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How high street giant Marks & Spencer made a home in Great Yarmouth

PUBLISHED: 08:00 04 August 2019

Marks & Spencer's

Marks & Spencer's "penny bazaar" in George Street, possibly in the 1920s. The assistants pictured were (L-R) Miss Lily Wiseman, Miss Edna Nelson, Miss Gladys Bly and Miss Doris Woodrow.

Archant

As anybody drawing an old-age pension will confirm, it is hard to change the habits of a lifetime.

The long-gone Plaza Cinema on the Market Place pre-war. The empty premises were occupied by bombed-out Marks &Spencer as a temporary store until the retailer's King Street shop was rebuilt.The long-gone Plaza Cinema on the Market Place pre-war. The empty premises were occupied by bombed-out Marks &Spencer as a temporary store until the retailer's King Street shop was rebuilt.

So, spare a thought for Sports Direct, planning to relocate to Great Yarmouth town centre which needs perking up.

That gain is Gapton Hall's loss when Mike Ashley's national retailer occupies the former M&S premises next year as part of a major expansion.

Older residents are usually reluctant to accept change, so it could take yonks before we call the King Street premises "Sports Direct" and abandon the name M&S which unexpectedly closed in 2015 after a century-plus of serving our residents and visitors.

On the day the town centre premises closed, its transferred food department opened on Gapton Hall! Now the Sports Direct business will reverse the process, quitting the one for the other.

Marks & Spencer store assistants outside the Yarmouth town centre premises in 1962Marks & Spencer store assistants outside the Yarmouth town centre premises in 1962

Despite that M&S main store's apparent final farewell to Yarmouth four years ago, its branch in Lowestoft's main street remains in business.

The retailer arrived in Yarmouth in 1911as a penny bazaar - a popular innovation in those years before the First World War - based in George Street, opposite Broad Row.

It transferred to the spacious King Street premises of department store Boning Brothers in 1932, taking over that family firm, I believe.

It was not all plain sailing here for the national retailer because it was bombed out during sustained German air raids in 1941 which caused severe damage to the town centre.

After the war, Marks & Spencer moved temporarily into the disused former Plaza Cinema on the Market Place until the reconstruction of its King Street site was completed in 1952.

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That so-called penny bazaar which introduced Marks & Spencer to Yarmouth was a far cry from the comfortable, warm and welcome store it was destined to become.

In 1962 the Mercury's women's columnist interviewed Miss Edna Nelson, of Gatacre Road in Cobholm, who had just completed 40 years' service with M&S, joining the George Street Penny Bazaar staff immediately after leaving school.

It was open-fronted, with pull-down overnight shutters to close it, she recalled, and continued: "It was terribly cold in winter because it faced east and we had no heaters when I first worked there." Nonetheless, she loved her sales floor job.

Miss Nelson said that in her early years the George Street bazaar re-opened on Thursday evenings during the autumn herring fishery so the Scottish folk here could buy presents to take home to their families for Christmas when the season ended.

That puzzled me slightly because the English and Scottish drifters would have been at sea on a Thursday night, seeking the herring shoals.

The only nights the Scottish boats were in port were Saturdays and Sundays; the Yarmouth drifters were berthed in the Yare overnight on Saturdays.

Perhaps she meant the fisher lassies, not their Scottish men-folk.

The George Street bazaar remained open for a year or two after Marks & Spencer opened its new King Street store - the one due to be occupied by Sports Direct next year. The range of goods sold in the newcomer was up-market compared with the bazaar's offerings.

Miss Nelson, who had probably hoped her long working life would be spent with the firm in Yarmouth, was transferred to branches in Cambridge and Lowestoft when the King Street store was blitzed during sustained German air raids in the spring of 1941 which devastated the town centre.

The M&S store was gutted on April 7th/8th when German night bombers inflicted on Yarmouth "its worst raid" so far, according to the official record, killing 17 and injuring 68.

Homes, industrial premises and shops were wrecked by high-explosive bombs and an estimated 4000 incendiaries causing 65 major fires and 200 others.

It took a decade for M&S to emulate the mythical phoenix and rise again from the ashes, re-establishing itself in handsome rebuilt premises on its blitzed King Street site in 1952.

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