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1930s Expansion Programme


What you can't get for sixpence at Woolworths.  Extracted from a cartoon by students from Liverpool University in 1934.  Among the items you can't buy are socks that don't smell, hot water bottles for cold knights (sic) and pins for pricking.

Woolworth went into the 1930s with 375 stores across Britain and Ireland. Most were in the larger towns and cities. During the Twenties as the tenancies of some of the original buildings had fallen due for renewal, the Property Department sought larger, freehold premises. In some cases they had bought out the landlord, acquired neighbouring properties and built an extension. In other towns, they had picked a new spot for a ground-up large store build.

Bosses at Marks and Spencer and the Home and Colonial considered the new larger stores a particular threat. Woolworth had a bright and modern look and seemed to have knack for pinpointing the busiest shopping area in the towns it served. The competitors often took a new Woolworth's as a cue to upgrade their own store, often prompting them to relocate to a spot next door or directly opposite.

The Thirties saw Woolworth surge ahead. In what pundits today call a 'virtuous circle', its buying power helped it to offer value for money that was hard to beat. As raw material prices started to rise during the decade, the Buyers were able to hold back the tide. Suppliers were forced to absorb the increases to remain on the books. Over time the price differential between Woolworth and its rivals grew, attracting yet more shoppers.

Rapidly rising profits were ploughed into a major expansion programme, which saw the opening of four hundred branches. Most were in the suburbs and in smaller towns and semi-rural locations, where no chain store had ventured before. In most places Woolworth was invited in, and offered a prime spot and other enticements to set up shop.


Cartoon of B.C. Donaldson, Head of Construction for Woolworths from a privately produced book in 1935. Donaldson is holding a golf club made of an RSJ with a brick tied to the end. He has just sliced the ball and demolished the clubhouse. The caption reads "That's all right, we can build another one overnight!"

The firm promoted its Northern District Construction Superintendent, B.C. Donaldson, to oversee the nationwide mass expansion programme. Every detail was carefully planned and had to be executed with military precision.

Teams of company builders worked round the clock, getting only a few days break between finishing one building and moving on to the next. Early completion bonuses helped keep the work on schedule. 400 stores opened in just nine years.

Most of the new buildings followed a standard model, like Pwllheli, Gwynned in North Wales (below, right). The repeatable formula made it possible to open a store every seventeen days during the peak season.


A new F. W. Woolworth store in High Street Pwellheli, Gwynedd, Wales - which opened on 7th July 1934

Between the World Wars the range kept changing, but the store format remained totally consistent. It is hard to believe that the two pictures below were taken nine years and two hundred miles apart.

Two Woolworth stores, two different parts of the country, nine years apart - yet the salesfloors look virtually identical. That consistency of presentation was the hallmark of the chain stores, with F. W. Woolworth charting the way for others to follow.


Some locations required the personal touch, as local authorities resisted the arrival of a chain store or exercised greater planning control. The Woolworth architects would not give in. Where necessary they devised complex building schemes, some of which took many years to come to fruition. For example the freehold of the Clarendon Hotel in Cornmarket Street, Oxford was acquired in 1930. The war of wills to agree that it could be demolished and replaced by a modern Woolworth store took twenty-seven years and five different layout proposals before finally completing in 1957. A similar scheme in the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey saw a store open in just six months in 1930. The building was then extended in stages over the next five years.


The original Woolworth store in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey. It traded in Clarence Street facing Bentalls. A branch of Barclays Bank stands on this spot today, opposite the Bentall Centre. The Sun Hotel in Market Place, Kingston-upon-Thames pictured shortly before it was demolished to make way for an enlarged Woolworths store for the town in 1930. The Woolworths construction team sets to work to build a new, larger Woolworths in Market Place, Kingston in Spring 1931 A new Woolworth store for Kingston-upon-Thames. which opened on 5th August 1931 The finished Woolworth store at Kingston-upon-Thames after extension in 1933 and 1935
The original store had no room to grow The Sun Hotel was acquired and demolished Woolworths builders set to work on the new store The new store was only 40 feet deep in 1931 It was extended in 1933 and again in 1935


Another major development scheme doubled the size of the store in the Bull Ring Market in Birmingham's Spiceal Street. The fast pace of expansion created the need to reorganised. A new administrative District which was headquartered in the new building. The architects took great care to maintain the symmetry and elegance of the original landmark premises to create a store to be proud of.


Before and after pictures of the flagship F. W. Woolworth store in the Bull Ring, Birmingham (Spiceal Street), which doubled in size in the 1930s. Administrative Offices above the store were responsible for the day-to-day administration of around 150 stores across central England and Wales in the chain's Birmingham Region.


While grand schemes like the Birmingham flagship captured the headlines, most of the sales and profit growth of the era was generated by openings in small, local High Streets. The pace was breath-taking. Local authorities and parish councils sometimes swept aside planning constraints to attract the Threepenny and Sixpenny Stores, which they felt would help put them on the map as a shopping destination. Woolworth was allocated a prime spot at the centre of many new parades and was allowed to build using its standard design, even if this constrasted with neighbouring property. In 1934 the 600th store opened its doors in Woodcote Road, Wallington, Surrey (below, far left).


The F. W. Woolworth threepenny and sixpenny stores open in Wallington, Forest Hill, Bexhill-on-Sea, Maldon and Pembroke Dock. Part of a wave of 394 openings between 1929 and 1939.


In 1936, building on the success of a second store in London's Oxford Street, the construction team set out on their boldest scheme to date. They planned to demolish the successful branch at the junction of Promenade and Bank Hey Street in Blackpool, a popular seaside resort on the North-West coast of England. It was replaced by a huge store with three large trading floors and two floors of restaurants above. The elaborate design include bright bronzework, marble cream 'Darwen' glazed bricks and a landmark clocktower and flagpole. The store was the largest and most modern of 2,000 Woolworth's across the world when it opened in 1938. It is featured separately in this Gallery.

By the end of the phoney war in Spring 1940, the chain had grown to 768 branches with an opening in the small rural town of Crawley, West Sussex. Two branches were kept mothballed and not opened. The store in Weybridge, Surrey became an 'emergency bunker', in case the 'Executive Office' in Mayfair became unuseable. The opening of Newry, County Antrim was also delayed until 1946.


Quick Links to related content in the Woolworths Museum

1930s Gallery

1930s openings   Stock Market Flotation   Buying ingenuity

Working in a 30s store   Woolies' first character items   Keeping prices under sixpence

Eclipse & Crown records    Woolworth's first Ladybird items    Royalty and Empire

"New Bond" staff magazine   First catalogues    Restaurant & Tea Bar   Rumblings of War

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