Inside London’s first McDonald’s – an ashtray on every table and hamburgers for 15p

All but the most disciplined of us love the golden arches.

Branches of McDonald’s have been springing up all over London since the 1970s allowing us to pick up a cheeky Quarter Pounder and fries whenever our tastebuds start to salivate – or these days even a healthy salad.

But when and where did Londoners first fall for the charms of Ronald McDonald?

Well McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in the UK in Woolwich, South London, in October 1974.

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On opening day, crowds gathered outside the shiny new fast food outlet.

Inside, they found wooden seats, an ashtray on every table, and some of the cheapest meals out Brits had ever seen.

Inside the decor was a pretty grim brown and cream colour with some seriously horrible massive photo portraits on the walls.

But the tasty hamburger, which was “made with 100% pure beef, topped with pickles, mustard and ketchup, served in a freshly toasted bun” cost just 15p.

The first ever McDonald’s in the UK in Powis Street Woolwich (McDonald’s)

A cheeseburger – they just added some “mellow cheese” – was 21p while for those with a “big appetite” you could pick up a Quarter Pounder with Cheese or a Big Mac for 45p.

Ian worked at the first store in Woolwich and was very candid with MyLondon about his experiences.

He had no real choice about working at McDonald’s as his dad refused to give him any money after he enrolled at Thames Polytechnic. At 18 he found himself working – sometimes more than 50 hours a week – on top of his studies to keep himself alive.

And, of course, his primary diet was the free food dished out to him at the burger chain.

“It was a very different place then. It wasn’t quite the arse end of London but it was pretty average. In fact that’s why McDonald’s chose it because they wanted the most average place in the UK as a test to see how well it would do,” he laughs.

“Woolwich was a bit like a dystopian apocalyptic nightmare back then. There was a pub, a department store, quite a grotty market and a station and that was about it.

“Interestingly compared to how it is now the staff was very undiverse. There was one older Asian bloke but the rest were basically white London townies.

“Every part of the store was stainless steel and you had to clean almost every square inch of it every single day. It was an absolute nightmare.

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The 1979 menu (McDonald’s)

“It wasn’t quite as hygienic as it is now. There was this backyard where everyone would go out to smoke and it was about four inches deep in slurry of various kinds. When people came back in they’d tread it in with their feet.

“They’d get you to go and clean the toilets and then put you straight to work on the grill.”

And clearly the food wasn’t always as fresh as it was supposed to be.

Ian adds: “There were little numbers in the rows of burgers which were little timings of when they had to be used by otherwise they would have to be thrown away. But if the manager had cocked up, you’d just move the cards a little bit so the food you were serving was considerably older than it was supposed to be.

“If you dropped something on the floor it was classified as ‘a good catch’ and would go back on sale.

“But if you were getting your own food for break time you’d watch every single bit of it being cooked to make sure it was right!

“You sometimes worked 16-hour shifts but you got a break every four hours and free food that was basically a diet of salt and sugar. It was kind of OK because I was young and fairly healthy but I do remember getting these strange cravings and not really knowing what it was about.

“Things have definitely improved with regards to the hygiene.

“When the riots blew up in 1981 the rioters were being shipped in from elsewhere. They were at one end of the high street and the SPG (police squads) were hidden down an alleyway waiting to pounce on them, getting fired up. You could see all hell was going to break loose.

“My manager insisted we would stay open, ‘even rioters have to eat’. But as the rioters began to advance down the high street towards the waiting police, he shouted ‘right we’re closed!’

“We were sent out the front door and people went scampering away along alleyways and up lampposts!

“I was stood there in my brown McDonald’s uniform with this huge mob charging towards me. Luckily a police car screeched past and the officer said: ‘Get in the back son!'”

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The uniforms certainly weren’t sexy.

“We had these brown polyester shirts and brown trousers and a paper hat and you’d get a new hat every day I do remember,” Ian laughs.

But as a good looking young student that didn’t stop him getting “plenty of female company” from the girls who worked the grills.

Despite and perhaps because of all this Ian says his student years in Woolwich were “fantastic” and working at McDonald’s taught him some of the most valuable lessons of his life.

“You could get into London in 20 minutes for virtually no money. The pubs were cheap and you could get a three-course meal for about £2,” he says.

“The camaraderie among the staff was really strong. I was this student parachuted in from the countryside into a demographically very poor area of London but no-one dissed me for it. I’ve got bizarrely fond memories of it – apart from when I got home and had a bath at night and had to wash off a layer of grease.

“Then I’d have to start on my studies!

“Everyone did their best and there were people there who really wanted those five stars or to be a team leader who wanted jobs there for life.

“One day the manager came up to me and said: ‘Have you considered a career at McDonald’s?’ I casually said ‘no’ and he responded: ‘You should. I earn £11,000 and I drive a Datsun Sunny!’

“That’s quite hilarious now but actually in reality the money wasn’t bad and they were way ahead of a lot of other companies I worked for later in terms of their training and how they managed staff.

“Those days still shine in my memory and I wouldn’t ever hear a bad word said about McDonald’s or Woolwich or Thames Poly.

“It taught me not to judge a book by its cover and not to be a snob. If you’re going to be a burger flipper, be the best burger flipper you can be.”

It certainly worked for Ian. Treating people fairly regardless of their class or background has seen him go on to have a fantastic family and a very successful career in advertising.

What London memories do you have that still shine in your mind? Email [email protected]

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