The co-operative movement is considered the pioneer of self-service shopping in the UK. It opened its first self-service section in Romford in 1942 and its first fully self-service store in Upton Park in 1948.
My recently published article, ‘The great new shopping idea: introducing self-service in the British Isles’ (link below), reveals that self-service existed before 1939. Indeed, self-service was gaining momentum in the years 1938-39. Had it not been for the outbreak of war, it would probably have been widespread by the early 1940s.
Self-service shopping was preceded by, and informed by, cafeterias. The first significant self-service cafeteria in the UK opened in Ponting’s department store in London in 1926. Others followed Ponting’s lead and by the late 1930s the experience of eating in a bustling American-style cafeteria had become an intrinsic part of the working-class seaside holiday, the city-centre shopping excursion, and the worker’s lunch hour.
When self-service was implemented in shops, it was often called ‘the cafeteria system’. In some shops customers even used trays, rather than baskets, to collect their items.
Self-service, or serve-yourself, was also adopted in the womenswear sector. The first experiment, in the 1920s, failed, but it was successfully implemented – in chain stores, department stores and variety stores – from the mid-1930s onwards. The main pioneer appears to have been Willsons, which had a chain of popular shops throughout the country. Women were encouraged to browse through rails of clothing and try on garments in fitting rooms, only interacting with a sales assistant at the point of sale.
Self-service grocery and provisions stores also opened, the first being a branch of David Greig in 1923. Two attempts to set up self-service chains – Value Ltd. and Help-Yourself Stores Ltd. – failed, probably due to problems with packaging. Value had been founded in 1926 by a Canadian entrepreneur, and it was another Canadian – W. Garfield Weston – who implemented self-service in Belfast in 1935-36 after taking over Stewart’s Cash Stores. The names of two other developments reveal influence from the USA: the Piggly-Wiggly department in Spooner’s department store and Big Bear in Dublin.
Surprisingly, the biggest pre-war self-service chain was Self Service Stores, set up by the Buttercup Dairy Co. This had 14 branches – mainly in Edinburgh – by the outbreak of war.
The introduction of rationing, coupled with food shortages, made it difficult to maintain self-service systems after 1939. When self-service reappeared, it was usually as part of a hybrid system, with traditional counters for rationed goods. It was only in 1948 that it began to take off, once again, thanks to encouragement from American manufacturers and suppliers who were eying up the potential of war-torn Europe.
The co-op certainly made an important contribution by demonstrating how self-service could circumnavigate the problematic economic conditions of the 1940s, but it can no longer be proclaimed the pioneer of self-service in the British Isles.
On 12 January 2023 social media was awash with blogs and posts – including ones published by respected bodies like the British Library and Historic England – celebrating the opening of ‘the first British supermarket’ on 12 January 1948 at Manor Park in East London. National newspapers recycle this claim on an annual basis.
The London Co-operative Society actually opened its self-service store at Manor Park in autumn 1951. This was a new shop – like the earlier Pimlico branch – furnished with turnstiles, a long central gondola, a refrigerated cabinet for fats rations (packaged for one, two, three or four people) and two checkouts equipped with Addo machines.
Contemporary co-op reports confirm that the branch opened by the London Co-operative Society on Monday 12 January 1948 was located in Green Street, Upton Park. Admittedly, this is not very far from Manor Park. And both have ‘Park’ in the name. Confusion is understandable. Still, it seems a shame that on 12 January every year Manor Park should steal Upton Park’s thunder.
I have yet to discover when Upton Park got confused with Manor Park in the first place – one of the earliest instances I’ve found is a book called The Chronology of British History, published in 1992, possibly following The Book of Firsts of 1982.
So, let’s put all of this into a broader historical context.
The London Co-operative Society spearheaded the resumption of self-service retailing in the British Isles in the 1940s. It converted a small part of its Romford store to self-service in 1942. Several other conversions followed, including branches in Barkingside and West Hounslow. Interiors were usually divided into a counter-service section for rationed goods and a self-service section for unrationed goods. The format was sometimes referred to as ‘semi self-service’ or ‘the hybrid system’.
Upton Park was the first new branch to operate entirely on a self-service basis. It was very small, however, with just one checkout. Hardly a ‘supermarket’. At the same time, Barkingside and West Hounslow were altered to operate a complete self-service system. If any of these stores qualified as a ‘supermarket’ in 1948, it was Barkingside, which occupied 2,000 sq. ft.
Manor Park is not the only co-operative store for which spurious claims of primacy have been made. In 1978 a plaque was installed on the façade of the Portsea Island Co-operative Society store at 147 Albert Road, Southsea. This complete self-service conversion opened in March or April 1948, some months after Upton Park, Barkingside and West Hounslow. Nevertheless, the plaque proclaimed this to be: ‘the first self service shop in Great Britain’. When the building was reconstructed earlier this century the plaque was not reinstated: maybe someone had realised their error.
As for the ‘first self-service shop’ in Great Britain, this was probably David Greig’s Turnpike Lane branch of 1923. The ‘first supermarket’ – well, several different examples might be suggested, depending on how the term is defined. In the 1950s and 1960s the basic definition of ‘supermarket’ was a self-service store of 2,000 sq. ft. or more, selling food and household goods, and having at least three checkouts.
The notion that Manor Park was Britain’s first supermarket is so deeply embedded in the world wide web and lists of ‘firsts’ that I doubt this blogpost will dispel the myth. But don’t be surprised if I fire off irritable tweets when it pops up in my timeline again, on 12 January 2024!
