Heritage: Fourth anniversary of farewell to Woolworths
It is now four years since Woolworths, once Britain’s most iconic mass market store, closed down in Wimbledon Broadway and everywhere else in the country.
On 27 December 2008 a handwritten notice appeared on the front door saying: “This store is now closed forever.”
The Wimbledon store was one of 207 nationwide which closed that day. By early January 2009 the remaining 600 had gone too. While a national shock, it was also the end of a local story dating back nearly a century.
What later became known simply as “Woolies” had first opened at 30 The Broadway in Wimbledon just before World War One.
It was among the first 40 Woolworths outlets to be opened in Britain between 1909 and the outbreak of war in 1914.
Described as a “fancy repository”, as in its American parent’s stores, the company policy was to charge no more than six old pence (2.5p today) for any item. The policy remained for many years. More expensive goods could be bought in several parts at sixpence each. The shop had a wooden floor, a mahogany counter, and sold a range of everyday items.
Number 30 The Broadway was later renumbered 65. When Mackies the drapers closed in 1936, the Wimbledon Woolworths was extended to the corner of Gladstone Road.
As the decades passed, the selection of goods expanded and by its final days the store was offering big ranges of music and videos, confectionery, clothing, toys, DIY goods, plants, stationery, and furniture. Prices were no longer rock bottom but remained cheaper than most other places.
Somehow, Woolworths of Wimbledon survived the bombings of World War 2 intact despite direct hits on other buildings nearby in both The Broadway itself and Gladstone Road.
Another Woolworths store at New Cross was less fortunate. In November 1944 it was hit by a V-2 rocket which killed 168 people.
By contrast the worst day in the Wimbledon branch’s history came in 1981 when it was destroyed by a peacetime fire. A small blaze was discovered in the stockroom and the premises quickly evacuated. However, staff and customers alike watched as the fire brigade appeared to bring the flames under control but too late to stop the building’s destruction.
In the aftermath, while damping down, three firemen became disoriented and were trapped as the edifice collapsed. One died and the other two were taken to hospital.
This was just one of several fires at Woolworths’ premises in the 1970s and early 1980s. Fingers were pointed at the high combustibility of some furnishings at the time. The chain went on to become a leading outlet for smoke detectors. Its managers worked closely with fire brigades around the country to promote the devices and the company helped drive down the price of an alarm from £20 each to £7 or less.
Safety regulations became much tighter. The Wimbledon store was rebuilt after the fire and the very next year the whole company came under new, exclusively domestic, ownership. There were 1000 British branches at the time. The chain had grown dramatically since the early days, especially after World War 2, reaching a peak of 1141 outlets during the late 1960s with the 1000th branch having opened in Sussex in May 1958. However the numbers began to decline and there were 807 by the end.
In the last few days of trading, Woolworths’ Wimbledon customers were being offered discounts of up to 90 per cent on some items and there were long queues to buy as much as possible of the remaining stock as well as fixtures and fittings.
The loss of such a store seemed to epitomize the worst of the country’s economic crisis, yet the site was eventually taken over by T K Maxx.
The handwritten notice proved to be an exaggeration but it really was curtains for Woolies of Wimbledon.
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