©  Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: September 17, 2019
Webpage updated: September 17, 2019




Messrs Spooner and Company Limited were drapers, milliners, cabinet makers and house furnishers and had premises that stretched from Bedford Street around the corner in to Old Town Street, Plymouth.  It was founded by Mr Joseph James Spooner, who was born at Greenwich, in Kent, in 1815.

Although it has been claimed that the business was started in 1837 in Plymouth there is no trace of the family in the Town at the time of the 1841 census.  In fact, a Joseph Spooner, of the correct age (25), was an assistant to Mr James Webb, a mercer (otherwise a linen and woollen draper), at 6 Market Square, Stafford, Staffordshire.  It would appear, therefore, that this is where our Joseph learned his trade and the later claim that he started his business in 1837 might actually refer to the date he completed an apprenticeship with Mr Webb.

In fact it was in 1844, following his marriage by licence to Miss Anne Elizabeth Snell, at Saint Peter's Church, Tiverton, Devon, on January 1st 1844, that he came to Plymouth and started his linen and woollen drapery business in a very small way at Tuscan House, 26 Whimple Street, Plymouth.

The business must have been prospering because by the time of the 1851 census he was employing his brother, Mr Newby Abraham Spooner, aged 25, as a draper's assistant, three female assistants, four male apprentices and three female apprentices in addition to the cook, house maid and nurse maid to help run the home.  

On Thursday April 1st 1858 the business transferred to 48 and 49 Bedford Street, previously occupied by Mr T Holman.  Mr Spooner had a month-long sale of goods at his old premises and bought a 'select Stock of both Plain and Fancy Goods at unprecedently low prices' for the new store.  He also thanked his customers for 'the liberal support accorded him during the last fourteen years', which confirms the date of foundation as being 1844 not 1837.  Curiously, in 1942, after the premises had been destroyed, the Company claimed that this move had occurred exactly one hundred years ago in 1842.  Perhaps the directors thought that as the City had been destroyed no-one would discover how false that publicity statement was.

Mr Joseph James Spooner died suddenly at his home in Plymouth on Monday November 14th 1859 at the young age of 44 years.

This left Anne as a widow, of course, but she continued to run the business, assisted by the eldest son, John Dawson Spooner, and his younger brother, John Snell Spooner, as Draper's Clerk.  Both were still teenagers in 1861.

Sometime around the end of the 1860s -- certainly by 1873 -- Spooner's moved to numbers 54, 55 and 56 Bedford Street and by 1878 had added number 4 Old Town Street as well.

At number 7 Old Town Street was the White Hart Hotel, with stables running over to Market Lane.  Next door up, at numbers 8 and 9, was Chubb's Commercial Hotel, which also had stables stretching to Market Lane.  In 1880 the White Hart was demolished and Spooner's extended their premises northwards to the wall of Chubb's Hotel and then eastwards to Old Town Street.  The new building was seven stories tall and the Old Town Street frontage was eighty feet in height, while that fronting Market Lane was only sixty feet high.  In the basement were the receiving-room, the marking-room and a workshop.  On the ground floor the shop floor would continue for a length of 220 feet from Bedford Street to Old Town Street.  Fitting-rooms and work-rooms on the first floor looked out onto Market Lane while show rooms faced onto Old Town Street.  The remaining floors were taken up with bedrooms and sitting rooms for the staff.

The new building was constructed of best brick, with brown Portland, red Mansfield and yellow Bath stone dressings, and it was decorated with many carvings.  The upper sashes of the windows consisted of small, Queen Anne style, panes.  The entrance at number 7 Old Town Street was to be set back some nine feet from the main line and adorned with iron columns with fluted shafts and foliated capitals.  On either side of the entrance were ebony-framed, curved windows.

By the end of the nineteenth century the Spooner's premises were quite extensive.  At number 7 Old Town Street, with a frontage of thirty feet, was a six-storey warehouse for mantles and costumes.  Number 4 Old Town Street, also with a frontage of thirty feet, housed the carpets and furnishings.  The four-storey, corner block running from Bedford Street to Market Avenue was devoted to tailoring, outfitting, drapery, millinery, and ladies' outfitting.  The total frontage was two hundred feet.  On the opposite side of Market Avenue was "The Piazza", with a frontage of a hundred feet.  This housed the house furnishings and had a large two-storey store house at the rear.  The buildings forming "The Piazza" were designed by Mr Dunn, architect, of London, to house the new house furnishings department and were erected in the 1870s.

