Woolworth’s Architects

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Liverpool, 1909

F. W. Woolworth landed on British soil with a group of hand-picked American managers in 1909 and promptly set about establishing a new chain of 3d. and 6d. stores.

Suitable buildings were identified, converted and, if required, extended with the help of local architects. From the outset a house style was maintained for ground-level shopfronts, but in other respects the exteriors of the earliest stores were architecturally varied. Building work was overseen from a ‘Construction Department’ on the upper floor of Woolworth’s Liverpool headquarters (Store 1), manned by an unnamed ‘elderly gentleman’.

New stores were built for Woolworth’s from 1913. They were developed for the company by Shop Properties Ltd., a subsidiary of the commercial estate agent Hillier & Parker. Shop Properties had its own in-house architects: North & Robin. North & Robin continued to design Woolworth’s stores until c.1919.  A rare example of these early purpose-built branches survives in Ramsgate. It was built in 1916 on the site of the Bull & George Hotel which had been badly damaged by a zeppelin raid in May 1915. North & Robin went on, in the 1920s, to become the chosen architects of C&A Modes Ltd.

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Ramsgate, 1915-16

Meanwhile, Woolworth’s had established its own in-house architects’ department, headed by William Priddle (1885-1932). Priddle had probably trained as an architect. He is known to have worked on Woolworth’s Cricklewood store in 1915, shortly before he was called up to serve in the Great War. As soon as he was demobilised in February 1919 he entered Woolworth’s direct employment, remaining the firm’s chief architect until his death.

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William Priddle

It was Priddle – working under the direction of the Managing Director William L. Stephenson – who oversaw the creation of Woolworth’s first city-centre superstores, starting with large neo-classical buildings for Church Street in Liverpool and Oxford Street in London.

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Liverpool, 1922-23

Priddle also must take credit for introducing a standard frontage for small stores, equally suitable for towns and suburbs. Many of these survive today and remain eminently recognisable, despite the loss of the original red and gold signboards.

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Whitstable, 1932

Such was the pace of Woolworth’s expansion in the 1920s that Priddle could not handle it alone. He was assisted by construction supervisors in London (A. Barton, followed by W. A. Sherrington), in Liverpool (B. C. Donaldson) and, from 1929, in Birmingham (H. Winbourne).  Priddle occasionally chose to work with independent architects, including Peter Dollar and Trehearne & Norman.

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B. C. Donaldson

Priddle died suddenly in 1932 and Bruce Campbell Donaldson (1896-1977) took his place as Woolworth’s chief architect. Donaldson moved to London and was succeeded in Liverpool by a new construction supervisor, W. L. Swinnerton. Unlike Priddle, Donaldson does not appear to have had formal architectural training. Despite this he led Woolworth’s in a whole new architectural direction: down the path of popular art deco and streamline moderne architecture.

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Sunderland, 1936

Alongside a new generation of superstores with cinematic façades clad in faience and embellished with geometric ornamentation, Donaldson developed a new standard front for smaller stores, cast in a tasteful Georgian mould which made Woolworth’s more acceptable on the most traditional high streets.

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Ledbury, 1937

Donaldson suffered personal problems and in 1944 was shunted into a ‘repairs and maintenance’ role. He was superseded as chief architect by Harold Winbourne, who had worked for Woolworth’s since 1922.

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Harold Winbourne

Winbourne’s task was to steer Woolworth’s through the post-war period, reinstating bomb-damaged stores and resuming expansion. The art deco styling and faience fronts beloved of Donaldson vanished. In their place came simpler modern stores, with curtain-wall fronts or ‘punched’ windows with projecting surrounds: approaches typical of the 1950s. A particularly sensitive treatment was required for a new store in Oxford, where Sir William Holford (1907-75) worked alongside Winbourne to win over the company’s critics.

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Canterbury, 1952
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Lochee, Dundee, 1962

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D. Hardy

When Winbourne retired in 1960 he was followed by Doug Hardy, who remained in post until 1980.

