In 2009, during the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, Woolworths finally closed all of its stores, resulting in thousands of job losses. The company had been operating shops in the UK for over a century. In the aftermath Woolworths products, particularly its legendary pick ‘n’ mix brand were made available online until the UK brand closed its doors once and for all in 2015.
Woolworths first opened its UK doors in 1909, and some may consider the store a product of its time. After all, the concept of a store with almost anything available is regarded as a largely 20th century idea. In addition, some may consider the company, which followed the formula of the increasingly developing and vibrant USA, as out of place in a rigid Edwardian society that was stuck in past. In a society where American influence had not yet taken hold, a place like Woolworths was an ‘ugly duckling’ so to speak. While many today think of Woolworths as a British company, it was American in spirit. America’s class system was not as strict as Britain’s and this is what likely made the idea of the company so appealing to working class British civilians. Woolworths with its fixed prices made a variety of goods, which were previously unobtainable for members of the lower classes, affordable.
The 1928 Norwich building plans for the company (NRO, N/EN 12/1/10015 and N/EN 12/1/10071), show the soon beloved Woolworths store on Rampant Horse Street was being developed around this time. One plan in particular (NRO, N/EN 12/1/10015) discusses how a drainage system will be incorporated with the building. A good drainage system was crucial as buildings posing potential health risks to the public were rejected across Norwich. The Rampant Horse street store was approved however and it would become the heart and soul of the street. According to a later building plan, the final design would have four floors in total, including the basement, as well as a lift (NRO, N/EN 12/1/10071). When it was first built, the upper and middle classes of Norwich most likely considered it a ‘poor man’s’ version of John Lewis but to the not so fortunate majority in Norwich, the store would soon go on to become a local hit with customers.
In the 1940s, Woolworths was one of the unluckiest stores in Norwich. Woolworths was due to reopen in 1939 around Christmas time, following a large extension, but when war was declared with Germany the opening of the store was delayed until September 1940 due to the difficultly of obtaining supplies. It was around this time that a mysterious photograph named ‘girls on the roof’ was taken. This photo displayed mostly female employees from the store, as most of the men would have been conscripted into the army. Due to the lack of men in the nation, it was up to Britain’s women to bear the brunt of the workforce back home, including shop management which would have previously been considered a ‘male occupation’. Little did these women know what was to become of the store in two years’ time. In April 1942 it was blown up by Nazi bombers. Due to Britain’s poor economic situation during and after the war, the store would not be rebuilt until 1950. By that time it had been drastically modernised and employed approximately 300 people.
By the 1960s it had a restaurant, a food hall and even escalators, reminiscent of the numerous large department stores in New York. American influence after the Second World War had dramatically changed post war Britain. In a country and economy which had still not fully recovered from the Second World War and had only recently abandoned its ration system, trendy American styled convenience stores would have been welcomed unlike during the start of the century.
Following three fires in the 1970s Woolworths began to lose its reputation. In 1988, possibly due to the poor national reputation of the business and subsequent financial losses, the Rampant Horse store closed its doors. It was moved to what is now the old Sainsbury’s site at St Stephen’s and then to Riverside where the Norwich chain limped on until it closed for good.
It is obvious that the concept of a store like Woolworths has not aged well with British public, despite its widespread appeal in the second half of the twentieth century. This is perhaps due to the greater and more accessible variety of businesses which specialise in one particular item, rather than many lower quality items. The British public seems to have moved on from the days of convenience and even today, for better or worse, mixed produce stores tend to be looked down upon by society. Norwich is an exception however, and the locals as well as local media, cherish the memories of the store that helped to bring the community together, even in times of war and economic stress. Most significantly, Woollies despite it being regarded as a prominently British business, introduced the ‘American Dream’ to Norfolk and this can still be seen and experienced in places like Castle Mall and Chapelfield. Even today the Norwich store is beloved and though the store itself is long gone, the nostalgic memories of those who walked through its doors will remain.
Pete Goodrum, Norwich in the 1960s: Ten Years That Altered a City, Amberley Publishing Ltd, 2013
Derek James, Mystery of Norwich Woolworths picture solved, Eastern Daily Press, 29 March 2011
Courtney Pochin, Take a trip down memory lane with these Woolworths photos, Eastern Daily Press, 03 May 2017
Compiled by NRO Research Blogger, Rebecca Hanley