One town, five stores: tracking down Middlesbrough’s ex-Woolworths (part 3)
In parts 1 and 2 of this series, I’ve talked about the two incarnations of Middlesbrough’s flagship Woolworths (store #8) – firstly at 91-93 Linthorpe Road, and latterly at 51-67 Linthorpe Road – which together maintained a continuous Woolies presence in the town centre for seventy years.
In this third and final part I talk about Middlesbrough’s three other Woolworths – none of which hung around for quite so long.
3) Store #936 – 455 Linthorpe Road, Linthorpe Village
I have Soult’s Retail View reader Ali Brown to thank for alerting me to a third Linthorpe Road Woolworths store, this time outside the town centre in Linthorpe Village (above). The store number of 936 points to a 1956 opening – a couple of years before the rebuilt town centre store opened – but it had apparently already gone by the time the town centre flagship closed its doors. Ali tells me that the TSB occupied the premises after Woolworths closed, and today it houses a branch of Boots.
Compared to the iconic look that Woolworths employed for its 1920s and 30s stores, its purpose-built shops from the 1950s have hardly grown graceful with age. Nevertheless, the look of the Linthorpe Village store is just as distinctly Woolies in its own way – still instantly recognisable to a trained eye, and very similar to contemporaneous new-build stores in other locations, such as Felling (#949, above), Clevedon (#992) and Melksham (#1030).
4) Store #1148 – 11-12 Hillstreet Shopping Centre
After a few years in the 1980s in which Middlesbrough no longer had any Woolworths stores at all, the town gained its fourth Woolies incarnation in about 1990, this time in the Hillstreet Shopping Centre.
The shop was one of Woolworths’ new small-format ‘limited story’ stores, specialising in entertainment under a ‘Woolworths Music & Video’ fascia. As at Hillstreet, many of these stores were located in indoor shopping malls, both in town centre and out-of-town locations.
However, reflecting Woolworths’ lack of focus in the 1990s, the experiment was not a success, and all the stores closed after just a few years. Middlesbrough’s store shut on 18 June 1994, with the closure of another North East store in a similar format – #1144, at Metrocentre – following on 30 July.
Compared to proper high streets, tenant movements in indoor shopping centres can often be quite challenging to trace back. Departed retailers rarely leave any clues to their former presence, and units are frequently divided or merged. In many cases, there are also very few photographs charting this aspect of our retail history.
Fortunately, by combining Gareth Hill’s description of the location with the former store’s address (numbers 11-12 Hillstreet), I believe I’ve pinpointed the old Woolies to the units now occupied by Boots Opticians and Caffechino. Certainly, over the years, it seems that Boots has done its fair share of mopping up space once occupied by Woolworths, whether in Crook, Horley, York or the aforementioned Linthorpe Village.
Hillstreet seems to maintain a very large number of security guards at all times, so the slightly curiously-angled photograph is from the conveniently placed Greggs mall café. Happily, a large latte isn’t too bad a price to pay in the interests of research – provided I have got the location right, of course.
5) Store #1200 – Hillstreet Shopping Centre
Having left Hillstreet in 1994, it wasn’t long before Woolworths came back to the shopping centre for another go – opening a full-line store, just opposite its previous location (in what I understand had once been a Fine Fare), in about 1997. This was a period of relatively fast growth for the chain, as it returned to opening larger stores – often in towns and cities that it had abandoned just a decade earlier.
As noted in previous posts, this second Hillstreet store lasted until Woolworths’ 2008 collapse, including a very brief spell – from October 2008 – with a Store Twenty One concession. It’s interesting that the 16 trial Store Twenty One concessions across Woolworths’ 800-strong estate should have been framed in the press back then as part of ‘troubled’ Woolies’ ‘fightback’. Subsequently, of course, Store Twenty One has benefited massively from the space that Woolworths’ collapse freed up, tying with B&M as the retailer that has taken over most North East ex-Woolies sites.
As blogged previously, the unit vacated by Woolworths’ closure was fairly quickly taken over by Waremart, which lasted less than a year; after a period of vacancy, the front portion of site (of 10,000 sq ft or so) was then acquired by Discount UK last year, which has – as in Newcastle – invested in an atttractive revamp of the premises and looks like it’s there for the long haul. The rear of the ex-Woolies space, incidentally, has been taken over by Primark, allowing it to extend its adjacent unit and offer a wider product range to Middlesbrough’s shoppers.
So there we have it: Middlesbrough’s five Woolworths, serving the town from 1911 to 2008 with just a couple of gaps.
While interesting as retail history in its own right, the timeline of Woolworths’ presence in Middlesbrough can also be seen as a microcosm of the wider chain’s ups and downs:
- An early opening in an existing building (store #8 at 91-93 Linthorpe Road)
- A move to larger premises before the Second World War, later redeveloped as a flagship store in Woolworths’ distinctive 50s style (store #8 at 51-67 Linthorpe Road)
- A small purpose-built suburban store, opened in the 1950s but closed by the 1980s (store #936 in Linthorpe Village)
- Closure of the town centre flagship in the early 1980s, as the company withdrew from certain product categories and many of its largest sites
- Short-lived experimentation with a smaller-format store, focused on music and video (store #1148 at Hillstreet)
- A return to a larger-format store in the late 1990s, restoring a full Woolworths offer to a town that the chain had previously withdrawn from (store #1200 at Hillstreet).
All illustrative, perhaps, of a retailer that had already begun to lose its way by the 1980s – and, amid a succession of backwards and forwards decisions, never again pinned down what exactly it was trying to be.