Woolworths high street shop black and white photo

Our high streets and high street shops have changed significantly over the decades.

Like most things, over time high streets evolve and reflect the times.

Have high street shops the way we remember them really become a thing of the past?

British high street shops in the 1970s

Springchicken’s Top 10 High Street Shops from Yesteryear


Here’s our choice of 10 of the biggest and most influential retailers that have vanished from our high streets over the past decades. Some have gone forever some have been reincarnated as online entities.

  1. Woolworths – The first Woolworths was opened in Liverpool in 1909 and from that point on became a mainstay of every high street throughout the UK. The convenience and range of product available was a winner with the British public. Alongside its value for money and almost market like environment the retailer went from strength to strength for most of the 20th One of the biggest memories and attractions was its Pick’n’Mix counter and sweet paradise for every child that walked the hallowed retail aisles of Woolies.
  2. Safeway – The supermarket chain Safeway opened its first store in 1963 in Bedford. The chain sought to revolutionise what British supermarkets were offering their customers. Under US ownership the offering became varied and a breath of fresh air to the British consumer. The consumer was at the forefront being offered fresh bread from an instore bakery alongside fish counters and deli counters. All the ideas directly imported form the successful US retail model. Unfortunately, Safeway could not keep up with the big three of British Supermarkets Tesco, Sainsburys and Morrisons and fell by the wayside in 2003 and was purchased by Morrisons.
  3. C&A – A mainstay of the British high street since 1922, C&A was perhaps the first to bring affordable ‘fast’ fashion to the high street. However, whilst it thrived for decades and was much loved by the British consumer the growth of the larger out of town retailer parks and the larger supermarkets heavily investing in clothing and fashion saw the demise of C&A.
  4. Littlewoods – This Liverpool born commercial giant grew from a football betting company in 1923 to the largest private company in Europe in the 1980s and the largest family run business in the UK. Littlewoods employed over 4000 people in its heyday and was a major attraction to any high street. John Moores Littlewoods had innovated and diversified throughout its lifetime, being one of the first to adapt the catalogue ordering business. However, the online world was just a step too far and Littlewoods was to close its high street doors in 2005. Although the Very group did buy the name and operate an unrelated online presence.
  5. Wavy Line – The Wavy line was a chin of grocers that were born out of the concern of small independents being put out of business by the big chains like Sainsburys and Tesco. The socialist venture saw these independents group together on order to bulk buy and compete whilst still retaining their local community roots. It was an admirable and courageous idea that worked for a few years. Sadly, Wavy Line couldn’t weather the onslaught and sadly got pushed off the high street by Tesco express and Sainsburys express shops.   
  6. Bejam – The family run frozen food retailer manged to see the gap in the market in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Whilst many were saying frozen food would never catch the Apthorp family from Stanmore knew better. Bejams grew successfully and were profitable right up until they sold out to their considerably smaller competitor Iceland in 1989. The name Bejam comes from and acronym of the Apthorp family members, Brian, Eric, John, Milly and Marion.
  7. Rumbelows – Another collaboration of smaller electrical retailers that renamed themselves Rumbelows in 1971 to compete with the big boys like Dixons and Currys. The core of the business was to fall foul of the cheaper cost of electrical importing form the Far East which meant rental business was an ever-contracting market for the British consumer. Upon finally closing it doors in 1985 it was revealed that Rumbelows had been losing £12 million per year and had never made a profit in its 24-year lifespan!
  8. Owen & Owen – This Liverpool born drapery department store opened by innovative Welsh man Owen Owen began back in 1868. Owen Owen was one of the first to reward staff loyalty and to consider employee wellbeing as part of the company strategy. The company was sold to a Canadian retailer in 1985 and finally passed from the high street line up in the noughties after being acquired by Philip Green.
  9. Dolcis – Dolcis shoes began life on a street barrow in the mid-19th It became one of the favourite high street shoe retailers by the mid-20th century. Sadly the 21st century saw the decline in traditional shoe wearing due to the onset of trainers and the leisure industry. Dolcis still has a small online presence after being acquired and reformed by the Jacobson group in 2012.
  10. Debenhams – One of the oldest hight street shops to vanish form our high street. Debenhams began back in 1778 in London. In its heyday it boosted 178 stores in the UK. Unfortunately, as a direct result of its inability to change with the times Debenhams closed all its UK stores in 2021. Online fashion retailers Boohoo purchased Debehams and relaunched their online presence in 2021 with no high street stores. 

What happened to the high street?

In the modern age, high streets have borne the brunt of online shopping more than anyone would have suspected. Retail giants like Woolworths, Littlewoods and C&A have all fell by the wayside, since their heyday in the 1970s.

Sometimes it’s bad management or bad planning, sometimes it’s the changes in consumer habits and sometimes it's simply the shape of things to come.



Will convenience kill the high street for ever? 

With convenience being king what’s more convenient than shopping from the comfort of your own armchair? 

It seems a pity that high streets up and down the land become a succession of coffee shops and betting establishments interspersed with the odd charity shop. High streets, after all, offered much more than just a place to shop they were the hub of a community, the place to meet to spend time together, let's hope these things don’t become a thing of the past also. 

Is there a future for the high street?

We need to change our approach to the high street. The traditional high street full of big brand department stores are a thing of the past. It seems the key to resurrecting the new age high street is community.

Consumers vote with their finances so whilst many will say they want a traditional high street the success of online delivery tells a different story. So, it’s clear that the high street has to offer something different, something unique and something you can’t get online.  

This elusive ‘something’ comes form the community. In ever more insular times, the opportunity to get out and meet local people in a welcoming environment is a must. Retailers need to look at reshaping these environments so that the social aspect of high street shopping comes to the fore.

It is no longer about simply getting people through the tills.

Do you still shop on your local High Street? Let us know in the comments below, we'd love to hear from you! 

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Littlewoods Newcastle Libraries CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

High Street Newcastle Libraries CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

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