Former Woolworths in Seaham – one store, two stories

Former Woolworths, Seaham (2 April 2010). Photograph by Graham Soult

Former Woolworths, Seaham (2 April 2010)

Recent comments on this blog about the former Woolworths in Church Street, Seaham have given me the nudge that I required, having taken some photos of the store back in April but not yet got round to writing about it.

Just like the Woolworths in Benwell and Byker, the Seaham shop is one that had bitten the dust long before the company’s administration in 2008. Featuring the five bays and central pediment that characterises Woolies stores from the 1920s and 30s, Seamaster suggests that the store closed down in the mid-1980s - a period when there were quite a few store closures following the UK business’s split from its American parent.

Former Woolworths, Seaham (2 April 2010). Photograph by Graham Soult

Former Woolworths, Seaham (2 April 2010)

In its scale and grandeur, the former Woolworths is undoubtedly one of the finest shop buildings in Seaham. This makes it a particular shame that the present shopfront is so dismal, disconnected architecturally from the upper half of the building, and having complete disregard for the property’s symmetry. It’s a far cry from the 1970s, when old photographs suggest that the building’s original and harmonious shopfront was still in place.

If its past as a Woolies is the building’s first story, then its second and more recent story relates to it being a branch of the clothing retailer Ethel Austin. When I visited in April, however, the Ethel Austin store had itself closed down, one of the first 114 stores to be shuttered following the Liverpool-based firm’s collapse – yet again – into administration.

Though too late for Seaham, a rump of 90 stores were rescued in April, following their purchase by the firm’s previous owner,  Elaine McPherson. However, the longstanding Ethel Austin brand looks set to disappear, with the stores remodelled into a new fashion and homewares chain called Life & Style, alongside the head office for the business moving from its historic base of Liverpool to Altrincham.

Time will tell whether Life & Style can succeed where Ethel Austin could not - or whether, as one commentator has observed, it is “just Ethel Austin with a different name”.  On balance though, it probably is the right decision – albeit a sad one – to ditch a 76-year-old brand that was starting to become so associated with failure. For now, however, the Ethel Austin name will no doubt live on in the fascias of closed-up stores such as the one in Seaham.

Byron Place shopping centre, Seaham (11 Sep 2009). Photograph by Graham Soult

Byron Place shopping centre, Seaham (11 Sep 2009)

With the appealing (and almost fully let) Byron Place mall having shifted Seaham’s retail centre of gravity to the bottom end of Church Street since its opening in 2007, the prospect of the town’s old Woolies securing a new tenant anytime soon does seem uncertain.

Exterior of Byron Place mall, Seaham (11 Sep 2009). Photograph by Graham Soult

Exterior of Byron Place mall, Seaham (11 Sep 2009)

However, it would be a neat conclusion to the story if one of the successor chains to Woolworths – such as Alworths – were to bring a variety store offer back to Seaham’s old Woolies building after an absence of a quarter of a century. Indeed, with Alworths opening stores in Scotland later this month, there must now be a reasonable chance of seeing Alworths stores in the North East before too long.

Whoever eventually moves in to Seaham’s former Woolworths, let’s hope that they also take the opportunity to do something about the dispiriting shopfront, allowing the property to once again be an object of beauty and pride on the high street.

8 Responses to “Former Woolworths in Seaham – one store, two stories”

  1. Seamaster said:

    Jun 02, 10 at 22:21

    It’s ironic – Seaham’s recent rejuvenation (and, to a certain extent, gentrification) due to a massive influx of new homes should have invigorated Church Street, yet it seemed as doomed and desolate as ever the last time I was there. The Byron Place mini-mall does seem to have sucked what little life was left right out of it.

    I have very happy memories of growing up in the town, and spending my pocket money on cheap toys in that Woolies. Like many others, I bought my first records there. I can vaguely recall it closing down around the time the first sell-thru video cassettes went on sale, which would, as I earlier suggested, date its demise to the mid-eighties?

    I agree, what a lovely old building. Such a shame.

  2. Soult's Retail View» Blog Archive » The ghosts of Washington’s former Woolworths said:

    Jun 22, 10 at 01:23

    [...] more old Woolies on Wearside than I thought, with long-closed stores at New Washington (#1014), Seaham and Pennywell (#817), as well as the fairly short-lived Woolco (#2007) at Washington [...]

  3. Soult's Retail View» Blog Archive » Eth-alworth Austin said:

    Nov 05, 10 at 12:40

    [...] a rump of 90 Ethel Austin stores were saved in April, and are gradually being converted to a new ’Life & Style’ fascia, this is just a [...]

  4. Soult's Retail View » Blog Archive » Crook’s long-lost Woolies said:

    Dec 10, 10 at 11:44

    [...] former Woolworths in Horley, Surrey, but the small County Durham town of Crook – along with Seaham, one of two urban centres in the county that had lost its Woolies many years before the retailer [...]

  5. Soult's Retail View » Blog Archive » Can anyone remember Ashbourne’s long-closed Woolworths? said:

    Jan 11, 11 at 12:18

    [...] some buildings, such as those in Crook, Seaham or Horley, are immediately recognisable as former Woolies, many others – especially early [...]

  6. Soult's Retail View » Houghton has a le-Spring in its step – the changing fortunes of the North East’s ex-Woolies sites said:

    Mar 03, 11 at 01:23

    [...] also called into Seaham – there too, the ex-Woolies building remains empty, though as a result of Ethel Austin’s collapse rather than Woolworths’. [...]

  7. Soult's Retail View » Felling and North Kenton – two more long-closed Tyneside Woolies said:

    May 03, 11 at 20:24

    [...] these are the ex-Woolworths in Crook (#529, closed in about 1972) and Seaham (#649, closed in the mid-1980s), both in County Durham, as well as the Wearside branches at New [...]

  8. Soult's Retail View » Rescued for the fourth time, can Ethel Austin really have a future? said:

    Aug 07, 12 at 19:57

    [...] North East, certainly, has lost out in all the previous downsizings. Seaham, for example, closed down after the 2010 administration and was a charity shop last time I passed, [...]


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