Hardy’s construction supervisors were based in four regional headquarters: Liverpool (G. Gilford; R. Chatterton from 1968); Birmingham (W. A. Draysey; G. W. Lindon by 1969); Kensington (W. B. Brown) and Metropolitan (W. A. Spinks to 1970; C. M. Davis c.1970-79; R. S. Power from c.1979).

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G. Reid

Hardy’s deputy, G. Reid, took over in 1980 – surely a bad time to become Woolworth’s chief architect. He enjoyed few of the opportunities afforded in the past to Priddle, Donaldson and Winbourne, who had all played significant (if anonymous) roles in refashioning the appearance of British high streets.

The sale of Woolworth’s in 1982 inaugurated a period of disposal and restructuring, rather than growth, followed by half-hearted attempts to develop a new house style with a succession of consultants.

The heyday of Woolworth’s architectural exploits was well and truly over.

Photographic portraits of Woolworth’s staff taken from the firm’s progress reports and pictorial records of executive management.
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Woolworth’s British Shopfronts

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Store 128: Southampton (c.Historic England)

F. W. Woolworth & Co Ltd occupied a prominent spot on British High Streets for nearly a century, from 1909 until 2009. Beneath the red and gold signboard of the famous 3d and 6d stores, the form of the shopfront – the arrangement of the entrances and display windows – evolved hand-in-hand with more modern approaches to retailing. The fascia, and even the trading name of the company, also changed over the years.

A high-class London shopfitter, Frederick Sage & Co, was instrumental in designing Woolworth’s first British shopfronts. Sage was certainly responsible for the Manchester shopfront of 1910, and probably designed shopfronts for very first British store, on Church Street in Liverpool. Other work by Sage included Harrod’s store in London.

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Store 8: Middlesbrough (c.Historic England)

Woolworth’s maintained its original ‘house style’ with little change until the Great War. Each shopfront had a bronze frame. The entrance lobbies had distinctive features: part-glazed double doors with kick plates and push plates; large fanlights; decorative plaster ceilings, and floor mosaics with the ‘Diamond W’ logo. Barley-twist colonnettes separated the display windows, while a ventilation strip along the top prevented condensation from clouding the plate glass.

‘F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. 3d and 6d Stores’ was spelled out in gilded letters on the low emerald granite stall-risers, under the windows. The name was repeated on the high red and gold fascia and on the retractable canvas sun blinds.

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Store 6: Hull (c.Historic England)

The standard design – which closely resembled Woolworth’s American store fronts – was simplified after the Great War. The barley-twist colonnettes became plain, of square section, and small pediments were introduced over doors. Internal lighting, fixed above the displays, superseded external arc lamps. As a result, from around 1922 fringed pelmets or valances with a floral pattern were hung along the tops of the windows to screen the lights and reduce glare. These remained in place into the 1940s.

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Store 113: Lowestoft (c.Historic England)

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Store 157: Grantham (c. K. Morrison)

From 1923 until the early 1930s Woolworth’s fascias were bracketed by consoles (or ‘trusses’) decorated with lion’s heads. A shield bearing the letter ‘W’, bordered by husks, was suspended from the lion’s mouth.

From the late 1920s, simpler moulded consoles of reconstituted stone were preferred. These were always positioned at the top of polished granite pilasters.

Although several lion’s head consoles have survived – they can be seen, for example, in Bath and Grantham (with the ‘W’ erased), and on the Strand in central London – Woolworth’s 1920s shopfronts have largely gone.

In contrast, several shopfronts installed in the 1930s can still be spotted, for example in Bideford (1938), Ilkeston (1938), Ledbury (1937), Leytonstone (1934), Ludlow (1933), Hertford (1934), Monmouth (1932) and Saffron Walden (1934).

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Store 464: Monmouth (c.Historic England)

By 1935 Woolworth’s new in-house architect, B. C. Donaldson, had started to introduce  art deco touches to store design. Opaque glass panes patterned with ‘W’s, chevrons or waved bands were installed over the window displays, in place of the old-fashioned fabric pelmets. These were made by the London Sand Blast Co. of Islington, and examples can still be seen occasionally, for example in Frinton-on-Sea (1935). The form of entrance doors also gave way to more modern taste in the mid-1930s, becoming much simpler.

