Forty years ago eating out was a rare event for most families. It was a period when most families cooked meals from scratch; girls still learnt domestic science, boys did if they went to a progressive school but more usually did woodwork. The Kentish Independent, which covered the Woolwich area, had pages of job advertisements mainly skilled ones at that. Fitters, capstan setters, skilled machinists, junior reporters and photographers all needed in the local area. In the days before “out-sourcing” cleaners and semi-skilled workers could start a career in the local Civil Service. Skilled workers could earn £56 for a 40 hour week, unskilled workers £31.73. Then on the 19th September 1974 the advertisment for staff for the shortly to be opening McDonalds appeared. No experience required and pay was 65p per hour plus free meals. A weekly wage of £26 was considerably lower than most other local jobs.
In the same newspaper, which had converted from broadsheet to tabloid three weeks earlier, was an article, “What is left of the Old Town?” lamenting the demolition of lovely old pubs like The Ship in Half Moon Lane, The Anchor and The Crown and Cushion to make way for concrete skyscrapers. Yes, modernity was coming to Woolwich.
On 12th October 1974 McDonalds opened their first restaurant in the UK in Powis Street Woolwich. The grand opening was attended by the Mayor, Len Squirrel and DJ Ed Stewart better known as “Stewpot”. Top of the menu was the All Star Meal consisting of hamburger, French fires, and a triple thick shake at a cost of 48p. Relatively expensive by today’s standards. Paul Preston, from Ohio, became the first manager of the launchpad store. The Woolwich store was so influential, a month later, boxer Henry Cooper launched his autobiography from there.
Fast forward forty years. Well the store is still there but the footfall in Powis Street has fallen. Locals still lament the loss of the old town and the development of even more ugly high buildings. Skilled jobs in manufacturing have long gone. Fast food chains have flourished with commensurate low paid jobs. Paul Preston is now President and Chief Executive Officer of McDonald’s UK. The UK has one of the highest obesity rates in Europe and over in the US world figures Bill Clinton and Bill Gates are advocating for the reintroduction of domestic science into the school curriculum.