The Woolworths Museum


In praise of the Property Department

Dubbed Liverpool's Cathedral of Commerce, the Woolworth Building dominated Liverpool's Church Street when it was completed in 1923. It took the place of the City's Pro-Cathedral. Today the building has been converted to form the Liverpool One Shopping Centre

William Priddle, the F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. architect behind virtually all of the pre-war store design, and mastermind behind the Liverpool "Cathedral"

In 1923 the Board set a new challenge, which the Property and Construction teams had to bring to life. They had to juggle three priorities:

  • expanding faster, trebling the rate of openings
  • relocating and extending the existing stores
  • building an asset base of freehold property, constructing 'made-to-measure' stores

 

The work was led by the Company Architect, William Priddle. He was supported by two regional Heads of Construction, B. C. Donaldson in the North and A.Barton in the South. All three men excelled.

Priddle came up with a simple, repeatable design for a standard store, and individual drawings and architect's plans for special locations like Liverpool Church Street (illustrated above). The Construction team was expected to get basic stores open in under seven weeks and to develop major sites like Liverpool in under six months.

 

"The standard model Woolworths" - featured in High Streets up and down the land since the 1920s, and designed by the Company's in-house architect, William Priddle

Priddle developed a Woolworth-standard store in the early 1920s (right). It had a distinctive stone-effect parapet at roof-level and surrounding the fascia board above the main entrance. It also had symmetrical windows at first-floor level, and could be built from red, orange or yellow bricks. The crimson name sign had distinctive gold lettering.

Every store was fitted with sunblinds (normally lettered "Nothing over 6D"), and brass-on-cast-iron F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. signs at the base of each window. The transom above the doors (with gold letterings sandblasted onto red glass in a mahogany surround) also read F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. 3D and 6D Stores, while the windows and doors had a mahogany finish.

Thanks to the skilled materials acquisition and bulk buying of Louis Denempont (who also chose many of the locations), the Construction Team could build a store from scratch in seven weeks. The total construction cost was under £4,000, including the mahogany counters, tills and the fitting of the ancillary accommodation.

 

Sunblinds were more or less permanently down in the summer months during the 1920s, emblazoned with the F. W. Woolworth 3D and 6D Stores name and, in some case, the chain's "Nothing over 6D" sloganThe transom sign above the doors of a 1920s British Woolworth's

Left: lettered sun awning. Right: Distinctive transom sign.

 

Construction Superintendent B.C. Donaldson, who worked for Woolworths for almost forty years, not only building many of the chain's stores, but later extending and refurbishing them. His motto was "We can build one overnight!"A Barton, who was construction supervisor for Southern Britain in the 1920sThe Woolworths construction workers pose for the camera on the site of a new standard-model store in the 1930s

 

The steps involved in opening a store were:

  • choosing a potential town, often based on suggestions from the public or an invitation from the local authority
  • identifying a site, preferably building land or delapidated premises ready for demolition
  • developing a store design, either adapting the standard template to the shape and size of the plot, or sometimes custom-drawn
  • considering possible tenants and rents for any surplus space that would be created or purchased as part of the deal
  • costing up the proposal, negotiating the price of any freehold or rent, and estimating the costs to clear the site, build and fit out the premises; in some cases different "schemes" offered a choice of size and investment level for the Board to consider
  • estimating the sales and profit potential and indicating the approximate lead time between sign off of the proposal and opening
  • presenting to the District Manager and Louis Denempont ahead of review with the Board or later the Investment Committee
  • commencing the building work within 48 hours of the freehold or lease becoming available

 

A Woolworth craftsman was appointed Site Manager and would oversee every detail of the work. He would control the bricklaying, plumbing, wiring and shopfitting. The construction teams were legendary in the industry. Each group was self-contained and had a full spectrum of highly skilled people. Workers received bonuses if they completed a store on or ahead of time. To receive the maximum payment they had to work in all weathers, at lightening speed. Arc lights were used to allow work to continue late into the night. The Site Manager had the option to top-up his team with local builders if he felt this was necessary.

It is a tribute to the pride that Priddle, Donaldson, Barton and their teams put into their work that the great majority of the stores they built are still standing. Although many are now occupied by new tenants, the distinctive look has survived.

 

The Woolworths construction team takes a break. Less than a fortnight later the new store at New Malden, Surrey was open for business.The Construction Team look-on as the District Manager admires his new F. W. Woolworth shop, due to open the next day

 

You can see the finished results from the plans at the top of this page, by visiting our new stores for old feature here in the 1920s Gallery of the Woolworths Museum