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Reconstruction and Recovery

Getting back to normal after World War II

 

"Welcome home Sir, we've carried on" - a Woolworth store celebrates their Manager's safe return from World War II in this illustration for the Staff Magazine.

As soon as victory was assured in Europe, before Japan had surrendered, men and women serving in the armed forces started to return for work. The June 1945 edition of The New Bond, asked staff to contact their District Office as soon as they had a demobilisation date.

The law gave conscripts and volunteers the right to return to job they did before the War. Every appointment made while they were aware was made on a temporary basis. The end of hostilities presented a major logistical challenge to determine who was returning and whether they wanted to return to their former store or would be happy to be promoted to a larger one.

In the shake-up that followed some people who had worked their way up to manage the largest city centre stores in wartime had to return to the tiny branches where they had started out in the 1930s. And many women who had proved more than capable of controlling their stores during the conflict were sent back to the office or stockroom. Most was stoical, glad to make way for a 'hero' and to honour the 149 who had given the ultimate sacrifice and would not be coming home.

The company acknowledged the women's sacrifice and later made a point of offering them stores of their own as the chain expanded in the Fifties. But only a few were able to take up the offers which tended to be in far-away places.

 

The Tea Bar at King Street, St Helier, Jersey was reinstated and re-opened in time for Christmas 1945. It was a matter of pride for the whole business to show solidarity with those colleagues who had endured the occupation.

 

After getting demobilized staff back to work, the next priority was to restore the stores in the Channel Islands. This aligned with a national wave of sympathy for the islanders. The people of Jersey and Guernsey had suffered terribly under German occupation.

 

The new F.W. Woolworth store in Weybridge, Surrey, which opened in 1946, seven years after building work was completed.  In the interim the building had served as a relief headquarters


Reinstatement of the mainland stores had to wait. Building materials were restricted as hospitals, schools and houses for the homeless were given priority by the Government.

Other regulations restricted what could be sold in-store, and the quantities that customers were allowed to buy. The rations of Food and Clothing were reduced, and stayed in place into the Fifties.

The Country's first priority was to repay the huge debt incurred to fight the war. At the start of hostilities, when the USA had remained neutral, they had supplied munitions on credit. A major export drive was launched to earn foreign exchange which would help to balance the books. Most manufactured goods were sent abroad rather than to the shops.

 

There were two store openings in 1946. Each building had been mothballed after the outbreak of war. As soon as fixtures became available they were fitted out and opened. Their new layouts gave a flavour of things to come. The building fabric of the store at Weybridge, Surrey (No. 760) had been completed in 1939, but, rather than fit out the salesfloor with counters, it had been equipped with desks and phones to make a temporary headquarters in case it was needed. The contingency plan addressed the risk that the New Bond Street Office in the West End of London was in area which was likely to be targeted in German air raids. This proved a wise move when the Burlington Arcade next door to the office was hit, leaving the office inaccessible for weeks. Work carried on as usual in Weybridge.

A new store in Newry, County Down, Northern Ireland (No. 769) had also been mothballed after government intervention. It was one of many branches that was requisitioned for a government department, and had been used by the Ministry of Food. The orders seizing control of these properties stated that they were required for storage and would not be opened to the public. The other branches were stripped of merchandise and handed over, while the Newry branch had been taken before it had been fitted out.

With peace restored the Construction Team tracked down new-style mahogany fixtures, creating a more modern look as a prototype for the future. With no upper price limit they were able to offer a much wider range. Some of the new items had prices as high as five shillings, ten times the pre-war limit. This was expressed as "5/-" on price tickets and was the equivalent of 25p at the time, or, adjusted for inflation in the intervening years. £7.50 in the 21st Century. Both new stores proved very popular with the public.

 

The changing face of Woolworth's in Strood, Rochester, Kent between 1936 and 1946. References to the threepenny and sixpenny stores have started to disappear (although the transom signs above the door remain seven years after the top limit was scrapped).Another challenge was to find a cheap way to remove references to the old maximum price. Customers complained they could no longer find anything  that cost threepence or sixpence, after the inflation of the war years. Empirically a third of the store range was actually 6d or less, but everyone agreed that the signs were outdated and should go.

With building materials rationed, the only option was to remove the lettering, give the fascia board a lick of red paint and then reposition the "F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd." to the centre. The remaining letters, spelling '3D and 6D Stores', and in some cases 'Nothing over 6D' were returned to District Office, where they were dismantled with the parts re-used or sold for scrap.

 

Rebuilding work on Woolworth's at South Shields (No. 104) , destroyed in the Blitz in 1941, did not start until 8 years later.Finally in 1948 rebuilding work began on the shopping streets of the towns that had sustained the most damage during the Blitz. Woolworth's Architects worked with the Government to agree the styling and the building materials to use. A War Reparations Scheme met the lion's share of the cost.

Twenty-six stores had been completely destroyed. The devastation stretched along the South Coast from Plymouth and Devonport in the west, along the English Channel through Bristol, Bournemouth, Southampton, Portsmouth, Southsea, Chatham and Dover to Lowestoft, Norwich and Hull on the East Coast. The enemy had also attacked the country's major industrial towns and cities. Woolworth losses had been more random, with some branches surviving unscathed while others, like Coventry, Sheffield and South Shields had been razed to the ground.

 

The architect's drawing for a "new, modern" Woolworth's in South Shields. A similar design was used for the branches in Bristol, Southsea, Portsmouth and Norwich


Harold Winbourne, the Chief Architect, created a store design and then adapted the new standard to suit each blitzed location. The new buildings were more accessible, with wider step-free entrances, and were significantly larger and brighter.

They employed the latest construction techniques. These enabled stores to be built in stages quickly and cheaply. Many of the new buildings went on to serve for a further sixty years, only closing their doors when the chain folded in 2008.

 

A typical salesfloor layout at Woolworth's shortly after World War II. The image shows Store 463 at 150-154 Oxford Street, London, near the British Museum in 1946.  The highest price on display at the time was four shillings and four pence, nearly nine times the pre-war maximum.

 

By the end of the decade there was a marked difference between the stores that had survived the war and those that were newly built. Compare the old store above, which is illuminated by incandescent bulbs in globe shades and has an oiled wooden floor and lots of pillars, with the open plan layout of the new Norwich store, with a high ceiling, flourescent lighting and a shiny terrazzo marble floor. The new stores significantly outperformed the old, which inspired a major upgrade programme during the Fifties and drove rapid sales growth. There are many more pictures of the new-look in the interactive exhibit in the 1950s Gallery of the Woolworths Museum.

 

The new look salesfloor of Woolworth's in Rampant Horse Street, Norwich (No. 44) which was designed in 1949 and opened progressively through 1950-1.

 

Fast links to related content in the Woolworths Museum

1940s War, Austerity and Recovery Gallery

UK and USA a world apart   Blitz hits major cities   Spitfires for the RAF   Channel Islands Occupation   

Prices over sixpence   Home front defiance    A little piece of home   The darkest hour  Reconstruction and austerity  

Wartime history pages with HTML5 media content averaging 1.5mb

Woolworths Staff War Memorial    New Cross Memorial   Finest hour picture gallery   

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