Prescot THI Blog

35-39 Eccleston Street: A History

“Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.” – Groucho Marx

Time has certainly been flying for me of late, with the biggest project of the THI – Market Place – on site, seven THI buildings on the go and getting the last three building projects from existing only on pieces of paper to being out there and on the ground. This is why I have been so quiet on the blog front of late.

Happily, out of this array of projects, one of them has been taken off my hands by completing. I refer to 35-39 Eccleston Street, of which no.39 was previously a branch of Betfred, but has emerged phoenix-like (but thankfully not on fire) from the scaffold and hoarding as Pinion – the first restaurant to open on Eccleston Street in a generation or, in the case of fruit flies, the first in over 200 generations.

This blog is a look through the building’s pre-history, history and architecture. I’ll follow this up with a blog about the restoration.

Tea Street

The site of what is now 35-39 Eccleston Street is one end of what was in the medieval period a burgage plot that extended from what is now Eccleston Street to what is now High Street. This narrow plot would have at first mainly been an open field and so when it was first laid out the plot was given a curving, gently S-shaped boundary to enable the field to be ploughed. The curved shape to the field made it easier to turn the ox-pulled plough around at the end of the field. The curved shape of the site survives to this day in the curved side walls of no.39, but if you go inside any of them you will see that the internal party walls also curve.

The narrow alleyway between 39 Eccleston Street and the amusement arcade at no.41 would have once been no more than a track between what were open fields. Over time as Prescot grew these fields and backlands were built upon to house more cottages, houses and workshops, and so the narrow track became a very narrow street.

This is the 1848 Ordnance Survey map and I have drawn on an approximate boundary of the medieval burgage plot that once included the site of 35-39 Eccleston Street. Tea Street is the right hand edge of this boundary.

Stone Street is the best surviving example in Prescot of one of these side streets. The alleyway between 39 and 41 Eccleston Street was once like Stone street – a fully fledged street, called Tea Street. We have recently commemorated Tea Street in a plaque.

From a survey conducted in 1592 we know that what was probably a single burgage plot (and probably mainly field) in the fourteenth century had already been divided along its Eccleston Street frontage into three smaller plots that each contained a house, one of which retained a big share of the land behind. The High Street end of the plot had also been subdivided, this time into two plots, each containing a house. As Prescot prospered as a market town its medieval fields, burgages and plots were divided into smaller and smaller plots and built upon, as the above map shows.

Kale and Ale Sale

From 1818 if not before what is now the site of 35-37 Eccleston Street was the three-storey Derby Arms pub, which later branded itself as the Derby Hotel. Possibly purpose-built as a pub this building had a rendered or stuccoed frontage and a large lantern hanging over its central doorway. I know this because the pub or hotel was in existence until 1914 and shows up in old photos.

On the far right of this photo is Forber’s shop and next to it, the three storey Derby Arms, complete with lantern

The site of what is now 37-39 Eccleston Street was in the nineteenth and early twentieth century a low brick building – maps suggest it was a single unit rather than two, so perhaps a house containing a shop? It seems from at least 1851 to 1911 it was the dwelling and shop of three generations of the Forber family who were grocers and general dealers.

There seem to have been watchmakers among the men and boys in the Forber family; the censuses suggest that running the shop was perhaps a way of earning a living after retiring from the craft of watch making. Maybe the family shop was the go-to place to earn a living once you had reached middle age and your eyesight was no longer good enough for the demands of watch making? Who knows?

After the Derby Arms closed in 1914, it appears to have been used as a shop, and is recorded as such in a Trade Directory from 1924. In the same Directory, the adjacent building, formerly Forber’s shop, was a hairdresser’s.

The Big Shop is Open

With Leyland Street and Hill Street being laid out and built between 1906 and 1908, much of Tea Street and the spaces that branched off it were swept away and consigned to history. It seems that in the early 1930s the small row comprising of the former Derby Arms, and nos. 37, 39, 41 and 43 Eccleston Street was demolished.

The impetus for this might well have been the building of a purpose built shop for Woolworth and Co, which opened its Prescot branch around 1935. ‘Woolies’ as they were affectionately known underwent huge expansion between the Wars, more than doubling their number of branches in the UK from 375 in 1929 to 768 in 1939.

The Prescot branch was built smack bang in the middle of this expansion period. In the 1930s Woolworth’s was in the process of moving its older branches into new purpose built shops and they adopted a policy of all new branches being in brand new buildings designed by their in-house architects and built by a team that moved from location to location, for a spell opening a branch every 17 days! The busiest locations were favoured for the new stores and in Prescot, what better location than midway along Eccleston Street on a prominent corner?

The 1936-9 Ordnance Survey. At the corner of Leyland Street and Eccleston Street is the new Woolworths store and its smaller neighbour. To the left of this is an empty plot that would soon be occupied by 35-39 Eccleston Street and a sideways extension of Woolworths.