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Store 713: Finchley Road, London (c.Historic England)

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Store 939: Matlock (c.Historic England)

The shopfronts of the first wave of purpose-built post-war Woolworth stores, built in the early 1950s, were of chrome or stainless steel rather than bronze. The curves of the pre-war shopfronts gave way to sharp, modern angles.

Illuminated fascias were of white glass with red Perspex lettering, and the transom lights over the window displays were of Belgian white glass, with horizontal lines, usually superimposed with the red ‘Diamond W’ plaque. The ‘Diamond W’ still featured on entrance floors. Above the doors was a strip, 7ins high, with the word ‘Woolworth’ in gilded lettering on a red backdrop.

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Store 44: Norwich (c.Historic England)

Important branches now had shopfronts with streamlined marble surrounds, for example ‘San Stephano marble’ at Bristol (1952). This replaced the traditional architectural surround of  fascia and pilasters. It was set with gilded, red-rimmed, sans serif letters. Later in the 1950s many pre-war shopfronts were updated with louvred pelmets, essentially Venetian blinds, which took the place of the last remaining fabric pelmets.

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Store 869: St Ives, Cambs (c.R. Baxter)

One of the biggest changes to occur in the 1950s was the gradual switch from solidly-backed window displays to so-called ‘clearview’ fronts. Entrances effectively became more important than windows. The armour-plated entrance doors widened and multiplied – giving unobstructed views of interiors –  while displays of goods shrank. As a result, free-standing structural supports appeared on frontages – these had previously been hidden inside windows.

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Store 166: Stirling (c.Historic England)

Through the 1960s surrounds were usually either red or grey, of mosaic or granite, though other materials were used, including formica ‘Beautyboard’. Until 1965 letters were of sans serif type, of gold with red outlines. Letters with neon tube edging, with names such as ‘Regency’, ‘Embassy’ or ‘Kent’, were manufactured for Woolworth by Pearce. In 1965 the sans serif lettering was superseded by blocky Egyptian lettering, called ‘Shrewsbury’ lettering, which could be red or yellow and often assumed a gigantic scale. From summer 1968 the full name of the company was dropped from new fascias and replaced with ‘WOOLWORTH’. Increasingly, the ‘WOOLWORTH’ lettering was set directly on the building rather than on a fascia.

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Store 1107: Banbridge (c.Historic England)

Around 1970 Woolworth’s began to clad shopfront pilasters and external structural piers in white oblong tiles supplied by Langley’s. Fascias were normally of mosaic tiles (still red or pale grey), ‘Stelvetite’ (plastic-coated steel, usually white), fibreglass or, from 1976, ‘Duraform’ (reinforced plastic sheeting). Towards the end of 1971, the Egyptian lettering was abandoned in favour of italicised sans serif letters – either white on a bright red mosaic ground, or vice versa.

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Store 147: Burton-on-Trent (c.Historic England)

The new lettering of the 1970s was accompanied by the looping W, usually called the basket symbol or Winfield logo. Superseding the ‘Diamond W’, from 1973 it appeared on the push plates of a new design of stainless steel doors, referred to as ‘Hartlepool doors’. Lobby floors were now plain. Like many of Woolworth’s 1960s store makeovers, the new red-and-white look was not applied to the entire portfolio, just to new and remodelled stores. Many outlets continued to display older forms of lettering for years to come.

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Store 27: Newcastle (c. Emily Cole)

Several experimental shopfront revamps followed the acquisition of Woolworth by Paternoster (Woolworth Holdings) in 1982. The one with the greatest impact – enduring through the Kingfisher years – had an aluminium frame, powder-coated in peppermint blue, with miniature ‘Diamond W’ logos on the push-plates of the doors. Above, the fascias were sprayed with buff-coloured ‘Wallglaze’ and set with acrylic red-faced, gold-edged ‘WOOLWORTHS’ lettering, sometimes given blue edging. The new name with an ‘S’ officially superseded ‘WOOLWORTH’ in March 1986.

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Store 317: Wellingborough (c. K. Morrison)

Woolworth Group, formed after flotation in 2001, again experimented with various designs before settling on a red and white livery with a swoosh logo for mainstream stores. This house style endured until the bitter end, in the winter of 2008-2009.

