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Ten years since Woolworths closed its doors in Kent for the last time

By KentOnline reporter

It's been 10 years now since "The Wonder of Woolworths" disappeared from town centres up and down the country.

For many, a trip to the store, which formed an integral part of the High Street furniture, holds fond childhood memories.

It became a weekly treat to pop along and scoop up your pick 'n' mix sweeties or cut price broken biscuits.

The Chatham Woolworths of 1921, with its full staff complement
The Chatham Woolworths of 1921, with its full staff complement

Known affectionately as "Woolies", shelves were crammed with a diverse range of goods from lightbulbs, garden tools and long player records. Generations were kitted out in its own Ladybird children's clothing range.

But the giant retail chain fell victim of the recession and eventually went into administration with the loss of thousands of jobs.

News of its imminent shut-down prompted massive queues of customers waiting for the doors to open to pick up a last minute bargain.

In Medway there were four branches of the iconic store in Chatham, Strood, Gillingham and Twydall making it the largest concentration of Woolworths in Kent.

The queues outside Woolworths in Chatham as the closing down sale was launched
The queues outside Woolworths in Chatham as the closing down sale was launched

Jay Kent, the centre manager of the Pentagon, recalls nostalgic trips to the Chatham branch which is now home to Primark.

He said :"Everybody knew Woolworths. I remember going there with my mum, dad and nan. For me it was the toy robots which I remember. I always hoped one day somebody would buy one for me. But they never did. It was a real shame when it closed."

Robin Crosby, 69, from Beauworth Park, Maidstone, has similar memories of his local store in Week Street in Maidstone.

He said: "It was cheaper than the other stores in the town - Chiesmans, Dunnings and so on. I used to go there a lot when I was 12 or 13 in the early 60s.

Woolworths in Week Street during its closing down sales. Picture: John Westhrop (6297611)
Woolworths in Week Street during its closing down sales. Picture: John Westhrop (6297611)

"I remember we used to buy baseball boots there - which were all the rage at the time - and sweets of course. I remember it had big wooden counters."

Maidstone's store closed on December 27, 2008 with store manager Shaun Clark and 64 staff losing their jobs.

The building remained vacant for some time, but in June 2010 a Poundland store opened in part of the site and it is now shared by Poundland Pep and Co and Deichmann.

Joan Tong, 78, from Richmond Way, Maidstone, is another who used to shop there.

She said: "It did everything: records, books, make-up, batteries, light-bulbs. They even had their own range of black and white crockery designs which are collectable items now that you sometimes see on antiques programmes.

Listen to other shoppers memories here

"The pick 'n' mix sweet collection was always a big draw too.

"When I want something specific today I often think: 'Where the devil can I get that? I wish Woollies were still here!'"

Even the staff have fond memories of the shop. Christine Mitchell joined the Tenterden team in 1986 and was there until it closed.

She said: "My best memories are of the people I met and the fun we used to have.

Christine Mitchell with her certificate of 21-years service at Woolworths (6326267)
Christine Mitchell with her certificate of 21-years service at Woolworths (6326267)

"They were good to the staff. I reached my 21 years and got a certificate, money allowance for a party, and they gave me a present.

"It was quite sad when it closed. First time we knew was when we started getting phone calls. People had seen it on the television, they didn't let staff know. Once we found out - it was right near Christmas time - it really de-moralised the staff. They were so upset.

"I remember the day we closed, it was awful, horrible. Even now people come up to me and say 'you used to work at Woolworths. I wish it was still here.'"

"It's so missed on the high street, especially around Christmas time. It is sad and really I don't think they would have needed too. It could have been pulled back."

So why did such a popular store fall victim to the recession? It seems it was just the start of problems for the High Street

Woolworths Chatham closed Picture: Grant Falvey (6316563)
Woolworths Chatham closed Picture: Grant Falvey (6316563)

Former Gillingham MP, Paul Clark who was born and bred in the town, went to the shop on Twydall Green as a lad.

