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Changing Times | Remembering Woolworths ten years on

This January marks the 10th anniversary of the departure of a much-loved and well-known shop, Woolworths, from high streets throughout the country.


The Woolworth company was founded by Frank Winfield Woolworth of Rodman, New York, and his first ‘Great Five Cent Store’ opened on June 21, 1879, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The concept was extremely successful and later that same year his younger brother, Charles Sumner Woolworth, came on board as manager of a second store in nearby Harrisburg.


The company went from strength to strength and Frank encouraged friends and relatives to join him, establishing a group of five ‘friendly rivals’ operating independently, but stocking goods he was able to supply. This grew Frank’s buying power, allowing him to track products to their source, cutting out any middle men and increasing profits.


Frank Woolworth opened his first UK based store on November 5, 1909, in Church Street, Liverpool. For the UK market ‘5 cent and 10 cent’ instead became ‘Threepence and Sixpence’ and hence the UK based stores were called F.W. Woolworth & Co 3d and 6d Stores. The very first store sold children’s clothing, stationery and toys.


In 1912, the five ‘friendly rival’ store chains under then names S.H. Knox & Co, F.M Kirby & Co, E.P. Charlton & Co, C.S.Woolworth & Co and W.H. Moore & Son joined forces in a merger. Each became a vice president of the F.W. Woolworth Co, while Frank became the company’s president. Britain had 12 stores and by the outbreak of the First World War this had grown to 44 stores.


Frank Woolworth died from septic poisoning from a tooth infection on April 8, 1919. One of his obituaries read, “He made his money not by selling a little for a lot, but by selling a lot for a little.”


His brother, Charles Sumner Woolworth, became the company’s chairman, whilse F. D. Hubert Parson took over as president.


Woolworths took off in the UK in the 1920s with 336 stores opening across the country. Chichester was one such branch, opening at number 10 North Street in May, 1927. It caused something of a shopping revolution. It was the 254th store to be opened in England, offering quick turnover bargains to local shoppers. It launched as a ‘3d and 6d Store‘ and gave local businesses an abundance of competition. Later, in April, 1939, an application was made for the erection of a completely new building on the site which incorporated both 10 and 11 North Street.


The outbreak of the Second World War caused prices to rocket, making cheap goods hard to come by. This forced the company to raise its upper 6d limit.


In 1940, Woolworths’ staff across the country raised a total of 202,680 sixpences, matched by the company’s four directors. This enabled the RAF to buy two Spitfires.


The number of UK branches reached its peak in the late 1960s with 1,141 stores.


Back in Chichester, in 1963, an application was made to reconstruct and incorporate no 12 North Street into the existing Woolworths store. By 1977, 50 years after its opening, the number of staff had trebled to 85.


In the 1980s, the Woolworth range was rationalised to six main areas – sweets, toys and stationery, children’s clothes, entertainment, home and garden, and fashion accessories. In 1982, the company broke ties with its American counterpart, as the British stores were purchased by Paternoster Stores Ltd, which later became Kingfisher PLC.


In October, 2003 a devastating fire broke out in Chichester’s North Street store, ripping through three floors. A team of 75 firefighters tackled the blaze. It is believed the fire was started deliberately when a pile of rubbish was set alight outside the shop and it spread from the ground floor into the roof of the building.


In November, 2008, the Woolworths Group sadly entered administration. The group’s financial performance had been in decline, and this, exacerbated by the financial crisis and recession which also occurred at this time, took its toll on the business.


The Chichester store closed its doors on January 3, 2009, a day later than had been expected as staff were given an extra day to clear the shop’s shelves. There was concern that as the store was so large it would be difficult to find another retailer for the location. However, in June, 2009, it was announced that Boots would take over the former Woolworths store in North Street, where it has remained ever since.


By Amy Roberts, collections officer at The Novium Museum

Posted in Lifestyle.