In addition to the retail premises there was a cabinet factory and upholstery workshop in Hoegate Street.  The Company also provided lodging houses for its staff in Whimple Street and Charles Place.  Some 400 staff were employed by Spooner's at the end of the eighteenth century. 

The first floors of each of these buildings contained the show-rooms for each department while the upper floors contained the work-rooms and stores.  The largest and heaviest items were stored in the basements.  Lofty windows and sky-lights provided lighting in the daytime and at night a myriad of gas-jets and fine chandeliers provided illumination.  The prices and quality of the goods was considered to be equal to anything available in London.

Disaster struck the business at 8.25pm on the evening of Saturday June 14th 1902 when a piece of a window display of Coronation decorations fell, or was knocked, on to a gas-jet in the window at number 4 Old Town Street and caught fire.  The fire quickly spread upstairs to the millinery department which, being summer time, was full of straw hats and caught alight instantly.  From there the fire spread in four directions, one towards number 7 Old Town Street, one towards the alley at the rear, the third through the mantle department and the fourth towards Bedford Street.

Although  Spooner's employed around 800 staff, the girls from the work-rooms at the top of the building had finished work at 8pm so only about 180 were said to be on the premises at the time the fire broke out.  Some were having supper while the remainder were still serving customers.  'Many of the young lady assistants were thrown into a state of hysteria, and ran weeping and moaning into the street' reported the Western Morning News  Indeed, some 'had to be carried out by their male colleagues'.  Men working in the basement escaped by running through the underground tunnel that linked it with the Piazza, closing the two iron fire doors behind them.

Chief Constable Sowerby was on the scene within minutes, along with the Mayor, Mr J A Bellamy, and the Deputy-Mayor, Mr T Greek Wills.  They were followed by the Plymouth Fire Brigade engine, which was hauled across from the police station yard in Catherine Street.  The Stonehouse Fire Brigade, under Superintendent Frederick Thuell, was praised for its promptness and the Royal Garrison Artillery from the Royal Citadel also assisted.  The engine of the Devonport Fire Brigade arrived at around 9pm, thanks to the fact that Deputy-Superintendent Edwards had spotted the smoke from Devonport.  Their engine was a brand new Merryweather "Greenwich Gem" and this was its first fire.

In all, Spooner's lost numbers 54 and 55 Bedford Street and number 7 Old Town Street, which they owned, and numbers 3 and 3a Old Town Street, which were owned by Spooner's but occupied by Messrs Mortimer, the launderers, and Mr Little, the tobacconist.  Other parts of Spooner's destroyed were numbers 4 Old Town Street, owned by Captain Tolcher, of Plympton, and the corner premises of Bedford Street and Old Town Street, which were owned by the Channings Trustees.

Mr John Dawson Spooner called for the public to continue to support the business in its temporary locations in Market Avenue, East Street and at 84 Old Town Street so that no staff need be put out of employment.  These temporary premises all opened on Monday June 23rd 1902.

Vacant possession of the damaged premises was immediately acquired by Plymouth Borough Council, although it is not clear if that included number 56 Bedford Street, which was not owned by Spooner's but a Mr Haddy.  This was done, so the Town Clerk explained, 'to save wasteful expenditure' and 'to facilitate and expedite a much-needed improvement at a point where Plymouth's street traffic is much congested'.

One of the benefits of the fire seems to have been that it enabled Spooner's to acquire property at the rear in East Street, which was converted and added to the store.  This 'New shopping palace' (that sounds better than Shopping Centre) was opened on Monday November 21st 1910.

In the new shop windows were displayed 'finely-dressed models, handsome furs and the most up-to-date furniture, each article being plainly marked.'   At night the displays were lit by 8,000 electric light bulbs. Facing the main entrance from East Street was the silk department, with the dress materials to the left and flannels to the right.  Beyond that and with its own entrance from the Piazza was the gentlemen's tailoring department.

An electrically driven revolving staircase gave access to the basement, where was situated a 'fairy-land bazaar.'  The floor gave the appearance of a village green, with real trees hiding the supporting pillars, in the centre of which was a kiosk and stalls displaying all manner of mechanical and other toys.   A representation of a Hungarian salt mine led to a witches ...... and thence to Santa's grotto, where small gifts were distributed.

