Store closure was a sad sight

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By Exeter Express and Echo | Thursday, January 24, 2013, 06:45

FORTY years ago this month, Waltons Department Store closed it's doors for the last time. I know, I was there.

Ian Walton Turner had already opened a small group of supermarkets and he believed the future was in out-of-town hypermarkets rather than high street department stores. He had set his heart on building one such store at Clyst St Mary. East Devon planners however were not of the same view. While negotiations were ongoing, Mr Walton Turner was getting a lot of aggro from the health and safety police who demanded that the High Street store should be brought up to modern safety standards.

The High Street store was a bit of a rabbit warren.

Mr Walton Turner's grandfather had opened the store in the 19th century, and over the years neighbouring buildings had been added to the original store and linked together in the best way possible. There were gaps in the middle as Samuel's Jewellers refused to sell up, dividing two halves of the store. One building was taller than the other, which meant we had to cross the roof via a wooden walkway to get to the staff canteen. It could be rather hazardous in cold weather. Nonetheless, it was a much-loved store and I've yet to hear anyone, staff or customer, say a bad word about it.

In October 1972, Mr Ian failed to get planning permission for his hypermarket and announced the closure of his High Street store. The Express & Echo broke the news that most of their staff were to lose their jobs with a few being transferred to the Exmouth store. I worked at the Exmouth store for a while. This too closed in 1982.

Everything was reduced by 25 per cent, which was quite a reduction in the days before mock reductions became the norm. By mid-January many of the staff had gone. The upper floors and basement had been closed. It was a sad sight to see. We closed forever on January 28, the last time until recently that Exeter sported three department stores. The store continued to be used for some years to come by various discount shops until it was redeveloped as part of the Guildhall development. Marks & Spencer now occupies the site. I had hoped to have a few weeks off to enjoy some of my redundancy pay but Debenhams, who had taken me on with little more than a cursory interview, wanted me to start the following Monday. This remember was before the Employment Protection Act, when employers were able to employ staff on trial and let them go if they proved unsuitable. Not long afterwards Romart opened a superstore at Broadclyst.

Out-of-town shopping is now the norm, driven by the Uniform Business Rate introduced in 1987, which makes high streets very expensive for independents like Waltons.

Over the years, many of the shops which make Exeter unique have gone. Brocks, Cornishes, Mark Rowe, Frenches etc. Just a few weeks ago we lost Ivor Dewdney.

I am sure that if you parachuted someone into the centre of Exeter they would have trouble identifying what town they were in.

Although Exeter had lost it's favourite store, it was part of a group which included Austins of Newton Abbot and Banburys of Barnstaple and Tiverton, which are still going strong. Rossiters of Paignton closed last year.

For the first time in 40 years Exeter now has three department stores. It's debatable how long that will last. Not long I suspect.

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