The original Hitchin Woolworth store was built in 1930 at No. 7 High Street (Now Boots). It was built on land that originally formed part of The Cock public house, which had been there since 1563, and was demolished to make room for its arrival. The rest of The Cock still stands at No. 8 High Street and is a grade II listed building.
|F. W. Woolworth's first building in Hitchin. Pat Gadd|
F. W. Woolworth was moved to No. 9 High Street (originally No. 7 and 8 High Street – which is a bit confusing) in 1965.
|F. W. Woolworth and Co Ltd 1978 Pat Gadd|
The history of the later Woolworth site is an interesting one. From 1823-1961 it was the site of PERKS & LLEWELLYN – the lavender growers (originally Perks.) They took up the premises in 1823 when the road now known as High Street was known as Cock Street.
|Perks and Llewellyn. Pat Gadd|
|Some original lavender labels.|
In 1790 Harry Perks established a pharmacy in Hitchin, but it was his son Edward a chemist, who, in 1823, laid the foundations for the future industry of planting lavender.
Edward Perks with his wife, Sarah, started their small perfumery business. The business passed to his son Samuel in the 1940s. In 1876, Samuel Perks went into partnership with Charles Llewellyn. The shop was acquired by Richard Lewis by 1907. Eventually he was followed in the business by his daughter Miss Violet Lewis, who was a rained pharmacist. She ran the business from 1930 to its closure in 1961, and demolition in 1964.
The shop’s interior was saved by Violet Lewis and she housed it in an annex in her house in Lucas Lane – and schools and groups would visit. By 1990 the chemist shop was moved to Hitchin Museum and was officially opened in May of that year. Following the closure of Hitchin Museum the shop will be erected at North Hertfordshire Museum in Brand Street when it opens later this year (2016). Remaining objects, not put on display at the museum, will find a home at Hitchin Lavender.
In Victorian times Perks & Llewellyn lavender products were used for all manner of things: 2 drops of pure lavender oil would have been taken on a lump of sugar to relieve symptoms of wind. Lavender Water would be put into ladies’ baths and gentlemen would shave with Perks Lavender Bloom Shaving and Toilet Soaps.
Behind the High Street shop, women and children would remove the stalks so that the flowers were ready for the still. The accumulated smell of lavender was sometimes unbearable.
Boys were employed to climb in a still of lavender and trample it down, as it was being loaded for distillation. Bees, drunk on the smell, would make the lives of the boys miserable, and it was common for the lads to get numerous stings.
The final of Violet Lewis’s lavender fields at the top of Lucas Lane was dug over and replaced with a cabbage field. But the Lavender Farm is a great reminder of how important lavender was and still is to Hitchin.
In 1964 the old shop was demolished, and the new Woolworth was built on the site.
When F. W. WOOLWORTH opened in 1965, ghost stories followed. Many members of staff and the public reported a very strong smell of lavender in the store. There were also reports of a women dressed in Victorian clothes mounting a non-existent staircase diagonally across the store. It is believed that there had been a staircase in the same place in Perk's & Llewellyn store. Some named the spirit ‘The Lavender Lady’. It was also alleged that two ladies in old fashioned clothes were seen to walk around the shop while the public did their shopping.
A manager of the store had a strange experience. She was the last to leave and locked up and empty store. Later her phone rang. When she answered there was nobody on the line, but she discovered the call was from the Hitchin shop. On returning there was nobody there.
I don’t recall ever seeing a ghost, but I remember the original store clearly. There was a restaurant at the back on the far right with tall stools, where you could sit along the serving counter. At the front you could buy sweets. It was easy for children to stick their hands in and pinch a few (not that I ever did). The shop assistants would stand in the middle of the counters, surrounded from each side. Later, Woolworths was the place to buy records. I recall the record counter being at the front and the back of the store, at different times.
An old employee was telling me the other day, that she had to take a test to work there. She worked on the make-up counter, and said you needed to be able to add up the items people bought in your head.
In December 2008 the Hitchin store closed along with all the Woolworth stores nationwide, and in May 2011 the former F. W Woolworth’s was split into two stores.