The Wonder of Woolies

Woolworths Rugby

When I was a boy the Rugby store at 30 High Street was one of my favourite shops in town.  It was big, it was bright, it was cheap and gaudy and it was like an Aladdin’s cave full of treasure.

I don’t know for sure how long it had been there but there are some old pictures of the town that show it in the 1950s in a fine old building but some time in the early 1960s Rugby got the full attention of the modernist town planners and much of the historic centre was swept away in a frenzy of demolition and rebuild. By the 1960s Woolworths was located in a modern brick and glass building with a concrete façade which would have looked trendy then but now just looks firmly and inappropriately time locked in its post war conception.

The dark days of Winter were the best time to visit Woolworths because stepping out of the gloom into the bright lights was like visiting Santa’s grotto.  The Rugby store was a big one, on three levels and with entrances from both High Street and Sheep Street which pre pedestrianisation were busy main roads cutting through the middle of town from Market Place to Hillmorton Road and as well as Woolworths there wasMarks and Spencers, Boots the Chemist, International Stores and a number of small local shops, sadly, mostly now gone.

Before it was modernised with tills at the exits it was a curious mix of the old and the new shopping experience. It had worn wooden floors and counters arranged in sections that were part self-service and partly manned by shop assistants.

Each section advertised its wares with a cardboard sign in a sort of aluminium picture frame which wobbled about on the counter. ‘Pick n Mix’ was close to the door with a mouth watering array of fizzy and hard boiled sweets sponsored probably by the local dentists.  Once past this distraction there were toys and games, hardware, gardening, shoes and clothing counters.  There were records too but these were mainly cheap long playing records not performed by the original artist.

Shop-lifting was a problem for Woolworths and on the subject of thieving, Rugby School Boys were not allowed to shop in the store and I always thought this was due to some snobbish rule imposed by the public school itself but it turned out that it was in fact a ban by the management of Woolies because despite the fact that the pupils were from very well off families they used to nick so much stuff that it had a negative effect on store profits.

Progressing deeper into the store the counters became less interesting for young children , clothes, kitchen ware, electrical items and furniture.  Upstairs, via the escalator on one side and stairs on the other, was really for serious mum and dad shopping and there was a cafeteria for tea and a sandwich.  The third floor was accessed by what seemed to be a curious set of back stairs but I can’t remember anything especially interesting on this floor.

Woolworths was rather like a giant indoor playground with lots of interesting things to do.  One of my favourites was the weighing machine right near the door.  It was big and red and had a massive dial which swung round when you stood on the metal plate.  You had to put money in the machine to make it work, probably no more than a penny or so, so we used to try and fool it to weigh each one in turn but this never worked because as soon as two people got on and one stood off then the dial collapsed to its starting point as though by magic.

Woolworths was at its very best around December time when the place filled up for Christmas and for a young boy with a few shillings to spend on family presents this was the place to spend a Saturday afternoon and get all the shopping done in one go in just one store – it was brilliant.  I seem to remember that it was good at Easter as well when there were rows and rows of chocolate Easter eggs taking up more than its fair share of floor space.

Sadly, Woolworths ceased trading and went into voluntary liquidation in November 2008 and shortly after that the Rugby store, along with all of the others across the country, closed their doors for good on 27th December.

I don’t know what replaced it because I don’t visit Rugby any more but the loss of Woolies in Rugby and High Streets across the country must surely remain one of the biggest retailing disappointments of the last few years.

Rugby Woolworths

37 responses to “The Wonder of Woolies

  1. This has brought back some good memories, even smells, of our own Woolworths – thanks for the trigger Andrew, might get a story out of this idea, hope you don’t think it’s on-line piracy!

  2. ‘Pick n Mix’ … now there’s a distant memory!

  3. Pingback: Memory Post – The Wonder of Woolies | Have Bag, Will Travel

  4. This post reminds me so much of what happened in Sutton Coldfield which also had a Woolworths, famed for its selling an assortment of pretty much everything.

  5. Brilliant post, full of memories. Yes, the Pick and Mix was what greeted us too – just like your picture. But we were obviously hard done by, as our Woolies only had a ground floor.

  6. As a teenager I used to love going into Leeds with my friends on Saturday afternoons and visiting Woolie’s. I remember it was always packed and moving around was difficult, we had to push our way to the makeup counter.
    The city centre store became House of Fraser.

  7. I still love going to our Woolies (a small one that only sells food … oh, and wine). The Woolworths in the bigger towns are always a delight to walk through – a real feast for the eyes! The Pick ‘n Mix was a huge favourite for me and my brother (we actually made sure to pick different sweets so that we could “exchange” later at home ☺️).

  8. It’s now the opposite end of the scale to Woolworths, it’s a Harvey Nichols.

  9. I have fond memories of the Wimbledon store rather earlier

  10. Thank you for dragging some of those memories out of long forgotten places. Pick’n’mix. Cheap LPs.Hallmark, was it?
    And those counters where all the goods were displayed in little sections and the assistant stood behind them in her own little aisle.

  11. We had one here in my Western Nebraska (USA) town, too, and it was set up virtually the same as yours. It also had a lunch counter on one side where one could get sodas and sandwiches primarily. I believe it was closed in the first round of Woolworth closures. A competitor (Hested’s) had a store a short way down the same block, and it was pretty much a copy of the Woolworth’s, though it also sold a small selection of fish and parakeets. At Easter time, the Hested’s sold taxidermized chicks and ducklings in little Easter costumes. I can’t imagine why anyone would buy them, but 1950s sensibilities apparently allowed baby birds to be killed, stuffed, and dressed in Easter-themed costumes for the amusement of the Easter crowd.

  12. I remember the heated roasted and salted peanuts kept warm by a light bulb in the glass container they were displayed in!

  13. I share the same memories as many others on here but did you know Woolworths is still going strong in South Africa? We were in Cape Town about 3 years ago and our local friend took us shopping in good old Woolies. It was actually bit more upmarket than the stores I remember in the UK!! Thanks for bringing back some happy memories.

  14. We had Woolworth´s in Canada too and it sounds like they were similar the world over. My friend and I did steal a tube of lipstick from there once but felt so guilty we returned and put it back on the shelf.

  15. I remember I used to walk to one with a friend and we’d have a banana split. That has to be in the late 60s since in the 70s I was at college. I never indulged in shoplifting from there or any store . . . opportunities missed, I guess.

  16. It was my go to store for buying toys! Wasn’t it known once for nothing over sixpence?

  17. I have a stack of stuff in my hall at the moment – personal items from my mother’s house that I don’t want to throw out but haven’t got round to sorting. Some of it is in Woolies carrier bags! I’m amazed they haven’t disintegrated.

  18. We grew up with a Woolworths, too, Andrew, in Placerville, Old Hangtown. It was smaller than yours but still came with that unique Woolworths smell and an old fashioned soda counter where we could load up on root beer floats. It also had caps for our cap guns. You spoke of shoplifting. I was in there with a couple of friends once when I must have been 9 or 10. After we walked out one of my friends pulled out several rolls of caps that he had stolen unbeknownst to us, or at least to me. He was bragging about how easy they had been to steal with the store detective collared us. I protested my innocence, to no avail. Back we all went with the store detective. Each of us had to empty our pockets. Fortunately, our friend had been a little too greedy to share his booty, or maybe he just hadn’t had the time. I got off with a warning. I forget what they did with my friend, but it was hardly a hanging offense. His parents were called, I do remember that. –Curt

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