For better or worse, the High Street is changing

Site of the old White Hart

We all hate change. Even War of the Worlds writer H.G. Wells who raved about his wonderful childhood in Bromley left complaining that the arrival of the railways had turned it into a morbid sprawling commuter town. He also turned down the Freedom of the Town.

A wee bit harsh, perhaps, though as chief reporter of the old Bromley & Kentish Times, I, too, watched with anger as the White Hart, a coaching inn dating back to at least the 16th century was demolished during the ‘sixties when rampant commercial interests stifled any sense of conservation. Many in the 1950s also revered it for its jazz club…

The future of the Royal Bell, the original of which was mentioned by Jane Austen in Pride & Prejudice, lies with its conversion and extension into a 50-bed hotel. There will also be a small bar area, hopefully better than the pathetic attempt at a revamped White Hart version which was later pulled down when the Glades shopping centre was built.

I also watched the widening of the High Street with the Churchill Theatre – Central Library replacing the New Theatre and the old Central Library, an imposing building with heavy wooden furnishings and a constant smell of wax polish.

Best forgotten is the disastrous mid –‘sixties Westmoreland Road/High Street dank underground shopping development dubbed Windy City. It is here the GPO Tower possibly the ugliest building in Bromley, began its chequered life.

Today its home to St Mark’s Square, a super duper salute to the 21st century with its 200 new homes, a 130 bed inn a nine screen cinema and a host of eateries. I have to confess I quite like it!

But it is the Market Square
and the surrounds, now a conservation area, that made Bromley not simply a shopping centre but a town with a heritage worth appreciating, even if not always apparent. We’ll come back to that in a later look at my home borough.

Meanwhile plans being considered for the Old Town Hall listed building in Tweedy Road include office space, ancillary hotel bedrooms and a café within the Old Courthouse.

May I humbly suggest that planners visit St Albans Museum and Gallery for a master class in how to restore an old town hall, along with assembly rooms, a courtroom and cells.

Meanwhile let’s look at shops long gone but for many not forgotten:

  • Medhurst’s or Medhursts, take your pick, defined shopping in Bromley (in the same way as Kennards once did in Croydon). Founded by Frank Medhurst in 1897, the family run store expanded in the ‘thirties and by 1950 boasted 40 different departments and numerous nooks crannies; some, like my wife and sister, recall childhood days sitting on animal shaped chairs to have their hair cut. In 1980 it became Allders another name to conjure with, and eventually Primark. Look out for the name Medhurst high up in the stonework.
  • Army & Navy, another landmark store that closed 2004, was linked by a bridge to Wolfe & Hollander, built in 1935 and closed in 1971.
  • Harrison Gibson, predecessor to the Army & Navy, is probably best remembered more for the dramatic fire of February, 1968, rather than as a snazzy furniture store
  • Caters was a commercial novelty in 1958. It was both Bromley ‘s and the firm’s first ever self-service supermarket. Founded by an East End family of 19th century butcher’s and greengrocer’s it was the brainchild of the then chairman Leslie Cater. But after Leslie died in fatal air crash, the family sold out to Debenhams (whose current Bromley store escaped the financial axe in April). After struggling in the fight for supremacy in the ‘ seventies the brand ended when it was sold on to Allied Suppliers. Despite my asking, no pictures seem saved of what was a popular Market Square shop.
  • David Greig, built in 1912 and now split into flats, was another household name in the Market Square for its meat and groceries.
  • F. Skilton, less well-known perhaps, was a farmer and butcher who took over a similar business at Market Square in 1905; by the ‘thirties he had branches in Croydon, Penge, Sutton and Epsom, as well as farms at Blackbrook, Sundridge Park and Hayes Place. Some recall the sheep arriving in big lorries for   slaughter at the back if the shop.
  • Maunders, nearby, dating back to 1773, was the place for homemade cakes.
  • Payne’s the jeweller, where The Queen was presented with a carriage clock, closed after 103 years of trading,
  • Dunn’s, known for fine furnishings, closed in 1980-raised phoenix like from two fires, one in 1909 the other during World War Two.
  • Coffee Importers remembered for the tempting smell of fresh coffee and two great grey elephants’ feet, which stood in the hearth.
  • Hennekeys wine bar where ladies of a certain age and class imbibed on generous quantities of sherry or port – some hastily denying they knew the place, let alone even being there.
  • Ghinns was the place for buying knitting wool.
  • Guntons sold fabrics of all kinds.
  • Attwoods specialised in corsets, hats and haberdashery.

Which begs the question? Will the High Street with shops closing at an alarming rate return to the 1840s when most people lived, no shopped, in or around the Market Square and even along the lower High Street.

Read more about the High Street in my book Bromley A History and Celebration. Click here

Launch of my book Bromley: A History & Celebration published in 2004. It’s still going strong …