Exhibit of the Week: Gentleman’s outfitters along memory lane

A leaflet holder from Greensmith and Thackwray.
A leaflet holder from Greensmith and Thackwray.

If you could step into a time machine and head back to Scarborough around 50 or 60 years ago for a spot of shopping, what a different world you would find.

You might start our day out, for instance, with morning coffee at the splendid Pavilion Hotel, opposite the railway station – owned by the Laughton family, it was an imposing piece of architecture to greet visitors to the town travelling by rail.

Walk down the town centre, and on your left – now The Lord Rosebery pub – was a rather lovely Co-op store in a red brick building which was originally The Liberal Club (opened in 1895 by the Liberal peer Lord Rosebery himself).

Just a few doors down, and still on your left (where Boots and Superdrug now are) was J. Tonks and Sons Ltd, which sold fine furniture (much of it made in house by the store’s team of master craftsmen cabinet makers), soft furnishings, glassware and china.

Opposite Tonks, and now the Brunswick Centre, was Rowntree’s department store, with its lovely covered colonnade running down York Place.

A little further down, still on the right, at the top of Vernon Road, was another Rowntree’s, this one a tea and coffee merchants and general grocery store.

Just a few hundred yards on again, and on the left hand side was the Balmoral Hotel, another fine red brick building not too dissimilar in style to the Pavilion. Now the Balmoral shopping centre, in the early 60s it still boasted its own brewery and beautiful wines and spirits shop, with glittering glass and mirrored fittings.

Walking further down Newborough and turning right onto St Nicholas Street, you’d find, on your left, a delightful department store full of treasures: Marshall and Snelgrove was part of a national chain, and had been in Scarborough since the mid 19th century. One of the great joys of shopping there was the packaging – items came in exceptionally chic black boxes decorated with garlands of flowers and ribbons bearing the store’s name.

During the 60s and 70s, most of these buildings were either demolished, or ‘refurbished’ beyond recognition. Fortunately, the last shop on our trip down memory lane – Greensmith & Thackwray, opposite Marshall and Snelgrove, which is now a string of bars – still asserts itself in the form of a fabulous piece of signage.

Our exhibits this week include a leaflet holder from Greensmith and Thackwray, which appears at some point to have been pressed into back-room service – faded yellow labels tell us it was used for ‘passed invoices’, ‘wholesale correspondence for post’, ‘credit notes’ and ‘entries’.

But presumably it once stood proudly front of house, displaying information for wealthy clients.

Also pictured, and also part of the Collections, is a postcard showing the exterior of the shop, probably Edwardian, showing the signage exactly as it is today. The reverse tells us it was by ‘Special Appointment to HRH The late Duchess of Cambridge’ and stocked ‘Burberry’s Coats’.

Gentleman’s outfitters Greensmith and Thackwray is believed to be the country’s first chain store. It was founded in North Yorkshire in the 1850s and had shops in Scarborough, Harrogate and other towns across the county. The Scarborough shop was the town’s longest-established retail outlet, closing in 1990.

The iconic signage outside the Grade II listed building, lettered in gold on black glass, declares it to be an ‘Indian and Colonial Outfitters’. When the current owners opened an independent coffee shop on the premises in late 2014, they decided to recycle the name. In a pleasing piece of circularity, the daughter of the last owner of the original firm is a regular customer.

A couple of years ago documents including the company’s historic ledgers were lodged with the National Archives, and are now securely stored in the North Yorkshire County Record Office at Northallerton. They reveal an upmarket company which catered for the region’s ‘nobility and gentry’, including the Sitwell family, the 
Rowntrees of York, and the Archbishop of York.

The Greensmith and Thackwray leaflet box is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.