Seventy years ago on the Shambles bombsite in Manchester city centre a salesman’s pitch went like this. ‘I’m not asking a pound, not ten shillings, not even five shillings, this valuable Swiss watch is yours for only half-a-crown’. It was all I could do as an eleven year old regular attendee at this open air theatre to persuade my visiting uncle to keep his hands in his pockets. Consumer protection in those days was covered by the police’s vain attempts to apprehend these slippery erstwhile Del Boys. After the salesman’s assistant moved among the assembled crowd allowing potential customers to inspect this marvellous to-day only bargain he would collect the cash from the three or four percipients, and hand over their prizes in tightly sealed small brown envelopes. Before the paying customers realised there was no workings in these Swiss masterpieces the salesman and assistant were long gone, off to the next bomb site.
Also performing was the Strong Man of Salford. His props consisted of an old army blanket, a copy of the Manchester evening news, a purloined kerbstone, a sledge hammer, a bare chest and an assistant. To increase his audience he would regale them with stories, probably romanticized, of his war exploits and his unobvious wounds. His act consisted of laying down on the blanket, placing the Manchester Evening News on his chest for protection from the kerbstone, that was now pinning him to his blanket. His assistant, with great ceremony swung the sledge hammer and smashed it onto the
kerbstone. Most times it shattered and produced no chest injuries, this was, according to the Strong Man of Salford, because of the protection offered by the reliable Manchester Evening news.
Apart from the Harpurhey Houdini who when shackled and deposited in a tatty old potato sack escaped within two minutes, to much applause, my favourite act was the handkerchief salesman.
‘Sixpence each, four for half-a-crown’ was his cry. The half-crowns came thick and fast. When sometimes challenged about his arithmetic he would react with a wink and a toothless grin and continue his patter.