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140 years of city history faces the end with Beatties closure

By Simon Penfold | Business | Published: | Last Updated:

For more than 140 years it has been Wolverhampton's favourite store. The big name that dominated the city's shopping centre.

The elegant Victoria Street art deco frontage of the newly refurbished Beatties flagship store in Wolverhampton in the 1970s

But Beatties is now set to cease to exist from early next year. Another empty hole in a city centre still unable to fill the gap left when BHS collapsed two years ago.

For generations of Wolverhampton shoppers Beatties has been the go-to destination, one of the city’s most iconic and successful businesses.

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But that was before it all started to go wrong more than a decade ago, after ambitious expansion plans ran into trouble and saw the Beatties chain of department stores swallowed up by House of Fraser.

Even the company's landmark store site on the corner of Victoria Street and Darlington Street was sold in a so-called sale-and-leaseback deal worth £47 million in 2006.

At the time HoF took out a 35 year lease. Under the terms of the closure plan that will see 31 of its 59 stores closed, that lease will end after just 13 years.

The James Beattie store in 1902 - one of the earliest pictures taken in Victoria Street - 15 years after the firm was founded on that site as the Victoria Drapery Supply Stores

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Beatties in the 1920s

It has faced challenging times before, but this time the end looks final.

Beatties was founded in Victoria Street by local draper and businessman James Beattie. It opened in 1877, when it was called the Victoria Draper Supply Store.

Founder James Beattie.

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By 1895, the firm employed 40 members of staff and was enjoying an annual turnover of £30,000.

But fortunes took a turn for the worse when, only a year later, a huge fire ripped through the building, forcing it to be demolished and rebuilt.

The blaze also destroyed much of the store’s stock. What remained had to be sold to buy more items to refill the shelves.

Beatties - the store with the blinds - in the early 1920s

Fortunately, the owners recovered from the potentially devastating incident, and by the turn of the century they were back on their feet.

But then, in 1912, a second fire struck, prompting another rebuild, which included changing the shop facade for the first time since the store had first opened 35 years earlier.

Beatties dominated the centre of Wolverhampton as this imposing building was captured on a postcard from the 1920s

An extension was then built leading out into Darlington Street in the 1930s.

At the same time as the cosmetic and structural changes were taking place, management were making alterations on the operational side of the business.

During the early 1920s, the company adopted limited liability, becoming James Beattie Ltd, making it an entity of its own in the eyes of the law for the first time.

How the iconic store looked in the 1920s

Then, in 1964, the firm became a Public Limited Company, James Beattie PLC, meaning customers could now buy its shares on the stock market.

Perhaps the most significant moment in the company’s history, however, came in 2005, when the firm was taken over by department store chain House of Fraser.

By the turn of the millennium Beatties had an 11-strong chain of department stores across the country but bosses came up with the ambitious idea for a 12th store in the growing retail heart of Birmingham.

Beatties in Darlington Street lights up in April 1949 after a post-war ban on shop lighting was lifted

But its adventure in Birmingham is blamed by many for bringing this once proud Wolverhampton-based stores empire to its knees.

Beatties management saw the revamp of the former C&A store in Birmingham's Corporation Street as a chance to launch a flagship branch that would cash in on the soon to open Bullring redevelopment.

Instead a string of woes led to growing losses at the Birmingham store, finally reaching £1.9 million, Instead of protecting Beatties from any potential takeover, its failure turned the company into a target.

Beatties famous Christmas display, from 1964

House of Fraser won the battle, with a bid of £69 million, and rapidly closed the unsuccessful Beatties Birmingham store which any competed with its own branch in the city centre.

The takeover saw the Beatties store in Wolverhampton run down over the years, with a string of departments closed, while House of Fraser closed the group's Dudley store in 2010.

Many have seen the Wolverhampton store has highly vulnerable once talk started of a CVA and store closure plan, with many formerly loyal customers deserting it over the years.

But its closure will bring fresh opportunity to Wolverhampton's new Debenhams store in the Mander Centre, making it the only department store left in the city.

Simon Penfold

By Simon Penfold
Business Editor - @SPenfold_star

Business Editor based at the Express & Star's head office in Wolverhampton, looking for stories big & small.

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