The surge of the chain retailers: the 1930s high street

For some weeks I’ve been absorbed in Juliet Gardiner’s account of The Thirties, an 800-page account of that “low, dishonest decade”.  It’s a period that has always fascinated me – the novels, films, architecture and transport of the Thirties were all extraordinarily innovative.  Politically, it was a dire period; Britain probably had a better 1930s than most, but the era can still be summed up as Slump/Abdication/Munich – little to reminisce about fondly, even if that nice Bertie did conquer his stammer.

I was on a train home on Thursday after a mildly bibulous evening in town, when I reached Gardiner’s account of chain retailing in the Thirties (pp 532-542).  The world came alive with detail, which I Twittered keenly to whomever might be reading:

Boots Nottingham factory was opened in 1933 by the dowager Mrs Boot, smashing a bottle of eau de cologne on the staircase.

1000th Boots was Galashiels. 1st purchase (Bovril, Lifebuoy, Ovaltine, cod liver oil) was broadcast live to a lunch party in the Savoy.

M&S at the ’30s Pantheon flagship advertised its offer as “a forest of apparel”.

Bentalls of Kingston would buy up all the floral decorations from the Royal Enclosure at Ascot and recycle them instore.

That last message must have hit a sweet spot, as Bentalls themselves re-tweeted it and it bounced around on the social networks for several hours afterwards.

Almost as frequently cited as Auden’s quote about the Thirties is Priestley’s observation of “three Englands” – the depressed areas, built around old industry; rural England, pretty as a picture and poor as church mice; and the new England of by-passes, roadhouses, aerodromes and picture palaces.

Retailers like Marks & Spencer, Boots and Sainsbury’s were Victorian foundations; Woolworth and Burton were Edwardian; and WH Smith goes back to 1792.  However, it was in the Thirties that all of these chains expanded spectacularly, adding stores in a manner unprecedented before or since.  They played a significant part in the development of the “third England”.

Older shops were swept away, but I’d argue that, architecturally, the country benefitted.  Without strict planning regulations, chain stores could tear down and build pretty much where and what they wanted, but – unlike most of today’s retailers – they built to last, with an eye to creating interesting architecture, as well as a clear brand statement.

Marks & Spencer, still lifting its image from the Penny Bazaar to the middle class home from home, employed establishment architect Robert Lutyens to create stripped-back classical/deco facades in white, flat-colonnaded stone.  You can still see them in dozens of high streets today:



Splendid buildings, looking more than a little diminished by modern branding.  But at least M&S still occupies a great many of its stores (of course, it was one of the last retailers to start using sale-and-leaseback).

Montagu Burton, the Fifty Shilling Tailor, exploded across the country between the wars, building faience-faced stores in prominent locations.  Many of these have passed out of the company’s hands (now subsumed in Arcadia), but the legacy remains, sometimes sadly diminished:

Sheffield suburbs

The detailing on these buildings could be wonderful – take a look at the elephants in this picture of Weston-Super-Mare:

And the Tailor of Taste’s old logo is still visible across the country:

I recommend the Burton Deco pool on Flickr to those who want to see more of Burton’s superb detailing.

FW Woolworth took more of a “Queen Anne” approach to their shops, typically favouring brick finishes with stone detail:


It’s now nearly three years since Woolworths’ demise, but their stores live on:


Woolworth also built an extraordinary six-storey store in Blackpool, which might easily be mistaken for a Civic Centre, or  the headquarters of Imperial Airways:

This was a bold era for chain retailers, who for the first time were able to offer a truly consistent national offer.  Architectural distinction (about which you can read much more in this book) was one thing, but what excited the shoppers was what they found inside.  Technical innovations like escalators and neon lighting were accompanied by a greater emphasis on self-service, and the opportunity for customers to pick up and compare products before they bought.  Big stores boasted milk bars, palm court restaurants with waitress service and string quartets, and some extraordinary roof gardens.  Montagu Burton built snooker halls above his shops – he was a teetotaller, and believed in creating places of alcohol-free recreation for his young male clientele.  (And if they passed through the shop and made a purchase, it was good business too.)