Main Sources: A. E. Hammond, Self-Service Trading, 1950; Co-operative News 17 Jan 1948; 27 Dec 1978; Self-Service 1:1, Dec 1951; J. Birchall, Co-op: The People’s Business, 1994.
Research and text copyright K. Morrison. Images of store interiors from Hammond 1950 and Self-Service 1951.
One hundred years ago the very first self-service grocery shop in the British Isles was opened in North London by the multiple provision dealer David Greig (1866-1952), a rival of J. Sainsbury’s.
This pioneering retail experiment was ignored by contemporary newspapers, but in 1951 the company revealed that it took place in its Turnpike Lane branch in 1923. Turnpike Lane was located close to the spot in High Street, Hornsey, where the chain originated in the 1870s. Directories confirm that the exact address was 111-113 Turnpike Lane: the middle of a mid-Victorian shopping parade.
Wrought ironwork displaying the firm’s ubiquitous thistle logo is still affixed to the brickwork above the modern shopfront of No. 113, where it once framed a signboard. Otherwise, the firm has left no lasting trace of its occupancy.
The Turnpike Lane experiment was probably inspired by self-service shops seen by Greig and his wife when they spent six weeks in America in summer 1922.
Greig’s self-service shop is known to have measured just 18ft. by 40ft. It was equipped with one-way turnstiles at both entrance and exit, obliging customers to perform a full circuit.
Goods were displayed on island units, as well as on shelves. The units stood 6ft. tall: more like modern supermarket fixtures than the low gondolas favoured in the 1940s and 1950s. For reasons of hygiene, no goods were positioned within 3ft. of the floor.
Despite extra work involved in packaging, labelling and pricing provisions such as bacon and cheese, Greig’s self-service trial proved modestly successful. Nevertheless, because profits were not sufficiently spectacular, it ceased after just seven or eight months. In later years, the company expressed regret for the premature termination of the Turnpike Lane experiment, suggesting that if they had persevered the history of self-service shopping in Britain might have been quite different.
Other British experiments in self-service grocery shopping followed in the 1920s and 1930s, but were mostly short-lived. The method only took off towards the end of the Second World War when it was embraced by several co-operative stores in North London. Multiples like Tesco and Marks & Spencer began self-service trials in 1947-48, but it was the 1950s before David Grieg revisited the format.
Unlike Greig’s original premises in Hornsey, the ground-breaking shop in Turnpike Lane has never been marked by a commemorative plaque. Indeed, its historical importance seems to be completely unknown. The centenary of Greig’s precocious self-service experiment offers an opportunity to put this right.
Text, research and photographs, copyright K. Morrison.
The receipts published here relate to purchases made between 1868 and 1880 by Christina Morrison (Mrs Charles Morrison), then living in Cromwell Street in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, with her shopkeeper husband and growing brood of small children.
With their florid mid-Victorian lettering, these slips of paper are a reminder of four long-forgotten Stornoway businesses.
They also yield a few surprises: a business run by two women; an extreme punishment for theft; the loss of a much-admired incomer, and a devious attempt to evade sequestration upon bankruptcy.
W. & A. Macpherson
In 1868 W. & A. Macpherson, dressmakers, charged Mrs Morrison 4s. 4d. for making a dress, including the price of thread. Mrs Morrison had no doubt supplied the material.
The receipt is signed ‘Annie Macpherson’. This was surely the Annie Macpherson, dressmaker, who was living with her father, George Macpherson, at 24 Bayhead, Stornoway, when the Census was taken in 1871.
Annie’s elder sister – the unusually named Winewood – was also listed as a dressmaker. It thus looks as if W. & A. Macpherson were not Willie and Alex (as one might assume in Stornoway!) but Winewood and Annie. A rare example of a Victorian business run by two women. When Christina patronised the Macphersons in 1868, Winewood and Annie were both in their mid-thirties and unmarried.
In October 1877 Mrs Morrison bought a skirt from the shop of Kenneth Smith, general merchant, paying 8s. cash.
Kenneth Smith (1833-1904), fish curer and merchant, lived in the United Presbyterian Manse in Lewis Street. His extensive commercial premises ran through from 17 Cromwell Street to Kenneth Street. The frontage included a double shop (with two entrances), seemingly in the building currently occupied by Stornoway Library. Smith’s outbuildings were damaged in a great fire which devastated Cromwell Street in 1903, destroying James Mackenzie’s building further along the street.
One notable mention of Smith’s business crops up in newspapers in 1865, when a woman named Ann Macdonald was sentenced to eight years penal servitude for stealing unbleached cotton from Smith on four different occasions.
Fraser & Macleod
Fraser & Macleod, drapers and silk mercers, were located in Concrete Buildings on South Beach. This was three doors west of the Imperial Hotel, which later became the Louise Carnegie Hostel and is now the site of An Lanntair. Fraser & Macleod would therefore have been neighbours of Matthew Russell, general merchant, in Waverley Buildings on the corner of South Beach and Cromwell Street.
In August 1880 Mrs Morrison bought two straw hats from Fraser & Macleod. Each hat was priced 3s. 3d., so she paid a total of 6s. 6d. in cash.
In March 1881 Thomas Fraser left Stornoway to open a store in Inverness. The partnership of Fraser & Macleod had recently taken over the business of Robertson & Watt at Caledonian House, 25 Union Street, and cleared much of the old stock in their Stornoway premises. Fraser had been highly regarded in town and was treated to a farewell dinner with much speechifying in the Lews Hotel.
