The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson: Memories of shops in Dewsbury

Recently I wrote about the affect the introduction of supermarkets had on our lives and how they led to the closure of many well-loved shops.

Wednesday, 26th February 2020, 7:03 am
Prestigious store: Happy memories of the days when Dewsbury was a thriving shopping centre envied by most towns in the North. It shows the new Marks and Spencer store opened in Northgate in 1936, but sadly closed in 2007.
Prestigious store: Happy memories of the days when Dewsbury was a thriving shopping centre envied by most towns in the North. It shows the new Marks and Spencer store opened in Northgate in 1936, but sadly closed in 2007.

I mentioned Lidbetters and Spikings grocery stores, but there were others like Redmans, Jubbs, Farm Stores, Dempster Lister and Drivers.

When these shops started closing in the 1960s and 70s, they made headline news because they had been in our midst for generations.

One by one they disappeared because we’d stopped shopping there and were now spending our money in supermarkets.

Margaret Watson.

The last big name to go in Dewsbury in 2007 was Marks and Spencer which had been in the town for over a hundred years.

The sadness felt when it closed was not just because we had lost our favourite store but also that our town centre was changing yet again.

Dewsbury had suffered many economic slumps and depressions before, but throughout them all, Marks and Spencer’s had been a beacon in the darkness.

There will be many who will remember when Marks and Spencer’s beautiful new store was built in 1936 when it sold mainly women’s fashion and lingerie.

The photograph shows clearly the kind of merchandise women were wearing the 1930s and 40s long before the store diversified to selling food in a big way.

This was not the first M&S shop to be located in Dewsbury – a much smaller one had already been opened in Westgate at the bottom of Daisy Hill in 1909.

This store was enlarged a few years later, but was still not big enough to accommodate the large crowds now shopping there.

In 1935, the company decided to build a larger, more modern store in the heart of the town, but they had first to acquire and knock down a number of properties in Northgate, including the well-established Central Cafe and the ancient White Lion pub.

Work started on building in February 1936, and despite major difficulties, like the discovery of a deep well on the site, the building was completed in six months.

The men doing the building work were all from Dewsbury and most had been drawn from the local Labour Exchange.

Overnight the store had doubled its staff from 40 to 80 and placed a big advertisement in the Reporter announcing there was nothing in the shop priced more than five shillings.

A few months earlier, “Fifty Shilling Tailors” had opened a new store just across the road, and the retail trade in Dewsbury was booming.

Everyone agreed such a prestigious store would further enhance Dewsbury’s reputation as a thriving shopping centre.

This was at a time when only a few yards from the new store were other flourishing businesses, including Bickers, Birtles, Hudsons, Wards, the impressive Co-operative store, J&Bs department store, Egglestons, Hodgsons and many more.

All of them long gone.

It was amidst all this bustling retail activity that the new Marks and Spencer store opened its doors, and people were soon hailing it as a great shopping acquisition for the town.

Customers were amazed at the contrast between the new building and the old premises in Westgate, especially the design of the shopping aisles.

Despite having three storeys, only the ground floor of the new store was used for sales, the upper rooms being utilised exclusively for stock rooms, welfare rooms for staff, offices and a staff canteen.

There was a cooked foods department with special marble slab counters, zinc-lined storage units and polished mahogany counters.

The welfare of the staff was considered paramount to the success of their business and wherever possible only local girls were employed.

The 47-hour week was the rule, but all assistants were allowed a full day’s holiday once a month, and special arrangements were made to supply them with meals at a very low price.

Members of staff were also allowed 10 days holiday with pay as well as being paid when they were off sick, something unheard of in the workplace in those days.

A welfare officer was appointed whose sole duty was to care for the health and welfare of staff, and special dental, optical and chiropodist treatments were available to them.

Assistants also had the opportunity of visiting holiday camps and seaside resorts at reduced terms.

Little wonder most employees stayed there all their working lives.

Fortunately, the imposing Marks and Spencer building still remains and the new owners appear to be keeping it looking in good condition.

It is now owned by Peacocks, and if local people want to help keep this shop open, please make sure you patronise it.

No use crying when the “For Sale” notices go up on shops like this as we did when Marks and Spencer closed. It will be too late then!

○ Don’t forget next Friday (March 6 from 3 to 6pm) an exhibition of the paintings of the late David Martin, a highly talented and much loved local artist, will be going on display at the headquarters of Thrive, 21 Bond Street, Dewsbury.

All are most welcome.