Photo: RON HUNT
Item #: 33089
I hope I haven't posted this article before.
The Wonder of Woolies.
After studying the aerial photograph of Wigan Town Centre in the Observer a few weeks ago I am sure along with many readers I started to go down Memory Lane . Woolworths standing in the middle of the picture guarding the town like a grandmother. It prompted me to look back to its heyday and the void it left when it closed . Thanks to Garry Brunskill for unearthing this gem .
The wonder of Woolworths , so the advert used to go and to umpteen number of of Wigan folk this was exactly what it was - wonderful . Frank Winfield Woolworth was born on April 13th, 1852 in Rodman, New York. He and his brother Charles Sumner Woolworth. were to become founders of a retail dynasty. I doubt if as young entrepreneurs the brothers even knew of the existence of Wigan, a market town 3,318 miles from their birth place or that as their novel retail idea 'Nothing Over 6d' ( two and a half pence £ 2-80p in today's money) would become such an icon of Wigan Town Centre. F W Woolworth opened in Wigan on 20 October 1927 converted from The Royal Hotel and quickly became an integral part of our town . I wonder how many marriages in Wigan came about because of a first date, meeting on Woolworths corner, a favourite meeting point after a first encounter at the Empress Ballroom the previous Saturday.
Incidentally the first store in the UK was opened in Church Street Liverpool on 5th of November 1909 . Wigan was the 187th store , that was a remarkable rate of expansion by any standards. Particularly taking into account the slower communications available. In 1909 telephones were in their infancy , a letter from The USA to The UK would take weeks. The first transatlantic telephone call was on January 7th 1927, almost impossible to comprehend in todays instantaneous world.
To the surprise of many I'm sure , Wigan and District had a second Woolworths , situated at 64 Market Street Hindley this much smaller branch opened on 10th of May 1935 and closed sometime between 1974 -1977 . It was a purpose built store, The building, now a bookmakers, has had an extra floor added above the old flat roof, but retains the distinctive Woolworth parapet wall above the first floor windows which appeared on many of the self-built stores of the Twenties and Thirties.
No visit to Wigan was complete without a visit to ' Woolies ' in my young days the formate was a series of stalls each with its own till, you would get the assistants attention by calling 'Miss' . There were stalls of every kind , so varied it was like a mini Trafford Centre ! An example, hardware - selling everything from Fire Bottoms to ' Blowers ' a metal sheet with a handle used to block the fire opening to create a draught under skilfully laid coal and twisted newspaper, for those unable to get the fire going using this method you could buy a gas poker a contraption that would be placed into the heart of the ensemble until the coal combusted , today this implement would be illegal. For for those with the wherewithal an 'all-night burner ' the ultimate luxury. this was fitted in the opening under the fire and could be used to minimise the draught enabling the fire to remain alight until morning , this was helped by 'raking 'the fire, putting ashes on top of the fire to dampen it; the rake similar to a croupier implement could also be purchased from this 'stall ' Also own brand paint my uncle wouldn't use it he said it was watery and took ages to dry ,this after my Aunty ruined a cardigan on a door painted days before !
The Toffee stall, the second favourite of children, selling all kinds sweets from pear drops to nougat, pronounced by most as 'nuggit' not many knew very much about French pronunciation , I certainly didn't and often choose ' nuggit' as my Saturday treat as it was very ' chewy ' and consequently lasted a long time ! A chocolate bar was a no -no, for me as that would have been consumed before I'd reached the main door. There was great excitement when something new arrived on this stall , a large glass container with a light above , hot cashew nuts had come to Wigan , people queued to sample this new delight ,I remember my Auntie Maggie , after waiting in the queue for what seemed ages buying some and the paper bag within minutes being thick with grease , this same phenomenon occurred with one particular sweet ' Cherry Lips '. I never worked out why this should be ,when other similar sweets such as 'Midget Gems' left the bag pristine. The girls on this stall wore different uniforms to other staff ,white with maid type head bands with a big red ' W' in the middle ! Using little scoops to fill the various size bags , square - 4oz , three cornered -2oz . From my observations in the 1950s I think they used more of the latter !
The favourite of children of course was The Toy Stall , with every conceivable toy you could imagine , for girls, dolls , toffee shops , cookers with little pots and pans , baking sets with rolling pins etc. The boys side of the counter , Davy Crocket Hats , which had the ability to make the hardest of lads look silly, I never had one as I could achieve that without the need of of hat with a tail swinging at the back ! Back to other boys favourites , cowboys outfits, guns of every description from rifles with corks on strings ,these would be cut at the earliest opportunity , Flash Gordon Ray Guns, Tool Sets with plastic saws and hammers , this demarcation between the sexes would have todays gender neutral brigade in a state of apoplexy, not to mention the nature verses nurture lobby . Whilst I fancied many of the toys, the thing I craved was a spirit level from the Tool Stall, after being fascinated watching a bricklayer working in our street. Mam said they were not for children and the novelty would soon ware off , this I never found out as no amount of persuasion would make her relent . Who knows if Mam had taken me seriously I might have been a wiz at D I Y !
