Buildings Companies

Boots: Prescriptions on the High Street for 123 years

A modern-day view of Boots on High Street, Sheffield

Boots might be a Nottingham company, but Sheffield has played an important part in its long history. Established in 1849 by John Boot, it was his son Jesse who built the company into a household name with stores all over the world. Its first chemist branch outside Nottingham was at 17 Spital Hill, in 1884, followed by branches at Snig Hill, West Street, South Street (The Moor), Attercliffe, London Road, Netherthorpe, Abbeydale, and Shalesmoor.

Sheffield was firmly in Jesse Boots’ sights and for a brief time, in the early 1890s, he lived here with his wife Florence. Its most prominent branch opened in May 1898 at 6 High Street, on land owned by John Walsh (of department store fame) between the Fosters Building (erected 1896) and the auctioneers Nicholson, Greaves, Barber and Hastings (now Café Nero). All were constructed as part of High Street widening plans.

The High Street branch opened in 1898 and the illustration shows what the original building looked like. Photograph: British Newspaper Archive

Boots opened its narrow shop alongside the Thatched House Restaurant, taking advantage of heavy footfall between High Street and Fargate. On 8 October 1918, a Government Information Bureau opened in-store. The Bureaux had been established by the government earlier in the year to provide information to the public on matters relating to the First World War; national war aims, national services, war savings, food, labour, and so on. This was one of just twenty such bureau, each located in a prime Boots store, and it required only two square yards of space for its small, pre-fabricated stand.

Boots refitted its store in 1922, but when the Thatched House Restaurant came on the market in 1929 it bought the property and announced plans to extend next door. The plans were radical and involved demolition of both properties, only 33 years after they had been constructed.

The new enlarged building was designed by Percy J. Bartlett, the Boots’ architect, and was constructed by Thomas Wilkinson and Sons, Olive Grove Works, Sheffield.

“Cheap drugs would be dear if they were cheap and nasty. Nasty to the palate many drugs are bound to be; but worse is the nastiness of bad quality.” – Jesse Boot

The handsome elevation was based on the Renaissance style, the modern shop front, the black and silver canopy, the green slates surmounting the lower story, and the blue-green of the windows above, formed a modern building combined with traditional beauty.

It was constructed in Stoke Hall stone, provided by Percy J. Turner from their own quarries at Grindleford. Warm yellow in colour, it claimed to be impervious to the effects of acids in smoke-laden atmospheres.

The shop front was a tribute to Sheffield’s staple industry, completed in Firth Brown ‘Staybrite’ steel, which was as much attractive to the eye as the deeply recessed entrance, and non-slip paving. The steel was used for framing the windows and main entrance doors, and the Boots sign was cast in Staybrite and mounted with neon lights.

The glass and iron canopy decorated in black and silver was capable of illumination at night, and replaced old-fashioned shop blinds, to provide permanent protection against rain.

Photographs: Walgreens Boots Alliance

The interior fittings were chiefly light mahogany, the floors laid in ceramic mosaic on top of ‘bison’ concrete flooring, and heating was generated by rooftop pipes to provide even temperature throughout its three sales floors.

The ground floor was set aside for the principal business of chemist and toiletries. A surgical department, staffed by fully trained nurses, provided a private fitting room and a dispensary.

Photograph: Walgreens Boots Alliance

A staircase in the centre of the showroom led to the basement, where travelling goods, stationary, books, pictures and artists’ materials were displayed. The first floor contained the ‘Booklovers’ Library’ decorated in blue and green, and a fascinating exhibition of artistic gifts, silver, and fancy merchandise. All three floors were served by a staircase and two lifts.

Electric lighting in the store was designed by Harcourts, of Birmingham, based on original suggestions of Percy J. Bartlett. The fittings were arranged to take four one hundred watt Cosmos lamps, with a combination of four crystal etched glass cylinders.

Photograph: Walgreens Boots Alliance

It opened in October 1931, and the address became 4-6 High Street. Two years later a Bargain Basement opened, bringing a modern style of retailing to the store. Further alterations were made in 1936 and it was later extended into the adjacent Foster’s Building.

Photographs: Walgreens Boots Alliance

Those of a certain generation will remember that the basement eventually opened out into a subway that stretched across High Street, and which was eventually lost when Supertram works started.

Sadly, the frontage we see today is the result of the generic modernisation of the retail sector, but remember it only disguises the past.

Boots is now part of the Retail Pharmacy International Division of Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc.

Percy J. Bartlett, the Boots’ architect, on his retirement. Photograph: Walgreens Boots Alliance
Shop windows as they used to be. Photograph: Walgreens Boots Alliance

See also Walgreens Boots Alliance Archive and Lenton Hall as featured on House and Heritage – the sister site to Sheffielder

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.