The 1930s rate of construction and shop opening (Boots was opening two branches a week for years at a stretch) wasn’t to be repeated after the war.  Although individual store groups continued to open new shops (particularly to replace blitz damage, and in the New Towns), there was less architectural consistency, and chain stores preferred to move into leased “anchor locations” in the precincts and shopping malls built by construction companies.   There are still retailers – John Lewis, Selfridge’s – seeking to create stores that add quality and interest to the streetscape, but the unique chain surge of the 1930s is unlikely ever to be repeated.

Photo credits: bowroaduk on Flickr;; budsby on Flickr; Philip Watson on Flickr;;;;

My favourite books 33: Baldwin

Baldwin by Roy Jenkins

Collins 1987

This came from Hay, in a curious C-format edition.  Since Baldwin, I’ve read several of Roy Jenkins’ elegant and informed political biographies, but this was the first.  At 166 pages, it’s really more of an extended essay, which is probbaly aboput right for an enigmatic man who took Prime Ministerial office three times, after emerging without trace in the early 1920s.  Today, Baldwin is remembered for:

There was rather more to Baldwin than that, and to some extent he has been a victim of Churchill’s dictum about the history being written by the victors (precisely!).  

Roy Jenkins had more hinterland than a modern cabinet.  He was also a great liberalising Home Secretary, and was indirectly responsible for the eventual creation of the Liberal Democrat party.  It is hard to imagine where he would have sat in today’s restricted political sphere, but I’d recommend any of his biographical works.

You can buy Baldwin here.

My favourite books 24: London Belongs To Me

London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins

First published 1945; this edition Penguin 2008

No tasteful old jacket here, I’m afraid – this is an old book, but a recent favourite.  The cover photo looks north up Charing Cross Road, from the entrance to the old Astoria.  Almost everything you can see has since vanished.

London Belongs to Me isn’t great art, but the definition of a Modern Classic is pretty broad these day; it’s a well-written, well plotted, big old-fashioned saga, built around the intersecting lives of the tenants of a Kennington lodging house, before and after the outbreak of the Second World War.  If you enjoy RF Delderfield, or movies such as Millions Like Us, you’ll enjoy this chunky and unpretentious read.

The book was a massive success, and was swiftly filmed.  Norman Collins was primarily a broadcaster – he created Dick Barton, was a television pioneer, and went on to join the board of ATV and later ITN.

My favourite books 23: London’s Lost Riverscape

London’s Lost Riverscape by Chris Ellmers & Alex Werner

Viking 1988

The cover is deceptive.  This book consists of a series of photographs commissioned by the Port of London Authority in 1937, which stitched together would create a giant panorama of the north and south banks of the Thames, from the Upper Pool to Greenwich and back again.  The Empire was in decline, the Blitz was just three years away, but Britain was still a great manufacturing and trading nation, and London’s docks were the world’s busiest.  One third of all Britain’s trade passed through this dock system – none of it survives today, except where maintained for heritage or lifestyle purposes.

This photo is typical:

It shows the western entrance to the West India Docks, which were in the process of being modernised; Sufferance Wharf on the right was the home of Morton’s Foods, whose factory football team in due course became Millwall FC.

Here is roughly the same view today:

My favourite books 8: Vile Bodies

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Published Chapman & Hall, 1930; this edition Penguin, 1974.

Sometimes, paperback publishers get the “look” of an author spot-on, and the Bentley/Farrell/Burnett covers for Penguin’s Evelyn Waugh edition in the 1970s are as right today as they were forty years ago.  (Pan’s James Bond covers in the 1960s are another never-bettered example.)

Vile Bodies is a brilliant social and political satire.  Forget the witless movie adaptation, and devote an afternoon to the too divine original.

My favourite books 3: Night And Day

Night And Day: anthology with a preface by Graham Greene and introduction by Christopher Hawtree

Chatto & Windus, 1985

Vintage has recently relaunched the Night And Day brand for their new online literary periodical.

This collection of articles and cartoons from the original magazine covers Night And Day’s brief existence for six months in 1937.  It was stylish, sophisticated and very much Not Punch – London’s answer to the New Yorker.  Its closure was prompted by Greene’s scandalous review of a Shirley Temple movie, which cased the backers to withdraw, and the magazine to fold.  A sad loss, but this is a very fine book.

My favourite books 2: Coming Up For Air

Coming Up For Air: George Orwell

Victor Gollancz, 1939; this edition: Penguin, 1973

One of my favourite novels, and for me, Orwell’s best.  

George Bowling tries to escape from modern England, and the upcoming Second World War.  

He can’t.