The Tea Bar with a row of fixed stools with red seats that revolved , this was always busy not least with bus drivers and conductors having their morning or afternoon brew. Slices of toast and toasted teacakes seemed the most popular choice. I think sandwiches were also on the Bill of Fare although I can't be sure of that. Horlicks and hot milk were certainly available and I watched in amazement as the lady would go to the back of the bar to a row of silver urns, place a cup of milk under a nozzle, pull the lever down and within seconds the cup was steaming with a loud hissing sound. I used to think I'd like a try, needless to say this along with the spirt level never materialised .
Many readers will remember the big red scales with a massive face near the Standishgate entrance . There was a weight for height scale on this piece of equipment , I can remember my Aunty Maggie using the machine and looking at the table and saying according to that she ought to be 6ft-9ins, Incidentally she was about 5ft-3ins ! It strange that a printed notice could cause so much indignation. My Aunty said that was the last time she'd use them and would go instead to Bob Rudd with his 'far more reliable Jockey Scales ' in ' the little arcade ' . The scales had another use , if you 'got lost ' your Mam would tell you to stand near them . I've seen more than one child standing on the wobbly platform looking anxiously above the counters awaiting rescue !
There were also stalls of every kind Stationary, Ladies , Gents, Make Up and Toiletries . There was on one stall a place where you could test yourself for spectacles , there was a paddle about the size of a table-tennis bat with different size script .This came to an abrupt end with the Opticians Act 1958 giving opticians a monopoly, this was to last until the early 90s when 'Ready Specs ' again be came available on the high street.
A visit Woolworths would be called 'retail therapy' today , it used to be called a shopping spree both the same of course . They have to have new names for everything , passing trade becomes footfall and so-forth, whatever you call it Wigan Town Centre has never been quite the same since Woolies closed its doors for the last time ; on that day a little bit of Wigan's heart was lost too !
I loved a trip into Woolies, all those fascinating wooden boxes on the counters containing treasures that childen loved. Long may the building be there as a reminder of what we have lost.
Man in the next plot looks like he is selling petrol pumps
I loved Wigan Woolie's....I think we all did.....and my favourite stall was the Stationery stall where I spent all my pocket money and birthday money. I loved the tea-bar too, with the high stools and proper sausages, (not hot-dog sausages), on a roll and little tea- cups with CWS printed on them. I loved Hindley Woolworths too, and one year we were in Ludlow and went in Woolworths there, and it had the same art deco door handles and wooden floor as the Hindley store....it even had the same sound as you walked around! I have a book called The Wonder of Woolies, half of which consists of the reminiscences of the staff, and half of those of the customers. Fascinating memories, both happy and sad. I have a few vintage Christmas decorations from Woolworths, including a 1950s Woolworths Fairy.
Tom. Do you remember Embassy records, made by unknown artists?
A bit of trivia the WOOLWORTHS BUILDING in New York was from 1913-1930 the tallest building in the world.
My apologies....the logo on the teacups was FWW, NOT CWS! I was getting mixed up with the Co-op!
If anyone hasn't seen it here's a link to the Woolworths Museum.
I am led to believe that W H Smith are soon to close and vacate this building soon. Where will the Post Office go to then ?
I thought as a lad, their ice cream was delicious. The ice cream was shaped as a round solid block, flat at each end, sitting in a cornet. Never encountered the same taste since.
Great memories Tom, I remember the wooden flooring and the lifts to the upper floor. I once purchased a beautiful coffee table from there, it's still in existence at my son's house he uses it as a bedside table with a lamp on it. It's still as glossy and shining as ever and very solid. It's the crowds I recall as well it was so very busy. What I would give for FW. Woolworth to be resurrected! It looks just the same as it always did on that photo, but the bars are missing where the old men used to pass the time of day.
You are right - WHSmiths are due to vacate these premises before the end of the year.
I briefly spoke to one of the WHS staff in there a few weeks ago, and one of the reasons for the closure is the extortionate rent the company is paying to the landlord of the building.
WHS have also lost huge amounts of revenue themselves in the last few years due to people downloading books and magazines on electronic devices. In the last 12 months, WHS has suffered a further hit with the Covid restrictions affecting their shops in train stations because passenger numbers have plummeted.
As for the Post Office - the Chorley PO was also inside their WHS which closed last year. A temporary PO has since opened in Chorley town centre. I am assuming Wigan will get a PO elsewhere once WHS closes but only time will tell.
Does anyone know what was on the site before the Woolworths building and did anyone object when it was demolished?
MikeW. The ROYAL HOTEL another impressive building. see image no. 1848 under 'Standishgate'.
I've been told that the PO is going back to where it was before, but this is only hearsay.
I believe Tony Callaghan has bought the old Post Office and YES another bar....That will be 4 bars in about 100 yards. Not counting the ones on the opposite side of Wallgate. Does Wigan really need another pub???
CJAlan. Thanks for the info. I think closure of W H Smith Wigan appears to be taking place well before the end of this year. There are currently 'Closing Down Sale ' stickers on display.
The Internet as well as covid has killed the shops,I am told you can get books half price from Amazon.But there's nothing quite like browsing in a bookshop.
Tony Callaghan has bought the old post office, but I've been told he is letting the post office go back in one of the rooms.
I wouldn't hold my breath C J Alan this council doesn't know how to open shops only shut them