Read more about Woolworth’s history: Kathryn A. Morrison, Woolworth’s 100 Years on the High Street, Historic England, 2015.

Woolworths

 

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Cooper’s Motor Mart (Cooper’s Studios)

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Cooper’s in June 2005

Cooper’s Auction Yard (later Cooper’s Motor Mart) on Westgate Road in Newcastle-upon-Tyne was built for James Cooper (1849-1925). Cooper, the son of a harbour master from South Shields, set himself up as a horse dealer in the yard of the Crown & Thistle Inn, Groat Market, in 1878. Business evidently thrived.

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Cooper’s last occupant prior to redevelopment was Hertz (2005)

In 1897 Cooper commissioned the Gateshead architect T. Dawson to design a horse and carriage auction house, with stabling for 150 horses, carriage storage, and one particularly modern feature – a showroom for motor cars. This was spelled out on Dawson’s plans of March 1897, entitled ‘Horse, Carriage, Cycle and Auto Car Repository’. At the time there were very few motor cars on England’s roads, and so this was an extraordinarily far-sighted development. In fact, Cooper’s appears to have been the earliest purpose-built car showroom in the country.

The location of the building, close to the central railway station, was of strategic importance. Its position over Hadrian’s Wall proved equally important in 2005, when Cooper’s was threatened with demolition. This apparently helped to rescue the building, and bring it back to life.

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Horse ramp to second floor (2005)

Before its redevelopment as offices (Cooper’s Studios, by Ryder Architects) around 2008, Cooper’s was largely unchanged from its glory days at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, when horses and carriages were still dominant. A wooden horse ramp survived, as did fittings such as tethering rings, gas pipes, and some of the original stable flooring.

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The auction room (2005)

The most striking feature of the building was the auction room, with a ‘horse run’ in the centre. This was lit from above by skylights. It was overlooked by a cantilevered gallery which ran along one side at first-floor level, and also by an oriel window, probably for Cooper’s own use.

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Cooper’s top-floor showroom (2005)

The top floor – for auto cars, carriages and cycles – was open to the roof and served by a vehicle lift. The central well created a 140ft circuit where people could test bicycles and, possibly, light cars. One end was curved.

In 1925 the building was adapted as a motor car garage by the architects Percy L. Brown & Son, perhaps better known for designing cinemas and theatres. This conversion was probably instigated by James Cooper junior after his father’s death. Stables were superseded by a new ground-floor motor showroom, petrol pumps were installed, and the lift was replaced.

The plant room at the top of the lift shaft still displays lettering from c.1925, executed effectively in white brick, proclaiming the presence of ‘Cooper’s Motor Mart’.

Cooper’s was listed, Grade II, in 2005.

 

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Macy’s Garage, Balderton Street, London

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Macy’s (then Avis) in 2006.

This historic garage can be found just off London’s bustling Oxford Street, opposite the main entrance to Selfridge’s department store. Built as Macy’s Garage in 1925-26, it was one of London’s most imposing car parks.

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Macy’s in 1926, photographed by Bedford Lemere for E. Wimperis (c. Historic England)

Macy’s Garage was designed by the architects Wimperis & Simpson. They opted for a neo-classical style – a departure from the industrial  appearance of earlier garages – with brick walls rendered in ‘Atlas White’ Portland cement. The internal structure was of concrete and steel and the windows had metal frames.

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The back of the petrol filling station in 2006

A petrol filling station occupied the centre of the frontage, set between low pavilions. Ten pumps were arranged in pairs on a curved island.  Behind them lay a showroom.

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Looking down the ramp in 2006.

Cars could be driven up a long, gentle ramp from a side street to the first floor. A washing stance was positioned conveniently close to the top of the ramp. To reach the other floors, vehicles had to be transported by lift (or ‘motor hoist’).

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The ground-floor vehicle lift and turntable in 2006.

