In September 1905, a grand new store opened in Ventnor at the junction of Spring Hill and Grove Road. This was Sharpe’s Furnishing Department. It had previously been accommodated in the company’s store on High Street, but the business had grown so rapidly that new premises were needed by the early years of the twentieth century. When first opened, the new store had showrooms that spread over the two floors, the whole fronted with plate glass windows that had a total area of 1,200 square feet. Plate glass at first floor level was a novel style for the time and Sharpe’s commissioned enamel advertising signs that made great play of this feature, as shown in the detail here. A complete sign can be seen on display in the Museum. Ventnor residents may not immediately recognise that it is the building that now forms the Heritage Centre, with a modern residential flat on the upper floor.
Some people may remember the store from the 1940s and 1950s when the management routinely took advertising space in the Isle of Wight Mercury. The illustration below shows such an advert from the summer of 1958. It is a reminder of another age when lino or linoleum was a common floor covering, when curtains were never complete without elaborate pelmets, indeed sometimes so deep that they could almost have come from a theatre stage. Equally intriguing were what were described as ‘curtain railways’, that is metal curtain tracks fitted to the underside of a wide wooden batten or board which was then screwed to the ceiling in front of the window. I once had to take examples of such fittings down from a house I bought and was amazed how elaborate they were.
The Spring Hill store had much more to it than is featured in the picture above, for there was a large storage and refurbishment facility in the building that formed the old Gaiety Cinema round the corner on Grove Road, now the Masonic Hall. Here on the old balcony area, was an upholstery workshop where armchairs were refurbished, mattresses re-sprung, and curtains and loose covers made by a small group of seamstresses. One former Ventnor resident still remembers the scene: furniture tacks, webbing and strange tools everywhere, the whole suffused by the smell of glue and horsehair.
When the new store first opened, it was sometimes referred to as an emporium, meaning that it stocked just about everything you would need for the home. As late as the 1950s, it was still selling an enormous range of goods: bedroom, dining room and sitting room furniture, carpets and linoleum, curtains, bed linen, china and glassware. A Utility Oak Bedroom Suite could be bought for £47, a Utility Easy Chair in brown or green tapestry for 5 guineas. The term ‘Utility’ referred to common standards of production imposed by the government in the 1939-45 war and the years of austerity afterwards, the idea being to conserve scarce resources and avoid costly imports. By the later 1950s, though, austerity was fading and a far greater range of wares was becoming available.
Next week, we will visit Sharpe’s Christmas Bazaar of 1909, beyond the memory of those now living, but a fascinating excursion into yesteryear.
Michael Freeman, Ventnor & District Local History Society. Sources: compiled from files in Ventnor Heritage Centre and from memories of former residents. This article first appeared in the South Wight Chronicle in December 2015.