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Woolworth's
by J R Ashby

Pictured in 1928: Some of the Original staff of Woolworth's, Mexborough Branch.
L-R Miss Corlett, Miss Ward, Miss Nicholson, Miss Pryor, Miss Gill, Miss Beaumont, Miss Hall, Miss Wigglesworth, Miss Immerson and Miss Walton.

 


Franklin Winfield Woolworth was born on 13th April 1852, the son of a potato farmer, in Rodman, near New York.
In 1873 he began work in a shop where he was expected to work for three months at no cost to his employer, who stated 'why should I pay you for teaching you the business?' It was at this shop where he quickly discovered that by reducing items to five cents they sold well.
He borrowed $300 and opened his first shop, where everything was five cents, but this failed.
But he was convinced that he could be successful and with his brother, Charles Sumner Woolworth, and his original employer into partnership, he established his second store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in April 1879, and expanding his merchandise to include items at ten cents.
It was an instant success and they began to expand until by 1911 the F.W.Woolworth Company was incorporated, uniting 586 stores.
Frank, as he was affectionately known, had a great affection for England and believed that his shops, known all over America as the 'five and ten' store, would work in this country.
He visited the U.K. and wrote in his diary 'I believe a good penny and sixpence store, run by a live Yankee, would be a sensation here'.
Flying the banner, 3d & 6d Store, in 1909 he opened his first store in this country at Church Street, Liverpool.
But at first customers were reluctant to go through its doors as previously they had walked into a shop, bought something, and then walked out. Whereas with this strange new American store, items were laid out on counters, and they were encouraged to pick things up and examine them.
This reluctance was overcome by opening cafes within the store where pots of tea were offered free of change to shoppers for the first year.
The new Liverpool shop sold everything for the Edwardian Household, it was the time of mass production and thus this enabled him to sell china and glassware at lower prices than his British competitors, customers could find everything from children's clothing and toys to haberdashery and stationery.
The British people found they loved this new way of shopping and by the mid-1920's a new Woolworth's shop was being opened in this country every seventeen days.
Mexborough was not to be outdone in this and on Friday 3rd August 1928 we find, in the South Yorkshire Times, a quarter page advertisement informing us of the opening of a new store in Mexborough and an article covering its construction.
The site, at 42, High Street, had previously been occupied by a gents' outfitter, by the name of Richard Brown & Sons Ltd.
Over this was situated part of the old 'Times' buildings and workshops were to be found to the rear, and work began, on the construction of the new Woolworth's by the demolition of these premises in the spring of 1928.
But the construction of the new store was fraught with difficulties from its commencement and the South Yorkshire Times describes its construction as 'a minor miracle in shop-construction'.
When digging the foundations, and the site where the boiler house was to be situated, a four foot seam of coal was struck plus an expanse of clay.
This caused the area of the site between High Street and Garden Street to be excavated to a depth of twenty-four feet, removing 6,000 tons of clay, the seam of coal was also removed and to ensure the stability of the surrounding buildings, and Garden Street, a six feet wide retaining wall was constructed, and all property had to be en-shored and under-pinned to a depth of thirty feet.
The South Yorkshire Times goes on to tell us that: Mr.J.Ross, of Woolworth's Construction Dept. oversaw the whole enterprise; Mr.B.C.Donaldson, who was the firm's architect, was responsible for the plans, and supervision was by Mr.G.Wilson.
It goes on to state that all labour was local.
Everyone worked well together and because of this and, despite all the problems they had, the store was constructed, and opened for business in no lease than seventeen weeks.
Mr.Robert Hull, of Manchester, who was the first Manager, must have been exceedingly proud of his new shop.
The floors were covered in pitch pine and the counters, of which there was 358 feet, were made of Mahogany, here for the first time customers were to experience not just the customary counters to be found around the walls, but also, what was referred to as 'Islands'.
The walls were panelled in display boards and mirrors, with ceilings covered in Steleonite.
this is pressed steel made to resemble enamel.
There was also the luxury of electric light fitted throughout.
The whole finished interior must have given the store a bright and airy atmosphere, unlike most shops of the day which seemed to favour dark oppressive internal features.
The article goes on to tell us that Mr.Hull was to oversee a staff of no fewer than sixty girls, who ran the thirty-two departments which made up the store.
Messrs F.W.Woolworth's & Co.Ltd., were renowned for being in the forefront of employee care and their Mexborough Branch was no exception as we find that both a rest room and the services of a matron had been provide for their staff, something which was almost unheard of for that time.
Mr.W.D. Baxter, Sales Organiser for their Midlands area, arranged the grand opening and inspection by the general public.
This was to be at 2.30p.m. on Friday 3rd.August 1928, for which palm trees had been shipped in, I presume by rail, plus a full orchestra had been obtained, which was to play certain selected pieces.
My father was only six years old when F.W.Woolworth's opened its door.
But it must have been such a momentous event in both his life, and the life of our town that sixty years later, before his death, he could still remember the banner 'Nothing in the Store Over 6d' also the excitement and buzz felt by the crowds that day.
He remembered the queues down the High Street to go in, and when they eventually got through the doors, even though he held onto his mother's hand so tightly, he was swept along by the crowd's momentum, so much that she had to lift him up to ensure his safety.
The narrowness of Mexborough High Street had long been a danger to traffic and pedestrians alike and since the 1930's there had been various plans to make it safer.
By the early 1960 it began to be rumoured that this would soon come to fruition and in the interest of expansion F.W.Woolworth's obtained the property, above and behind, formerly occupied by the South Yorkshire Times.
In 1966 the newspaper moved out, with much media coverage, to their new, purpose built premises The White Rose printing site, on Station Road.
Then in February 1968 it was announced to the world that the whole of central Mexborough was to be redeveloped and a new By-Pass created on its south side.
In 1974 the skyline of Mexborough was to change forever and by April of that year the south east side of High Street, had been demolished and the following year the new Hillards Supermarket (now Tesco) was opened.
It was soon after this that demolition, by Bramall & Ogden took place of: the buildings which had been used by South Yorkshire Times above and behind Woolworths; and the well loved Blake's Drapery Store, which was then situated next to the existing Woolworth's, thus enabling the construction of a new, larger Woolworth's store to be started.
It was at that time that an incident occurred, I believe, which some of us will still remember.
When, during demolition, tons of scaffolding and rubble crashed onto the High Street.
One driver was nearly hit by the debris and dozens of people fled.
The street was immediately blocked off and an investigation was undertaken by the Government's Factory Inspectors.
How sad I feel my father must have felt, after witnessing the euphoria of its opening, to see the depressing sight my son and I saw just after Christmas.
On 26th Nov.2008, Woolworths went into administration and it was announced that the branch at Mexborough would close on 29th Dec.09 and it was on this day that my son and I went for a last look, and how depressing it was to see the staff stripping the shop of all its stock and placing it into boxes for dispatch.
A sad end to 80 years of business which for a time left a void in the heart of the town.
But let us not end on a sad note as on 29th Jan.2009 the building was taken over by B&M Retailing who, like Woolworths before it, sells everything for the house and family, at reasonable prices.
Who says the spirit of the 'five and ten' store is over? I for one wish them all the luck in the world and hope they will be in Mexborough as long as their predecessor.


