EVERYONE of a certain age remembers the pneumatic cash dispensing systems that magically used to speed items in head-height tubes around old-fashioned department stores.

Everyone under that certain age wishes they had been able old enough to witness such a retailing marvel – how tame chip-and-pin and contactless payment is by comparison.

These systems connected the customer and the assistant at front counter with the accounts department in the back office. The assistant placed the money and a handwritten note in a pod, placed it in a pipe which sucked it up to the accountants. They opened the pod, noted the purchase for stock control and dividend purposes, placed the correct change back in the pod which went down the pipe to the counter.

The first of these systems was a Lamson cash railway, patented in 1881 by William Stickney Lamson, of Massachusetts, in the US, by which a ball containing the money was rolled along some wires to the accounts – an early preserved railway can be seen in the Co-op in Beamish Museum.

The cash railway was superseded by the pneumatic system.

“I started work in 1967 and our pneumatic system was old then, and my father said that before it they had a system of wires which carried a container to a desk in the corner,” says Charles Barker, who is the third generation to run Barkers of Northallerton.

“We had a huge electric fan in the cellar. It would start up in the morning to create the vacuum in the pipes.

“Running around the store there must have been 20 pipes. In total, there was probably two miles of pipes in the shop.”

Indeed, the system looks more like a large church organ than a cashflow system.

And it did not always operate in a heavenly fashion. Pipes got blocked, and someone had to be despatched into the roofspace to unblock them with a flexible drainage rod.

“Our busiest day of the year was the first day of the winter sale and you could guarantee that there would always be some blockages,” says Mr Barker. “And then occasionally the young lads would put dead mice in the tubes to give the girls in the office a shock.”

The Barkers Lamson came out in the early 1980s as electric tills were introduced. By then, the other memorable Lamsons in Darlington Co-op in Priestgate and the 13 branches of Doggarts in south Durham had all gone.

“I wish we’d never got rid of it because it created such a lot of interest,” says Mr Barker. “Children were absolutely fascinated by it. The kids would follow me about and watch as the carrier was sucked up into the pipes. It would have been nice to have kept part of it for novelty value.”

BLOB Any other memorable pneumatic cash dispensing systems? Please email chris.lloyd@nne.co.uk