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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.