By your Chairperson/Researcher J.
R. Ashby Information

Obtained from: The History of the South Yorkshire Times by Rex L. Parkin South Yorkshire Times 03/08/1928, 27/04/1974, 15/09/1978, Mexborough Town Centre Map. Consultants Report Copyright.

This newsletter may not be reproduced, in part or in its entirety, without the permission of J.R. Ashby.

News From the Local History Room
On Saturday 7th March 2009 your society gave a display at the Unity in the Community Event, which was organized by the Don. Fed. Of TARAs, at Doncaster Race Course. There were demonstrations on: juggling; Irish, Street, and Bollywood Dancing; nail and face painting; mounted police horses; the fire service; and many others. It was a beautiful day and I feel everyone enjoyed themselves. The next event your society will attend will be: 10a.m. -  4p.m. Saturday 25th April 2009 Doncaster & District Family History Society, Spring Fair, Doncaster School for the Deaf. This will be followed by 10a.m.- 4p.m. Friday 1st May 2009 Mexborough Resource Centre, Dolcliffe Road, Mexborough. Later this month will be our AGM, held in the Meeting Hall of Mexborough Library. Please keep your eyes on the media for the day and date.

(Copyright: this newsletter may not be reproduced, in part or in its entirety without the permission of Mexborough & District Heritage Society.)