Four ages of Ashton-under-Lyne’s 1960s precinct
Contrary to popular belief, the Ladysmith Shopping Centre wasn’t Ashton’s first pedestrianised precinct. Stamford Arcade (from Old Street to Stamford Street), Clarence Arcade (again on Stamford Street), and Market Avenue (from the Earl of Stamford’s street up to Bow Street) beat Metrolands’ development to it.
Today, it plays second fiddle to the Arcades Shopping Centre. The once mighty Stamford Street seems to have most of the town’s vacant shops. Its decline was exacerbated by the opening of Park Parade bypass in 1972, which split the western and eastern sides of Stamford Street with a roundabout.
50 years ago, work began on what was Ashton’s first modern shopping precinct. Naturally, this met with objections, undermining the importance of Stamford Street to its centre. With the then new bus station nearby (which opened in November 1963), its presence would shift the retail centre nearer to the market. Almost 50 years on, after facelifts and changing retail trends, it remains a focal point of the town centre. 2017 shall see the Ladysmith Shopping Centre’s 50th birthday.
It has outlived St. Peter’s Precinct in Oldham; of recent times, fared better than the Longford Mall (well, it’s still Stretford Arndale centre to me). Other shopping precincts of similar size to Ashton’s haven’t fared as well such as Whitefield’s precinct, where a large Morrisons occupies the site. The Ellesmere Centre in Walkden (predating Ashton’s precinct by two years) has been extensively refurbished yet empty units outnumber occupied units.
Where Ashton’s have stood the test of time is reflected in its pedestrian footfall. The neighbouring Arcades Shopping Centre is on the main drag to the bus and tram stations. If a stranger alighted from Ashton bus station, or came off the tram, s/he only needs to look for the Arcades entrance, then they get to the Ladysmith Shopping Centre or the market in no time at all.
So, for another two minutes, we take our position in the front seat, behind the engine of our Leyland PD2. This time, we enter Ashton-under-Lyne via Ashton-under-Lyne Corporation’s 127 bus from Haughton Green (which reminds us: we need to drop some films off at Boots).
“…Watching flowers in the rain…” (1967 – 80)
1967 saw the opening of Metrolands’ development. There was originally plans for a four storey block of flats and a bowling alley, though none of them came to fruition. Warrington Street’s first set of units were anchored by Timothy Whites (which for a short time was next to the Reporter office) and Cooper’s Supermarket. Cantors took on the Old Street/Warrington Street unit. The Old Street units included a small Reporter office, which replaced the previous one. There from the start was The Gold Medal chippy.
Where Metrolands’ development triumphed over Oldham’s St. Peter’s Precinct was a logical layout. Instead of wind tunnels and mazes, most of the shops – on two storeys – were arranged in courtyard fashion with two main ‘streets’ (Mercian Way and Staveleigh Way). Its first arrivals included:
- Montague Burton: from Stamford Street;
- British Bata;
- Boots: from Old Street/Market Avenue;
- NORWEB Showrooms: from the indoor market;
- Fred Dawes: later Rumbelows;
- Koffee Pot;
- Price’s bakery: later Greggs from 1976;
- North Western Gas Board showrooms: from Oldham Road.
In the courtyards, the one nearest to NORWEB had a fountain facing Boots. The second courtyard, nearest to the gas showrooms, had neat pagodas. They were used as retail units with a clothing stall being one use. Nearer to the office block was a glass case, housing a restored National Gas Engine Company generator.
The Koffee Pot was one of three eateries. Wimpy was located near the office block used as an Inland Revenue Tax Office. Upstairs, and open beyond usual shopping hours, was The Lancashire Tandoori. Upstairs access was gained via three methods: a lift on the side of Boots near the fountain and seating area. Plus stairs leading to a walkway between Fred Dawes and TESCO. Another set in dog-leg configuration led to the multi-storey car park.
Most memorably for Ashtonians was its unreliable escalator. This led to the walkway between Boots and Timpson. Walkways linked shoppers to the first floors of Burton and Timpson, plus upper level units like Figaro hairdressers and the Koffee Pot.
Making the precinct more complete would be two anchor units. The first to be erected was Marks and Spencer’s, opening in 1969. Access was available from the upper level walkway as well as ground level from Mercian Way and Warrington Street.
The second one came in the early 1970s: F.W. Woolworth’s unit, which cut off Katherine Street from Ashton town hall. Woolworths moved from Stamford Street (the unit is occupied by the Wooden Canal Boat Society shop) and sported five entrances! The Warrington Street entrance became an emergency exit; a back entrance linked the store with Katherine Street and the Ashton Arms. The third entrance faced the bus station and was adjacent to its newsagents. The fourth and fifth entrances faced Mercian Way; one was stepped, the other of the two was level and at a corner.
