Patrick Thomson's pair reunited after more than 50 years

MORE than half a century ago they worked together at one of Edinburgh's premier shopping institutions. Now they live on opposite corners of the globe from each other, but they've ­finally been reunited.

Wednesday, 18th October 2017, 12:02 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 6:58 am
Eileen Nisbet (left) and Nan Rourke Rafferty (right) have met up for the first time in more than 50 years. Picture: Neil Hanna

For ex-Patrick Thomson employees Nan Rafferty, 72, and Eileen Nisbet, 74, this workers’ reunion was unlikely, but thanks to the power of Facebook they are back in touch after 54 years.

“I was on the Lost Edinburgh page and came across a post about PT’s where mum worked,” says Eileen’s daughter, Fiona. “Then someone else posted, who also worked in PT’s, in the money side. It turned out to be Nan. Mum knew her right away.”

The pair worked together on the fifth floor of the famous North Bridge department store in the early Sixties; Nan as a secretary in the Counting House department, Eileen in the cashiers’ office next door.

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Exterior of Patrick Thomsons department store in North Bridge, 1976. Picture: TSPL

Opening on North Bridge in 1906, Patrick Thomson’s was just one of a vast fleet of grand department stores in central Edinburgh. It was owned in its later years by House of Fraser, which operated nine other department stores in the city centre.

After leaving PT’s in late 1964, Nan, née Rourke, married and migrated to Australia, her home to this day. Eileen, née Armit, also married but stayed in Edinburgh.

Yesterday afternoon, with Nan back in the city visiting family, the pair arranged to meet for the first time since She Loves You topped the charts. Their choice of venue was their old workplace, now the Hilton Edinburgh Carlton Hotel.

The ladies look back on their time at PT’s with great fondness.

Eileen Nisbet (far left) at a Patrick Thomson's staff night out in 1963. Picture: Contributed

“It was a great time,” recalls Eileen, “I just met so many wonderful people there.”

“Yes, it was a good place to work,” agrees Nan (who has held on to her accent despite her move), “and very friendly.”

The shop, according to Eileen, had an Are You Being Served? vibe, and attracted a certain clientele.

“It was a store for the middle classes,” says Eileen. “Very few of the girls we worked with shopped there.”

Patrick Thomson sale queue in North Bridge. Picture: TSPL

Many will remember the pneumatic tube system that mesmerised young children by sending cash from the shop floor down to the basement.

“I was in charge of collecting the money from them,” Eileen explains. “I’d also take cash across to the bank accompanied by the porter, Charlie Anderson, who had the bag strapped to his wrist. He was supposed to be looking after PT’s money, except he was about 65 and not very big built.”

“You could have blown him over!” Jokes Nan.

On a more sombre note, Eileen recalled the tragic day a member of staff went above and beyond - with fatal consequences.

People entering Patrick Thomson's on the North Bridge, Edinburgh for the January Sales. Picture: TSPL

“The women’s department was on the first floor and I remember one time a hat blew out the window on to the canopy which hung over the main doorway.

“A female member of staff went out on to the canopy to retrieve the hat. Sadly she fell through it and died.”

Both ladies began their working lives aged 15 on weekly salaries that are now lower than today’s minimum hourly wage. Nan started on three pounds, three shillings, while Eileen earned two pounds, ten shillings.

There were, however, some perks, as Nan recalls: “We used to volunteer and get our hair done by the apprentices on a Thursday night. Our hair cut for nothing!”

PT’s was famous for being packed to the rafters during the sales. I asked if it could be compared to the intensity of today’s Black Friday culture. Eileen nodded.

“The queue was right up the Bridges when you had the sales,” she confirmed.

A wee boy meets Santa at Patrick Thomson department store in North Bridge Edinburgh December 1971. Picture: TSPL

“We had one sales event in January and another in June. Both were really, really busy.”

A time of year when department stores traditionally come to life is Christmas, and PT’s was no different.

“You got a lot of kids at Christmas time round the Grotto,” said Nan, “That’s when lots of people coming in with their families.”

And there was a huge fuss when pop star Millie Small, of My Boy Lollipop fame, turned up.

“I remember at the record department when Millie came,” says Nan, “We were all allowed to queue up and speak to her”

Listening to Nan and Eileen share anecdotes and wax lyrical about the old days, it was easy to mistake them for two good friends who just hadn’t been in touch for a wee while.

To think of them as former work colleagues, separated by more than five decades and 10,000 miles, is unfathomable. This pair are PT’s for life.

Exterior of Patrick Thomsons department store in North Bridge, 1976. Picture: TSPL
Eileen Nisbet (far left) at a Patrick Thomson's staff night out in 1963. Picture: Contributed
Patrick Thomson sale queue in North Bridge. Picture: TSPL
People entering Patrick Thomson's on the North Bridge, Edinburgh for the January Sales. Picture: TSPL
A wee boy meets Santa at Patrick Thomson department store in North Bridge Edinburgh December 1971. Picture: TSPL