Initial impressions suggest that Hitchin in Hertfordshire is rich in historic shopfronts. Closer inspection, however, reveals much renewal at street level, whilst more authentic evidence of Hitchin’s commercial past survives above its shops (for example, look up to spot Freeman Hardy & Willis and David Greig). Nevertheless, here are a few interesting shopfronts to look out for!
Paternoster & Hales, 27-28 Sun Street
The words ‘Printing Office’ are displayed boldly on the façade of this Georgian building, leaving its function in little doubt.
This was Paternoster & Hales’ printing office. The roots of the business can be traced back to Thomas Paternoster (1708-1782), a bookseller and stationer in Hitchin in the 18th century. His son Thomas (1742-1830) was probably the first occupant of 27-28 Sun Street, and the fine double-fronted shopfront was undoubtedly installed for his shop. Its flattened bow windows have curved corners and slender glazing bars.
Thomas’s son Charles (1802-1864) became a printer as well as a stationer and bookseller. He was succeeded at 27 Sun Street by his nephew, Charles Paternoster (1829-96), an ironmonger and engineer. Around 1873 Paternoster merged with Charles Hales, hitherto a stationer on Bucklersbury, creating Paternoster & Hales. The longevity of the business, well into the 20th century, ensured the survival of the shopfront.
House (formerly Cooper’s), 78 Tilehouse Street
Next to ‘The Coopers Arms’ on Tilehouse Street is a butcher’s shop which was run by the Cooper family (no connection!) for over half a century. James William Cooper (1850-1933) had begun trading from here by 1881, but in the early 1900s his son Frank (1874-1954) took over.
When Cooper’s shop was converted to form part of the house, the frontage was kept. In many ways, it is typical of late 19th-century butchers’ shops, with its sash windows, ventilation grilles and rather beautiful tiled pilasters. From a description of a theft, published in the local newspaper in 1900, we know that the entrance was closed by a half-door or gate: ‘One of them [the thieves] went over to the shop, and as he entered he put his hand over the little gate and took hold of the bell and opened it without the bell ringing’.
To the left of the shop is the original doorway to the house, while the vehicle entrance to the right may have led to the butcher’s outbuildings, perhaps including a slaughterhouse.
Allingham Bros., 22 Market Place
This is another traditional butcher’s shop, with an external rail for hanging meat, a ventilation grille, and a marble stallriser which displays the name ‘Allingham Bros’ in cursive lettering. The central panel of the broad door is filled with shutters and would once have been open – perhaps a bit like Cooper’s entrance (see above).
The history of this shop and business is well set out on Allingham’s website. In fact, Post Office directories pin down Allingham Bros’ arrival to 1926-29. The Allinghams – who farmed at Lilley – inherited an existing butcher’s shop and, apart from the new stallriser and fixed glazing, appear to have made few changes to the frontage.
Millets (formerly Lipton’s), 26 Market Place
Lipton’s, who took over from Melia & Co at this address in 1909, were probably responsible for installing this shopfront.
Since Lipton’s departure it’s had a rough time. Dark paintwork covers what promise to be interesting tiles, with egg and dart borders like those used by Lipton elsewhere. Old photographs show that the name ‘Lipton’ was displayed beneath the windows and on the pilaster to the left – it may still be there! In addition, some of the tiles are clearly patterned and seem to depict Lipton’s trademark shamrocks. Oh, the frustration!
Vodaphone (formerly W. B. Moss & Sons), 13 High Street
Until the early 1960s, these were the premises of W. B. Moss & Sons, grocers, tea dealers and general merchants.
W. B. Moss (1843-1927), the son of a Stevenage grocer and tea dealer, served his apprenticeship with the draper James Rose on Market Square, Hitchin, before setting up ‘The Bancroft Grocery and Drapery House’ in the late 1860s. The size of his household at 13 High Street in 1881 and 1891, including apprentices and assistants as well as family, is testament to his success.
By 1899 Moss had moved his family to ‘Westbourne’ on Bedford Road, now a care home. His sons had joined the business as partners and opened numerous branch shops – including a cluster in Yorkshire as well as shops throughout Hertfordshire – all supplied from a warehouse, tea blending department, and bacon curing factory on Portmill Lane.
The old timber-framed building at Moss’s Corner was rebuilt by the firm in the late 1890s. Although the display windows have been replaced, the very lovely buff-coloured terracotta pilasters, with mosaic panels depicting lilies, are worth an admiring glance.
Sainsbury’s Mural, Paynes Park
Hitchin possesses one of Henry and Joyce Collins’ cast-concrete murals, commissioned by Sainsbury’s for the frontage of their supermarket on Brand Street in 1972. Like other Collins’ murals – for example on Sainsbury’s in Gloucester (1970) – it illustrates themes and episodes from the history of the town, establishing a sense of place. Typically, the Hitchin panels include bright orange and blue mosaic work.
Henry and Joyce Collins, who met at art school, were based in Colchester. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s they created murals for both Sainsbury’s and BHS. While the Sainsbury’s murals included a wheel pattern, those for BHS incorporated a basket of food.
The Hitchin panels were relocated from Sainsbury’s due to redevelopment in 2003 and moved to their present location on the façade of Hitchin Library.