Before the precinct reached its teenage years, things went well. Most shops were occupied; for a time, the first floor offices opposite Marks and Spencer were let by Tameside MBC. The end of 1980 saw continued change in our shopping habits with the rise of edge-of-town developments. With the recession, cracks were starting to show on its youthful features.
“…I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar…” (1981 – 94)
From a personal viewpoint, the second age of Ashton’s precinct stands out for me. In my formative years, I was wheeled in my Maclaren pushchair (which was more Trabant than the make which shared the Formula One team’s namesake). For me, an era of tea and toast in the Koffee Pot with my late Nana, and being pushed around TESCO.
The mid 1980s saw a transitional period for both the precinct and Ashton-under-Lyne as a whole. With high unemployment, the town’s retail offerings began to shift in favour of discount shops. A trend which has continued unabated to date. On Warrington Street, Boots’ takeover of Timothy Whites meant a vacant unit, later occupied by TopShop and TopMan. Timothy Whites had a concession at the front end of Boots nearest to the fountain.
Among the wave of discount stores coming to 1980s Ashton was John’s Super Store. The local chain had branches in Denton and Openshaw. They occupied a double width ground floor unit next to Wimpy. Store detectives seemingly had a penchant for watching customers like hawks. Close to the precinct was The Fullmonte (occupying two floors in one of the TAC building shop units), and It’s Incredible (first on Warrington Street then the former Nurseryland unit on Old Street).
In 2016, Lidl’s and Aldi’s approach to hard discounting is unimpeachable for many shoppers. Back in 1985, Kwik Save was king on Bow Street; opposite the open market, Iceland moved from Stamford Street to its present unit. TESCO, its previous occupants since 1974, reduced its presence in Ashton, concentrating on their Staveleigh Way unit. That became Victor Value, a second incarnation of the store chain they acquired in the late 1960s. In October 1989, that became Ashton’s second branch of Kwik Save.
A previous discounter, Fine Fare’s Shoppers’ Paradise relinquished their unit on Warrington Street. Its parent company wanted to concentrate on bigger edge of town stores. The next occupant would provide Wimpy some competition: in Autumn 1984 came McDonalds. Today, it has outlived Wimpy’s and Burger King’s presence in Ashton town centre.
It was the decade when the computer age came to Ashton. Currys, Rumbelows and Boots stocked various 8 bit computers. Above the Cardshops unit was Computerbase. As well as C64 and ZX Spectrum titles, they had room for the Oric 1 and the Sharp MZ80A (according to the shop’s window graphics).
Throughout the 1980s, the dingy approach of Mercian Way and the upper level units of Staveleigh Way were dominated by independent shops. Less popular were the units opposite Mothercare, where the Hologram Gallery, Baggage and Manprice was empty for the most part of the 1990s. In 1990, visitors may have called in or passed the following shops:
- Conlon’s Opticians;
- Fentons menswear shop;
- Cameo Cosmetics;
- Granada TV rentals (on Staveleigh Way);
- Spencer’s Bookshop;
- Precinct Jewellers;
- Dewhurst the Butchers;
- Radio Rentals;
- Dorothy Perkins (in the unit under the office block).
The start of the 1990s would see its retail offerings lose variety. Two factors made for this. One was the decline and near demise of television rentals. As television sets lowered in price, renting a set from Granada, Radio Rentals or Visionhire lost its appeal. At first, branches of Radio Rentals, Visionhire and Rumbelows disappeared from our streets. Granada swallowing up Visionhire with branches becoming Box Clever stores. Radio Rentals’ owners, Thorn EMI, ditched the brand in favour of Crazy Georges (more on them later).
Secondly, the trend towards out-of-town electrical stores saw white goods retailers disappear from many town centres. 1994 saw Currys leave for out-of-town premises at Snipe Retail Park. Comet, in the nearby Clarence Arcade followed suit. Boots also cut back on the sale of electrical goods.
By 1994, the shopping centre started to look dated. Perhaps its days were numbered since an April 1986 edition of The Advertiser gave us a glimpse into the future of Ashton. A future sibling centre dominated by a branch of Times Furnishing, where the then-present Woolworths store was situated. Nine years on, that would become the Arcades Shopping Centre.
The second half of the 1990s would see another shift in the centre’s retail offerings. Its younger redbrick sibling would become the favoured child, but its owners fought back.
