Ever since a statement recently appeared on social media that Woolworth’s could be revived with a store in High Wycombe, which was exposed as a hoax, there have been many inaccurate statements about the store, which existed in the town for the best part of seventy years.

F.W.Woolworth & Co.Ltd was originally founded in the United States, the first store being opened in 1878. The concept was to sell discounted general merchandise at fixed prices.

The company, affectionately known as Woolworths or Woolies, opened their first store in the UK in Church St, Liverpool in November 1909. The one hundredth opened in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire in 1921, and the four hundredth in 1930 in Southend.

The first time the general public became aware that a Woolworth’s store was coming to High Wycombe would have been when a list of donations to the War Memorial Hospital was published in the Bucks Free Press on April 23 1926. The list included the “Woolworth Constructional Department”, who had collected £1.4s, equivalent to around £70 today. In other words, construction workers from Woolworth were in town at that time to fit-out their premises.

The “Woolworths 3d & 6d Store” was on the Church Street side of Queen Sq, Nos 5&6, and opened to shoppers early in 1927. In Trade Directories the store was actually listed as a “Bazaar”!

The Wycombe store soon began to get involved in the social life of the town, for example by providing the flowers for the table decorations at a tea arranged for elderly residents in June 1928. As with most shops, people were occasionally prosecuted for shop-lifting, but always only for low value items like handkerchiefs and Christmas cards, and usually they were repeat offenders.

In 1932 nearby premises in Church St, which had been occupied by Wycombe’s Free Library, became available after the library moved to a new location adjacent to the Town Hall in Queen Victoria Rd. Woolworth acquired these premises and set about converting them for their use. This had not been completed by the time of the important Christmas trading period so Woolworth placed an advertisement in the BFP announcing a “temporary extension of premises”. The “finest selection of ... seasonable goods in Bucks” were to be available with “Nothing over 6d”. Although the location of these temporary premises was not stated it is likely to have been those which they had just acquired, and were “temporary” in the sense that the fitting-out work had not been completed.

The location was very important because it allowed the two shops to be integrated into one store at the rear, see diagram. The store now also had a rear access from Priory Road, which allowed more convenient re-stocking of the shelves.

During the second world war years there were regular advertisements for staff in the Bucks Free Press, the wording would not be legal now!

In 1945 the store was involved in a long court case which has its humourous side. The BFP reported on a two day hearing at County Hall, Aylesbury, beginning with “Questions relative to hard rind cheese, hard cheese, holey cheese and soft cheese came up frequently during an appeal case.....” A Southampton firm had been fined £17 7s. at Wycombe Police Court for supplying cheese to Woolworth’s with an incorrect label, which had stated that the cheese was “the finest Gruyere cheese”. Their appeal was dismissed. The manager of the Woolworth’s store in Wycombe at that time was named as Ernest G Rimmell.

Woolies introduced many innovative ways to sell their wares, which were all available in the Wycombe store, for example pick-and-mix for sweets, and hot roasted peanuts.

Many longtime residents of the town will fondly remember the Woolies store in Church St, which had two entrances/exits, meaning you could walk right through the store and out into the street again. This was quite an adventure at Christmas-time, when because the store was so crowded, that walk could take around 10 minutes. And that was without stopping to view or purchase any of the items on display.

The overcrowding in the store at peak shopping times continued throughout the 1950s and 60s, so that when an opportunity arose to purchase the Red Lion Hotel premises with frontages in the High Street and the Odeon cinema in Castle Street, Woolworth’s could not resist. Both premises had been originally offered for sale at an auction in November 1961, but were withdrawn when the bids failed to meet the reserve prices. In the case of the Red Lion the bids reched £250,000, and £64,500 for the Odeon. It is not known what Woolworth paid.

Demolition of both premises began in February 1969, when the BFP reported that it was estimated that the new Woolworth’s store would be up and running in about eighteen months. In fact it was not until late in August 1972 that the store opened its doors to the public. The official opening, by Miss United Kingdom, took place on Thursday September 7, 1972. It was announced with a whole page advert in the BFP.

For some three years the construction work had been proceeding behind tall hoardings. So what was the reaction when the hoardings were finally removed. Shortly after the store opened, the BFP sent a reporter to view the building. He reported “It’s a startling building certainly. And bearing in mind the intense public feeling that was roused when plans for a commercial company, with no great cultural reputation, to take over the historical Red Lion Hotel building were known, it’s not surprising that opinions are now still divided.” However after interviewing a number of people outside the store he concluded “Shoppers are happy enough”.

The new store was very large; it was arranged on three floors, with the retail space occupying the entire ground floor, and stretched from the High Street all the way to Castle St. The store could be entered or left from either street. The second and third floors were given over to office accomodation, some occupied by Woolworth’s staff, the rest sub-let. The pick-and mix sweet counter was just inside the High St entrance.

In 1984 the High Wycombe Woolworth’s store was one of nine around the country which were used to test out the concept of an “Electronics World” store - trying to link the Comet and Woolworth brands. The pilot was abandoned in 1987.

After that it was used by Woolworth’s Head Office team to test out promotions before they went live, A cafe was also added. In the early 2000s it was converted to another new concept, the 10/10 format, as were many other large Woolworth stores.

Unfortunately this was too late to save the Woolworth brand and all the company’s 807 stores were closed between December 27 2008 and January 6 2009. The Woolworth Group plc went into administration on January 27 2009. Some 27,000 jobs were lost.

Wycombe’s War timeline

This week’s look at what was happening in wartime Wycombe eighty years ago will be included in next week’s edition.