Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[52] Are You Being Served?


I am going to complete my memories of shops of the fifties with Department Stores and clothes shops, with a special mention for Woolworths. (When I say ‘complete’ that doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind later!)

Rub-a-dub-dub, Three men in a tub, And who do you think they were? The butcher, the baker, The candlestick-maker, …


Before I come to these, I want to respond to some comments on my earlier posts about shops. I want to clarify what happened with supermarkets. They started, slowly, in the early sixties. I think there was a shop called Greens Stores in Beehive Lane that started as a Grocers, turning slowly into a tiny supermarket.

It was a revolution, just after 1960, when a supermarket opened in Ilford. It was the only one then in what was a large town. It was about the size of the tiny modern Metro supermarkets. I think it was called Dysons. Mum went once a week with a shopping list and took Dad with her because there was so much to carry. They only had the smaller trolleys at first.

But for the rest of my thoughts about shops I want to keep back in the fifties as far as I can remember. The earlier posts about shops – butchers, bakers and the others – were my earliest memories from the fifties.


An early picture of Ilford. I can’t be precise about the date.

List of Shops

Department stores came in various sizes. They all sold at least some men’s clothing and ladies’ clothing and some or all of the following: children’s clothing, lingerie (always distinct from ladies’ clothing), shoes, curtains (US: drapes), soft furnishings (sheets etc.) household goods, haberdashery (See below), furniture, carpets and rugs (US: rugs and carpets!) kitchen equipment, ornaments, books and stationery … and food.

Before I look at department stores, the following list shows the shops I remember in the fifties mostly from Ilford. Because the overlap is uncertain this list also includes shops that just sold clothes (and, for completeness, shoes.) I may have some dates and names wrong. Many were chain stores found throughout the area so I may have seen them just outside Ilford.

Since then almost all brands have been merged into others or disappeared. My comments below about the brands say nothing about the actual shops. (I haven’t been to Ilford for many years. I understand that Bodgers is the only one still there.)

In time honoured fashion they are in alphabetical order!

  • Army and Navy – A Popular chain of shops. Merged with Chiesmans. Now House of Fraser.
  • Bodgers – About the only department store still there now in Ilford
  • British Home Stores – Now BHS. Cheaper end of the market. Included food and a café.
  • C & A – A Dutch chain, came to Britain from about early sixties. I loved it for men’s clothes. No longer operates in the UK.
  • Chiesmans opened 1959 Merged with Army and Navy. Now House of Fraser.
  • Co-op – Now CRS, Co-operative Retail Services
  • Dolcis – Shoes, an established chain. No longer with us. Always seemed to be located next to Lilly and Skinner and Freeman, Hardy and Willis.
  • Dorothy Perkins – Established chain for women’s clothes. Became part of Burton group.
  • Etam – Women’s clothes and lingerie. A Dutch firm. Not now in UK.
  • D. H. Evans – Established chain for women’s clothes. (Not sure of current politically correct term – for the ‘fuller figure.’) Now Evans. Part of Arcadia.
  • Fairheads – Included haberdashery. Now seems to have disappeared.
  • Freeman, Hardy and Willis – Shoes, an established chain. No longer with us.
  • Harrison Gibsons – Included furniture and carpets. Now House of Fraser.
  • Home and Colonial – Established chain, mostly food. Now merged into Safeway.
  • Lilly and Skinner – As for Dolcis and Freeman, Hardy and Willis.
  • Maison Riche – Upmarket women’s clothes only.
  • Marks and Spencer – clothes and food. All their clothes used the St Michael brand name in the fifties. Still going strong.
  • Montague Burton – Now Burtons. Then it was an upmarket men’s Taylor. The only place for made-to-measure suits.
  • Moss Bros – Formal dressware and hire.
  • Moultons – Multi-storey shop. The name now seems to have disappeared.
  • Richards Shops – Taken over by Arcadia.
  • Selfridges – Could be late sixties. Now House of Fraser.
  • W. H. Smiths – Now WHSmith. See below.
  • Wests – Included haberdashery. Now seems to have disappeared.
  • F. W. Woolworth – See below.

[Note: Arcadia group now owns Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Evans, Wallis, Debenhams, Selfridges, House of Fraser and many other brands.]


The picture above shows Fairhead’s in Ilford

Note the orderly queue (for a Sale)

And the use of shop windows for display.

Big Department Stores

When I first did my notes, I said that department stores can best be seen as like Grace Brothers in the Television series ‘Are you Being Served’. I now realize that this program was last shown in 1985 so you may not all have seen it! It started in the early 70s, so by then the stereotyped department store was already an obsolete figure of fun.

