Woolworths first store was in Liverpool
The birth of a shopping tradition
By Paul Coslett
A British high street tradition started in Liverpool when in 1909 it was chosen as the first UK location for Woolworths.
The birth of a British shopping institution took place on Liverpool's Church Street on 5 November 1909 when, fittingly enough amongst a display of fireworks, Woolworths arrived.
The shopping chain, now threatened with closure after 99 years, opened its first UK store at 25-25a Church Street, Liverpool, with a performance by a full orchestra, circus acts and the fireworks.
‘Woolies’, as Liverpudlians affectionately named it, was born in the United States by Frank Winfield Woolworth who in 1878 had started a chain of ‘5 and Dime Stores’ in New York.
Expanding to the UK, Woolworth, declared “I believe that a good penny and sixpence store, run by a lively Yankee, would go down a storm in England,” a newspaper advert for the inaugural store, as well as mentioning the first floor tea room, proudly boasted ‘Nothing in the Stores over 6d’.
25 Church Street location of the first Woolworths
The Liverpool Courier sent a reporter to cover the store's opening who reported "Many thousands of people yesterday afternoon and evening availed themselves of the opportunity afforded by the proprietors, Messrs. F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd., of inspecting their new stores at Church Street and Williamson Street.
"The handsome premises, formerly occupied by Henry Miles & Co., were thronged the whole time they were open, many no doubt attracted by the novel character of the business transacted.
"6D is the highest price charged for any single article in the establishment, but the variety of articles obtainable is infinite."
The UK’s second store opened in Preston and was swiftly followed by another on Liverpool’s London Road.
On its first day the London Road store was mobbed by ‘shawlies’ - a name given to working-class Liverpool women who were usually elderly and of scruffy appearance - assistants fainted, counters were pushed around and many customers left having failed to pay for their purchases.
Paul Fletcher has been researching the history of Woolworths in Liverpool and discovered that, due to the family ties of Frank Woolworth and director William Stephenson, the shop nearly started in a different part of the UK , "They set upon finding an area to build their new store," Fletcher explains.
"Stephenson was from the Midlands and knew that area well, Woolworth had family in Cambridge so could look to gain support from that area if chosen, but neither of these would get the ground breaking store."
A paving stone marks where St Peter's church stood
The demand for ‘Woolies’ goods soon outstripped the size of the original Liverpool stores and the chain took advantage of the demolition of St Peters Church on Church Street to build a large shop on the site, where it remained until its closure in 1983.
Now an entrance to the Liverpool One development stands on the store's site while the area's ecclesiastical history is commemorated by a gold cross in a paving slab which marks what was the centre of the St Peter's church entrance.
While he was building his UK empire Frank Woolworth was determined to make his mark on New York by constructing the world’s tallest building, the $15million cost came solely from his Woolworths dividends.
The building, designed in Gothic style by the Cass Gilbert, was complete by 1913 and rose to 792 feet high.