Alexander Murray was a draper, grocer, bookseller, stationer, wine and sprit merchant in Cromwell Street. In February 1880 Mrs Morrison bought 1½ yards of flannel from his shop for 2s. 9d.
Alexander Murray began his business in 1863 with £200 of his own money and a loan of £60 from a brother-in-law. He thrived until around 1870. Rather than living over his shop, he resided with his mother in the family home at 37 or 39 Keith Street (old numbering).
When he became insolvent in spring 1881 Murray tried to pull off a wily trick. He quickly transferred his firm to a new partnership comprising his 86-year-old mother, Margaret Morison or Murray, and his salesman, his young nephew William Stewart, who lived with his parents at 42 Keith Street (again, old numbering). The partnership (or ‘co-partnery’) continued the business under Alexander Murray’s name and management.
When Murray was declared bankrupt the partners claimed ownership of the assets. Not surprisingly, the legality of this move was robustly challenged by Murray’s creditors and the deed of partnership was dissolved. After an appeal failed, in November 1881, Murray’s bankrupt stock was disposed of at auction.
Murray subsequently vanishes from the historical record but, according to some unverified family trees, emigrated to California where he died in Los Angeles.
If you have information about these four shops, please post a comment below.
Irwin’s was a popular regional grocery chain from the 1880s until 1960, when it was taken over by Tesco and phased out. The shops spread from the company’s Liverpool heartland, along the North Wales coast.
The founder, John Irwin (1839-1920), was the son of a farmer in Clones, County Armagh. He seems to have served an apprenticeship with a grocer in Dublin before moving to England in either 1864 or 1867 (reports vary!) and opening a grocery shop in Westminster Road, Kirkdale.
In the early 1870s Irwin travelled to the States, but disliked the experience and returned after six months. He then began to open branch shops, starting in Kirkdale and Bootle. As the business grew, Irwin concentrated on Liverpool’s suburbs, just as Sainsbury’s was then colonising the suburban centres of London. He had 15 shops by 1887.
By 1891 John Irwin had moved with his family to Birkdale, outside Southport. A year later, on 11 November 1892, John Irwin, Sons & Co. Ltd. was registered as a private limited company described as a wholesale grocer and provision dealer. Shares were held by Irwin in partnership with his eldest son – James Nathaniel Irwin (1865-1944), who was in business in Crosby – together with a corn merchant, a warehouseman, a bookkeeper, a clerk and an accountant, presumably Irwin’s associates or employees. By 1902 Irwin’s had branches in 21 districts in the vicinity of Liverpool.
In later years it was another son, John Arthur Irwin (1872-1923), who succeeded his father as managing director of Irwin’s. On his death, the founder made a generous bequest of shares to employees, ranging from directors to humble shop assistants. No family member was in a position to follow John Arthur. Until 1930 the business was managed by W. C. Harrison, who introduced a profit-sharing scheme in 1925.
Irwin’s provided a higher level of service than many multiple grocers and provision dealers. By 1920 it was offering a cash-on-delivery service within the Liverpool area. Groceries were delivered by Irwin’s fleet of red vans. A red livery was also adopted for the shops, which were often referred to in the firm’s advertising as ‘The Ruby Red Stores’. One of the earliest purpose-built stores survives on Green Lane, Liverpool. At the top of the red brick façade the name of the company is proclaimed on the parapet, in moulded terracotta lettering.
One of Irwin’s main products in the 1890s and 1900s was Lansdowne butter from a creamery in Kenmare, Ireland. Fine mosaic panels advertising both Irwin’s and Lansdowne butter survive on the exteriors of shops in Wallasey and Wavertree. It is possible that the cost was shared with the producer, in the manner of tobacco manufacturers.
Irwin’s had 165 branches by 1920. Several of the new stores erected in the subsequent decade – mainly under Harrison’s supervision, and often with involvement from the Liverpool architects Medcalf & Medcalf – were larger than their predecessors and took the form of bungalow (single-storey) units, rather like contemporary stores built by William Jackson’s around Hull. Some of these were detached. Land values were obviously lower than in the London suburbs where Sainsbury’s was now expanding by taking central units in shopping parades.
Irwin’s bungalow stores invariable displayed red brick – in keeping with ‘The Ruby Red Stores’ moniker – but ranged from completely plain (for example Wepre Drive, Connah’s Quay, 1924) to decorative tiling (for example in Mold and Prestatyn, c.1924), and even glazed terracotta or faience (as at Rhos-on-Sea, c.1925). Irwin’s love of mosaics appears to have ceased. Instead, blind flank walls incorporated simple red and yellow tile advertising panels with decorative borders. Those bore the slogan ‘Irwins Cash Grocers’.
In 1960, Jack Cohen bought 212 shops from Irwin’s. This was Tesco’s launchpad for expansion throughout the North-West of England, and the end of Irwin’s chain.
McColl’s made headlines in May 2022 when it entered voluntary administration, seemingly the latest retail casualty of the Covid pandemic. It was swiftly rescued, however, by Morrisons and its 1100 shops continue to trade.
R. S. McColl’s was founded in Albert Drive, Pollokshields, Glasgow, in 1901, by Robert Smyth McColl (1876-1959), a professional football star, with his brother Thomas. Robert managed to score 13 goals in 13 internationals and, in his day, played for Queen’s Park, Newcastle United and Rangers. He retired from football in 1910.
