Phil Lyon, Umeå University, Sweden and Dave Kinney, dkimaging.co.uk
The Life and Times of 54-56 Fossgate, York
Numbers 54, 55 and 56 Fossgate were for many years the trading premises of the York Army and Navy Stores. The buildings housing the store were much older (c. 1796) with 55 and 56 Grade II listed and 54 listed Grade II* (Historic England, n.d.). The business had started out further down the Fossgate in 1919 and closed in July 2012 with the retirement of the youngest of the original shopkeeper’s grandsons – David Storey (DS). In the final few days of trading we were able to photograph the shop and storage areas, and to talk with the current owner to reflect on the loss of a local landmark.1
In the aftermath of the First World War there had been a flourishing trade selling the tons of army surplus – one of the less-heralded peace dividends.2 The shop had originally serviced the needs of working people – boots, coats, headwear and overalls – in the factories, kitchens and building sites of the town, and the fields of surrounding areas. Items designed and made for military purposes were practical and often of superior quality. New or used, and usually cheap, this was workwear at its best. The business did well, expanded into 54-56 Fossgate. Over the years, it continued to thrive with the army surplus that was abundant once more after the Second World War. As the years went by, the family established branches in Redcar and Scarborough. However, these coastal shops eventually closed as market conditions changed.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the austerity that kept demand alive for affordable workwear slowly gave way to a relative affluence where leisure requirements were also important. Supplies of hiking and camping equipment were a logical development. However, a more innovative venture was the use of surplus RAF oxygen tanks for the leisure diving market. The offshoot store in Scarborough sold flippers, masks, wetsuits and tanks to meet a demand that few other retailers addressed: ‘Me and my brother did a lot of scuba diving and spear fishing … and we were in on that in the very early days … because that was just coming in. The early scuba tanks were out of World War Two bombers, you know the big air cylinders that used to … oxygen … and the thing then was there was nobody who sold it … we ended up mixing stuff, selling flippers and masks, snorkels and their cylinders and such and everything that goes with it … and that went on for quite a few years … 5 or 6 years’. (DS interview) With the growth of leisure activities there had been a successful exploitation of new opportunities but, in later decades, it had been harder to compete.
By 2012, retail prospects had changed rather more than the premises at 54-56 Fossgate. Two of the shop fronts dated to the 1950s and the third was older. In fact, the relatively unchanged nature of the premises was both an asset and a liability. Shop window display, counter service, and the associated storage of most goods in drawers and on shelves was a lingering reminder of what had been commonplace when the business started, and not uncommon even in the 1970s. The popular ITV television series Heartbeat (IMDB, 2018), set in the 1960s, used the shop for filming in 2002 because it offered a period setting for one episode (The Press, 2002). Similarly, some customers enjoyed the authentically old-fashioned retail experience. ‘We could have modernized, but we kept the museum effect because the tourists like it and customers like it. A lot of people have told us not to change it, he said’ (The Press, 2012).
Although nostalgia can be effective both as a marketing strategy and a distinguishing feature for some retailers, it is not a panacea. Circumstances were changing for the practical everyday retailing that had made the shop successful. ‘The trading in the town has dropped dramatically over the years. I mean I’ve seen it. We’ve got quite a lot of tourists in, but they don’t really spend anything. These out-of-town places, they’re giving me a real bashing’ (DS Interview).
Behind the Scenes
Supporting the counter-based retail areas had been the largely-unchanged upstairs rooms. Where there had once been three separate premises, there was now a continuous link between the upper stories of 54, 55 and 56 Fossgate. Storage, there and in the cellars, was important because retail display space was limited and some items were seasonal so needed to be brought out or put away as circumstances demanded.
The emphasis in these ‘backstage’ areas was utility and shelving was often made from whatever was available – a trend that went back to the original owner who at one time had described himself as a joiner. ‘I mean he never served any time; his joinery work is still … in evidence … and I don’t think he’d have made a living as a joiner’ (DS interview).
After so many years of trading, several display items had been put by for potential advertising use at some future date – even if that was never realized.
Short term and long term perspectives
The York Army & Navy Stores had been a successful supplier of workwear over the years but that market changed with the decline of manufacturing jobs, health and safety legislation, and direct competition from manufacturers for end-user sales. Reduced footfall along the Fossgate and the attractions of out-of-town and online shopping were additional problems. With the imminent retirement of the youngest grandson as catalyst, the business was closing in 2012. In spite of the difficult trading conditions, there were hopes of finding a clothing retailer to take over the premises but these efforts were to fail. Almost inevitably, in the eyes of local residents, a new bar and restaurant (Sutler’s) was to open there (The Press, 2014, 2015a). It is easy to understand and sympathize with adverse local reactions (The Press, 2015b). Something familiar, even if little used, was to be lost. The question of what 54-56 Fossgate was to become took longer to answer and, reflecting changed times, it was to become Sutler’s bar/restaurant. Some questioned the need for more bars and restaurants on a street where such ventures were already well represented.