In May 1927 it was announced that The Car Mart Ltd. had taken over Macy’s. The Car Mart, founded in 1908, was one of London’s oldest dealerships. Its headquarters occupied impressive purpose-built premises at the bottom of Park Lane. Macy’s became its service station, and for a couple of years the upper floors continued to be available for public parking. An account of the garage in Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News gives a flavour of the clientele at this time:

Here live the hundreds of big cars belonging to the dwellers in the new Park Lane flats, and here scores of their chauffeurs are able to enjoy every kind of otium cum dignitate while off duty. Huge lifts convey countless cars to their resting places, the tasks of washing and greasing and filling tanks seem to be carried out almost robotically, while for the waiting drivers are provided canteens and waiting rooms so convenient and so comfortable that it is no wonder that already applications for membership are beginning to exceed the space available. (Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, 3 November 1928, 52)

By 1929, however, the garage was devoted exclusively to ‘wholesale activities’, and in 1931 it was taken over by Dagenham Motors (a subsidiary of The Car Mart), which dealt in Ford cars and commercial vehicles under annual contracts. Macy’s was no longer a public car park.

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The second floor in 2006.

Dagenham Motors’ showroom was on the top floor, servicing for commercial vehicles on the second, and servicing for cars on the first. The company installed a turntable in front of the car lift; this was still in place in 2006.

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Detail of turntable in 2006.

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Avis’s washing bay in 2006.

Dagenham Motors remained at Balderton Street until the early 1980s. The garage was taken over by Avis as a hire car garage and then, in 2010-14, converted into the Beaumont Hotel, with a monumental figure sculpture by Antony Gormley, called Room, seated atop one of the side pavilions.

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Room by Antony Gormley (Matt Brown via Wikimedia Commons). The interior is a hotel suite.

Macy’s is one of very few multi-storey parking garages to have been listed. It received this accolade (Grade II) shortly before its conversion, in 2009.

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View from third-floor window in 2006.

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The Electromobile Garage in Mayfair

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The Electromobile Garage from the air. The building has brick walls and metal-framed windows. Originally the roof was used just for washing cars, raised by lifts. (c. Historic England)

The Electromobile Garage lies hidden behind the grand façades of Mayfair, in the guise of NCP Carrington Street. The building may have little architectural presence on the street front, but it played a fascinating role in the early motoring history of London. Its story is especially intriguing in an age witnessing the (possible) revival of the electric motor car.

This was one of the main hire garages in London before the Great War, supplying chauffeured electric carriages for pootling about Town at a cost of 6s. per hour. A similar service was offered by other companies, such as the Electric Landaulet Co. Ltd. on Upper Manor Street in Chelsea (and briefly at the Niagara), but Electromobile was the main player in the West End.

The Electromobile Co. had started out in Juxton Street, Lambeth, in 1903, in the former headquarters of the London Electric Cab Co. Soon afterwards it moved to Mayfair, converting Messrs East’s livery stables in Curzon Street. In need of ever-larger premises, in December 1906 the company bought a site on Hertford Street, off Piccadilly. Old buildings – stables and coach houses – were demolished and Electromobile erected a new parking garage which was closer to the modern concept of a multi-storey car park than anything hitherto seen in England. At the time of opening, on 8 November 1907, it was advertised as ‘The World’s Greatest Garage’. It was described rather charmingly in the RAC Journal as ‘a motor house of enormous size; it is even said to be the largest in the world’. It needs a leap of imagination to appreciate this in 2017.

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Cars leaving the Electromobile Garage in 1907 (The Car, 4 Dec 1907, 146)

This functional three-level parking garage was designed by Electromobile and built by Perry & Co. It included several innovations. The exit and entrance were separate, side by side on Carrington Street. Just inside were two battery lifts, one to remove the spent battery from underneath carriages, and the other to fit a charged battery. No need for the motorist to wait for a battery to recharge – simply exchange it for another! Over 300 batteries could be recharged at any one time in the basement battery shop. This system was the equivalent of the petrol pump kept by the entrance of more conventional garages.

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The Battery Department (The Car, 4 Dec 1907, 147)

For parking, cars were pushed sideways onto a platform running on rails between ‘sidings’ (parking spaces). These ‘transversers or trolley ways’ had been used previously by the company to exchange batteries, but were now used for parking on the ground and first floors. This could be seen as a semi-mechanised parking system. Cars were moved between floors by three hydraulic lifts. One of these went up to the flat roof, where cars could be washed.

