Woolworths was such an iconic store of its time that virtually everyone will have had some contact with the place. It was the go-to store for anything and everything. But it also had some good specialisms with an often excellent record department and a decent stash of sweets and chocolates. It was a huge favourite at Easter and Christmas.
Woolworths opened its first UK store in Liverpool in 1909, as a subsidiary of US parent company FW Woolworth. The original American firm was founded in 1879 when Frank Woolworth, a sales assistant, opened a shop in the state of Pennsylvania.
“Woolies” as it came to be known went onto open more than 800 much-loved stores across the UK. We decided to ask Londoners for their memories of shopping and working at the iconic stores. It’s fair to say we were absolutely blown away with the funny and fascinating comments you came back with.
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For starters, Linda Worley said: “I loved going to the Woolworths in Tooting and would browse for ages at the Outdoor Girl make up counter. Then I’d buy some hot cashew nuts.”
Unsurprisingly, a lot of people have fond memories of the Pic ‘n’ Mix stand, and some even admit to stealing from it. One Facebook user admits: “As a teenager I had a Saturday job in Woolworth’s in Beckenham High Street. I really enjoyed it – all the staff were very nice and I made friends with a couple of the other Saturday girls. I used to love replenishing the Pic ‘n’ Mix counter as I would eat lots of sweets in the stock room, on the sly.”
Sid’s Swift worked at not one, or two but three Woolworths across London including one at Lewisham, Roman Road and Catford locations. His memories of the store, intertwine with the iconic era of 1960s and 70s music festivals.
He writes: “Went to the Isle of Wight festival and saw Dylan. Went with one of the trainee managers and the guy who ran the deli. The Lewisham pay was 24 bob less a five pence stamp. I spent all day packing the returns up in the stores and never had a chance to chat up the girls who worked there.”
Jacqui Ferguson recalls working in the record department which – it has to be said often stocked things that other stores didn’t have. Remember this was in the days before online shopping and you could pick up some real bargains in Woolies. They had albums from obscure artist lurking on the shelves from about 20 yeas before. Jacquie says: “I worked every Saturday on the record department playing Grease and Saturday Night Fever on repeat.”
For Angela Russell it was all about the fashion department. She recalls: “Oh yes I remember shopping in Woolies when I was a teenager. False hair that was nothing like the colour of your own and false fingernails and eyelashes.”
Meanwhile, Janet Kingsland recalls: “Saturday job in the Holborn store (only half a day). We had a shop lifter who would linger outside until he saw a bus coming, then he’d run in, grab some tins of cat food then out and on the bus. Until the time he was spotted and the floor walker was faster than him that day.”
Gina Da-Silva Everett reminds us that there were darker times on the high street in London too as the stores were open right throughout the troubles. She recalls: “I worked in Woolies Camden high street from 1990 to 1993. I was 15 when I started as a Saturday girl.
“Many good memories but one not so good that stands out…In 1991 there was a bomb in high street that exploded opposite the store. Scary day! We were all evacuated to the pub up the road on Delancy Street whist the area was cordoned off. We were in there for hours before the police opened up the road again. I had to cash up the tills and remember finishing at 1130pm that night. I was 16. Its always stayed in my memory.”
Another Facebook user admitted that they had worked out how to cheat the Pic ‘n’ Mix but for a more compassionate reason. She says: “I worked at Woolies in The Whitgift Centre Croydon. Think I was 15 . It was my work experience placement. When I turned 16 they offered me regular weekends which led to a full- time position.
“I worked on the Pic ‘n’ Mix counter and became very au fait with “hovering” the bag over the scales especially when our regular pensioners came in.. emptying their pockets and purses used to pull at my heart.. so I would always make up my own prices regardless of the weight.”
Saillie Robarts remembers working on the now almost impossible-to -imagine wig stand. She says: “I worked in both Woolworth stores in Oxford Street and the one in Victoria in the 1960s. We had concession counters in those stores selling wigs and hair pieces. I loved it.
“The store in Victoria had a room behind my displays where the shop walkers (security) used to take shop lifters before they called the police. Once, a man ran out screaming and started to demolish my stand – there were hair pieces flying all over the place – and one of the heads that wigs were displayed on ended up hitting a poor customer.”
Jim Kirby meanwhile saw something completely surreal happen in Woolworths. He says: “In 1991 I passed the shop in Kentish town. They were having a kids book promotion so had people dressed as characters from the books outside, pointing this out to people with kids as they walked past. On my return there was mayhem in the street.
“A car had clipped a woman crossing the road. She was in shock and I will never forget the look on her face as she was helped into the back of the ambulance by Captain Pugwash and Peter Pan…still cracks me up all these years later!”
Susan Beatty had a traumatic experience on the floral section. She says: “I worked after school at Woolies in the Strand. I was on plastic flowers and decided they needed a freshen up in a bucket of soapy water. After swishing them about the heads detached themselves and I couldn’t reattach them as they floated around. I was removed to another section.”
Jacqueline Harris meanwhile remembers a time when the lights went out. She says: “I worked in Woolworths when Ted heath was in power (1970-74). We had to work by candlelight electricity was on ration.”
The good times of course weren’t to last. Woolworths seemed to lose its identity in the 2000s and when online shopping began to takeover they couldn’t compete. A household name, Woolworths fell into administration in 2008, and all 800 of the retailer’s stores closed in January the following year.
It was laden with £385million of debt at the time of its collapse, which left more than 27,000 unemployed. The majority of the premises are now owned by other discount chains including Poundland and Iceland. There have ben numerous rumours of a come back but they seem to have been just that.
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