When Preston fed the country bananas

June 1950 and the first bananas to go on sale in Preston Market since the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939
June 1950 and the first bananas to go on sale in Preston Market since the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939
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Local historian Keith Johnson recalls the Preston businessman who put bananas in the nation’s fruit bowls

When the Lancashire Evening Post hit the streets on the second Saturday of June 1919 the bottom half of the front page carried an advertisement with the headline ‘WEST INDIAN

Unloading Geest bananas at Preston docks in 1962

Unloading Geest bananas at Preston docks in 1962

BANANAS’.

Matthew Wade was proud to announce that he had received shipment of the much coveted bananas and that they were available from his shop on North Road and from his Covered Market stall.

His ship loads of bananas always caused much interest on Preston Docks and often poisonous snakes and other exotic creatures would be discovered hidden in and among the crates.

On one occasion, when the Royal Italian Circus was in town, a reptile discovered among the bunches of

The banana boat Windward Islands together with her sister ship The Leeward Islands were both regular visitors to the port in the 1960s

The banana boat Windward Islands together with her sister ship The Leeward Islands were both regular visitors to the port in the 1960s

bananas was given to the circus master to add to their collection.

While a crate containing a fierce opossum and her young caused quite a stir. When taken into care by a

zoologist the mother promptly ate her offspring in the days ahead.

And in 1953 a bright green giant grasshopper, with feelers 12 inch long, ventured out of a crate from the West Indies to shock a couple of dockers.

Preston's banana king Matthew Wade

Preston's banana king Matthew Wade

Quite naturally, Matthew Wade became known as the ‘Banana King’ locally and it is a title still carried by the popular ‘Banana King’ fruit and vegetable stall within the Preston market hall, run by mother and son, Ellen and Norman, whose great grandfather was Matt Wade.

As a youngster, Matthew Wade worked in his father’s poultry shop before emigrating to Canada.

After three years away from Preston and with a wealth of experience in various jobs, he returned home and opened a small fruit shop in Adelphi Street. Later he moved to premises in North Road before taking a larger shop on Lancaster Road where the Co-op would later be built.

Also a market trader, he had a strong social conscience and, in 1921, distressed by the poverty around him, stood as an Independent candidate for the Park Ward.

Unloading bananas by conveyor belt into railway wagons on the south side of Preston dock circa 1960

Unloading bananas by conveyor belt into railway wagons on the south side of Preston dock circa 1960

With an election bandwagon touring the ward loaded with children singing his praises, he was swept into the Town Council.

Once elected he remained unopposed at future elections before becoming an Alderman in 1937. He had by then been a magistrate for 10 years, a duty that he carried out with great dignity.

He was to all who knew him the ‘Banana King’ and, by the mid 1920s, he had built the Majestic Hall in Tenterfield Street, close to the market.

He used the huge basement as a ripening warehouse for the vast quantity of green bananas that he

imported. The Majestic Hall became the focal point of much entertainment, with dancing, boxing, wrestling, billiards and roller skating all on offer within.

Later, from Starchhouse Square, he operated a small fleet of buses which carried the name Majestic. Eventually they would be sold to Watkinsons, which later changed their name to Scout buses.

A strong believer of the importance of social ties, he opened the Fruiterer’s Club on the High Street as a meeting place for market stall holders and he was instrumental in organising the annual Fruiterers’ Ball at the Public Hall.

His generous nature saw him involved in much charity work and he always saw his way to providing fruit in abundance for the poorer classes, and supported the Shepherd Street mission with enthusiasm.

He had built up an extensive fruit importing business by the start of the Second World War and there was much sadness in October 1940 when it was announced that he had died suddenly, aged 66, at his Stanley House home on Watling Street Road, Fulwood.

Although he had been suffering from ill health he had carried out his work duties to the last.

He was given a civic funeral as Preston said farewell to their ‘Banana King’ , although his enterprise on Preston market would be carried on by his family.

In truth there was to be a shortage of bananas in town in the years ahead, as the Lancashire Evening Post headline of April 1945 declared: ‘Yes, we have no bananas’.

The immediate prospect was grim as the reporter told the housewives out shopping that it would be a waste of time searching for bananas.

Thankfully the images of ships laden with bananas would become commonplace again on Preston Docks in the years ahead. To the delight of young and old after the war years and rationing bananas were freely available and, consequently the fruit gained a special place in Preston hearts.

A Lancashire Evening Post headline in May 1955 read: ‘But yes, we have some bananas!’ and went on to proclaim the much loved produce was coming into Preston Docks by the ship load. A new banana and citrus fruit trade with the West Indies, begun in 1953, had led to the import of 24,000 tons of bananas yearly to be distributed in the north of England.