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Ground-floor parking: note the runners for the tranversers in the floor (The Car, 4 Dec 1907, 146)

The chauffeurs employed by the company had their own lockers, where they kept their uniforms, and a mess room connected by telephone to the timekeeper’s office by the garage entrance. In fact most London garages had facilities of this type, right up to the Second World War.

In 1907 The Car published this comment about electric cars:

Recognised as a kind of fuel requiring regular renewal, treated with proper care and supervision upon scientific lines, and dealt with as a source of power detachable from, and independent of, the carriage which it can propel, it has found its proper sphere, and the electric carriage has attained high rank amongst automobiles (The Car, 4 December 1907, 148)

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Invitation to the opening of the Electromobile Garage in November 1907

The big difference between electric cars then and now was the detachable battery. Perhaps an idea worth reviving!

In 1910 a sister company was created, the Hertford Street Motor Hiring Co. Ltd. This operated from the same premises as Electromobile, but hired out luxury cars – notably Napiers – which ran on petrol. These were advertised as being suitable for weekends in the country, while electric cars were still recommended for Town.

By 1913 the building was occupied by the Universal Motors and little more was said about electric cars. Petrol had won the battle as the fuel of choice for London motorists. Throughout the 1920s Universal Motors continued to run the old Electromobile Garage as a standard public parking garage –  as it remains to the present day. The lifts were replaced by long ramps: otherwise, the building has hardly changed since 1907!

The archive images in this post were sourced from the Veteran Car Club of Great Britain, whose Library is in Ashwell, Herts. Find out more about the history of early car parks in Carscapes: the Motor Car, Architecture & Landscape in England
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The Niagara Garage, Westminster

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The interior of Wolseley’s Niagara Garage in 1913 (c. Historic England, Bedford Lemere)

One of the most unusual garages in early 20th-century London was the Niagara Garage on York Street (now Petty France) in Westminster. This had been built as a panorama, and later used as an ice-skating rink.

The building, described rather optimistically as a ‘portable’ iron structure, was designed by the wonderfully-named architect, Robert Emeriti Tyler (1840-1908). Behind a neo-classical façade it included two halls, one circular and the other rectangular, each surrounded by galleries. It opened in 1881 as the Westminster Panorama with the Battle of Waterloo but was reinvented in 1883 as the National Panorama, showing the Battle of el Kebir. In 1888 it became the Niagara Cyclorama and Museum, exhibiting a cycloramic painting by Paul Philippoteaux called ‘Niagara in London’. This was enormously popular, and the building came to be known as Niagara Halls, or simply Niagara.

An American theme pervaded the Niagara:

Besides the attractions of the Falls and the Rapids visitors will find a real Indian store, such as you may see in Niagara village. Here you will be able to buy Indian beadwork, mocassins, canoes, and all manner of curios. There will be no doubt to their genuineness, for half a dozen real Indians will be at work within. A troop of negro waiters have also been imported from Buffalo, to minister to the bodily requirements of the visitor (Pall Mall Gazette, 27 February 1888, 5).

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The ticket hall of Niagara in 1888 (c. Historic England, Bedford Lemere)

In 1893 the Niagara panorama was transformed from summer to winter by the judicious application of white paint, and in 1895 the circular central space was converted into an ice-skating rink with plant by L. Sterne & Co. The Niagara panorama was retained as a backdrop, and the gallery became a lounge.

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Fig: Skating at Niagara, with the famous panorama in the background (ILN 19 January 1895)

The skaters’ paradise closed in spring 1902, and the Niagara canvas (400ft by 38ft) was sold off for £200. The property was bought by an electric car company, the City & Suburban Electric Carriage Co., which already (indeed, since shortly after its formation in 1901) occupied a garage with an electric lift in Shaftesbury Buildings, 6 Denman Street, Piccadilly.