McColl’s was converted into a private limited company in 1912. A factory opened in 1916, and the shops thenceforth sold the company’s own products – including its popular toffee – for cash. The chain expanded from 30 branches in 1916 to 70 in 1924.
By the time a new public company was formed in 1925, McColl’s had 75 shops. These seem to have been rather splendid. When a confectioner’s shop was taken over and remodelled in St Andrews in 1926 it was reported that: ‘The interior has been remodelled in the latest style with mahogany and glass cases, while the exterior is resplendent with shining brass’.
McColl’s shopfronts were made by the prolific shopfitter A. McEwan of Glasgow and resembled those of other Glasgow-based confectioners, such as Birrell’s and Templeton’s, with garlands decorating the transom lights. In the 1930s more modern, geometric designs were preferred and the garlands were discarded in favour of pretty pelmets. McColl’s grew to over 200 branches, many located close to cinemas, by 1936.
The McColl brothers were affected by the Wall Street Crash and sold out to Cadbury’s in 1933. They continued to run the company as salaried employees until their retirement in 1946, opening branches in England and diversifying into newspapers and tobacco.
After 1970 McColl’s was passed from pillar to post. It was sold by Cadbury Schweppes in 1970 to the merchant bank Keyser Ullman Holdings, which already owned Birrell’s. Keyser Ullman then sold both chains to James Goldsmith’s Cavenham Foods Ltd. At that point McColl’s and Birrell’s had 420 shops in Scotland and the North of England but ‘rationalisation’ followed, and within five months 150 unprofitable shops and a warehouse had been sold off.
McColl’s – the name Birrell’s having vanished – was sold to the Southlands Corporation of Dallas and then, in 1985, to Guinness, where it became part of the Martin Retail Group. In 1987 Guinness sold this 880-shop subsidiary to an Australian consortium. Despite corporate change, R. S. McColl grew to 770 branches by 1995 and three years later was acquired by the TM Group. In 2005 the shops were rebranded as McColl’s for convenience stores and Martin’s or (in Scotland) R. S. McColl’s for newsagents.
Having stocked Morrisons’ products for a few years, in 2021 McColl’s began to rebrand their stores as Morrisons Daily. When the business entered administration in 2022 it had 1149 outlets: 755 trading as McColls, 270 as Morrisons Daily, 116 as Martin’s and just eight as R. S. McColl. Now under Morrisons’ ownership, it continues to trade, with most of McColl’s shops adopting a blue and white livery with lime green highlights.
With thanks to Glasgow City Archives for allowing me to include images from the Mitchell Library.
Kays’ shop at 3 High Street, Ely, is a surviving remnant of a grocery chain that had over 100 small branches throughout much of South-East England and the Midlands in the middle of the 20th century, before the age of self-service and supermarket shopping.
The founder of Kays, John Jay Kay (1895-1973; born Jacob Kalinski), opened his first grocery shop at 15 Magdalen Street, Norwich, in October 1921. By reinvesting profits, Kay soon opened a second outlet in Norwich, followed by a third in Ipswich. Around 1930 he moved his family to Ealing and settled into a new head office at Doreth House, 50-53 Cowper Street, London. William Nelson Overland (1890-1943) became Kay’s business partner in 1931. Like so many multiple retailers, both men became involved in property development as well as retailing.
By 1935, when John Kay Ltd. floated as a public company to finance further expansion, the chain comprised 71 branches dotted through the South-East England and the Midlands, extending as far north as Sheffield. Of these shops, 19 had opened in 1934. The company owned seven freeholds; all other branches were held on a leasehold basis. Kay’s own carpentry department fitted out the interiors, but not the shopfronts, which were commissioned from a professional shopfitter.
Job advertisements for managers and shop assistants reveal that numerous branches of Kays Modern Food Stores opened in the late 1930s, including that in Ely. The chain had grown to 104 branches by 1938, and continued to expand. Although Kays kept a fleet of vans for home deliveries, errand boys were under strict instructions to collect cash payments. A home delivery service did not always mean that credit was available.
In 1943 Overland died and Kay sold the chain to Moores Stores Ltd., a growing business based in Newcastle. The shops were doubtless too small to be converted to the self-service format and were dispensed with after the war. The last few branches closed in 1953. Meanwhile, Kay became a farmer, buying Bourne Place in Hildenborough, Kent, where he bred Sussex cattle.
Kay’s shops had bright red fascias. In Sevenoaks this was too much for the Council – already battling with Woolworth’s over its ‘signal red’ – so they asked Messrs Kay to change the colour to blue ‘and that if this is not possible a less glaring shade of red be substituted’. Such wrangles with local authorities were becoming increasingly common in the late 1930s.
A 1944 photograph of the Bedford store shows the name ‘Kays’ fitted into a lunette-shaped fascia – a fashion of the 1910s and 1920s also adopted by the Melias grocery chain – flanked by the slogans ‘for price’ and ‘for quality’. A sign beneath the canopy box read ‘Modern Food Stores’. Bedford may have been one of Kay’s early branches.
The Ely branch of c.1938 – part of the newly-built Coronation Parade – was similar to the Bedford shop, with a narrow frontage, boxy windows and steel vents. The use of black and white Vitrolite and shiny stainless-steel frames imparted an air of hygiene and efficiency. Kays’ name survives in the vents and in the terrazzo floor of the entrance lobby, which is edged by a white marble threshold strip of the type commonly used for all kinds of food shops. Historic photographs – for example of the Dagenham branch – show that this was the standard house style of the late 1930s. It may, however, be the only one that survives.
