Boots’ Architects. 1. Albert Nelson Bromley

Grantham March 2017 (46) - Copy - Copy

Grantham

The prominent Nottingham architect Albert Nelson Bromley (1850-1934) designed many shops for Boots between the 1890s and the 1920s. At first he worked in a neo-Jacobean style, with a strong penchant for terracotta, but in the 1920s he switched to a monumental classicism. This reflected the changing architectural fashions of the times, but was also informed by Bromley’s experience of designing imposing financial institutions. In addition, it reveals a transformation in the image which Boots wished to convey to the public once it came under American ownership.

Bromley was born in Stafford but when he was just two years old his father, a surgeon, died. The family moved to Nottingham, where they lived with Bromley’s maternal uncle, the architect and surveyor Frederick Bakewell. As well as receiving some education in Nottingham, Bromley was sent to Mr George Shipley’s academy, a boarding school in Lincoln. He was listed there in the Census of 1871, as a lodger rather than a pupil. Described as ‘architect’s clerk’, he was almost certainly working at that time as an assistant to the architect Henry Goddard (1813-99).

While touring the Continent in 1872-3, Bromley painted topographical watercolours, some of which were hung in the Royal Academy. After a brief spell in Charles Barry’s office in London he returned to Nottingham where, in 1875, he was taken into partnership by his uncle. They designed a Board School on Huntingdon Street and some ‘Industrial Dwellings’. Bakewell soon retired, leaving Bromley to work on his own. As the practice grew, however, he took on partners. The first, in 1905, was Harry Garnham Watkins, the son of William Watkins, an architect who had worked with Henry Goddard in Lincoln. Then, in 1928, Bromley went into partnership with his grandson Thomas Nelson Cartwright, and his long-term assistant Thomas Herbert Waumsley. T. Cecil Howitt, who went on to design Nottingham’s Council House, was one of Bromley’s pupils. He worked in Bromley & Watkins office before enlisting during the Great War.

Bromley undertook commissions for Boots from 1895 until the late 1920s. In his lifetime, however, he was equally well known for his work as consultant architect to the Nottingham School Board. Bromley also designed a wide range of commercial and institutional buildings, including the National Provincial Bank (now Yorkshire Bank, next to the Council House), Lloyds Bank, Griffin & Spalding (latterly Debenhams), the Nottingham Hospital for Women (on Peel Street, now flats), and the Harlow Wood Orthopaedic Hospital, Mansfield.

Boots branches specifically mentioned in Bromley’s obituary in 1934 included Brighton, Leicester and Cheltenham (JRIBA, 24 November 1934, 143). These were imposing – even grandiose – neo-classical buildings built in the 1920s, perhaps influenced by Bromley’s work on banks. Bromley’s first work for Boots had been in a very different idiom.

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11-13 London Road, Liverpool, 1896

One of Bromley’s earliest designs for Boots still stands, at 11-13 London Road in Liverpool. Dated 1896, this shop is of red brick with unglazed buff terracotta dressings. It is in a mixed Renaissance/neo-Jacobean style, with a shaped gable and mullion windows. Small barred openings in the side elevation may have securely lit and ventilated the pharmacy. A few years later, Boots’ shops in Bedford and Grantham were fully faced in unglazed terracotta.

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Harpur Street and Silver Street, Bedford, 1898

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Grantham, 1899

Most of the shops designed by Bromley for Boots from around 1900 until the outbreak of the Great War were faced in creamy brown glazed terracotta (or faience). Like the earlier designs, the detailing – shaped or stepped gables and ornate mullions – was inspired by Renaissance and Jacobean architecture. Boots’ ‘central depot’ at 2-10 Pelham Street in Nottingham, of 1903, was the supreme example of this approach. With its corner turret and cupola, its open-plan interior arranged around a light well, its many departments, and its superb shopfront, it emulated large metropolitan emporia. It offered customers a café and a ‘Booklovers Library’.

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2-10 Pelham St., Nottingham, 1903

It is rare for early Boots’ shopfronts to survive – in fact many have been treated very badly over the years, as the photographs published here reveal. The best example, with artistic art nouveau glazing, curved glass, and mirrored soffits, can be seen on Pelham Street. This was highly fashionable at the time. Stylistically, however, it contrasted with historicist elevations and may have been designed by a specialist shopfitter rather than Bromley.

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Buxton, 1906

Scribbling Diary 1905 BB016870 c.EH - Copy (2)

6 High Street, Sheffield (c. The Boots Archive)

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Lytham St Anne’s, 1906 (photo: 1999)

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Southend, 1915 (photo: 1999)

Bromley’s involvement in Boots’ well-known half-timbered frontages of the pre-1914 period is uncertain. Most of the surviving working plans for these were signed by Boots’ in-house architect, Michael Vyne Treleaven, who was also named as the architect in several newspaper reports. Artistic touches were sometimes supplied by the London architect Percy Morley Horder. Surprisingly, however, the Gloucester branch of 1914 was assigned fully to Bromley & Watkins – albeit with a shopfront by Morder Holder (Gloucester Chronicle 9 May 1914, 9). It is likely that Treleaven had left Boots by 1914 and, as a consequence, this particular project was undertaken by Bromley & Watkins.

The Gloucester store was fairly typical of Boots’ half-timbered fronts, with its exposed beams and statuary. The local newspaper drew attention to lanterns hung under the soffit, and coloured lead lights by a Mr Bonner of London. The windows of the first-floor café incorporated the arms of the city and the see of Gloucester. Boots maintained that it was the company’s aim to ‘study and uphold the historic interest of the locality, and so catch the civic spirt of those places where their businesses have been established’ (Gloucester Chronicle 19 December 1914, 9): a corporate aspiration initiated by Jesse Boot, implemented for him by Bromley in the 1890s, taken in a different direction by Treleaven in the early 1900s, and abandoned around 1916.

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Cheltenham

Bromley designed factories and other buildings for Boot, as well as shops. In the 1920s he was responsible for some robust classical designs, including those mentioned above. Cheltenham (late 1920s) and Brighton (1927-28) each sported a full pediment carried on four giant Ionic columns. Behind these, the frontage was recessed to create balconies. This grandiose approach – so different from Boots’ pre-war architecture – must have appealed to the company’s new American owners.

As well as being an architect, Bromley was an environmental campaigner, fighting ribbon development, unsightly advertising and, according to his obituary, ‘the demolition of historic places’ (Nottingham Evening Post, 18 August 1934, 8).

Main Sources

Stanley Chapman, Jesse Boot of Boots the Chemists. A Study in Business History, Hodder & Stoughton, 1974

Ken Brand ‘Albert Nelson Bromley’, Nottingham Civic Society Newsletter, 1988, 2-9; 1989, 14-17.

Kathryn A. Morrison, English Shops & Shopping, Yale University Press, 2003

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