The use of the Niagara as a garage had American precedents. In 1897 ‘the first recorded parking garage in the United States’ had come into existence when a skating rink at 1684 Broadway, New York, was taken over by the Electric Vehicle Co., and amongst the first parking structures in Boston and Washington DC were converted cycloramas.
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City & Suburban could store around 230 vehicles at Niagara, compared with 100 at Denman Street. This was undoubtedly one of the largest garages in London. While City & Suburban offered some vehicles for hire, its main business was car sales – patrons included the King, Queen and Prince of Wales – and all-inclusive garaging and servicing. Year-round garaging was a novelty in 1902:

The rapid disappearance, in the residential parts of town, of space available for accommodating our motors suggests their being housed together. So for a tariff of £12 or £14 monthly, the company undertakes to house, clean, lubricate, and generally supervise your car, supply it with current, and insure it against damage and injury. On a rather higher tariff, the batteries, tyres, and all working parts will be renewed, and you may therefore command an exclusive and handsome vehicle by day or night, with neither horse to die, nor stable to maintain (Pall Mall Gazette, 26 December 1902, 7)

After City & Suburban was wound up in winter 1903-04, the Niagara Garage appears to have been kept up by the liquidator. Throughout 1904-05 part of the premises was let as offices to a hire company, the Electric Landaulette Co., which retained its main garage in Chelsea. In 1905 the liquidator sold the business, including the Niagara and Denman Street garages, to the Wolseley Tool & Motor Car Co., a Birmingham motor-car manufacturer. Wolseley concentrated City & Suburban’s business at Niagara, opening there in 1906.

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Inside the Niagara in 1913: note the car lift (c. Historic England, Bedford Lemere)

Wolseley’s head staff were transferred to London from Birmingham. Niagara became the London Sales Depot and Garage, managed by J. E. Hutton. In 1921 Wolseley opened splendid new showrooms on Piccadilly, now the Wolseley restaurant.

Wolseley could garage 60 cars in the central space – the former panorama and ice rink – with another 50 on the gallery, plus 22 in lock-ups. The gallery was served by an electric car lift and heated by hot-water pipes. Its upper walls (where the panorama had originally hung) were plastered with advertisements – interesting, considering that the first advertising exhibition in London had been held in Niagara Hall in 1899. The complex included a glass-roofed washing space, a small repair shop which could be used by chauffeurs, a reading and recreation room with lavatories and cloakroom, and a main repair shop with trestles for cars, rather than pits. Smoking was prohibited!

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Inside Niagara in 1913, showing lock-ups on the gallery  (c. Historic England, Bedford Lemere)

Wolseley was continuously improving its facilities at Niagara: around 1910 an underground level was created and an extra lift was installed; in 1911 it became the official RAC garage; also in 1911, it opened a Motoring School, and introduced gates by the timekeepers’ lodge which could be raised and lowered, controlling entry and exit.

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The Niagara’s new underground parking level in 1913 (c. Historic England, Bedford Lemere)

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The Timekeeper’s Lodge and barriers in 1911 (RAC Journal, 8 September 1911, 186)

In 1927 the Niagara was taken over by the Westminster Garage Ltd. It was remodelled by E. H. Major in 1928 to provide chauffeurs with first-floor bedrooms, mess rooms and recreation rooms; its kitchen served meals from 8am until midnight. The building survived the Second World War and was probably demolished around 1970.

Find out more about the history of early car parks in Carscapes: the Motor Car, Architecture & Landscape in England
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The Story of Dunn’s the Hatter

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Thornton’s, formerly Dunn & Co., Lincoln

Introduction

Dunn & Co. was the most recognisable chain of men’s hatters throughout the first three-quarters of the 20th century. By the late 1920s it was also a men’s outfitters. A failure to keep up with changing fashions – which no longer involved hats – led to the company’s demise in the 1990s.

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Lush, formerly Dunn & Co., Bournemouth (photo: 2010)

Mr Dunn

Dunn’s was founded by an idealistic Quaker, George Arthur Dunn (1865-1939), who was born and raised in Birmingham. Dunn’s father switched profession to a remarkable degree: leather cutter (1861), hardware dealer (1871), publisher’s manager (1881), then cigar merchant (1901). By 1881 George was working as an assistant to a hatter.

