THERE was a time when no Saturday afternoon felt complete without a visit to Woolworths on Princes Street. For many, it was a long-standing family tradition.
Woolworths opened its iconic purpose-built Princes Street store in March 1926 in front of a large crowd and to much fanfare. Its modern and solid-looking design featuring a distinctive octagonal tower is thought to have been the work of the company’s in house architect W. Priddle.
The store was intended to be the flagship Woolworths for Scotland and its prime spot on Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare opposite the North British Hotel and the notoriously windy steps of Waverley Station certainly helped it to quickly become a national landmark.
The block had previously been the location of the first ever residential property to appear on Princes Street in 1769. The 18th century building was later transformed into the Crown Hotel before work on Woolworths began in 1925.
Woolworths had been operating on these shores since 1909 when the company’s founder Frank Winfield Woolworth, fulfilled a long-time desire to expand his successful ‘five and dime’ business venture out of North America by opening a store in Liverpool.
Mr Woolworth was a retail pioneer who believed in selling a lot for a little as opposed to selling a little for a lot, and is credited with creating the modern retail model which many stores still follow today. By the time of Frank Woolworth’s death in 1919, the 40-year old business empire had grown to an incredible 1,200 stores worldwide and boasted the world’s tallest building as its American headquarters.
In Britain during the 1920s, Woolworths began to expand at a rapid pace. At one point it was said that a new store was opening its doors somewhere in the United Kingdom every 17 days. Armed with their own highly skilled workforce, from architects and bricklayers to plasterers and plumbers, Woolworths were able to transform an empty patch of land into a new store within just a matter of weeks. The cheap and cheerful American chain had quickly secured a place in the hearts of the nations consumers; ‘Woolies’, as it was to be affectionately known, was well on its way to becoming a British institution.
The first Edinburgh stores
Edinburgh received its own Woolworths in 1925 when a store within an existing property at the junction of the Foot of the Walk and Constitution Street was opened. The purpose-built Princes Street store and three others at Lothian Road, Dalry Road and Raeburn Place all appeared in the years that followed.
Due to increasing success, the Princes Street store expanded in 1956 to take in the former Palace Picture House premises immediately to the west. Woolworths’ mission to offer an unprecedented array of highly-desirable consumer products at an affordable cost was proving to be extremely popular. Throughout the swinging sixties, Woolworths on Princes Street was where a good portion of the population opted to spend their Saturday afternoon. Pocket money was exchanged for pic ‘n’ mix, toys and the latest pop singles. Meanwhile, grown-ups enjoyed the sheer variety of products on offer, and of course, few visits would be complete without a refreshing visit to the tartan-carpeted restaurant on the top floor.
The Woolworths on Princes Street survived until 1984, when the company’s new owners Paternoster (later Kingfisher) decided to close a number of the larger stores around the UK. The Princes Street store closed despite its city centre location and status as the most profitable Woolworths branch in Scotland at that time. Staff were given the choice of relocating to the Lothian Road branch, or accepting a severance package - which was reportedly generous compared to what they were entitled to by law.
In 2008 Woolworths went into administration and the much-adored company’s presence on the British high street came to an abrupt end just a year shy of its UK centenary. The closure of Woolworths’ 200 UK stores left more than 27,000 unemployed.
The building occupying Nos. 10-14 Princes Street was eventually broken up into several smaller retail units following its closure as a Woolworths. Businesses such as Waterstones, Boots, Evans, Wimpy Burger and Burger King have all since come and gone. The premises have been closed since 2011 and are currently in the process of a major redevelopment.
All internal features of the original 1925-built structure were demolished in 2012 with only the façade remaining. It appears increasingly likely that the new development will include a flagship Apple computer store and hotel which looks set to be ready by next summer.
Several generations of Woolies fans will be hoping that among the iPhone 5s and MacBook Pros there might just be a pic ‘n’ mix counter thrown in for old times’ sake.
• David McLean is the founder of the Lost Edinburgh Facebook page