Memories of Shops and Shopping Around St James Street
“You think of Oxford Street when it’s busy at Christmas time, that’s how that was… You just couldn’t move”Brian Bottomley
If you have been to St James Street and the lower end of the High Street in the last few months you will have noticed some big changes. Shop fronts have been redesigned and renovated and the impressive architectural features of the buildings above the shops have been restored. Many of the shop buildings were planned and built by a company formed by Thomas Courtenay Warner, the first Mayor of Walthamstow, who owned the land and lived for a while in the Clock House, which still survives. Above some of the shops you can see the letter W for Warner, and the decorative griffins, many replaced during the project.
This transformation of the shops and street environment has been carried out by Waltham Forest Council’s St James Street Townscape Heritage Regeneration Project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which celebrated its completion in September 2017.
Members of Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop and trained volunteers contributed to the project by recording 50 interviews with people who had lived, worked and shopped around St James Street, some for more than 70 years. We also explored the archives in Vestry House Museum and found information and photographs illustrating how the area has developed and changed. Our exhibition at The Mill Community Centre in March 2017 combined archival material with extracts from the interviews to tell the story of shops and shopping around St James Street over 150 years.
During the 1960s and 1970s business in the lower end of the High Street was gradually declining, and the opening of The Mall at the Hoe Street end in the 1980s was a fatal blow. But for almost a century after St James Street Station opened in 1870 this area had been Walthamstow’s main shopping centre, attracting market stalls, banks and major stores. Interviewees remembered Woolworths, Sainsburys, Marks & Spencer, Burtons, Lidstones the drapers and Smiths in St James Street that sold both fishing equipment and toys. They remembered the market stalls – Maisie and Tommy Strutt’s sweet stall, Bottomley’s for buttons and zips, and Alf Price, who went to hospital for six weeks after a lorry ploughed into his fruit and vegetable stall. All our older interviewees remembered how busy the St James Street end of the market used to be.
We also talked to people who had started businesses in the area more recently, when the local population was becoming increasingly diverse. One shop-owner listed some of the many Jewish people who had market stalls in the 1960s. That era has passed, but among the current business owners interviewed for the project were people born in India, Cyprus, Russia and Lithuania.
We are still finding people with wonderful memories of St James Street. If you have a story to tell and are prepared to be interviewed, please contact Alice Mackay by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.