There was a time when you would pop into a Keymarket store and buy a Jumbo loaf of bread wrapped in waxed paper, get a quarter of ham from George Masons’ before popping to Timothy Whites the chemist to buy a bottle of milk of magnesia (in its blue glass bottle), and then on the way home you might nip into the gas showroom to pay your bill. All of these places have vanished from our high street along with many more and it’s only when you start thinking about where we used to shop that the memories come flooding back.
For many years following the Second World War, the small traditional high street shops reigned supreme and just as in the Peter and Jane books we were all nipping in and out of the independent butchers, bakers and greengrocers for our daily, or weekly, shop. The Co-op van used to call round in what formed a very communal affair; delivering fresh fish on Fridays and milk and bread were delivered daily to your door. In a convenience driven culture where Sunday opening is now the norm and twenty four hour supermarkets are common, it’s hard to recall Wednesday half-day closing, or the time when most shops were shuttered up by 5.30pm and were always shut on the Sabbath. Nobody then could have conceived that within a lifetime there would be shops the size of a small village where you could buy anything from a cake to a cooker, a packet of tea to a television.
Probably one of the biggest changes when it comes to high street names is that concerning grocers. After the demise of the small grocer’s store I remember a time when it wasn’t Tesco, Asda and Morrison’s that you did your supermarket ‘big shop’ at, instead it was the small supermarkets such as Liptons and Lo-Cost. Other names that have vanished are International, Presto, Normid, MacFisheries, Food Giant, Cordon Bleu and Fine Fare along with the more recently retired stores of Kwik Save and Safeway. There was also Gateway which is now a relic of the past. This was a store started by a family grocer called Mr, Mills back in 1875, finding he was quite the businessman by 1900 he had opened a dozen shops and become a limited company. Half a century later, JH Mills evolved into Gateway, a self-service store and by 1965 it had opened thirty five stores, but just like Kwik Save its halcyon days ended and it is now resigned to the dusty archives of shop history.
There are no such things as a ‘record shop’ anymore but I still remember the excitement of receiving record tokens for Christmas and then going in a record shop or else to Woolworths to choose a record or a tape. It may have been an American company but shoppers in the UK considered ‘Woolies’ to be as British as Worcestershire Sauce and fish and chips. It was on the 5th November 1909 that Frank Woolworth opened his first store in Britain, in Church Street, Liverpool. On its first day of opening, customers were admitted to the store on a strictly viewing only basis. The opening saw customers entertained by a brass band and given free cups of tea and it all proved a roaring success. “The handsome premises were thronged the whole time they were open,” the Liverpool Courier reported. “6d is the highest price charged for any single article in the establishment, but the variety of articles obtainable is infinite” the report continued. Building on the success of the Liverpool store, Woolworth rapidly opened stores across the north of England, including Preston, Manchester, Leeds and Hull before heading south to London. Over the years its cheap and cheerful brand became a British high street staple, selling everything from pic ‘n’ mix to chart singles, dress making patterns, children’s clothes and electrical goods. I grew up visiting Woolworths and my mother still recalls the 1960’s stores with their polished wood counters and memories of buying Christmas decorations and of the Baby Doll Cosmetics they sold, which were apparently a great hit with teenagers. This range was cheaper than its rival brands, but followed the old trick of selling cosmetics in smaller sizes to keep prices low, meaning that you could buy half a length of lipstick for 6d. When its ninety nine year old history came to an end in January 2009 I felt a pang of sadness for like many customers the store held special memories of happy times in my life.
Before the invention of the automated menu systems that we now communicate with over the telephone, there was a thing called face to face customer service. I remember when nearly every town had a Gas showroom selling gas cookers and then there was the ‘Electric Shop’ which was the branch of your local Electric Board franchise in my area it was MEB (Midlands Electricity Board) and there was a counter in these shops where you could pay your bill or discuss any customer service issues with the counter staff, there was no need to ‘press one’ or ‘hold whilst we attempt to answer your call’, there was just straight forward service.
Up until the 1990’s it wasn’t uncommon to rent your television as they were an expensive commodity and a household name in this arena was Radio Rentals. Founded back in 1932 by Percy Perring-Thoms with the original plan of renting out radio sets it later moved into television and ultimately video recorder rentals. As a child our television was always rented from Radio Rentals, but there was also Fred Dawes who started a radio and television rental business back in the 1950’s, but in 1969, the business was sold to Radio Rentals. This sale saw ninety of the Fred Dawes high street stores became electrical retailers trading as Rumbelows which itself died a death and departed from our high streets nearly two decades ago. Television rentals were once big business and another company, Granada Television Rentals boldly expanded its operations into renting out VCR’S (video cassette recorders). Whilst video recorders are now obsolete themselves, back in 1978 this was a high cost and much desired piece of technology in home entertainment; with a JVC model HR3300 VHS VCR costing £680 in 1978. Like all things the cost of the technology gradually came down and as sets became more affordable, people simply stopped renting them and instead bought them outright. This change from renting to buying spelled the end of Radio Rentals and Granada television rental shops and they vanished forever in the mid-1990’s.
Gone are the days when you could pop on your ‘Canada suit’ from C&A and pop to John Menzies to get the mornings newspaper before going to buy a wedding present from Lewis’s department store. With us from 1856 it was once a busy mecca for shoppers. The first Lewis’s was opened in Liverpool by entrepreneur David Lewis, as a men’s and boys’ clothing store that manufactured most of its own stock. Then in 1864 Lewis’s branched out into women’s clothing and in the 1870s the store expanded and added departments. It was once the height of fashion and was the place to go in the 1950’s and 1960’s, still enjoying success in the 1980’s but as tastes changed and competition grew it became as dated as the fictional London department store Grace Brothers of ‘Are You Being Served’ and closed in its original form in 1991. Indeed I am sure Mrs. Slocombe and Mr. Humphries would be deeply saddened to learn that Simpson’s of Piccadilly, the London store where comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd once worked and the inspiration for the hit sitcom, ‘Are You Being Served’ also closed its doors back in 1999 having been established back in 1894.
Another retired high street name worthy of a mention is the cut price jewellers, Ratners which closed down in 1992 after its owner Gerald Ratner made his famous speech to the Institute of Directors in 1991 in which he said:
We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?” I say, “because it’s total crap”. After this PR blunder it was no great surprise that the public turned their back on Ratners and that it was destined to leave our high streets.
They say that ‘Things come and go and life doesn’t stop for anybody,’ well this is certainly true of our high streets. Ever changing we see some shops disappearing into obscurity; others just changing and evolving to suit the ever altering consumer market or else being swallowed by larger competitors and changing beyond all recognition. Then of course there are those that just fail under the pressure of changing tastes and market demand. There are so many stores that have disappeared from the High Street and so many that deserve to be mentioned, but alas I fear documenting them all may take a life time.