“…We are young, we are free, we have teeth – nice and clean…” (1995 – 2008)
1995 saw the opening of the its redbrick neighbour, the Arcades Shopping Centre. In advance of its official opening in Autumn that year, Woolworths had moved from its Warrington Street unit to the new centre. It added variety to Ashton-under-Lyne and included this rare beast of town centre retail unit: a white goods retailer and – much to the delight of Ashtonians – a branch of Argos (no more trips to Hyde or Oldham).
During the same year, NORWEB – now privatised – began to favour retail parks. 1996 would see them doing away with electrical showrooms in the traditional sense. Bills began to be paid via Direct Debit. For a short time, there was payment shops which compensated for their closure in the short term.
In 1997, British Gas plc closed its showrooms on Staveleigh Way. Spencers, there from the precinct’s 1967 opening, closed its doors. 1998 saw changes to the centre’s Burton store with Dorothy Perkins taking the ground floor. Though the changes sounded like a precinct in terminal decline, it was the story of a precinct in transition. One about to undergo major refurbishment.
Before 1998, Boots relinquished one half of its units to Peacocks. Secondly, an extension of its remaining portion saw the chemist fill the courtyard area next to NORWEB. This was facilitated by the closure of the multi storey car park and the demolition of its staircase. The covered arcade under the car park saw a change of floor from concrete slabs to brick tiles. Benches facing Greggs were taken out.
The Koffee Pot moved from its upper level unit opposite Kwik Save to a new one hitherto occupied by the Lancashire Tandoori. A new entrance and lift was added at the Katherine Street end of the precinct.
In 1998, the precinct was renamed the Ladysmith Shopping Centre. White and blue cladding covered the concrete, with protection from the elements via glazed canopies. Most dramatically, the southern courtyard (where Wimpy and John’s Super Store used to be based) was filled in, with new shops. Taking a double width unit was Bon Marché. Short lived was Bright Essentials, which sold male and female lingerie.
The most dramatic change was reserved for the office block. Gone was its 1960s Secondary School look, thanks to white and blue waterproof membranes and a pitched roof. Underneath the office was MVC, Music and Video Club. The new look was completed in Summer 1998.
Opposite, the former gas showrooms had seen short term lets, with First Stop Stationery a short lived tenant. NORWEB’s unit was taken over by the Razzle Dazzle Company, who traded as Internaçionale. Their arrival, along with Peacocks’ two years earlier, would set the trend for today’s offerings – discounted unisex fashions. With its new name and a sense of direction, the Ladysmith Shopping Centre was geared up for the 21st Century in style.
In the 21st Century, other refurbishment work included a new fascia for the Warrington Street entrance. From former office accommodation came the Ladysmith’s only upstairs unit: JD Sports’ store. Extra retail space was created in every possible corner of the precinct: the pilotis in Marks and Spencer’s unit was filled in with smaller units. For example, Shoemaster provided some competition with the Timpson shoe repairs unit. The front of Warrington Street’s entrance is dominated by a newsagents. Even the space underneath JD Sports’ staircase became a unit.
In 2003, Ashton-under-Lyne was booming as a retail destination. In Greater Manchester, it was third place, behind Manchester and Bury. The town’s mix of chain stores and independent retailers, along with its open and indoor markets was a winning formula.
Then tragedy struck. On the 26 May 2004, Ashton’s market hall was struck by fire. A local dispute at the fire station on Hodgson Street delayed response times, with pumps from as far as Prestwich damping down the flames. As a consequence, the town lost a considerable amount of trade. To compensate, a temporary market hall was built in Autumn 2004 off Fletcher Street. For a short time, it was served by a shuttle bus operated by First Pioneer.
Prior to its restoration and reopening on the 28 November 2008, the market was one of many things that had ramifications for Ashton’s economy. Out-of-town development continued, not only on Snipe Retail Park, but also on Ashton Moss and Crown Point North in Denton. Crown Point North’s arrival would have the greatest effect on the Ladysmith Shopping Centre’s offerings. Then there was IKEA, and the small matter of a global financial downturn.
“Are we human, or are we dancer?” (2009 – present day)
The fourth age of the Ladysmith Shopping Centre could be summed in just four categories: refreshment, discount shops, gadgets, and cheap clothing. Any shopper who last visited the present centre in, say 1975, would be shocked and amazed in equal measure. Further refurbishment in 2009 saw the reinstatement of its multi storey car park. A new ramp displaced the tight curves of its predecessor. Additional units were created below the ramp.
