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Waltons and Co., High Street

Page added 16th July 2014

Return to Retail Exeter

Before the appearance of national department stores such as Debenhams, John Lewis and House of Fraser, many towns had a smaller, local equivalent. Exeter’s much loved local department store was Walton’s, fondly remembered by many Exonians as the number one place for clothing, household goods and toys. When Walton’s closed in 1972, many mourned it passing, but in truth the world had changed, and competition from Debenhams and Dingles proved too much.

George Walton Turner, a farmers son, was a native of Moreton, Oxfordshire. Born in 1868, he started his first business in Oxford, before opening a store, in partnership with a relative, in Bournemouth. In 1905, he decided to branch out on his own, and relocate to Exeter. His campaign of pre-opening adverts appeared in the February in the fledgling Express and Echo and the well established Western Times. The 16 February was the opening day with a “Marvellous Spending Power of a Shilling” promotion. The Exeter Gazette commented “They opened their doors yesterday morning, and immediately their shop was surrounded by a crowd of people anxious to participate in the bargains offered. The police had to regulate traffic.” The new ‘kid on the block’ introduced novel ways of promoting their store. The shilling promotion on a wide range of goods had caught the imagination, and Walton’s was off to a flying start. Two months later and Walton’s had a ’Spring Show’ to continue the momentum. Walton’s tendered for the contract with the Asylum Committee, to supply them with clothing, bedding, drapery goods, boots and slippers, ensuring an outlet other than the store for their goods.

Many of the baby boomer generation, and older, have one single memory of Walton’s; their Christmas Fairyland with the annual visit to Father Christmas. Christmas 1906, and Father Christmas newly was installed, along with his familiar sack, short footing the competition. The next year, and he was there again, as the less familiar Santa Claus, this time promoting English-manufactured games such as the ‘Flying Cone’ and the doll’s showroom. It was calculated Walton’s stocked two tons of picture frames, work-boxes and writing cases ready as Christmas gifts.

The store during the early years was fairly small, so modernisation was progressive, up to the First War. Walton’s introduced the first ‘island windows’ in the south-west, and in 1914, the store expanded into 217 High Street. The upper floors were effectively demolished, and rebuilt to unify the floor space.

The War Years

Just a week after war was declared in 1914, Walton’s distributed 500, five shilling vouchers to families with young children, or invalids, whose breadwinner had answered the ‘Call to Duty’. A fortnight later, and George Walton had placed a furnished house at the disposal of Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses who were taken sick. Father Christmas missed his annual visit, but Walton’s still stocked a wide variety of gifts. However, the war still prevailed, and the influx of refugees from Belgium required a great effort by volunteer seamstresses to produce clothing for the Refugees’ Committee storeroom. Walton and Co., and Green and Son, donated clothing and fabric for the fund. George Turner regularly donated to various funds during the war, while his store was one of many that helped in the latest war effort. At the Armistice, in 1918, jubilant youngsters wore free 'cocked-hats’ made from paper Union Jacks by Walton’s staff. In December, the Walton’s Father Christmas outfit was dusted down, and brought out for the Exeter Buffaloes Christmas Entertainment for the wounded, at King’s Hall St Thomas.

A new start

The advent of peace was an opportunity to update the store, and in 1919, “considerable alterations took place, but the increasing business has made further changes imperative.” The improvements included extending the store as far as the Higher Market, by purchasing 1, Queen Street. Fairyland returned in December 1919, when £40 12s 2d was raised for the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital.

When the Prince of Wales visited the city to unveil the Devon War Memorial, in May 1921, Walton’s displayed a banner, decorated with Prince of Wales Feathers, on the front of the store saying “You’m welcome, Prince. Us be proper glad to zee ee.
Improvements continued during 1922, with the installation of a passenger lift. Local companies employed twenty men during the modernisation, at a time when many, returning from the front, found it difficult to gain employment.

By 1922, there was a Walton’s store established in Exmouth. One Wednesday in June 1927, all the staff, from both stores, attended a staff outing to Lydford Gorge, returning via Okehampton and Chagford.

