From High Street Ken to High Holborn – more of London’s long-lost Woolies
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Visiting London again this week, I was able to capture another clutch of locations that used to house Woolies stores more than a quarter of a century ago.
Last time I was in London, at the end of September, I photographed – and blogged about – the former Woolworths in Kensington High Street (#162), which was sold off in 1980 and is now occupied by Uniqlo.
However, in the drizzle and fading light I hadn’t managed to spot the earlier Woolworths property, further along the street, from which the retailer had relocated in the 1960s. This time, happily, I managed to locate it.
100thBirthday.co.uk reveals that Kensington’s Woolworths opened on its original site in August 1924, with the purpose-built property, pictured here in the 1920s, boasting “a large cinema frontage finished in glazed cream marble brickwork.”
From the 1920s until its disposal, the address also housed Woolworths’ Kensington regional office, overseeing the chain’s stores in the South West, parts of East Anglia, and the suburbs of north west London.
Given that Woolworths moved out half a century ago, I should barely have been surprised that the building today looks somewhat different from that earlier photograph. Nevertheless, it is sad to see the property carved up into separate units (for Robert Dyas, Sony Centre and JD), with a cacaphony of clashing shopfronts and different height fascias that have little in common with each other, let alone with the ornate detail and proportions of the upper floors. At some point, the top of the building also lost its pediment and cornice, giving it a strangely unfinished look.
Over in Oxford Street, the former Woolies flagship (#161) – which opened in August 1924, but had apparently “never been profitable” – was sold off at the same time as the relocated Kensington High Street store, with the proceeds used to help pay for F W Woolworth & Co. Ltd’s purchase, in 1980, of the DIY chain B&Q. In a prime spot opposite John Lewis and House of Fraser, it too – coincidentally – now houses a branch of Uniqlo.
100thBirthday.co.uk reports that prior to its closure, store 161 “included a big restaurant in the basement, a dedicated food hall with wines and spirits on the first floor and a huge range of toiletries, tourist items and jewellery on the ground salesfloor.” Like the original Kensington store, Oxford Street also housed one of Woolworths’ regional offices – the Metropolitan – on its upper floors.
This was not the only store in Oxford Street – another (store #463), opened in 1932 and was sold off at the same time as the aforementioned Kensington High Street and Oxford Street shops. I haven’t been able to source any images of this second store, however, and I’m not not clear whereabouts in Oxford Street it was. Perhaps someone who remembers it from thirty or more years ago can help fill in the gaps?
Another old Woolies that was apparently more for show than profitmaking was the one in Brompton Road (#391), not far from Harrods. This store was relatively short-lived compared to most Woolworths stores, opening in March 1930 and closing in 1970 as part of a major trading review. At that time, the sale of this and other prominent stores released funds that could be used to convert other stores in the estate to both decimal currency and self service. Today, the portion of the building that housed Woolworths is occupied by a branch of Boots.
Finally to High Holborn (store #173, closed in 1984), and the type of former Woolies site that is hardest to identify: one where the building that housed the store has subsequently been demolished. For once, 100thBirthday.co.uk isn’t so helpful, referring a little vaguely to the former store “facing the old houses in High Holborn” (the Tudor Staple Inn perhaps?), and mistakenly illustrating its piece with a picture of Oxford Street 161 instead.
However, through a bit of detective work and Google Street Viewing, I think I’ve managed to identify the correct location, adjacent to the Chancery Lane Tube station entrance towards High Holborn’s eastern end.
The building looks about the right age (1980s), houses several small shops including a former Clinton Cards (now Holland & Barrett), as mentioned by 100thBirthday.co.uk, and is almost directly opposite the Staple Inn. Again, if anyone can shed any more light on the former High Holborn Woolies – and can confirm whether or not I’ve got the location right – please feel free to share what you know!