The Stornoway shopkeeper Charles Morrison (1838-1920) came from a family of farmers and meal dealers living at Cyderhall near Dornoch, on the east coast of Scotland. Around 1855, aged 16, he set off for Stornoway, a fishing town on the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost of the Western Isles. From Dingwall – according to family tradition – Charles journeyed overland in the company of the postman (who crossed northern Scotland by foot on a weekly basis), then sought his passage over the Minch.
Once in Stornoway – the commercial heart of the island – Charles secured work as a salesman in the drapery and grocery shop of Matthew Russell (1818-92), another ‘incomer’. He lodged over the shop on South Beach Street with Russell’s family. In June 1861 Charles left Russell and entered into partnership as a general merchant with Angus Macdonald (1836-74) from Torridon. For a couple of years they traded as Macdonald & Morrison from a shop at 7 North Beach Street (close to the Lewis Hotel) owned by a Miss E. (Betsey) Macdonald. She doesn’t appear to have been related to Angus, despite sharing the same surname.
This period in Charles’s life is covered in his diary, which is published as separate posts on this blog. Remarkably, Angus Macdonald’s diary from the same period has survived in the hands of his descendants in Australia. Together these documents offer a rare insight into the business life of Stornoway in the 1860s.
Macdonald & Morrison’s partnership was dissolved acrimoniously in May 1864, and each man set up his own business in the town. Macdonald remained in the North Beach Street shop while Charles moved out. The exact location of Charles’s first independent shop has not been verified.
In 1869 Macdonald sold his business and stock (‘drapery, grocery, hardware, boots and shoes, ropes and lines &c’) to McIver & McLean. Improvements had recently been completed in the locality. These included the widening of Point Street and North Beach; the creation of Bank Street (which was given various names, including Cross Street and Harbour Lane); the formation of Percival Square, and extensions to both North Beach and Cromwell Street quays. Two years earlier Macdonald had bought buildings ‘facing North Beach Street, all near the new National Bank’. This included 18 North Beach Street – later T. B. Macaulay’s haberdashery and now (2022) Delights delicatessen. Macdonald remodelled 18 North Beach Street and built a new house to its rear, moving there in February 1868.
The address assigned to the Macdonald family in the Census of 1871 was ‘5 Bank Street’. The preceding entry recorded Charles Morrison, with his own family and shop assistants, at ‘6 Point Street Lane’. Point Street Lane may have been yet another name for Bank Street.
It seems likely that ‘6 Point Street Lane’ eventually became 5 Bank Street, and it was here that Charles Morrison conducted business for most of his life. It is intriguing to realise that by 1871 Angus Macdonald and Charles Morrison, who fell out so fiercely in 1864, were living and working next door to one another. Perhaps they got over their disagreement and became amicable neighbours until Macdonald’s untimely death in 1874. Macdonald’s stock and the tenancy of his shop at 18 North Beach Street were advertised for sale in 1875. His widow, Eliza, quickly remarried.
The building in which Charles Morrison’s shop was established by 1871 had been erected in 1867. Its predecessor on the same site was Stornoway’s first Sailors’ Home. An article of 1853 recorded Sir James Matheson’s gift of ‘a new house’ to be used as a Sailors’ Home. Other accounts reveal that the Home was supervised by ‘Big Meg’ and had a coffee room to ‘keep poor “Jack” from the grog shops’ . When the building was demolished in 1867, presumably for street widening, Matheson sold the property to Alexander Mackenzie junior. Mackenzie – variously described as a joiner and an architect – may have designed and constructed the replacement building himself.
Mackenzie’s new building accommodated his workshop at one end (on Bank Street) and Mackenzie & Macfarlane’s drapery, grocery and ironmongery shop (est. 1867) at the other end. Charles Morrison had set up his shop in the Bank Street end of the building – presumably in Mackenzie’s former workshop – by 1871, but it was not until 1914 that he acquired ownership of the premises from Mackenzie’s heirs. Charles’s family had moved out by 1881 and it is rumoured that the upper-floor rooms were then used to accommodate herring girls during the fishing season.
In 1927, several years after Charles’s death, his daughter-in-law purchased Mackenzie & Macfarlane’s (‘Holy Alec’s’) half of the building for £800. From then until 2002 Charles Morrison & Son Ltd (incorporated 1928) comprised the two shops.
‘Charlie Morrison’s’ (or Buth Thearlaich in Gaelic) was famous for selling rope, paraffin, paints – indeed, all kinds of hardware – and its main customers were crofters and fishermen. Until the 1940s Charles’s daughter-in-law had her own china and glass shop in Cromwell Street. After this closed, china and glass was sold in the reorganised Point Street shop. Due to lack of space, however, a separate china and glass shop opened in a converted garage in Keith Street (‘Murrays Garage’); this closed in the late 1960s and the building was subsequently used solely for storage. In addition, for many years the firm ran the Shell Depot in James Street through its subsidiary, Charles Morrison & Son (Oils) Ltd.
The two main shops, with their separate entrances in Point Street and Bank Street and equal access to a central cash booth, continued to thrive, descending through four generations of the Morrison family, who celebrated the centenary of the company in 1864. After the business closed upon the retirement of the manager, Neil Macdonald, in 2002, the premises were taken over by the Digby Chick, one of Stornoway’s most popular restaurants. Its closure during the Coronavirus pandemic prompted almost as much anguish as the earlier demise of Charlie Morrison’s.