Upstairs were two galleries, accessed by either a lift or by the staircase.  Gallery 1 contained furnishing drapery and curtains, including bedspreads, serges, quilts and blankets.  Gallery 2 held a model house, displaying how five rooms could be furnished 'for the modest sum of £100.'

Above the two galleries was a large tea room, covered with Japanese matting and alongside that was a roof garden, suitably decorated with plants and creepers.

In 1925 the business was taken over by Mr Clarence Charles Hatry's Drapery and General Investment Trust but in 1926 he sold the Trust to Sir Ernest Debenham for a handsome profit.

Mr John Dawson Spooner, who was a bachelor, died at his home, Furzecroft, Yelverton, on Tuesday April 2nd 1935.  He had been a silent partner in the Tavistock Model Laundry business that had been founded by his brother, Mr Edwin Charles Spooner.

Disaster struck for a second time on the night of March 21st/22nd 1941 when the building was once again engulfed in flames, this time as a result of the German bombing of the Second World War.  This time the building was closed, of course, and there must have been some warning of what was to come: the junior, part-time staff had been sent home early and only the full-time firewatchers were present.

Within a year of the destruction of their premises, Spooner's were up and running again in a large number of temporary locations dotted throughout the centre of the City:-

the main offices were at Clarence Chambers, Tavistock Road;

hosiery, gloves, blouses, knitwear, handbags, jewellery, ladies' and children's underwear, children's outfitting, baby linen, umbrellas and perfumery were on the ground floor of Austin House, Tavistock Road;

artificial flowers, millinery, gowns, coats, costumes, skirts and macs were on the first floor at Austin House, Tavistock Road;

the china and glass department was at number 80 Regent Street, adjoining Austin House;

the dressmaking workrooms were above the china and glass department at 80 Regent Street;

household linens, eiderdowns, cushions, curtains and loose covers were at 105 Tavistock Road, just opposite Austin House;

art needlework, wools, haberdashery, laces, neckwear and electro plated goods were at 15 Tavistock Road, opposite Austin House;

carpets, lino, rugs, bedsteads and bedding were at 111 Tavistock Road;

stationery, fountain pens, trunks, and fancy goods were at 95 Tavistock Road, above the City Museum;

wools, art needlework and bargain basement were at 44 Ebrington Street;

hardware, turnery, electrical and radio departments were at 41 Old Town Street;

fruit, vegetables, grocery, provisions, cakes and biscuits were at 57/58 Old Town Street;

silk, cotton and woollen dress materials were at 60 Old Town Street;

men's and boys' under wear and outfitting were at 63 Old Town Street;

the restaurant was at 66 Old Town Street;

the carpet workrooms were in Chapel Street, off Regent Street;

the receiving depot was at 9 Duke Street;

the food store was at 8 Duke Street;

the china store was at 78 Regent Street;

stock rooms were at 81 Regent Street;

and ladies' hairdressing, hosiery, underwear, gloves, baby linen, haberdashery, wools, toys, prams, and cots were also at 11 Townsend Hill, Mutley.

One rather unusual item that Spooner's advertised for Christmas 1945 was RAF Escape Maps, as used by Royal Air Force aircrews while over enemy territory during the Second World War.  Printed on superfine cloth, they were ideal for making souvenir head squares, handkerchiefs, cushion covers and lampshades.  They were priced at 4s 11d each, tax and coupon free and were available from the double-fronted shop opposite Austin House.  While the ladies were purchasing their Escape Maps the men folk could have a haircut from one of the four hairdressers in the Hairdressing Department next to Austin House for 1s 3d.  Their equipment was not only new but also 'Bactoral Sterilized'.

In October 1954 the new premises in Royal Parade were partly opened.  The architect was Mr T Overberry.  It was not until the café, shoe and beauty sections were finished that the premises were fully and officially opened by Lady Astor.  The date was Thursday May 10th 1956.  Also present were Mr John Bedford, chairman of the Company, and Mr S A Skyrme, managing director.  During the day fashion parades were presented by television personality, Miss Patti Morgan, while on the veranda lounge floor Mrs Lorna Sewell compéred a parade of ladies' négligé and lingerie.  On September 27th 1971 Messrs John Yeo and Company Limited was merged with Messrs Spooner & Company Ltd and took on the parent company's name, Messrs Debenham's Ltd.

In March of 1972 the link between Plymouth and the Spooner family was finally broken with the death of Miss Elsie Spooner at the age of 94.  She was the last surviving daughter of Mr Edwin Charles Spooner, son of the founder of the business.