One bus ticket – 11 former Midlands Woolies
Regular readers of Soult’s Retail View will know that I have something of a penchant for visiting lots of old Woolworths stores in a short time, usually – for better or worse – by bus.
Back in August, I took the opportunity to undertake another such jaunt, bringing in 11 former Woolies sites in Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire.
Of those, four are sites that Woolies occupied, and vacated, way before its collapse into administration. Of the other seven, it’s notable that only one showed no sign of being taken over by another retailer.
My journey started in Tamworth, where the old Woolworths store (#508) – now Home Bargains – has featured in this blog several times before. Given that the shop’s frontage was obscured, inevitably, by tatty market stalls, I thought I’d vary things a little by taking a shot of the store from the side.
Looking down College Lane towards George Street, the image shows the corner site where Tamworth’s Woolies began, with the company acquiring the premises of William Facey’s furniture store in 1933. It was only in 1968-70 that the property took the form that we see today, the original store redeveloped along with adjoining properties that Woolworths had acquired.
Next stop was the attractive Warwickshire market town of Atherstone, where the Woolworths store in Long Street closed down many years before the chain’s eventual collapse. The store’s number in the Woolies pecking order (#661) suggests that it opened in 1936, and the design certainly fits with that period. Now occupied by Atherstone Carpets, the building is still completely recognisable as an old Woolies, even if the later addition of a pitched roof has rather unbalanced its architectural quality. Note the building’s similarity, for example, to that of the contemporaneous Alfreton store (#684).
A few miles down the road, the 24,000 sq ft former Woolies site in Nuneaton (#227) – facing Queens Road but also attached to the Ropewalk Shopping Centre – was in the process of being refurbished by TJ Hughes, ahead of its opening in October.
However, the town’s original Woolworths building is a little further down the street, facing the Market Square, and is now occupied by Superdrug. In fact, Nuneaton’s Woolies occupied that site for almost forty years, opening on 31 July 1926 before relocating to the new site on 5 June 1964. Incidentally, the imposing property with the gable next door – currently housing Eastex and Dash – also has some historical significance retail-wise, as the town’s original Boots store.
No jaunt in search of old Woolies is complete without a store that has been taken over by B&M Bargains, and the Leicestershire town of Hinckley was able to oblige in this case. As is usual with the former Woolworths sites that B&M Bargains has taken over, the existing shopfront of the Castle Street store – in the distinctive 1960s Woolies style – has been retained. Though a Woolworths store had occupied that site since 1934 (store #542), the building itself has obviously undergone significant redevelopment over the years.
By the time Woolworths collapsed, the chain had already exited Leicester city centre, having sold their Humberstone Gate / Haymarket site (#1141) – opened in 1986 – in 2006. That property, if I’ve identified it correctly, is now occupied in part by Currys and Peacocks.
However, the original Woolworths in Leicester city centre was around the corner in Gallowtree Gate. That store (#49) opened in June 1915, was redeveloped in 1965, and was sold to Bhs in the early 1980s.
The store in that location has some personal significance, in that my maternal grandmother, Emmie Hunter (née Emmie Harley), worked there for six years from 1933 (aged 18) to 1939, when the store would have looked much as it does in the old postcard above. I understand that she worked as a shop assistant, in various departments, but particularly enjoyed working in the equivalent of today’s entertainment section – the sheet music counter.
A few miles from Leicester, Coalville’s Woolies in Belvoir Road (#474) was still empty (and as far as I’m aware remains so), though a sign claimed that the premises were ‘under offer’. Purportedly covering over 24,000 sq ft, the property is evidently much larger than it appears from the frontage, and it will be interesting to see who the new occupant is, if and when they ever arrive. With the nearby Belvoir Shopping Centre apparently set for redevelopment[broken link removed], it’s always possible that the new tenant could be a relocation from there.
A few miles away, Ashby-de-la-Zouch is quite like Atherstone in being a highly appealing market town where most of its shops are strung out along one long street. Unlike Atherstone, however, Ashby managed to hang on to its Woolies (#624) – opened in what looks like an existing building, in Market Street, in 1935 – until the end.
As old Woolworths premises go, Ashby’s is quite unusual in being taken over not by another retailer but by Costa, the coffee shop chain, which opened there earlier this year. Covering just 2,000 sq ft, however, the small size of the ground floor sales area rather limits the options.
Over the border into Derbyshire, Swadlincote offered a sense of déjà vu with its prominent ‘Tamworth Co-op’ branded store. Further along the High Street, however, the old Woolies (#567) was being fitted out ready for Alworths to open up on 8 September. Rather like the store in Alfreton, the property is a slightly incongruous amalgamation of two separate buildings, the original purpose-built Woolies evidently having been extended at some point into the shop next door.
As the shot above shows, work was well progressed, with all the shelving in place and me captured for posterity on the already-installed CCTV, but without any Alworths signage as yet. Though it was nearly 6pm by this time, a workman was still on site and told me that stocking and staff training was due to start on 25 August, the day after my visit.
Swadlincote was intended to my last Woolies stop ahead of catching the train back from Burton upon Trent to Tamworth, having already photographed Burton’s Woolies in Coopers Square the last time I embarked upon a tour of the Midlands.
As it happens, however, the bus from Swadlincote dropped me off outside the service entrance of the old Burton Woolworths (#147), where I was fascinated to spot a very old ‘Woolworth’ sign – in the singular, rather than the more usual plural. Officially, the retailer referred to itself as Woolworth (or F W Woolworth) for much of its lifetime, with the chain only being branded as Woolworths (in the plural) from the mid 1980s onwards. This means that the sign remaining at Burton probably dates from when the store first opened on that site, in 1982, taking over a unit that had previously been Sainsbury’s.
Just like the archaic WHSmith logo that I happened upon in Redcar, it’s an interesting example of a retailer rebranding but forgetting – or just not bothering – to update the logo ‘round the back’. However, it’s also the kind of unexpected retail detail that makes visits like this one rather fun.