Remembering tea and dancing at Great Yarmouth’s department stores

PUBLISHED: 07:00 19 May 2019

TV personality Judith Chalmers opens a new department in Debenhams Great Yarmouth store in 1971.

TV personality Judith Chalmers opens a new department in Debenhams Great Yarmouth store in 1971.


No, no sugar in my tea, thank you – but I will have one of those vanilla slices, if I may. They’re my favourite. Or perhaps before that, would you care to dance?

The Debenhams store in Yarmouth town centre in 1985, the year it closed.The Debenhams store in Yarmouth town centre in 1985, the year it closed.

Ah, the distant delights of genteel afternoon tea in Arnolds "grand restaurant" in Great Yarmouth's town centre before it became Debenhams.

Similar pleasures - except perhaps for the music - were offered in Hills (Matthes), only a minute's walk into King Street.

The final link with those local pleasures, Debenhams - relocated to Market Gates - is now destined for closure.

Luckily, Palmers and its restaurant - now under the ownership of Beales - survives the national trend in dwindling city and town centres being replaced by retail parks.

Yarmouth mayor Mrs Cora Batley performing the name-change of Arnolds to Debenhams in 1972.Yarmouth mayor Mrs Cora Batley performing the name-change of Arnolds to Debenhams in 1972.

Arnolds opened here exactly 150 years ago in 1869, underwent location and merchandising changes, eventually settling on the dominant King Street-Regent Street corner in the heart of town and expanding as a department store, adding a furniture department 20 years later.

As trade flourished, the premises extended along Regent Street.

In 1972, the business adopted the name of new owner Debenhams but closed 13 years later. The name returned here in 2008 when Debenhams opened in the Market Gates mall.

Pre-war, Arnolds once embraced the American gimmick of a soda fountain. After the war I vaguely recall that Arnolds added a basement cafe with American décor and a more informal approach - children could put their elbows on tables without incurring parental displeasure and frosty looks from waitresses...

Arnolds restaurant in 1934.Arnolds restaurant in 1934.

But that relaxed innovation did not last for long and was replaced by another eatery years later.

It was in Arnolds that I first tasted Spam on a war-time visit! I did not like it one bit...but was later to declare it as one of my favourites.

Furthermore, if my memory serves me correctly, it probably pioneered in Yarmouth another import from across the North Atlantic - the self-service cafeteria.

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That American-influenced style must have returned because the Peggotty children enjoyed an afternoon Cowboy Breakfast (yes, that's correct) there in 1969 when we had a family celebration.

In 1923 advertising, Arnolds dubbed its eatery as a "grand restaurant" and "the shoppers' rendezvous", offering "table d'hote luncheons served daily in charming surroundings. A delightful rendezvous for afternoon teas. Ices a speciality. Music daily from 3.30pm" - an orchestra, I believe.

For gentlemen, Arnolds provided a smoking lounge. How times have changed...

When the Arnolds name disappeared from the borough's shopping scene in 1972, it was succeeded by that of its new owner, Debenhams.

In the King Street store the switch was given civic acknowledgement by the Mayor of Yarmouth, Mrs Cora Batley.

Standing in front of a large board bearing the name "Arnolds Great Yarmouth", Mrs Batley drew a curtain across it, revealing "Welcome to Debenhams Great Yarmouth" at the other end.

Before the war, rival Hills was on the west side of King Street where the Mercury office was recent years (in the former Matthes baker's shop), promoting itself in 1928 as "the largest and finest appointed restaurant in the Eastern Counties."

It invited customers to sample "our home-made chocolates, cakes and pastries renowned for freshness and quality." And it also announced that "Our pure cream ices are a popular speciality."

But German bomb damage forced a move to a spacious area above Burton's menswear shop on the corner of King Street and Market Place.

After the war, the restaurant and baker's shop (later, Tooks) returned to the rebuilt King Street premises, by then trading as Matthes, the baker serving East Anglia from its Gorleston base in Englands Lane.

Matthes shocked the borough and far beyond in 1978 when the entire business closed suddenly.

In decades before and after the war, coffee was drunk only by a small minority, Britons preferring their cup of tea.

Nowadays tea shops have almost disappeared, ousted by the abundance of international chains of coffee shops.

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