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Boots on West Street is an architectural treat

Boots, West Street, Sheffield. Designed by Albert Nelson Bromley. Image: DJP/2022

The Victorians knew how to build shops. And this is a perfect example of elaborate architecture. It is Boots, on West Street, at its corner with Regent Street. There has been a Boots here since 1890, which makes it one of Sheffield’s oldest shops.

“It was built in Free Renaissance house style, executed in light brown faience, with big Flemish gables, an open parapet, and a cupola on the corner with a dome,” says Pevsner.

Forget the shop, it is what happens at roof level that intrigues me most. How often do people go up there? What secrets lie within that cupola? What will the view from it look like?

Boots was established in 1849 by John Boot, but it was his son, Jesse, who built the company into a household name with stores all over the world. I’ve mentioned before that its first chemist branch outside Nottingham was at Spital Hill, and Sheffield played an important part in its growth.

The building we see is not the original shop. The old store was three storeys high, comprising a commodious shop, with seven large plate-glass windows, on the first floor six stock rooms, and on the second floor, six similar rooms. The site itself was held on an 800 year lease from 1 October 1825.

Boots Cash Chemists, No 252-254, West Street (Store 41). This original store was demolished and rebuilt in 1905-06. Image: Picture Sheffield

In 1905, the old store was rebuilt, and Boots took temporary premises opposite for its chemist, while fancy goods were sold from a shop higher up at the corner with Victoria Street.

The new shop opened in 1906 and was designed by Albert Nelson Bromley (1820-1934), whose work in Sheffield had already included a Boots branch in 1904 at Attercliffe. (It also survives, home to Samara Lounge, but for years as the Zeenat Restaurant).

West Street and Regent Street. From the Boots Scribbling Diary of 1906. Image: Walgreens Boots Alliance Heritage

The West Street branch followed the company tradition of purpose-built branches, faced in caramel-coloured glazed terracotta, often with shaped gables or corner turrets. The detailing followed French Renaissance and English Jacobean architecture, often including hybrid sea creatures in its decoration.

A good example of this can be found at Pelham Street, once Boots’ flagship Nottingham store, now occupied by Zara. West Street, although built on a much smaller scale, is a replica, still in original form, except for the disappearance of the corner clock. The terracotta may be Doulton’s Carraraware, which was specified for Boots’ branch in Southend in 1915.

Boots, West Street, Sheffield. Look closely at the elaborate decoration featuring sea creatures. A clock has long disappeared. Image: DJP/2022

Albert Nelson Bromley, the architect, was born in Stafford, and moved to Nottingham to live with his uncle, architect Frederick Bakewell. He joined his office and became a fellow member of RIBA in 1872. He was on the point of taking up a post in Manchester when he was encouraged to spend time sketching buildings on the continent.

Between 1872-73 he visited 90 towns and cities, including Bruges, Chartres, Heidelberg, Prague, Venice, Siena, Athens, and Constantinople. In ‘Work and Sport: Memories of an Architect’ (1934), he stated that the object of the book was “mainly to reduce to readable proportions his ‘Continental Diary of my Architectural Travels.’

Gifted in the use of the pencil, pen, and brush, he executed watercolours of high artistic merit.

On returning to England, Bromley re-joined his uncle’s practice although their partnership was dissolved in 1876. He became principal architect for Nottingham School Board and did work for Nottingham Tramway Company. But it was his work for Boots that he is best remembered for, a relationship that lasted into the 1920s.

Over a hundred years later, this modern-day Boots is a far cry from its origins, described back in the day as a ‘Chemist, Fine Art Dealer, and Bookseller.’

Special thanks to Kathryn A Morrison for providing historical date about Boots and Albert Nelson Bromley.

Boots, West Street, Sheffield. It is likely that ground-floor plate glass windows originally extended up Regent Street. The floors above are now used as offices. Image: DJP/2022

©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

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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.