mentioned nothing about it for years.

Sweeping the footpath in front of the shop each morning was something I aspired to as a youngster and it must have been a popular task as the family members and staff all vied for the broom. At around 8.30 each morning there seemed to be a string of people up and down Como Parade pushing a broom. Robins even swept the path to the north towards Coles as it was a vacant block, now the CBA. This vacant block was used by a pony riding group, generally pre-Christmas, to sell pony rides to children being several laps down the block to the back lane and back up to the footpath.

In the second half of the 1950’s, Harry sought to obtain a liquor licence, which I understand was an arduous process. I remember all family members including my father, who had no formal link to the business, had to attend a court hearing and prove they were of good character. The licence was duly awarded and the banking chamber of the bank building was modified to become the ‘Bottle Shop’. I believe it was the first packaged liquor licence granted in Mentone and the wider area.

Harry’s younger brother, Ern, joined the staff to work in the bottle shop. Six O’clock closing was the order of the day and it was heavily policed. The grocery and produce business closed at 5.30 and family members often had to assist serving to clear the customers in the Bottle Shop. Regularly on Fridays, Ern would place himself in the queue, which extended out the door, precisely at 6.00 and closed the door behind him when he entered. If you were in the queue by 6.00 you were entitled to be served. Another rule was nobody underage was to be in the liquor outlet during opening hours, so it was strictly out of bounds to me through the day.

Beer was the main product sold and it was not packaged as we know it today. A brick shed with brick half dividing walls within was built in the rear yard and the beer (26 2/3 fluid oz bottles) was delivered by a semi-trailer in one dozen heavy wire crates. The crates were unloaded manually and the bottles removed and stacked flat between the brick dividing walls about 3.5m wide and 1.2m high and perhaps six rows deep. From memory, there was Fosters Lager, Melbourne Bitter, Victoria Bitter, Abbots Lager, and some Richmond Tiger Brand. The empty crates were returned to the truck although a few were held at the shop. These crates were used to transport the beer to the Bottle Shop on a bag trolley.

Particularly on a Friday evening there was a major working bee to restock the fridges for the Saturday morning rush. After all customers had been served, crates of beer were shuttled into the Bottle Shop and mostly they were packaged into brown paper bags, two at a time. In those days it was hardly ever heard of to buy a dozen. Imagine expecting staff to handle glass bottles individually from crate to stack, stack back to crate, crate to paper bag then to fridge these days.

Some customers returned their empties when they made their next purchase and, even though it was not required, the store accepted them. Probably from late primary school I made great pocket money transporting these empties in a billy cart to the bottle yard on the corner of Balcombe Road and Station Street where I received 10d per dozen.

The grocery shop remained as over the counter till it was closed so tins, packages, jars, and bottles were all in shelving to the ceiling. Those serving were dextrous with a broom handle fitted with a short piece of wire at right angles on one end which was used to flick items from the high shelves with one hand and then to catch it with the other hand. I think glass and delicate paper packaging must have been on the lower shelves.

Staff names I remember associated with the shop; Harry Robins, his brothers, William and Ern; his children, Bill, Rita, and Frank; Mr Jack Bignell, Maurice Boyce, Noel Parsons, Ivy Simpson, George Simpson (delivery driver), Trevor Gilfoyle, Shirley Wright, Tom Platt, Richard Platt, Lil Cowley, and Jean Parsons housekeepers, Charlie Smith (delivery driver).

Mary Robins passed away in April 1961 and the following appeared in the Mordialloc City News of early May:


Mrs M J Robins,

People from all sections of the community were saddened to learn of the recent death of Mrs Mary Jane Robins, of Como-pde., Mentone, a well-known and popular figure in the district for many years.

Born at Wycheproof 62 years ago (her grandparents were the second family to settle in that district), Mrs Robins had lived half her life in Mentone, where she was a partner in the firm of Robins’ Store.

She was always a willing supporter of charitable causes. Deceased is survived by her husband, two sons, Bill and Frank, and one daughter, Rita (Mrs Stratford) .

The funeral service was conducted at Springvale Crematorium on April 24 by Rev. Bond (Church of England). Arrangements were handled by W. D. Rose and Son.

Harry had purchased a small holding at Merricks North years earlier which was perhaps a semi-retirement occupation. When supermarkets began to take over the grocery trade, an offer to purchase the business and site in 1964 was too good to refuse, especially for Harry looking to retire. A Mr David Friedman was the purchaser, but he only desired the grocery and liquor licence and Harry undertook to assist his sons Bill and Frank to establish a new business based on the ‘produce’ portion of Robins Stores.

Dave Friedman was to clear the site and Harry was able to dismantle the large hayshed at the rear of the site and he had it relocated to the farm at Merricks Nth where it was converted to a shearing shed with machinery storage. When last I drove past (2018) it was still in use towards the rear of the property. The demolition had two phases, the weatherboard shop was knocked over in a day, but the bluestone bank offered more resistance over a couple of weeks. The strongroom stood stark after this time and it was eventually shrouded in heavy rope nets and explosives employed to fracture it.

The new site was all built on, with a main single storey supermarket space occupying the ex-Robins Stores block and the old bank section again being double story. It had an office upstairs and the liquor department on the ground level which was able to be isolated from the supermarket. It continued to trade as Robins Stores while Dave Friedman conducted the business. Mr Friedman eventually moved on to establish San Remo Wines, the liquor outlet at Southland, which eventually became a small chain of liquor stores.


Geoff Stratford, grandson of Harold (Harry) Robins, proprietor of Robins Stores.

Also with assistance of nephew of William (Bill) and Francis (Frank) Robins joint proprietors of Mentone Produce.

2 December 2019
grocery shops
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