On the hunt for Houghton-le-Spring’s original Woolworths
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll know by now that Woolworths in its prime had a long record of modernising its estate: both in terms of redeveloping existing sites (such as Middlesbrough’s Linthorpe Road), and, as in Nuneaton or Stockton, relocating established stores to larger and newer premises. Because relocated stores kept the same Woolworths store number – the identifier by which they were known internally within the company - it’s easy to overlook those examples where one store number can, in fact, refer to multiple trading locations.
Consequently, the more I delve into the history of Woolworths the more I uncover, and I’ve recently found evidence of several additional North East towns where Woolies relocated from its original site. One of those places is Houghton-le-Spring on Wearside, where the town’s latter-day Woolworths at 15 Newbottle Street (store #488, below) was taken over by Store Twenty One in early 2010.
I hadn’t realised, however, that Woolworths had only traded from this location since 10 September 1964, and that the town’s original store – opened on 14 January 1933 – was actually at number 16 Newbottle Street. So, armed with the evidence I’d gathered, I set out to locate the site in question and see what had become of it in the half century since Woolworths’ departure.
Walking along Newbottle Street, you might guess – incorrectly, as it turns out – that Woolworths occupied the rather odd-looking premises that now house Superdrug. However, while there is a history of surplus Woolworths sites being turned into Superdrugs – as happened in Redruth in Cornwall – such changes only took place once Superdrug joined the Kingfisher stable in 1987. Similarly, while Woolworths had a record of taking over former cinemas, this particular building – which was once the Coliseum Picture House – was apparently a Shoppers Paradise supermarket following the cinema’s closure in 1960.
No, the correct ex-Woolworths location is actually a few doors along from the old Coliseum. Unhelpfully, the numbering of Newbottle Street leaps around all over the place, but I’ve been able to pin the location down to a building that still exists – numbered as 16 and 16a – almost opposite the site of the later store.
The fascinating Houghton Heritage website includes a page of retail memories from local man Harry Smith, who recalls the original Woolworths’ “great long red fascia with the big gold letters” and a “massive” interior in which “you could walk about, as the counters were more like big square islands with the girl assistants in the middle of each”.
Today, nearly fifty years after Woolworths’ move, things are a little different: the property is subdivided into two units, and there’s nothing to ‘buy’ as such, given that one is a Ladbrokes betting shop and the other an ‘Accident Advice Centre’. The latter, interestingly, encourages customers to pay a visit if they have had “a trip in a shop” – perhaps not a way to ingratiate your business with the local retail community.
To be fair, Houghton-le-Spring remains a busy retail centre, with some appealing independent shops (such as a long-established butcher, greengrocer and florist) and a smattering of decent chains. It’s a shame, however, that the town’s original Woolworths is now a showcase for some of the less positive changes affecting Britain’s high streets today.