Great Yarmouth’s Rows? They were our pyramids!
PUBLISHED: 11:20 04 April 2014 | UPDATED: 11:20 04 April 2014
AS advertising slogans go, it was years ahead of its time and you have to give the copywriter credit for an exhortation, faithful to Norfolk’s “du-different” tradition, to promote trade in Great Yarmouth’s Market and Broad Rows.
In his New Perlustration of Great Yarmouth, updating Charles Palmer’s original volumes, Dr Mark Rumble’s detailed examination of these twin Rows mentions that long ago an advertising card issued by the Row traders proclaimed: “When in Egypt, see the Pyramids. When in Yarmouth, see the Market and Broad Rows!”
Whimsically, one wonders whether tourists thronging the Cairo casbahs were hearing similar hype mentioning Yarmouth’s twin major retailing Rows...
Whether or not that inventive plug boosted business we do know, but the enduring popularity of this pair of Rows attracted browsing shoppers – locals and holiday visitors – for most of the 20th century.
But in the 1970s, the market and town centre started to decline as out-of-town retail parks were created, aiming at car-borne customers.
The two Rows suffered a double whammy when a 1995 blaze that gutted a furnisher’s premises caused Market Row to be restricted in width and off-putting for years, deterring shoppers from venturing across Howard Street North into Broad Row where the principal occupant was the family department store of Plattens which traded there for more than a century.
When Plattens’ shutters went up and the business closed in 1998, 19 long-serving employees lost their jobs, although at one time as many as 50 worked there. Plattens’ departure altered the character of Broad Row.
Illustrating today’s column are two old photographs showing members of the Platten family and their loyal staff, one taken before the 1914 war, the other in about 1935.
The store’s founder, light-suited Thomas Platten (centre), appears to have altered not a jot despite the passage of two decades between the pictures.
That main photograph was passed to me by Janet Skippings, of Byron Way, Caister, whose parents – Cyril Disney and Pearl Fortescue – met and wed while in the employ of Plattens in the 1930s. Janet, who found the picture among her late mother’s possessions, is married to John Skippings, a member of the family that ran a long-lived rival store in a King Street historic building which closed a year before Plattens did.
The ex-Skippings premises are about to become an art gallery.
Plattens’ final managing director, Richard Platten – great-grandson of founder Thomas and known to his staff as Mr Richard – dates Mrs Skippings’ picture to pre-1915 because one family member photographed was, he believes, Conrad Platten who was killed in the Great War. Conrad sits between a woman and his father, Thomas.
That woman could well be Miss Harriet Mabel Platten, future bride of Theophilus Swindell, a leading figure the borough whose name is commemorated in the Alderman Swindell Infants School which opened in Beresford Road in 1929. Swindell was mayor in 1909, an honour bestowed 18 years later on George Platten, eldest son of founder Thomas and sitting on his right as we look at both pictures, moustached in the first but clean-shaven in the second.
George, who succeeded Thomas as head of Plattens, was followed by his own son Geoffrey, sitting to the left of Thomas in the 1935 picture which belongs to Richard Platten; Geoffrey, whom I recall as chairman of Yarmouth Juvenile Court, was Richard’s father.
The business was launched when Thomas Platten opened a drapery shop in King Street in 1876 and transferred into Broad Row in 1889. In its new location, Plattens prospered and expanded, acquiring more premises (plus a shop in Gorleston High Street), launching new departments and broadening its range of merchandise until it was stocking clothing, drapery, furniture and furnishings, bedding, carpets, hardware, gardening and DIY items...
It was a local pioneer in switching from gas to electric lighting in the shops.
Eventually the business became Broad Row’s principal store, occupying most of one side and giving it cohesion. Sadly, the family enterprise closed just before the millennium, Richard Platten admitting then: “The last few years have been quite a fight. The town centre is shrinking and there’s no doubt that the out-of-town shops have hurt us.”
On a personal note, Mrs Peggotty worked in Plattens fashion department, opposite the main premises, for nearly 20 years. And my first Great Yarmouth Grammar School uniform was bought from Plattens just after the war – but, in truth, pupils at all schools hereabouts wore clothing bought in an August rush from Plattens, the exclusive local stockist of regulation school-wear.
Throughout its long life, Plattens enjoyed the enviable reputation of being not only a friendly local enterprise retailing quality merchandise at keen prices (its “The Hatchet is Out!” sales slogan will be fondly recalled by many) but also a conscientious and caring employer, concerned about the well-being of its loyal and long-serving staff.
That is typified by a story harking back to the 1914-18 war, a conflict very much in the news today because this year marks the centenary of its beginning. Richard Platten, who lives in retirement with his wife Elisabeth in Horning, has recalled: “There were a lot of problems at the end of world war one with people coming back for jobs that no longer existed.
“One of them was a Mr Futter, who had been in the war. When he came back they hadn’t got a job for him, but then someone had the idea of setting up a branch in Gorleston. So it was opened, partly as an opportunity to give Mr Futter a job, and he stayed there for the rest of his life!”
The Gorleston High Street branch, next door to the Feathers Inn, closed in 1985.