Something must be added about Charles Morrison’s personal life and character. By 1863, when the diary begins, he was courting Christina Gerrie (1838-1921; often ‘C’ in the diary), whose sister Georgina was married to Matthew Russell. The Gerries came from the same area as Charles, having farmed at Proncy Mains near Dornoch until the estate went bankrupt in 1841. In 1844 William Gerrie (1790-1863), Christina’s father, took up the role of ‘Inspector of Roads and Bridges’ to Sir James Matheson (1796-1878). Having made his fortune in the Orient trading opium and tea, Matheson purchased the island in 1844 and built the magnificently crenellated Lews Castle, overlooking the town and its harbour. Gerrie was involved in the creation of the castle grounds and the construction of roads throughout the island. When his work for Matheson was completed, Gerrie moved his family to Goathill Farm just outside Stornoway.
Socially, the Gerries were a cut above Charles Morrison and opposed his relationship with Christina. Nevertheless, Charles and Christina were married in September 1864 and went on to have seven children. The family was fairly peripatetic, living at various addresses in Stornoway (in Kenneth Street, Point Street, Francis Street, Cromwell Street and Lewis Street) before settling, in 1905, at Dornoch House in Goathill Road.
Many years after his death Charles Morrison was remembered in Stornoway ‘as a dapper, well dressed gentleman who wore a “cut-away” black morning coat, hard lum hat and stiff white collar and tie’. According to his obituary in the Highland News, he was ‘a man of marvellous personal activity, clear of intellect, and alert in business; and his swiftly moving figure has been familiar to several generations of Stornowegians as he darted swiftly from place to place – indeed, it may be said that he seldom walked’. He was actively engaged in his business, alongside his son Matthew, until his last short illness.
Neatly written entries in Charles’s personal diary of 1863-64, a small black notebook, chart the development of his romantic relationship with Christina, the progress of his business, the economy and daily news of Stornoway, local characters, and – something of possible interest to church historians – details of Sunday sermons delivered at the United Presbyterian (‘UP’) Church in James Street. Original spelling and (very sparse) punctuation have been retained.
Please do not reproduce from Charles Morrison’s diary without permission from the family.
Comments from an old version of this post, now deactivated, have been pasted below for interest. Apologies for the poor resolution.
The Fifty Shilling Tailors was one of the most successful ‘wholesale bespoke tailors’ on the British high street through the 1920s, 30s and 40s. In later years, when it became impossible to sell a made-to-measure suit of clothes for a fixed price of 50/-, the shops were rebranded as John Collier.
The business started in 1906 when the founder, Henry Price (1877-1963; knighted 1937), left his job as manager of The Grand Clothing Hall in Keighley to start his own business. By 1914 he had workshops in Keighley and branches of ‘The High Class Economical Tailors’ in Burnley, Wakefield, Halifax and elsewhere. It was common for high-street tailors to add a by-line to their names. One of the pioneers in this sector, Stewart’s, adopted the slogan ‘The King Tailors’, while Burton’s became known as ‘The Tailor of Taste’. In 1913 Price adopted a trademark with his by-line in an underscore, several years before Montague Burton (ahem!) followed suit.
When Prices Tailors Ltd. was created as a private company in 1919 it comprised just 10 shops scattered throughout the North and the Midlands. In 1922 the first shop to trade as The Fifty Shilling Tailors opened in Sheffield. Regardless of their measurements, customers could buy a made-to-measure suit of clothes – a matching jacket, vest and trousers – for 50/-. According to Price, the real value was 5 guineas. Orders were made up at the firm’s Leeds factory following a system Price called ‘rational tailoring’. Four years later, in 1926, Price opened his first London branches in Oxford Street and the Strand. He arrived in Scotland in 1928, followed by Northern Ireland in 1929.
Conversion into a public company, with share issues in 1928 and 1932, aided Price’s expansion. He took over Stewart’s 106 shops, 60 of which were located in towns that lacked The Fifty Shilling Tailors.
By 1934 the business comprised 244 branches under its two fascias. This rose to 270 by the late 1930s, by which time Price’s arch-rival, Montague Burton, had amassed a chain of nearly 600 stores.
Until the mid-1930s most of Price’s shops occupied leased buildings. Then, in 1935, Prices Properties Ltd was set up to acquire sites and lease them to Prices Tailors Ltd. New developments were undertaken by a subsidiary called Cardigan Estates Ltd. The staff architect Philip S. B. Nicolle produced a house style for new stores. Steel-frame buildings with concrete floors were clad in cream faience with rugged geometric decoration in the art deco style. Commercially, this was a clever design. Its surprisingly traditional fenestration made it adaptable to sites of all shapes and sizes and allowed upper-floor functions to vary according to need. Furthermore, unlike Burton’s stores, it was free – at least, above the shopfront – from any kind of permanent branding. These were buildings that would retain their value and could easily be sold to other businesses if need be. As well as erecting these standalone stores, Price embarked upon ambitious city-centre development schemes, for example building a parade of five shops in Granby Street, Leicester, in 1934.
The gleaming arcade shopfronts of The Fifty Shilling Tailors had neon-tube lettering mounted on black Vitrolite, chrome edging, and transom lights etched with the firm’s lozenge-shaped trademark. Two dummies often stood in the windows, one fat and the other thin, with the legend ‘No extra charge’. These were amongst the flashiest shopfronts created by any multiple tailor and did not always meet with approval. In Sevenoaks, for example, the Council sought to modify Nicolle’s enormous brilliantly-coloured lettering which, for them, represented the ‘vulgarisation of the high street’.