Funding for the hospital came from many sources, including local businesses. The hospital ran Motor Week to raise funds for the care of victims of motor accidents. In 1927, Walton’s devoted a window display for Motor Week, showing a corner of a hospital ward, with mannikins dressed as nurses and patients. A prominent connection with good causes never harmed a business, and the philanthropic George Walton was only too aware of this.

Christmas Fairyland continued, and the theme for 1928, was the Arabian Nights. A Magic Carpet appeared to float in the air, while characters, such as Blue Beard, the Forty Thieves, and Sinbad on a fully rigged ship, were created, to the delight of Exeter’s children. There was even a mechanical elephant, as many children would never have seen the real thing. It was estimated, that since 1921, Walton’s had raised over £2,000 for the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, the Rest Haven Convalescent Home in Exmouth, and the City Mission, Exe Island. The previous year had raised £318, a record. Unfortunately, Father Christmas was late to arrive at Exe Bridge in 1930. His excusee was, according to Walton’s “We understand that instead of landing at 11.30 a.m., as advertised yesterday, his disembarkation was delayed until just after noon. He excuses himself by alluding in nautical terms to the rapid flow of the river—about 50 knots per lanyard. He also refers to the notorious unreliability of pirates, who have been known to postpone the time that a victim should walk the plank from eight bells to twelve bells—to the great inconvenience of the fishes. In order to afford those who were disappointed of another opportunity of seeing him, Father Christmas is hoping to arrange another piratical procession in the near future” The store obviously had a pretty sharp public relations department!

Other Exeter stores were competing on the Father Christmas front, and in the same year, that Father Christmas was late, Bobby and Co had the ‘Flying Scotsman’ display, and Colson’s had a ‘Trip to the Moon’, while Walton’s own theme was ‘Treasure Island’.

Further Expansion

Thirty years after Walton’s established themselves in the city, they created a new entrance in Queen Street, and opened a basement, that was entered from Goldsmith Street. Anniversary window displays showed a 1905 display alongside a 1935 display; they even installed a string orchestra to entertain the shoppers. Two years later, and the Coronation was an excuse for more extravagant window display of a Miniature Circus Parade. Originally created for a London store, Walton’s brought the display down to Devon. Little dioramas showing the ‘new’ Belisha Beacon, and a clown taking a photograph were featured.

A grievous loss

On 25 January 1940, George Walton Turner died, of a severe heart attack, aged 72, at his home ‘Moreton’, Littleham Cross, Exmouth. He had for many years supported the Exe Island Mission and the Rest Haven Convalescent Home, Exmouth. He had originated the home, in 1925, for poorer people, including children, of Exeter and district. He was also responsible for building a children’s bungalow at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, and one of the wards was named after his first wife. His two sons, John and Leonard, continued to run the business.

Trade was difficult for all during the Second War, as rationing, and utility furniture replaced the extravagant prewar fare. However, Walton’s continued to support local causes, during the war, by fund raising and loaning flags and bunting for special events.

After the war, new innovations were introduced. A system of ’stamps’ worth 1 shilling and 2s 6d could be earned, and redeemed for goods. Christmas Fairyland continued through the post war years, to the delight of the 'baby boomer' generation. A food hall, entered from Goldsmith Street opened, similar to the Marks and Spencer foodhall, on the modern site. However, Bobby’s and Colson’s were now part of larger, national groups, increasing competition for Waltons. The end came in in 1972, when the store ran a closing down sale, before shutting its doors forever. After the Guildhall Centre was opened, the building was demolished, and Marks and Spencer constructed a new store on the site. The name Walton’s lives on in the memory of the ‘baby boomers’ who were taken there to meet Father Christmas.

Sources: Express and Echo, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, Western Times.

Walton's opening advert 1905 Advert from 1905. Walton's in Goldsmith Street.Waltons in Goldsmith Street.Walton's foodhall entrance in Goldsmith Street.The entrance to the foodhall in Goldsmith Street. This is now the entrance to Marks and Spencer.
Father Christmas arrives at Walton's.The frontage of Waltons in the High Street, before the shop on the corner was incorporated in the store. Father Christmas is arriving at Waltons Fairyland.

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