He said: "We have since seen the demise of the High Street nationally and especially in Gillingham. We need to get more people back living in our town centres and develop more of a night economy.

"I bought my first single there in 1960s. It was Help! by The Beatles, I can't remember how much it was but it was old pence."

Rob Woods, from Woodchurch, was town centre manager in Folkestone between 2001 and 2004 and had a brief spell as interim manager in Ashford in 2005.

The 66-year-old said: "From a town centre manager perspective, it wasn't the start of the demise of the high street but it was certainly part of it.

"It was one of the best known names on the high street. People had grown up with it."

"I just remember it had a sweet selection when it started, but I think everybody remembers pick 'n' mix as well.

"Other shops have taken that on, but they tend to be niche."

"We need to get more people back living in our town centres and develop more of a night economy..." Paul Clark

He notes that Marks and Spencers in Folkestone closed around the same time, while in Ashford the large Co-op at the bottom of High Street also left.

He believes internet shopping and out of town retailing were huge factors in its declining popularity, but added: "I don't think anyone has rivaled it since. I think there are too many variations of it now for it to come back in the form it was - the vast majority being value stores."

The chairman of Deal and Walmer Chamber of Trade thinks it didn't keep up with the times.

Peter Jull said: "It just lost its way. It didn't move on with the times. It had a few ranges that were popular but an awful lot that people didn't buy from one year to the next.

"In it's heyday it has to be one of the most loved stores in the High Street.

The store in Deal had been part of the town for nearly 80 years when it closed on January 3, 2009. It was replaced by Poundland.

Staff at Woolworths in Deal on their last day at the store. Picture: Terry Scott
Staff at Woolworths in Deal on their last day at the store. Picture: Terry Scott

Staff organised a photo call for Kent Online's sister paper The East Kent Mercury in the final hours of trading as about 30 employees were left searching for new jobs.

A sale had been held in the run-up to the shop’s closure, and even the shelves and fittings were on offer to customers.

Mr Jull added: "It was a large unit empty for a couple of years so the southern end of the High Street may have suffered."

"Now Poundland has the same sort of draw that Woolworths had in its heyday."

And it's Poundland that has replaced many of the stores across the county, including Canterbury, which is also a Poundland Pep and Co, ant the store on Sandgate Road in Folkestone.

Since then it has become a 99p store and is now a Poundstretcher.

This picture was taken by Lee Walker in the summer of 1982 and shows the town looking busy with people on the pavements on either side of the road.

Woolworths in Folkestone in 1982. Picture: Lee Walker
Woolworths in Folkestone in 1982. Picture: Lee Walker

After it closed, there was a campaign in the town for the budget clothing chain Primark to take over the store - a store which later ended up in Bouverie Place shopping centre.

Down the coast in Hythe, the town's former Woolworths is now occupied by WHSmith.

To the north of the county, the shop in Sheerness became the Sheppey Gateway centre, a joint venture between Swale council and Kent County Council, which offers public council services such as housing, benefits, education and social services, as well as a library.

It had been in the town for 84 years when it closed 10 years ago this month.

Sheppey Gateway Centre, Picture: Darren Small (6316635)
Sheppey Gateway Centre, Picture: Darren Small (6316635)

Speaking on the store's final day of business, manager Dave Morris praised the customers who had supported Woolies over many years and thanked the 30-plus staff who had worked with him during his four-year stint.

Mr Morris said: "They have all been magnificent and I cannot praise them highly enough.

"The store is numbered 201 which means it was the 201st to open around the country."

Not all sites have been used for something so helpful to the community.

In Margate, a decade after the lights were switched off for the final time it remains vacant.

With two mannequins standing in the window, the building bares merely a number of graffiti tags and a handful of posters.

Although the signs may be gone and the pic 'n' mix counter long gone, there will always be a special place in British public heart for Woolies.

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