Woolworth’s bright red signboard was a beacon on British and Irish high streets for nearly a century. Historian Kathryn A Morrison takes us through her favourite memories of Woolies.
Researching Woolworth’s stores in Great Britain and Ireland allowed me to wallow in childhood nostalgia. I clearly remember the old counter-service Woolies – customers clamouring for the attention of the ‘girls’, or testing the gigantic red scales that always stood in the entrance.
In fact, as a very small person, I discovered the joys of pop music in my local Woolworth’s, jumping about with excitement to The Beatles’ She Loves You. Only years later did I realise that it must have been the ‘Embassy’ cover version, recorded especially for Woolworth’s by an invented group, ‘The Typhoons’.
Woolies was a treasure trove: the source of our Christmas fairy, sweets, books, much-loved toys, detested Ladybird ‘Liberty’ bodices and, eventually, my first (‘Miners’) lipstick.
Woolworth’s and I rather lost sight of one another until, many years later, I became an architectural historian and developed a fascination for high street buildings. I featured Woolworth’s in my book English Shops and Shopping in 2003. Shortly afterwards, Historic England (then English Heritage) was fortunate enough to secure a wonderful collection of plans and photographs from the Architects’ Department.
The first Woolworth’s store opened in Liverpool in November 1909 and the last closed in January 2009 – very nearly, but sadly not quite, a full century. In that time the company opened well over 1,000 branches, becoming one of the greatest retail empires in Great Britain and Ireland.
I believe Woolworths reached its architectural peak between the wars, erecting memorable buildings that took pride of place on shopping streets up and down the country. Most, like my local branch in Stornoway, had small brick fronts but were cavernous once you stepped inside.
The largest stores, like Blackpool, were designed in the art deco style and equipped with vast up-to-date cafeterias. Today, none of these buildings carries a ‘Woolworth’ signboard, but their architecture is part of the brand and makes them instantly recognisable – provided you know what you’re looking for!
Here are 8 classic features to look out for on the high street to help you to spot an old Woolworth’s store:
Many of Woolworth’s distinctive bronze-framed pre-war shopfronts, with their curved glass corners, survive. Examples can be seen in Ilkeston and Hertford.
2. Hammered Cathedral Glass
Because the preferred position for Woolworth’s stockrooms was over the shop, the first-floor windows were fitted with opaque glass. This maintained a neat outward appearance.
3. Art Deco Motifs
Many 1930s stores were clad in glazed terracotta or faience (manufactured by Shaws of Darwen) and adorned with geometric decoration. Dark brown faience often imitated bronze panels beneath windows: you can see more examples at Blackpool and Sunderland.
4. The ‘Diamond W’
Examples of Woolworth’s famous emblem can still be found, notably on the tiled floors of entrance lobbies, for example a pre-war example at Ludlow, and a post-war example at St Ives (Cambs).
5. The Lion’s Head
In the 1920s a lion’s head adorned many stores, signifying reliance on British goods and disguising the company’s American roots. Lions can be seen in Bath, Bedford and on the Strand in London.
6. Red or Grey Mosaic Tiles
In the 1950s and 60s, fascias and columns were clad in ‘Woolworth red’ or grey mosaic tiles, and many examples have survived to the present day. A complete red mosaic fascia – minus the lettering – was recently uncovered in Letchworth during renovations.
7. ‘Tin’ Ceilings
Before the war, most Woolworth’s stores were fitted with tin (actually pressed steel) ceilings, stamped with the ‘Plastele’ pattern. Many survive, for example in Ely and Ludlow, although most have been concealed by later suspended ceilings.
8. ‘Tin’ Wall Plaques
Store interiors were decorated with primrose-coloured steel plaques pressed with the ‘Diamond W’ and swags. I have never seen a surviving example, so please let me know in the comments below if you find one.
I always thought that the gas lamps were the icon of Woolworths
I never did understand the purpose of those. Our local Woolies was built in the 1950s but still had the gas lamps. I saw them (or the ones that actually worked!) lit just once during the 1970s power cuts
That’s precisely the reason!
I only saw them in a few stores. It may be that (some) local councils required a secondary lighting system.
I too saw them used in the 70s in one if the central London branches. Oxford?/Regent street?
My local branch at Cowes on the Isle of Wight had them. Never saw them working but there was often a smell of gas-possibly pilot lights that had blown out.
I must admit to being a big Woolies fan in my teens. Bought all my LPs there. I even worked as a Saturday boy in the Bilston branch until some bitch there got me sacked so she could replace me with one of her relatives.
Wow, nothing has changed then…….
The old Woolworth store in Christchurch Dorset still has the pressed tin ceiling in its new reincarnation as a 99p store. I didn’t realise this beautiful feature was an original from Woolworths. I will take another look at the exterior now too.
The original branch of Woolworths in Market Harborough like the shops featured from Hertford and Aylesbury had two doors at the front. Inside the shop there were two aisles running front to back with counters on each side of the aisle. The shop in Market Harborough also had doors for customers at the back of the store. The facade was vaguely Art Deco in brick. The shop now sells cosmetics and toiletries, the shopfront has changed and the front has been rendered so no details remain.
Great post. I recognise most of these in our previous Woolies shop (now an electrical store). We visited the Land of Lost Content museum in Shropshire a couple of weeks ago (you can read about it on my blog) and they have an area dedicated to Woolies!
The first shop front photo is very like that at Saffron Walden that still exists under the management of QD. Woolworths of 50s and 60s sadly missed. 70s onwards on the slippery slope down.