George’s wife, Lucy Day, came from Gloucestershire and in January 1886 they moved to Cheltenham with their first child. George took up work as a grocer’s assistant. The family seems to have moved briefly to Gloucester (where Ellis Randolph Dunn was born in 1886), then to Stoke Newington in north London (where Lloyd Stafford Dunn was born in 1888). By 1889 they had settled at 140 High Street, Shoreditch (now The Golden Horn / Present London). It was probably in London, around 1887, that George Arthur Dunn started his own business as a hatter, and began to open branch shops.

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Formerly Dunn & Co, Ilford (photo: 2002)

As Dunn grew prosperous on 3s. 9d. hats, he moved his family to Maida Vale and then, in 1905, to ‘The Aubrey’s’, Redbourne, Hertfordshire. The Dunns were strictly vegetarian –  rice cutlets took pride of place on the menu for Ellis Randolph’s coming-of-age party in 1907. All of Dunn’s sons refused, for ethical reasons, to enter their father’s business. Embracing ‘Back to the Land’ principles, they took up experimental market gardening on individual plots adjoining ‘The Aubrey’s’ – land jointly referred to as ‘The Four Brother’s Farm’ – refusing even to mulch their fruit trees and vegetable beds with animal manure. They were granted exemption from service during the Great War as conscientious objectors, on condition they worked as farm labourers. Somewhat inevitably, the story in the local paper was headlined ‘Cranks at St Albans’.

Dunn shared his son’s values, saying: ‘There are a great many things in my business of which I disapprove, and I am scheming gradually to get out of it, to hand it over for the benefit of those engaged in it, with a limit, I hope, to the amount anyone may make out of it before retiring’ (Liverpool Echo, 4 May 1916, 4).

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Thornton’s, formerly Dunn & Co., Lincoln

And so, around 1929 Dunn transferred the company to his managers. His retirement project was a ‘food reform’ hydro, the Branksome Dene Hotel in Dorset, which was ‘fruitarian and vegetarian’. Dunn died in August 1939, and his fruitarian hotel died with him.

Dunn’s Shops

At the time of Dunn’s retirement there were around 300 Dunn’s hat shops throughout the country, plus franchises. Already, despite the small size of many of the outlets, Dunn’s had branched out into men’s formal wear.

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Middlesbrough in 1923: mock-framed but no stained glass!

It was probably in the 1920s that Dunn’s developed a particularly distinctive form of shopfront which endured as the house style for many years. This had a mock-timber-framed surround, including open spandrels filled with leaded glass. Across the top of the doors and display windows, a band of transom lights was filled with stained glass, depicting the coats of arms of major British cities against a textured emerald green glass ground. Fascias were usually bookended by fluted brackets and bore rounded lettering – ‘Dunn & Co.’ and ‘Hat Makers’ – in a vaguely Celtic font.

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Thornton’s, formerly Dunn & Co, Lincoln

The shopfronts are ascribed, on surviving plans, to ‘G. A. Dunn & Co. Estate Department’, but there is no evidence that the company made a habit of designing and erected new buildings – it simply installed its shops in existing premises.

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Formerly Dunn & Co., Ilford (photo: 2002)

The olde-worlde style of Dunn’s shopfronts reveals a similar approach to W. H. Smith and Boots the Chemist. The idea of making references to cities where Dunn’s had branches – demonstrating its national reach – can be compared with Burton’s more modern-looking ‘chain of merit’. Indeed, since Dunn’s was also a men’s outfitters this might be viewed as an act of plagiarism – though it is unclear who came up with the idea first!

The End

Dunn’s performed reasonably through the middle of the 20th century, though the number of shops had dropped to 180 by 1962. By the early 1990s, Dunn’s was facing serious difficulties. Forty shops were sold in 1991 to Hedges, who kept the Dunn & Co name. In 1994, however, a major stake was sold, and just two years later, in December 1996, the receivers were brought in to wind up the business. At that time 130 shops still bore the Dunn’s brand name – this was bought by Ciro Citterio, which itself went into administration in 2005.

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Thornton’s, formerly Dunn & Co., Lincoln

Dunn’s, like so many other stalwarts of the 20th-century British High Street, has left a legacy of shopfronts in a national house style, which can still be spotted – once you know what to look for!

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