Woolworths in Hampstead High Street

Woollies' Mammoth Memories

27th November 2015

Woolworth’s is sadly no longer the familiar high street presence that it once was. Jack Watkins leafs through a new book that explores the company’s long and fondly remembered heritage.

The closure of the last Woolworth’s stores in January 2009 was greeted with widespread weeping and gnashing of teeth across the land. What, we asked, was happening to our high streets? In the event, shops have continued to struggle on, though high street closures are still occurring at an alarming rate; among the more familiar names to have succumbed or been emasculated are HMV, Oddbins, Comet, Blockbuster and Jane Norman.

While the loss of HMV, despite surviving at a few defiant outposts and notably returning to its original address at 363 Oxford Street, was the real heartbreaker for ageing lovers of the physical purchase of music, it was the end of Woolworth’s that really lodged in the wider public conscious. As Kathryn A Morrison writes in Woolworths: A Hundred Years on the High Street, these stores, with their bright red or gold lettering, inexpensive toys and enticing sweet counters, “were a joyous part of British and Irish childhood for a century”.

No doubt everyone has their own personal memory of ‘Woollies’. Kathryn Morrison’s childhood one is of the store on Cromwell Street, Stornoway. Our editor reflects nostalgically, if ruefully in terms of her modest pay packet, on working part-time while still at school in the Woolworth’s at Liscard, on Merseyside. My recollection is of being taken by my mother and grandmother to the one in Terminus Road, Eastbourne – the old fashioned ‘FW Woolworth’ sign still intact above the door – as a young boy at Christmas. You’d drool over the sweet counters at any time of year, but my pupils must have dilated to the size of two golf balls at the sight of the extra-large boxes of festive milk chocolate. I couldn’t have cared less that these tended to be of the cheaper or more obvious brands, instead of something more refined. Chocolate was chocolate, to be obtained and dispatched down the throat as quickly and in as large quantities as possible (an objective which remains undimmed to this day, though sadly no longer fulfillable among the candified aromas of warm and friendly Woolworth’s).

Funnily enough, not everyone greeted the arrival of the stores on our streets with open arms. FW Woolworth was an American who’d started the business in Pennsylvania. When the first British branch opened in Church Street, Liverpool, in August 1909, people worried that the Yanks were plotting an invasion of the home retail scene. We might go dewy-eyed about the good old days but, as Morrison points out, the shops, along with Selfridge’s (launched by another American, Gordon Selfridge) were actually ushering in the age of the larger department store. They also helped, along with Marks and Spencer’s ‘penny bazaars’, to introduce the idea of informal browsing, at a time when the usual practice was for goods to be stored behind counters ‘and revealed to seated customers by obsequious sales staff’. The big difference between the two was that in Woolworth’s the goods were piled high on the tops of counters with none of the artful finesse of Selfridge’s, and the clientele they appealed to was markedly different.

Morrison’s book explores Woolworth’s growth and also offers a fascinating look at the development of larger stores in general, taking in a slice of social history. It reminds you that ‘retail’ has never stood still, with businesses constantly on the lookout for new ways of attracting customers, or of luring them away from competitors, and that even seemingly unassailable high street giants eventually decline and fall.

The 1920s was a decade of continuous expansion for the company, and by the mid-30s British Woolworth’s was the employer of around 28,000 staff – more than any other retailer, including Boots (18,500), Home & Colonial (15,000) and Marks and Spencer’s (11,555). The first Woolworth’s in Oxford Street didn’t open until 1925, though, in a purpose-built, faïence-fronted building at no 311. It is still there today, occupied by Uniqlo (and currently closed for refurbishment).

Around a dozen Woolworth’s shop fronts from that period still survive today, with many of the features intact, albeit without the red and gold signboards. One of the smartest examples is in Ilkeston, Derby, and the book is full of fine images of the shops in their heyday. The best of these often incorporated fine Art Deco style mouldings on their frontages, with those in Nottingham, Bournemouth, Chatham and Weymouth among the most striking.

In the book’s juxtaposition of two photos of the Lewisham Woolworth’s, photographed before and after rebuilding in 1937, you get a good sense of what a bold visual departure these buildings must have presented on the streetscape when they first opened. The original, dating from 1913, looked like any other single storey shop, albeit with a long frontage, but its replacement was a soaring white monster in the Modernist mode of the time, with big red neon-lit lettering at the top. These buildings, when properly looked after, seem the epitome of 1930s chic today, but they probably looked as outlandish to the older generation of that period, as those horrible shouty glass towers, which are now going up everywhere across London, appear to some of us today. The biggest was the new store which opened next door to the celebrated Blackpool Tower, not far from the Central Pier, in 1938. At the time it was claimed to be the largest Woolworth’s in the world. Dramatically situated at a road junction, the huge tower of this Art Deco giant actually housed a ventilation shaft which flushed fresh air down to the lower floors.

Smaller branch stores were much more modest, and pictures of the standard brick-fronted style established for these from the 1920s will draw a nod of recognition to just as many readers. Yet in their day some of these shops were considered encroachments, and local preservation societies opposed them bitterly. In 1936 the Hampstead Heath and Old Hampstead Protection Society led one such campaign, forcing the company to come up with what Morrison describes as ‘a convincing pastiche of a Georgian house, complete with rubbed brick dressings, sash windows and a pitched roof’. It will be familiar to denizens of Hampstead today as the location of Waterstones.

Woolworth’s went on expanding after 1945. In 1958 it opened its 1,000th store, and in 1962 the Winfield brand name was introduced for own brand stationery and food. High street superstores were getting bigger and bigger, and the company chairman announced in 1962: “It is our belief that as far as possible the housewife likes to do her shopping under one roof.”

The covered Arndale shopping centres which tore the heart out of many a hitherto attractive town centre, were a regrettable mid 1960s-1970s development, with Woolworth’s often an anchor tenant; but it was around this time that the company reached saturation point, notes Morrison. As early as 1966 profits were on a downward trajectory. Unprofitable stores started to be closed. The switch to self service, completed by 1973, stripped shops of their essential atmosphere, including “the familiar soapy smell and the bustling conviviality of the counters”.

Woolworth’s was still Britain’s fifth top retailer when it was sold off by its American parent in 1982, but asset stripping was now the order of the day. Within four years the number of stores was down to 811 and the last pages of the book read like a slow, inevitable death, despite several attempts at rebooting.

Morrison points to the success of Poundland, now “successfully ensconced in former Woolworth’s stores”, and asks if, had Woolworth’s stood its ground, it could have flourished once more, given its business model’s similarities to the cut price ethos which has proved so popular in the post-recession era. Instead, as she says in this fascinating book, “the very concept of the high-street shopping centre seems under threat as never before”.

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