A brief history of Morpeth Woolworths
As you’d probably expect, I get my fair share of Woolworths-related enquiries, given that I’ve written (and talked) so much about the retailer’s long and interesting history.
I received one such query today from the Facebook group Morpeth Matters, where a 1950s photo of the town’s Woolworths store in Bridge Street – which I first blogged about back in 2009 – had sparked some interest in the shop’s history.
On the face of it, the history of Morpeth Woolworths is a little, well, dull. Unlike Woolies stores elsewhere that relocated or were rebuilt, the Morpeth branch – opened as Woolworths’ 439th shop on 30 May 1931 – never moved from its premises at 8-10 Bridge Street, and the Art Deco premises that survive today are the same ones that were designed and built by Woolworths’ in-house architects, in the chain’s signature style, more than 80 years ago.
As I’ve noted previously, the 1930s was one of the peak periods of Woolworths’ growth – in the five years preceding the Morpeth opening, it had added (and, in most cases, built) 200 new stores, with five new ones in May 1931 alone.
One of the most noticeable things about the Morpeth Woolworths is just how little the building and the surrounding street scene has changed, whether you look at a picture from the 1930s, the 1960s, or the 2010s. Indeed, unlike most 1930s Woolworths stores – which typically had their original shopfronts ripped out and replaced in the 1950s and ’60s – the Morpeth store retains what appears to be part of its original curved shop windows (best seen at the superb Monmouth branch), though the entrance doors are obviously modern.
Interestingly, the Woolworths property audit of 1957 shows the Morpeth store – valued then at £8,000 – as being leased rather than being (as many stores were) owned outright, though it’s not clear whether that was always the case. From Woolworths’ records, we also know that the store was extended – presumably to the rear – in March 1960, with notes of refurbishments in at least June 1978 and April 1989.
I’m fortunate that I have been able to get hold of several old postcards which depict the store, and which regularly make an appearance when I give my Woolworths history talk to local groups in Northumberland. Remarkably, both Rutherford’s department store (trading since 1846), to the left of Woolworths, and the Queen’s Head pub with its distinctive timber-framed frontage (to Woolworths’ right) remain a part of the present-day streetscape. The Queen’s Head was sadly boarded up when I last photographed it a year ago, though I understand that plans are afoot to reopen it later this year.
Meanwhile, the Morpeth Woolworths appears not to have been one of the more active stores in providing content and updates for the Woolworths staff magazine – The New Bond – over the years, though I’m yet to log all the North East references in the issues that I’ve acquired to date.
Among the Morpeth references I’ve found so far is one in the October 1937 edition, where the recently married Mrs W Hay (nee B Wilson) of Bebside in Northumberland acknowledges the “kind wishes and wedding present”, and refers to her “happy memories of the six years spent at Store 439.” Back then – just as it did for my own grandmother in 1939 – getting married would mark the end of any woman’s time working at Woolworths.
The reference I spotted in the June 1960 issue is another celebratory one, marking the 21 years of service in the company of Mr W O’Connor, who had worked his way up in that time to become the manager of the Morpeth Woolworths.
Morpeth’s Woolworths closed, of course, following the retailer’s 2008 collapse, shutting its doors on 30 December of that year. Reflecting the town’s enduring appeal as a retail destination, however, the Morpeth branch was among the first batch of Woolworths stores to secure a new occupant, just days later, when Iceland’s acquisition of the premises was announced.
As I’ve noted before, the move represented a return to Morpeth for a resurgent Iceland after an absence of just three years. In 2006, at a point where Iceland was back in founder Malcolm Walker’s hands after a disastrous start to the decade under different management, Morpeth’s previous Iceland store – in today’s Original Factory Shop premises – was one of 28 sold to Marks & Spencer to expand its Simply Food estate. M&S, in turn, vacated the Market Place site when it moved into larger premises – selling both food and fashions – in the new Sanderson Arcade development.
So, though Morpeth’s is a Woolworths store with a relatively calm history compared to many, it’s still a story with much interest – and one whose more recent events tell us almost as much about Iceland’s changing fortunes as they do about Woolworths’.
My retail consultancy business, CannyInsights.com, provides bespoke place- and sector-specific market intelligence, including detailed coverage of ex-Woolworths locations nationwide. It also works with retailers to improve their stores, customer communications and market knowledge. For more information, visit www.cannyinsights.com, drop me an email, or give me a call on (0191) 461 0361.