Many readers will have fond memories of shopping at the Imperial Stores in the High St in High Wycombe.

In a short series of Nostalgia articles, beginning today, we will explore the history of this well-loved store.

The founder was Mr Edwin Ward, who was a well-known High Wycombe personality. He was born in 1876 in Princes Risborough, his father being a chair-maker. The family moved to High Wycombe and Edwin initially followed his father by also becoming a chair-maker.

Edwin remained a batchelor until the age of 46 when in 1922 he married a lady 20 years his younger, May Louisa Bray. Their first child Paul was born in December of that year and it was at about that time that Edwin took the step that was to further change his life forever.

He decided to supplement his income by renting a small shop in Crendon St, which at that time was much narrower than it is today, and was called Crendon Lane. And it was a small shop, consisting only of one room measuring fifteen feet by seven.

In this single room he sold surplus fruit and vegetables from his own garden at the rear of his house called Kynance in Rectory Avenue, High Wycombe. He was soon adding groceries to his shelves and offering produce in an ever-widening range. In particular he added items which could not be purchased elsewhere in the town. The Imperial was born – imperial in its quality and service.

The shop was attracting more discerning customers and after two years a move to larger premises was required. This was to the premises previously occupied by the newsagents W.H.Smith on the corner of Crendon Lane and the High St.

Towards the end of the 1920s the Wycombe Corporation was needing to purchase this property, together with all those on the western side of Crendon Lane, to enable the narrow lane to be widened.

No doubt Mr Ward was aware of this impending loss of his premises for some time in advance of the Corporation’s need to finalise the purchase, so with the continued success of the shop he decided in October 1931 to acquire new premises. These were those formerly owned by Davenport Vernon & Co.

They fronted onto the High Street, Nos 14 and 15, but also extended all the way along the eastern side of Corporation St to Castle St – a commanding position in the town centre. This was purchased for a sum in the region of £20,000 by property developer Frank Adams on Mr Ward’s behalf.

Negotiations between the Corporation and Mr Ward for the sale of his Crendon Lane premises were completed in May 1932. Around this time the family moved to a house in Manor Road, Hazlemere, which they also named Kynance after their former home in Rectory Avenue. This was probably another astute move by Mr Ward as at that time Manor Road was almost completely undeveloped, a situation which was to change after the second world war.

The Imperial Stores now had the premises where Mr Ward could fully implement his ideas for a comprehensive grocery store. The products sold were sourced from far and wide. As well as offering quality products and a quality service Mr Ward was keen to encourage his customers to eat foods which would improve their health. He took on a partner, a Mr H S Foxwell and the grocery shop became the Imperial Stores & Health Centre.

A second store was opened in Maxwell Road, Beaconsfield. The business continued to thrive even during the privations brought about by the second world war.

Mr Ward decided to retire in 1952 and appointed a General Manager, Mr Wilfred H Humphrey, to continue to develop the Imperial’s business without losing its reputation.

The year 1963 was a milestone in the Imperial’s development. This was when in November of that year the new Imperial Supermarket was opened. In a series of carefully planned and timed stages the premises had been converted and modernised throughout. This was achieved without losing an hour’s trading in the process.

A bakery was installed, adding to the Imperial’s established reputation, by the daily production of fresh, crisp bread. Under Head Baker George Thomas twenty two varieties of bread were baked every day. It was said that the Imperial produced the best loaves in South Bucks. These arrived on the shop-floor early in the afternoon and it was said that “many women time their shopping so as to be on-hand when the crisp, hot bread comes from the ovens” – doesn’t the thought of that make your mouth water !

Customers were travelling from throughout South Bucks to shop at the Imperial. A home-delivery service was therefore established, although customers still wanted to come in to shop in person and enjoy the courteous and helpful service from the staff led by assistant Manageress Betty Twitchen.

To be continued

I am grateful to Ms Betty Twitchen for allowing me access to her extensive archive of records and photographs relating to the Imperial Stores. Pictures are courtesy of Wycombe Museum.