Henry Price abandoned the name The Fifty Shilling Tailors in 1950. He announced: ‘it would be merely wishful thinking to expect that such a price as 50s. for a suit of clothes can ever return’. His solution was to trade under the abbreviation ‘FST’, with a new logo and shopfront in an art deco style, harking back to the 1930s.
In 1951 Henry Price acquired a Scottish chain that had been established in the early 1920s by Claude Alexander (1901-53), whose father and uncles had founded Alexander the Great Tailor in the 1890s. Alexander’s 44 shops traded as ‘The Scottish Tailor’.
In 1953, however, Price’s business – with 356 shops deemed ‘the second largest bespoke tailoring business in the world’ – was sold to United Drapery Stores (UDS). A year later, UDS acquired Alexandre’s (not to be confused with Alexander’s!). Its founder’s sons, Jack Lyons (1916-2008) and Bernard Lyons (1912-2008), steered UDS’s menswear chains through subsequent decades.
The name over Price’s shops was changed to John Collier at an estimated cost of £1 million from 1956. Joseph – not John – Collier (1898-67) was the vice-chairman and managing director of UDS. Under staff architect Evan E. Morgan, experimental versions of the new shopfront were tried out in several towns before the design was finalised. Deep fascias were mounted with the name in signature style, as if it had just rolled off John Collier’s pen. The striking 1950s house style was gradually diluted and the names John Collier and Alexandre both disappeared in the 1980s.
The shopfronts of The Fifty Shilling Tailors have long gone, but many of its faience facades survive, for example in Leicester, Rotherham, Dewsbury, Nuneaton and St Albans. They may not be as distinctive or numerous as Burton’s better-known stores, but they encapsulate the typical chain-store style of the 1930s high street. If I haven’t mentioned one in your own town, please tell me about it in the comments below.
With thanks to Matthew Bristow for researching Price’s St Albans store.
When Asda (capitalised as ASDA from 1985) came into being in 1965 the grocery and provisions trade was undergoing a radical transformation throughout the British Isles.
Small counter-service shops were gradually being superseded by self-service ‘supermarkets’, defined as having a minimum sales area of 2,000 sq. ft. Many supermarkets occupied converted redundant buildings, such as cinemas, but others were purpose-built in high-street locations.
The ideal supermarket was ill-suited to an urban setting. New-build supermarkets were often recessed behind the building line to create space for prams, stacks of baskets, or even trolleys. Furthermore, their low roofs allowed the scarred party walls of their neighbours to be seen from the street. Food retailers found it difficult to secure suitable sites with access to parking, let alone space for free-standing buildings. Inspired by American practice, some began to consider the potential of trading off-centre, despite the fact that few local authorities were prepared to countenance such a move.
It was in this context that Asda Stores Ltd was formed by the merger of two separate Yorkshire businesses: one rooted in dairy farming and the other in butchery.
Associated Dairies & Farm Stores Ltd had been created in 1949, when Hindells Dairy Farmers Ltd and its subsidiaries merged with several other businesses. Managed by Arthur Stockdale, it traded as wholesale and retail dairymen, café proprietors, pork butchers, bacon curers, provision retailers and farmers. The company had some retail experience, running chains of shops and cafés as Farm Stores, Bramhams and Craven Dairies, but its core business was the production and distribution of milk. Farm Stores and Craven Dairies kept going until 1973, when their staff were redeployed in Asda stores.
In 1965 Associated Dairies acquired a majority stake in Asquith’s. Peter and Fred Asquith had inherited a small chain of butchers’ shops from their father but were more interested in experimenting with supermarket retailing. They had opened their first ‘Asquith’ supermarket near the bus station in Pontefract in 1958, followed by more successful ‘Queens’ supermarkets in Castleford (a conversion of an old theatre/cinema) and Edlington (an indoor market hall).
Like most urban supermarket conversions, the Castleford store was imperfect. Since it had a stepped entrance, customers had to use baskets rather than trolleys. The upper-floor stockroom was connected to the loading bay by a conveyor belt and to the store by a manually-operated hoist. The sales floor, comprising about 3,000 sq. ft., had a meat counter but otherwise adopted a self-service format with 6ft. aisles. Lack of space limited the range of fruit and vegetables that could be sold.
Just months after Asda invested in Asquith’s, a purpose-built ‘Asda Queens’ supermarket opened on an old cinema site with a large surface car park in South Elmsall. The austere, boxy design – a visible reinforced-concrete frame with buff brick infill panels and narrow bands of windows lighting an upper-floor stockroom – perfectly matched Asda’s no-frills policy. Eventually an old billiard hall on an adjacent site was converted to accommodate the non-food department.
Asda’s interest in the potential of off-centre superstores for car-borne shoppers was revealed in October 1966 when it acquired a controlling interest in GEM Supercentres. Such an ambitious move may have been encouraged by the recent abolition of Resale Price Maintenance. This opened the door to cut-throat discounting, a style of retailing which was most effective on a grand scale, and which greatly appealed to Asda.
GEM Supercentres were a failed American initiative. The first opened in West Bridgford, Nottingham, in November 1964, followed by Crossgates, Leeds, in March 1965. A third GEM Supercentre, promised for Castle Lane, Bournemouth, never materialised (the Hampshire Centre opened on the site in 1968 with a large Woolco store). GEM arrived just months after the opening of Safeway’s first free-standing new-build supermarket at Blackfen in Kent and was contemporary with the Supermac development on the edge of Belfast.