The Ladysmith Shopping Centre, like many of the UK’s shopping centres wasn’t alone in being affected by the downturn. Woolworths’ demise had a knock-on effect on MVC (once part of Kingfisher plc like Woolies), which was taken over by Music Zone. Then, due to issues with their bank, Music Zone went out of business. Kwik Save’s demise left a vacancy in the unit once occupied by TESCO. In no time at all, T.J. Morris’ Home Bargains chain took over. In terms of footfall, it is probably one of the busiest units in Ladysmith Shopping Centre.
For much of the last decade, cheap and cheerful edibles has dominated present retail developments of the Ladysmith Shopping Centre. Alongside Greggs, Burneys bakery was another one of the precinct’s stalwarts. In 2010, it had been renamed Hampsons and was taken over by Sayers. Under Sayers’ management, it was refurbished and renamed Pound Bakery.
From shoes to Choux could be descriptive of the Timpson footwear unit. In its last years as a shoe retailer, it became Discount Shoe Zone. This function ceased in 2009 when they concentrated on the unit on Warrington Street (originally Shoe Sellers). In its transition from espadrilles to pastries, it became the Pao Pao coffee shop in 2011. This was short lived though later saw service as Wright’s Café Central the following year.
Electing for a cheaper unit on the open market on Warrington Street (being refurbished at this time of writing), their former branch became the second English branch of Bake+Take in 2014. Part of the German company backWERK, the company aims to have 30 branches in UK and Ireland on a franchise basis, a la Subway.
By 2013, the future of Ashton’s first major precinct seemed to be powered by Americanos and pastry products. Costa Coffee set up shop next to Santander. Opposite was WhaWha, a short lived noodle and wrap bar. This became the even shorter lived SimplyEat (whose cheap coffee was good for pre-signing-on nervousness). It is now a nail bar.
With the internet and continued popularity of edge-of-town retail, the Ladysmith Shopping Centre became a place for ‘top-up shopping’. In other words, the parts which the internet couldn’t reach. A place for low cost frozen food or a quick coffee; somewhere to have one’s eyes tested or their nails done. Somewhere to visit before the next 346 home for cheap accessories or clothing instead of gas cookers or washing machines.
With this change, chain stores elected to leave the Ladysmith for Crown Point North or Ashton Moss. Mothercare was one of the first to do so in 2012. January 2015 saw Burton and Dorothy Perkins leave the precinct to concentrate on its Denton store. Causing a greater stir was Marks and Spencer’s decision to leave Ashton town centre, on the 31 January 2013. This was consistent with M&S’ estates policy where smaller town centre stores were eschewed for out-of-town branches (as at Ashton Moss).
Ironically, thanks to Ashton Moss, Ashton-under-Lyne finally got its ten-pin bowling alley – 39 years after plans were considered for the Ladysmith Shopping Centre. The equipment lay unused in the back of the ABC cinema (the soon-to-be-reopened Tameside Hippodrome).
By Christmas 2013, news of its present occupant went down as well as a Tory candidate in Ordsall. Bargain Buys – from the same people as Poundworld on Staveleigh Way – opened at the start of December in 2013. Critics thought Marks and Spencer’s position added value to a trip to Ashton Market. Over two years on, the store attracts a steady number of customers.
Recent changes have seen the closure of Internaçionale and its short lived replacement (a rejuvenated Ethel Austin). Santander’s branch on Staveleigh Way has closed with business transferring to the former Bradford and Bingley Building Society one on Old Street. In early 2015, Specsavers moved from Warrington Street to the former Store 21/Music Zone/MVC unit. Within months of Burton’s closure came the arrival of Select, a discount ladies’ fashion chain store.
Today’s retail mix is indicative of the precinct’s demographic: low income families. Hence the presence of two high-interest credit white goods retailers (Bright House and Perfect Home). Also the secondhand and reconditioned goods shops (Cash Generator and CeX). Plus charity shops at the Old Street end (Willow Wood Hospice and Salvation Army).
So, what of the Ladysmith Shopping Centre in the near future? The centre will enter its fiftieth birthday in 2017. Footfall between the bus station, Arcades Shopping Centre, and Stamford Street via Staveleigh Way remains buoyant. Mercian Way, even with recent refurbishment, remains a dingy looking thoroughfare. With Santander’s and Ethel Austin’s vacancy, could there be an exciting new variety store on the horizon, taking up both their units?
Hopefully, in 2017, we shall be toasting the precinct’s anniversary with a glass of Vimto and a fish supper in The Gold Medal. Could 2027 see a fully covered Ladysmith? Would the Ladysmith of 2027 even be there in its 2016 form? One wonders how our shopping habits will change 11 years down the line. Even so, there may be call for opticians, steak bakes, overpriced coffees, e-cigs and Hollands pies (which are cheaper at the Heron store opposite Bright House).
S.V., 19 February 2016.