With the site secured and the new store built Woolworths opened around 1935. Curiously a very similar but smaller shop (now an amusement arcade) was built next to it at the same time very much in the same style as the Woolworths. Perhaps this was for future expansion or a way of cashing in on the location – build another shop and rent that out.

The Only Way is Up

The gap between Woolworths and 33 Eccleston Street (now TUI travel agents) was filled by a neat row of three lock-up shops. The building of the shops capitalised on both the extra footfall that would be going to and from the new Woolworths, but also changes to retailing.

Most of Prescot’s shops were in Georgian or Victorian buildings, often with limited floorspace and customers really having access to little more than the small area of shop floor accessed from the street. As the type and range of goods sold in shops expanded and changed, shops themselves needed to change. Typical types of goods that needed larger rooms and more floorspace were bicycles, furniture, curtains and carpets and the ‘new kids on the block’ like gas or electric ovens, heaters, fridges and other home appliances.

All these types of comparison goods required a large, accessible, well lit showroom where customers could browse and compare different makes, models or designs. While Woolworths’ solution was an entirely new shop with a big footprint, the solution at 35-39 Eccleston Street was to have a ground floor and first floor showroom, linked by a generously wide staircase at the back of the shopfloor. This is a break from the precedent of the upper floor being storage and offices and before that the shopkeeper living over the shop.

A photograph of 35-39 Eccleston Street in 1968. The shops are virtually the same as when they were built in the late 1930s. Thanks to Julie Clark for original 1968 © photo of Manweb Shop at 37 Eccleston Street. Photo originally posted at Manweb Remembered

I’m not sure who the initial occupiers of these new two storey shops were, but by the 1960s they were Metro Dry Cleaners at no.35, a Manweb Electricity showroom at no.37 and Julian Swift Home Furnishings at no. 39. Two of the three sold bulky goods that would benefit from having the extra floor space while the dry cleaners would have needed a lot of room for its machinery, equipment and to store racks of customers’ garments.

By the 1980s the types of occupiers had morphed to the types of business that needed a lot of back-of-house workspace and office space: no.35 was a pharmacy, no.37 was still the Manweb Electricity Showroom and no.39 was a branch of the Leeds Building Society. The occupiers at the beginning of 2018 continued this trend: an estate agency, a travel agency and a bookmaker’s.

Parallel Lines

These new types of shop demanded up to date architecture. Woolworths was already on to this, using a modern style for its shops that makes them instantly recognisable, even though the chain itself closed in 2008. But its Prescot branch by 1930s standards was beginning to look a bit dated, a bit 1920s. This is probably due to their rolling out a standard design for a number of years. It would still have been striking in the street scene with its steel shopfront, stone or stone effect cladding, simple but high impact signage and steel windows upstairs.

To me the clean lines of 35-39 Eccleston Street make the former Woolworths buildings at 41-43 Eccleston Street look like a Victorian or Edwardian hangover even though the buildings were erected a couple of years (and a couple of feet) apart.

Whoever designed 35-39 Eccleston Street out-did Woolworths if you ask me. They used a more up to date modern style that was more streamlined and minimal than Woolworths’ pattern book design.

The building isn’t at it’s best here in this photo of 2016, but the simple but thoughtfully executed geometric design still shines through.

The use of round turrets at first floor helped to emphasise and separate each of the three shops, but when looking along Eccleston Street they give the building a strong vertical emphasis that becomes more balanced by horizontal features and details as you approach the building. The horizontal features are the long stone-capped parapet wall and the full width stone cornice and granite fascia over the shops. Similarly the long rows of windows play with horizontality and verticality in their proportions. Other details are simple but effective: the shaped stone to the turrets and parapet, the soldier course and dogtooth brickwork, the brick cills, the flatness of the shopfronts below the cornice.

A 1970s view down Eccleston Street. From this angle the turrets at 35-39 Eccleston Street look like columns and give the building a strong vertical accent.

The up to date approach was continued in the use of Crittall steel windows at first floor, steel (or maybe bronze?) shopfronts and two slightly contrasting tones of granite cladding. Even the signage was minimal: individual letters hung off two brass rails. The building is unmistakably of its decade and the quality of the materials and details shows how important it was for the shops to make a positive impression of passers-by.

I think these shops were built not long after Woolworths – 1936? 1937? The architect of 35-39 Eccleston Street may well have been influenced by the Co-operative, whose in-house architects were embracing modern and art deco architecture in their new stores during the 1920s and 1930s and had a bit more flair and individuality than Woolworths. As it happens, the Whiston and District Co-op extended their flagship Prescot store at 4-8 Warrington Road in 1939 and used a similar palette of materials and architectural style!

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