East End Memories



After reading Dawson’s Department Store, I’d like the reader to be clear that what I found upsetting was that no one seemed to care about the place! Obviously time passes and fashions change and unless one moves with the times, an idea, a trend or even a store becomes out-modish and perhaps irrelevant. It is a question of adapt or die, and in the case of Dawson’s, close down and then demolition. Of course not all buildings suffer the same fate and many have found another use. However in some cases demolition may be a kinder end and avoid just being left to fight the elements before crumbling with decay. Whenever I see Wickham’s on the Mile End Road I wonder if it might not have been better to redevelop the site when it first closed.

Anyway, to return to Dawson’s: in the hope of finding out if anyone else remembered the store, I appealed to readers of this website to share their memories and any photographs that they might have. And then I sat and waited …………. and waited.

Meanwhile, while waiting, I wrote to various London Boroughs and found myself directed to their Archives divisions where I inquired if they had any information about the store. Out of my correspondence with several archivists came the knowledge that I had been mistaken in believing that the store was in the one-time Borough of Finsbury or in the more recently expanded Borough of Islington. Apparently since Dawson’s was on the east side of City Road, its one time-geographical location would have placed it just inside the confines of the Borough of Hackney. Actually, I suspect that this area would have been part of the old Borough of Shoreditch, but since this borough was gobbled up when London boroughs were rationalised in 1965, it slipped into the confines of Hackney. Hackney? Who knew? I was surprised to learn this fact.

I also learned that the store had been actively involved in trading as early as 1877 and that it was demolished in about 1980. Several stores were apparently built on the site and several pictures are in the hands of the Archives showing them.

An Archivist at the Borough of Hackney also informed me that their information on Dawson’s was maintained in the De Beauvoir Library, which is currently closed. Apparently the contents of this library is contained in a number of strong rooms, which are awaiting move to the new home of the Archives in the Dalston branch of Hackney Public Library. These rooms contain a number of papers, pictures and photographs of the Shoreditch-Hackney area. I was also informed any information regarding the architect and store construction would have to wait finding until after unpacking and cataloging were complete. As a result, I settled back to wait for this move and discovery to take place.

I also learned that Dawson’s Department Store was mentioned in the 1881 census where its address was noted to be 119-125 City Road, Shoreditch and that the proprietor was William C. Dawson who was a master draper from Norwich. Later, the store was annexed into the Borough of Finsbury. Seemingly a local historian has complied A Walk Around Shoreditch/Finsbury where local people talk about the area and several mention the store.

As I mentioned at the end of my story, I had received a message from someone who remembered the stores, but sadly was unable to shed any further light as to the architect, construction and modifications made to the store.

And then, after weeks of waiting, quite recently and completely out-of-the-blue, as it is said, I received a message from a reader who not only remembered Dawson’s well, but also included a photograph taken during the late 1950s for me to see.

Needless to say, I was happy to receive the message and over-the-moon to receive the photograph. The reader also said that the stores was well known to her and her family and that she once lived and worked close by. Here is what she had to say about the stores:

I remember Dawson’s as standing at the fork in the road where East Road joined City Road. Even as a child, I thought the stores to be a bit quaint and old-fashioned and a place that did not keep up with the times. What I remember especially about the store was its huge amount of window space and I often wondered how they managed to fill them with window dressing and how much cleaning there was to do.


Dawson's Department Stores ca 1950s

Dawson's Department Stores ca 1950s


Later when I went to work, one of my first jobs was in an establishment on Old Street and I used to cut through the store as I made her way to and from home. Coming from Old Street, I would walk along the City Road, up that slight hill and along the curvature of the road, and entered Dawson’s at the entrance at the apex of East and City Roads. I walked through the store and made my exit from the Food section, which led me onto Provost Street. I remember that the floor being covered with slatted wood and made for a loud clattering sound when you walked on it. Once outside, I made my way home along Provost Street and into Murray Grove and finally into Cropley Street.

The store sold most things. I know that there was a toy section on the upper floor. As a child, I would wander around it and look at what was available. I remember that the department did not have a great display of things to interest a child. I remember a friend once bought an archery set here when he was 12-years old. However, his archery days were short-lived, as this would-be Robin Hood broke too many windows of the garden shed, causing his father to take the set away from his son!

I also recall that on the upper floor were the foot ware, haberdashery and stationery departments. I cannot remember where the clothing departments were, but I presume that they too must have been on the upper floor.
On the ground floor, there was a floor-covering department where shoppers could purchase both carpet and linoleum. In those days, lino was the floor covering of choice, since it was what most people could afford. I still can recall the smell of lino and also of the coir or coconut mats.

One of my cousins used to work in the Food department of Dawson’s. She generally was assigned to the Cake Section. There were huge slabs of fruit cake and Cherry Genoa Cake sitting on silver stands. I was occasionally sent to the store to buy some cake for our tea. I am amused now to think that either the scales weighed incorrectly or else my cousin was hard-of-hearing, as my request for half-a-pound of cake always brought me a slice that most certainly weighed much more!

There were several things about Dawson’s that can only be described as bazaar! For example, the store kept a parrot in a large cage and was kept on the ground floor. The reason for this is unknown to me, but I do remember that the bird could talk.

Another oddity about the store took place each Boat Race Day. A friend told me that once the boat race had taken place, each year the store would hoist the flag of the winning crew on the pole at the front apex of the store. If the Oxford crew was victorious it would be a dark blue coloured flag that flew above the East Road-City Road entrance, but if Cambridge won a light blue flag flew. When I was a child, the annual boat race between these universities was a very big deal and many used to bet on the result.




Racing Collage

Probably the thing I remember most about Dawson’s was the procedure for paying. Having given the assistant your money it was put into a metal tube and hooked into a contraption above the assistant's head.  The assistant then pulled on a string or lever, I cannot recall which, and the tube was propelled along a metal line to a mystery department where the tube was removed and its contents checked. Once the sale was recorded, the tube was filled with the change and a receipt and shot back to the assistant. I always found this process fascinating and imagined a little world of away from the rest of the store where people spent their days emptying and filling these tubes. It is funny what you remember, isn’t it?

(CSPJ: I used to wonder how these flying tubes did not end up in a pile-up somewhere above our heads!)

My sister tells me Dawson's were popular with customers who used the Provident Cheques to pay for goods purchased. The area where Dawson’s stood was surrounded by working class neighbourhoods and, in those days, there were no credit cards and most did not have a chequing account at the bank. Unless they were able to save up the necessary money to make their essential purchases, they were able to do so thanks to the Provident Cheque Company.

In those days, most stores did not have a good security department in place. There were no CCTV cameras where every inch of a store was under scrutiny. Most stores relied on floor walkers who walked around the store supposedly to catch anyone stealing. A friend of mine who shall remain nameless told me that he enjoyed helping himself to numerous items as a child and, luckily for him, he was never caught.

(CSPJ: I used to enjoy helping myself to little bits and pieces in Woolworth’s. Mind you, the store detectives were quick-of-the-mark and one had often to run quickly out through the doors to escape their long arm!)

Maureen Halliday, London



I would like to thank Maureen for sending me the photograph of Dawson’s and allowing me to share it with readers. I am also grateful to her for sharing her memories of the stores ……… although gone, certainly not forgotten.





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Copyrightę 2011 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins