Ipswich Icons: Research reminds us how much change some Ipswich town centre shop units have seen
I was asked to carry out research into possible shops where a seamstress could have worked in the 1960s/1970s. The enquirer was fairly sure the shop was located in the town centre.
It transpires, by a process of elimination, that this particular shop was Ashley Russell at 21-23 Buttermarket.
It wasn’t easy. Back then, it seems that a fair majority of the retail outlets in Ipswich were either shoe shops or food shops (butchers, bakers, fishmongers or provisions).
The car showrooms had gone (from the Buttermarket and Carr Street), the builders’ merchants had gone (EL Hunt from Upper Brook Street, Smyth Bros. from Lloyds Avenue) and the smaller shops were being converted into “big box” stores: Sainsbury’s and C&A in Upper Brook Street, Fine Fare in Westgate Street (today Primark, still an Associated British Foods company).
The biggest of them all was Debenhams (1979), replacing Footman and Pretty in Westgate Street.
What came to light as I searched local directories (and old copies of Yellow Pages) for possible contenders is how the occupants of these shop units have changed. Today there are very few independent ladies’ outfitters left on the High Street but in the late 1960s there were literally dozens, each patronised by loyal customers who were carefully nurtured, pampered or complimented, and who returned again and again to the shop of their choice because the proprietor “understood” the customer and her particular requirements.
The local branch of the national chains didn’t provide an alterations service; the likes of M&S, Dorothy Perkins (both Westgate Street), British Home Stores, Richard Shops (both Tavern Street) and C&A Modes (Upper Brook Street) carried sufficient stock in a variety of sizes to accommodate most female forms.
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Probably the largest of the independent ladies’ outfitters was Stuart’s at 27 Tavern Street (today Vodafone), with a smaller branch across the road next to AJ Ridley and Son.
AJ Ridley and Son occupied a terrace of buildings in Tavern Street between St Lawrence Street and Dial Lane (the corner unit is now occupied by the Norwich & Peterborough Building Society).
They were outfitters: a provision that included school uniforms, guaranteeing an annual visit for new shirts and trousers or skirts; and, if you’d grown sufficiently, (and didn’t have an older sibling) a new blazer. AJ Ridley and Son closed in 1983.
On the corner of Hatton Court, today McDonald’s, was Jax, another independent ladies’ outfitters – as you can probably guess by the name, selling some of the “way-out” fashions.
At 75 Carr Street, on the corner of Old Foundry Road, were the premises of AC Sergeant, and at 20 Upper Brook Street (now the Fair Trade shop) was Smith & Harvey, both offering a discrete dress-fitting service to distinguished ladies.
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s there were considerably more married women who didn’t go out to work; the occupation of being a housewife with small children was still full-time.
Labour-saving appliances were still in their infancy. Shopping was an almost daily necessity – not for clothes, but mum could always check out the latest fashion whilst “in town”.
It wasn’t until the mid ’70s and the arrival of GRE and Willis (insurance companies) that the employment of females took off. This was paralleled with the closure of the engineering industries and the decline in male employment.
Incidentally, William Debenham was originally from Suffolk but in 1813 took a 50% share in a haberdashery business in Wigmore Street, London – an enterprise established by William Clark in 1778.
The business expanded throughout the nineteenth century, firstly across the country and then with overseas branches.
The connection with the Debenham family ended in 1927 when it became a public corporation.
Today, like lots of High Street retailers, Debenhams are not doing particularly well.
It would be a sad loss for Ipswich if their store ever becomes vacant.