They were much larger than the basic shops we have seen already – butchers, bakers etc. – at least twenty times the floor space and normally at least two or three storeys. I think Harrison Gibsons, with five or six storeys, used to be the tallest building in Ilford.

(The Harrison Gibsons building was destroyed by fire in 1959 and Moultons, next door to it, was damaged. Flames lit the sky and we could see them from our house two miles away.)

What was fundamentally different about these shops was their internal architecture. There were lines of counters making up large elongated rectangular areas. Several shop assistants inside looked after all the merchandise, which was either on the counters or in drawers under the counters (or, at the outside of the shop, behind the assistants.) Customers stayed outside the area containing merchandise. If what you wanted was not visible – it probably wasn’t – you had to ask the assistant to find it and show you. Items of clothing appeared carefully boxed, not hanging up. There was relatively little that you could touch or even see.


The picture above from the BBC series shows a cash register

Showing 3s 6d (That’s 17.5p)

Also, clothes were arranged in departments by type of clothing rather than by fashion designer. If you wanted a white dress shirt, you went to the counter selling white dress shirts and asked to be shown the range. (There was probably only one brand anyway.) There may have been one or two on display, but most were kept neatly in drawers and cupboards. You would have a small range from which to make your choice and finalize the purchase. If you wanted an overcoat at the same time you went on to the overcoat department (perhaps on another floor) and repeated the selection process with another shop assistant. For a large department store there would be perhaps hundreds of staff where today a staff of about half a dozen may sell just as many products.

Generally, department stores had grown from drapers, selling textiles – clothes, curtains, sheets etc. but the range of goods depended on the shop. At some stores there were some counters selling food but there was nothing resembling today’s supermarkets (or hypermarkets or superstores).

Some included basic cafes providing tea, coffee and biscuits and not much more. (Tea and coffee will come later.)


Many had quite large areas selling haberdashery – equipment and goods to enable customers to make their own things – knitting needles, wool and knitting patterns; sewing needles and cotton thread; patterns for dressmaking; hooks, buttons, zips and beads. In the relative austerity after the war a lot more people knitted or sewed at home as a cheaper way of obtaining clothes.


Clothes Shops

There were some shops, as indicated in my list above, which only sold clothes. They were structured in the same way as department stores. Over more than fifty years, most chains have changed their ownership, branding and clientele several times in what is now a fiercely competitive business. It was probably better to think of them in the fifties as clothes shops rather than fashion shops.

WH Smith

Smiths were slightly different in the way they changed. They started a bit like the small newsagents that generally became corner shops. But Smiths shops were larger, almost department stores. They sold newspapers, stationery, some confectionery, books and magazines, but also records, (later CDs, computer accessories, electronic games,) playing cards, board games and small gifts. It is still a large chain successfully filling its own niche market. What was left of the Post Office is now similar.


F W Woolworths was aimed at the cheaper end of the market. I probably saw more of this shop because there was one at Gant’s Hill as well as one at Ilford. It sold cheap clothes, kitchen utensils, toys and games, food and many other things. They picked things not for sale elsewhere and sold them in large quantities. I have memories of a few things sold there.


School plimsolls came from Woolworths. They were mass produced in China and only sold at Woolworths. Everyone at school had shoes like these, which we carried to school in our PE bags with our shorts. They cost a few shillings. As far as I know they were the only form of sports shoes available.


As well as other food, Woolworths sold loose peanuts by weight. They would be scooped and put into a paper bag and weighed – the assistant just kept adding a few until it skipped over the 4oz marker. They were not the peanuts of today, not roasted and salted. You could either get them in their shells (above) or without shells – they still had the red skins. Both were about 6d for a quarter (4oz).


Finally, apart from photographs, I possess just a few treasured items from over fifty years ago. I bought these at Woolworths. They were unusual then as we had little contact with African craft. Now there are shops selling all sorts of decorative craft goods from Africa, India, Asia and South America. I still love these little antelopes.


Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

9 thoughts on “[52] Are You Being Served?

  1. Hello Alan. Do you remember Greenwoods of Ilford. A small department store, comprising three floors, selling good quality suitcases, briefcases, handbags, purses, wallets, gloves, umbrellas, fancy goods and toys? They were on the High Road a few doors from the Havelock Pub and across from Grosvenor Road.


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  3. Woolworths also sold their own brand of 45 rpm records. They were half the price of regular 45’s and were cover versions of popular chart music of the time. They were called ,Embassy records, and had a dark red paper label on with the song and singer printed in silver. I did buy a few, and they were generally very good covers, but I only played them at home, it wasnt seen as very “cool” to buy Woolworths records


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