Reblogged this on History, Archaeology, Folklore and so on and commented:
8 Classic Features To Help You Recognise an Old Woolworth’s Store
So interesting to read all this. The photo of the floor covering certainly brought back memories to me too. The Stornoway Woolies was fantastic – do you remember the salted peanuts in the ” hot cabinet ” ? They were probably heated and reheated over several days – before the days of Food Safety regulations – but we survived !
At last, a photograph of one of the ornate ceilings in Woolworths! I never knew they were pressed steel. But I do recall part of our store’s similar ceiling being ‘peeled back’ when I was very small, when new lighting was being installed. So that is how they were able to patch it up again! And I’m amazed to discover that any of the lovely bronze framed shopfronts survived. Those gas lights were the back up lighting, and they tended to get removed when stores were revamped. But at least one modernised store in London still boasted them in the mid 1970’s.
I love the first photo. It shows that the stores had an element of elegance and identity, so lacking in most shops today. Note too the trademark pyramid displays of goods above the shelves on the far wall. Our shop in Jersey, which was the most profitable in the chain, actually went back to using those pyramid displays in the final years.
As a child I loved going to Woolworths. There was always something to look at amidst the buzz and bustle of the store. I’m glad to know I wasn’t the only one staring up at the ornate ceiling!
Thanks for your comment, Andre. What lovely memories!
Reblogged this on Building Our Past.
I started to look at this site as I was trying to find out who made the big red weighing machines that stood at the entrance to the stores? I also wanted to add the details of the ceiling slung manager’s office at the Brixton Woolworth’s store, which looked down at all the glass display counters. Following the Brixton riot, the counters, together with the stock, all went!
Weren’t they AVERY scales? It cost a penny in Dover in the 1950s, and you got a thick pasteboard card with a colour picture on one side, I seem to remember countryside scenes, about half the size of a cigarette card, with your weight in purple ink on the other side.
What about the doors!
In Margate the building is being repurposed as an Arts education package and has retained the old lettering on the shop fascia..do..visit when next in Thanet
My Woolies was the one in Cambridge city centre, which had different architecture than most, as it was subject to stringent rules about how buildings in the historic centre had to look. It had a coat of arms of one of the colleges rather than a lion. But it did originally have the beautiful curved glass showcase windows (sadly gone by the time I saw it) and a lovely lettered sign (also replaced by the ugly modern sign). As a penniless student in the 90’s I used to go there for breakfast in the cafe upstairs, sitting in the window and enjoying the view.
I loved the wooden floor and the large carts with big rubber wheels, that were pushed around by men wearing brown duster coats; they would collect packaging and deliver items to the till from elsewhere in the building. I was also fascinated by the cash system which operated between the till and the cash office by suction tube.
Penny ice creams by the door which came in a small roll of waxed paper and fitted neatly into a dish type wafer.
Pick and mix… Christmas decorations, wooden counter edges that would have given any top notch snooker table a run for its money. Polished brass, I could go on but there was no shame carrying a bag with Woolworths on the side.
Thank you Loz for your lovely comment!
Great stuff! I’ve long been a fan of Burton’s stuff (https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1tAPSD51wm01djRrI6LraDYMIBuc&usp=sharing) but some of these are just as good.
Long live retail archaeology.
Thank you Roger. Season’s Greetings from us all at Historic England.
The ground floor of the main Blackpool Woolies is now a Wetherspoons and is mentioned in the Holloway poem “The Albert & the lion” https://www.jdwetherspoon.com/pub-histories/england/lancashire/the-albert-and-the-lion-blackpool.
Thank you for sharing, Pippa. Merry Christmas!
For more memories, there is a Woolwoths Virtual Museum online at http://www.woolworthsmuseum.co.uk/
Very interesting. I remember being horrified when Woolies in Taunton replaced its beautiful bronze framed shopfront with bland steel and glass. My favourite memory of the store though was one of the girls who worked there on the tills – she lived near me and my Dad gave her a lift when taking me to work in BHS!
I believe that Woolworth’s had several grades of shops, and the one in Witham, Essex, was in the fifth grade. So we had no upper storey, just a false front up there. It looked reasonably important from the front, but very odd from behind or the side.
The gas lamps ( Bon marche) were still maintained as backup lighting in some stores well into the eighties. The store at Whitby still had them int the nineties.
I worked at the store in the Mander Centre in Wolverhampton. We were always told it was the biggest store, including the stock room floors.
Preston’s Woolworths was situated in Fishergate(building still there) opposite the Old Gas Showroom(1872-1964). My first big job as an apprentice gas fitter was to transfer the Old Gas Showroom to the New Gas Showroom, which was in the newly built St. Georges Shopping Center(100yds away) Woolworths had at least 12 “9 light Bon Marche” gas lamps which was their Emergency Lighting! Every Preston Holidays we would replace all the mantles. Happy Days.
The surviving part of the frontage of Woolworth’s in Cornmarket Street, Oxford has the traditional W with the top part curling around the date 1957 and the initials SAP and WHM (the latter presumably standing for William Harvey Moore)
The surviving part of the Woolworth’s frontage in Cornmarket Street, Oxford has an ornate letter W with the date 1957 hiding in the curls at the top and the initials SAP and WHM (the latter presumably standing for William Harvey Moore) in shamrock shapes underneath
I remember the Sutton in ashfield branch it was the first place my mam an dad brought lose biscuits. Also l remember them getting fairy liquid for the first time. You no what they were the good old days niccccccce.
I think I was still Branch Manager at Hertford when that photo was taken. They were beautiful but those curved glass windows did not go well with modern flat POS