Friday, June 8, 2018

Chesterfield, Derbyshire


The sunset of an empire

My recent trip to Sheffield took me past Chesterfield in Derbyshire, where I stopped for a break and to look at the twisted church spire, a famous sight that I’d not seen for about 40 years. Naturally, I had a walk round the centre of the town. Naturally I found a few things I was not expecting. One of these was a superbly preserved former Lipton’s grocery shop with most of its internal tiles and fittings still intact. I’ve not seen a better preserved Lipton’s than this – and the architectural historian Kathryn A. Morrison, who knows as much about the history of shops as anyone, thinks there is none that compares to it.*

The structure of the original shop front is still there, but with new signage and some damage to the tiling. But the interior is where it gets really good. One side has a counter with a tiled front bearing legends such as ‘Lipton’s Pickles’ and ‘Cooked Meats’, all in beautiful curly green lettering of probably c. 1910. The walls behind the counter are tiled in green and white too. This was the side of the shop where the fresh produce was sold – eggs, butter, cheese, bacon, and so on. On the other side is a panelled wooden counter with a range of shelves behind, for the tea, coffee, and stuff in bottles and jars. These shelves, still used for jams, preserves, lemon curds and other delights by the baker’s who occupy the shop today, are beautifully made in dark wood and topped with a tiled panel with a slogan that shoots from the hip: ‘The business of which the sun never sets.’ Yes, Lipton’s was the biggest chain grocer in the UK† and had imperial ambitions, for the British empire was, back then, the one ‘on which the sun never sets’.

Yes, Lipton’s were big, once. They were still a large concern in the mid-20th century and I remember their branches from when I was young. But they never had the really large shops of their old rivals Sainsbury’s or brash new, pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap Tesco’s. They were eventually bought up and shops either rebranded or sold off. The name had gone by the 1980s. The people who work in the baker’s in the former Lipton’s in Chesterfield and proud of their shop: they keep it spotless, welcomed me when I asked if I could take photographs, and run what looks like a successful business – the place was full when I was there and I was diving and dodging to avoid getting in people’s way. It was in every way a pleasing sight.


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* For more about Lipton’s, see Kathryn Morrison’s site, here.

† Lipton’s, Sainsbury’s, International Stores, Home & Colonial: these were the big British chain grocers of the 19th and early-20th centuries, before the supermarket era.

2 comments:

Stephen Barker said...

Philip, I have never been to Chesterfield although I drive past it on the Motorway when visiting the North. In your list of shops that dominated the grocery trade you do not mention the Co-op which at one time dominated the grocery trade and was a vertical organisation with it's own factories and farms through to the shops. Although the Co-op still exists it is a shadow of it's former self. No doubt the decentralised structure of the Co-op made it hard for them to compete with Tesco and Sainsburys on price and economies of scale.

Other names Fine Fare, MacFisheries have gone from the High Street.

Jenny Woolf said...

Very interested in this, since i lived in Chesterfield as a teenager and don't remember the shop, and visited and looked round Chesterfield recently and didn't notice it then. Whereabouts is it?

It is encouraging to know that it is being looked after well - potentially Chesterfield is terrific but as in so many English towns, there were not enough businesses to fill the shops and bring the place to life again.