The Crossgates GEM occupied a converted cinema, albeit one with an underground car park and an expansive upper floor devoted to the sale of non-food items. More intriguingly, the Nottingham GEM was purpose-built on the site of a former rubbish tip. Designed by the Austin-Smith/Salmon/Lord Partnership following American precedents, this was a monolithic single-storey structure with a steel frame clad in ribbed aluminium sheeting. Its lack of conventional display windows puzzled the Architectural Review, which remarked that its industrial character ‘would not attract the casual passer-by’. But the Supercentre was not designed for the passer-by. GEM was a destination, rewarding shoppers who had driven from far afield with 700 free parking spaces and a petrol filling station.
The vast Nottingham GEM comprised around 80,000 sq. ft., of which 60,000 sq. ft. was dedicated to the sales area (compared with 38,000 sq. ft at Crossgates), including a supermarket of around 12,000 sq. ft. (6,500 sq. ft. at Crossgates). GEM operated on a concessionary basis, with each department having its own checkouts. Concessionaires – like Boots, Dixons, Northgate & English Stores, The Times Furnishing Co., Lex Garages, Finch’s and Allied Suppliers – were all expected to maintain their anonymity.
Asda began by taking over the GEM supermarkets from Allied Suppliers (specifically, Allied’s Meadow Dairy subsidiary) and successfully introducing discounting. It took some time to transform each GEM into a centralised superstore operation, with a single bank of checkouts. Indeed, Finch’s retained their wine and spirits franchise until the mid-1970s. Asda kept GEM’s cafés, motoring accessory departments and tyre bays, firmly believing in engaging the interest of men (the drivers!) while women shopped. It also retained the filling stations, expanding this side of the business when the Asquiths bought premises in North Baileygate, Pontefract, and began to sell cheap petrol imported from Rotterdam.
A third GEM – known as a ‘Super Discount Centre’ rather than a ‘Supercentre’ – was created after Asda acquired William Bartfield’s Allways-Fame Group, with supermarkets in Preston and Manchester. The Preston outlet, in an old woollen mill, was considered too big to be branded ‘Asda Queens’, so it became a GEM.
Many ideas from GEM translated into Asda’s smaller Queens supermarkets, especially the idea of the upper-floor non-food section and the importance of catering for the car-borne shopper. In 1967 a new store was built in West Row, Stockton-on-Tees, a backstreet location served by a small surface car park. The supermarket was a simple free-standing box, constructed and clad in much the same manner as the earlier South Elmsall store, but with an upper sales floor – perhaps originally designed as a stockroom – for DIY and household goods. By this time Tesco had also established a two-level format for its town-centre stores, with ‘Home’n’Wear’ departments above a supermarket. Unlike Tesco, however, Asda did not sell much clothing before c.1970.
Around 1969 the Castleford supermarket was rebuilt on a new site in what had become Asda’s usual style and materials – as a buff-brick box – but on a larger scale than either South Elmsall or Stockton-on-Tees. With its substantial entrance canopy, the building resembled a cinema or a furniture store. The stockroom was situated to the rear while the upper floor – here more obviously part of the initial design concept – was devoted to non-food. This was still an urban store, however, lacking its own car park.
The three purpose-built Queens supermarkets in South Elmsall, Stockton-on-Tees and Castleford appear to have been designed by the same architect and built to the same system. Asda did not have an in-house team of architects and relied on several different firms over the years. One architect who enjoyed a long association with Asda was Mike O’Connor of Wrightson Jackman & O’Connor (later Dewjoc). He may have been the designer of these early Queens supermarkets.
At least two further Queens supermarkets were built with two sales floors around 1970, in Bury and Barnsley. Both sites provided limited customer parking.
Alongside its purpose-built Queens supermarkets and GEM discount centres, Asda created a motley portfolio in the late 1960s, continuing with its off-centre experiments whilst making the most of restrictive urban sites. Perhaps impressed by the Fame store in Preston, several redundant textile mills were taken over for conversion, including one in Nixon Street, Castleton. This stood some distance from the main shopping centre and relied on a combination of public and private transportation. Central stores were necessarily more makeshift. The Accrington supermarket occupied a converted car showroom, with a ramped entrance over the former basement garage, while Salford occupied a former chain store and had a sales area of just 5,000 sq. ft. Nevertheless, by 1971 16 of Asda’s 34 stores were categorised by an Observer journalist as ‘hypermarkets’.
Images of Asda’s early stores suggest a scattergun – if not, to be blunt, bargain basement – approach to premises and buildings. But two strands of development in the years 1965-70 proved seminal. Asda’s experience in taking over GEM Supercentres and building its own fully detached Queens supermarkets gave it the confidence and expertise, after 1970, to focus on new-build single-storey superstores (for example in Pudsey), usually with at least 35,000 sq. ft. sales area, on off-centre sites with ample parking. Peter Asquith, followed by Don Ridgway and supported by economist Ed Neafcy, took a lead role in identifying sites and negotiating planning permission, as local authorities increasingly accepted the inevitability of off-centre shopping.
Having adopted a clear strategy for the future, Asda dropped the old GEM and Queens names. It was ‘Asda Discount Centres’ or, more simply, ‘Asda Superstores’, that now led the sector away from the high street.
This post was prompted by the survival of several Asda Queens supermarkets from the 1960s. I am indebted to Richard Harker, a former Director of ASDA, for providing information about the early years of the chain. Thanks, too, to Professor Leigh Sparks for pointing me in the right direction.