Famous retail names have adorned the Wigan high street - including Lowes

A tour round Wigan’s much-missed and never-forgotten stores with local historian Tom Walsh, who also reflects on his first day in his job at one of the poshest.

Friday, 10th April 2020, 1:10 pm
Updated Friday, 10th April 2020, 1:12 pm
Wigan high street in the 1970s

The closure of Marks and Spencer was undoubtably a body blow to Wigan Town Centre.

After that sad day when the company left the town centre after a continuous 128 years of trading. I have noticed since then when people pass the once thriving store, now with blacked out windows, they seem to avert their eyes; so deep is the feeling sadness that something that had seemed unthinkable has come to pass.

M&S' decision to leave set me along that well trodden path - Memory Lane - to some other names of shops that have graced our town - Woolworths, Warburton’s, Pennington’s, Preston Sales Room, Pendlebury’s, not to mention the countless smaller retailers who made Wigan a magnet drawing people from many neighbouring towns.

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Staff at Lowes in the 1970s

I purposely didn’t mention Lowes, Victoria House, in the list because it has a very special place in my heart (for reasons you’ll see shortly)

The shop opened in 1887 four years before Michael Marks opened his stall in Wigan Market Hall, strange to think that he may well have been a customer of Lowes after moving to live in Wigan in 1891.

Incidentally one of his children, Miriam, was born on February 1 1892 in the family home at 152 Great George Street and interestingly Michael Marks signed the birth certificate with an X.

Wigan played no little part in Michael Mark’s life. On 27th March 1897 the Mayor of Wigan Councillor Robert Richards and the Chief of Police, Captain A Bell, confirmed to the Home Office a period of residence of Michael Marks and gave a character reference in connection with his application for naturalisation. On May 5 1897, Michael Marks was naturalised as a British subject.

Both families mentioned were in business in Wigan in the 1890s one went on to become a national concern the other Lowes, remained in the confines of Wigan.

In 1963 Lowes was taken over by Greenwood’s gentlemen’s outfitter and eventually closed its doors in 1985.

Harold Lowe, one of Lowes’ directors told me much later that they had no choice but to agree to the takeover. He didn’t say why but I’m sure the cause was that retailing had changed over the decades particularly after WW2 and Lowes had not adapted to the new retailing environment, preferring the old fashion way of doing business.

It’s 60 years since I started work at Lowes, something that was to completely change the course of my life.

I stayed in the furnishing trade for rest of my working life. I would like share some memories of my time working there and my qualms about the wisdom of applying in the first place.

My first day - I leave home in a very nervous state. I’ve been awake half the night wondering what the day would bring?

Would the men be friendly? Would I be able to come home at dinner (lunch for southern cousins)?

My mother made the morning more anxious, ‘Have you got a clean handkerchief ? ‘Have you cleaned your shoes ?

’Mam’, I yell back, ’Stop fussing I’ll be alright if you’ll just stop fussing, please. I’m not bothered about starting work, just don’t keep going on’, which of course is a complete lie.

I don’t think I have ever felt so scared in my life. I start my journey into the world of work, the job I’d secured was as an apprentice carpet fitter, considered a good trade in those days.

Lowes was a very posh department store; I felt very fortunate to have landed a position in such a prestigious establishment.

As I start my journey to the emporium I start to wish I hadn’t been so fortunate.

I think a less posh place of work would have suited me better. I’m from a mining family but from my earliest days it had been drilled into me, ‘You’re not going down the pit’.

My dad had been hurt in a pit fall and my grandfather had lost a leg in similar circumstances. But if not there, where?

The world certainly wasn’t my oyster, I had done particularly poorly at school, spelling being my biggest drawback, I’m sure it was a surprise to my teachers that I’d secured an apprenticeship, as in truth it was to me.

In the mile or so walk from home to the store I convince myself once again that I am indeed fortunate on reaching the Market Square, my doubts come flooding back.

I look up at the imposing edifice that was Lowes Victoria House, a cathedral to poshness.

Even though I caught the school bus outside there every day for four years, I never dared enter; until I went for the interview. Mr Lowe said then my well written letter had impressed him.

I thought it wise not say my sister helped me, in truth she had almost written it and I merely copied the missive.

My mother, like me, had never entered the hallowed halls, nor I expect had the vast majority of my extended family; far too grand for the likes of us!

As I gaze up at the boardroom (the place of my interview) which was situated in the eaves of the building, awaiting the courage to enter, I start again to ponder again once my suitability for the position and wished I hadn’t answered the advertisement a fortnight earlier.

I would surely have found something less daunting and better suited to my background, but here goes I must face the consequences of that much pored over letter that has landed me in this predicament!

I had replied to an advertisement in The Wigan Observer, seeking a youth to train as a carpet fitter.

At the interview I was told my start time would be 8am and on the first day I would be met by Mr Marshall, furnishing workroom manager, and he would introduce me to the staff.

I enter the building just as the Parish Church clock chimes eight.

A tall distinguished looking man approaches me, ‘Are you our new recruit’, he asks in a decidedly officer-type manner.

‘Yes, Sir,’ I mumble, trying to keep my voice as low as possible. It rises three octaves in a stressful situation and sounds like a violin.

‘No need for sir, you’re not at school now. Mr Marshall will do nicely’, he says in a no nonsense way. We take the lift to the top floor I’m relived that we don’t use the stairs as I imagine everybody is looking at me and wondering how I’II fit in - worse still, IF I’II fit in.

Mr Marshall with me in tow reaches the workroom. It’s all very formal, as was everything at Lowes.

I shake hands with all the seven carpet fitters and the four lady seamstresses.

The ladies are all extremely nice and do everything to make me feel at ease. One in particular seems to take a shine to me, Betty, who I discover lives near to me.

We walk home together every day and she becomes a confidant and trusted adviser on workroom politics.

We are great friends to this day; a few years later we are to share the same surname when she marries my cousin Jim.

What a small world Wigan is! All the men seem very friendly and welcoming apart from one who seemed less than pleased to see me.

I learn later from Betty that it was nothing personal; he is always in a foul mood on Monday mornings.

That first day seemed everlasting. My first duty was to go for toast at The UCP (United Cattle Products); they had a cafeteria at the back of the shop, a strange combination with tripe at the front and tea and toast in the cafeteria at the rear plus a nice restaurant on the first floor.

A three course meal cost five shillings and sixpence (28p today’s equivalent) in 1960.

I was to become a frequent customer along with other juniors at the toast counter.

I also became an expert on the best pies in the town, again names come flooding back, older readers will remember these - Poole’s, Watkin’s, Lace’s, McCandelish’s, Vose’s, one that most people forget Lyons’ in Hallgate - it caused quite a hullabaloo when Sarah Lynns, opened.

By general consensus of the workroom the best pie in Wigan was Percy Watkins’ meat pie 1 shilling and 4 pence (7p)

The formality of my time at ‘The Cathedral’ has stayed with me for all of my life.

I can’t but wonder why many younger people slap each others hand in the air, so to speak.

I learned only quite recently, this called a high five, and is in the modern day equivalent of a handshake.

Another change in protocol is to say cheers to mean thank you in the contemporary vernacular,

I think I’ll keep to shaking hands and saying thank you very much!