However, even with a 93 year old business, such adverse reactions represent the perspective from a single point in history. Over time, the premises at 54-56 Fossgate had actually been the home to many different enterprises – including being part of a substantial local property portfolio and indications that rooms above one of the shops were let out.
In the public announcement of closure, there were voices of concern about the number of bars, cafés and restaurants already in the area but adapting to consumer markets that emerge has been part of a continuous cycle for these premises for more than 200 years. Undoubtedly there would have been some adverse reactions to any of those changes of use in earlier decades. However, there is a twist in this change of use from shop to bar/restaurant.
In this closure, it is not simply the replacement of one enterprise with another. Quite starkly, we see different representations of the past – from the simply old-fashioned, a survival of the past into the present, to the re-imagined past – ‘involving as it does a contemporary orientation towards the past rather than just the survival of old things’ (Wright, 1985, 229). The new bar/restaurant, Sutler’s, contrived to look old and well-established in the 54-56 Fossgate premises – much older than the shop fronts it replaced. The new bar/restaurant façade could be Victorian but the interior was anachronously described as being themed on the 1920s and 1930s. The original counter and some decorative drawer fronts added a sense of indeterminate age and an imagined location. Oddly, considering the austerity of Second World War food rationing, it was reported that ‘Sutlers’ menu evokes wartime. It is designed like a ration book and has a section called Officers Mess featuring dishes such as sirloin steak, rump of lamb and Yorkshire beef, with prices from £13 to £23 for main courses’ (The Press, 2015a).
Commercial ventures had come and gone in 54, 55 and 56 Fossgate but the Army and Navy premises had been there so long it became a well-known reference point in this part of York. As David Storey said, ‘Even if we sell the shop, people will [still] say “On the Army and Navy Store’s corner” ’ (DS interview). Perhaps that will be true while memories last but, in this transition from the genuinely old fashioned to the fashionably aged, ‘sometimes the authentic trace of history is precisely what just has to go’ (Wright, 1985, 231).
1 In addition to the recorded interviews, photography and traditional library searches, the British Newspaper Archive (https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ ) was used to search for references to Fossgate.
2 Although stock is generically described as army surplus it is better described as military surplus. In later years most of the stock was manufactured for the retail trade.
Historic England (n.d.). https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1257826 (accessed 2 September 2018).
IMDB (2018). Heartbeat. URL https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101114/ (accessed 28 July 2018).
Stevens’ Directory of York and Neighbourhood (1885). London: George Stevens.
The Press (2002). Heartbeat star draws crowds. 9 July. Available at: http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/7923858.Heartbeat_star_draws_crowds/ (accessed 2 September 2018).
The Press (2012). Army & Navy Stores up for sale after 93 years. 5 May. Available at: http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/9691041.Army___Navy_Stores_up_for_sale_after_93_years/ (accessed 2 September 2018).
The Press (2014). Famous York shop to become brasserie, bar and coffee house. 14 April. Available at: http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/11147727.Famous_York_shop_to_become_brasserie__bar_and_coffee_house/ (accessed 2 September 2018).
The Press (2015a). York’s former Army and Navy Stores transformed into new bar and restaurant. 28 March. Available at: http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/11886860.Yorks_former_Army_and_Navy_Stores_transformed_into_new_bar_and_restaurant/ (accessed 2 September 2018).
The Press (2015b). LETTERS: York city centre doesn’t need any more bars or restaurants. 5 December. Available at: http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/14125890.LETTERS__York_city_centre_doesn_t_need_any_more_bars_or_restaurants/ (accessed 2 September 2018).
White’s Directory of York and Neighbourhood (7th edition) (1895) Sheffield: William White Ltd.
Wright, P. (1985). On Living in an Old Country. London: Verso.
Phil Lyon is Affiliate Professor in the Department of Food and Nutrition at Umeå University in Sweden. His long-standing research interest is in food and social change and publications include the advent of food broadcasting and the early days of food journalism; the transition from small food shops to supermarkets; the historical impact of the canned food industry; current and historical discourses on cooking skills, and picnics in the 1930s.
David Kinney has been working as a professional photographer and educator for more than 20 years. In education he has taught on highly successful photography degree programmes in the UK and in Russia. Professionally, he has worked with major companies as well as small and medium size businesses with commissions ranging from jewellery and food to the commercial, industrial and architectural. Focusing on conservation of the built environment, many projects explore our architectural heritage from ancient Rome to post war modernist iconic structures. At present he works between Andalucia in Spain and the UK.