diamond geezer

 Saturday, November 24, 2012

It ought to be a quiz question. Where was Britain's first Tesco?

Answer? The first Tesco store was in London, but probably not anywhere you're expecting. It was in Burnt Oak.
Quick, before you reveal your geographical ineptitude, Burnt Oak's located where Barnet meets Harrow meets Brent. On the A5, that's Watling Street, between Hendon and Edgware. One stop past Colindale on the Northern line, one station before the end of the line. Some of these facts will turn out to be important. Now back to today's post.
The man behind Tesco was Jack Cohen, a former soldier from the East End. After WWI, he spent his demob money buying surplus NAAFI groceries, then sold them on in local markets. His initial plan was to visit a different market each day of the week, and the first he picked was Well Street Market in South Hackney. He set a few goods out on a table and they were soon snapped up - sold for £4, of which £1 was profit. Gradually his business grew, sucking in non-family members, eventually diversifying into an own brand tea. The TES in Tesco comes from TE Stockwell, the merchant who supplied Jack with that tea, and the CO comes from Cohen, Jack's surname. Small roots.

Well Street barely has a market any more. Maybe a couple of stalls at the weekend, but don't bother looking midweek. Well Street's now a minor shopping street for the estates of South Hackney, a pair of parades topped off with two storeys of flats. You'd come here to use the laundrette, grab a Caribbean takeaway or buy a Percy Ingle pastie. Maybe dragging your shopping basket behind you, maybe parking up your car outside the Post Office. The mixed bag of shops includes some proper independent stores, like A.G. Price the florists or the delights of Blanks Wallpapers. But the Pie and Mash shop appears to have ceased trading relatively recently, and one of the two pubs in the centre of the road now stands empty. Perhaps we could blame Well Street's decline on the supermarket that's arisen at the far end, a squat brick superstore with an abundance of groceries stacked inside. It's a Tesco, obviously - a Tesco Metro open all hours even when the other local traders aren't. And yet those who aren't direct competition survive, perhaps spurred on by the footfall a medium-sized supermarket brings. It's no comfort to the departed market traders hereabouts, but there is something hugely appropriate about Jack's retail legacy lingering so close the site of his first sale. [photo]

And so to Burnt Oak. In common with much of Middlesex suburbia this used to be all fields, although the presence of a turnpike road helped a minor settlement to grow up. In the 1870s there was just one shop, by the turn of the century a few more, but nothing of any importance until the railways came. The arrival of the Northern line in 1924 inspired the London County Council to build a large estate for the rehousing of slum dwellers in Islington. This was the Watling Estate, built across Goldbeaters Farm, and a fresh clutch of shops were needed to serve the growing population. The first opened up by the Broadway, eventually stretching in a long parade down to the fledgling station. And it was to Burnt Oak that Jack Cohen turned his gaze when seeking to open his very first store. "Tesco Stores Ltd The Modern Grocers" said the sign on the shopfront, while the window was stacked high with pyramids of tinned goods and packets of Tesco Tea.

There's no Tesco at number 9 Watling Avenue today. Instead numbers 9 and 10 are home to Superdrug, the chain who moved in when Tesco moved out. They've got a prime spot by the bus stop, and a window display advertising half price Christmas offers on hair products. A tiny stack of shopping baskets sits by the door, by the look of them thirty years old, before the main store opens out ahead. It's four aisles wide, with bland white walls and a suspended ceiling, clearly much redeveloped from the original 1931 decor. No packs of own brand tea here, but plenty of lipsticks, cough sweets and disinfectant. I bought myself a toothbrush, as a simple souvenir, and the sales ladies at the checkout were charming. [photo]

The parade of shops down the hill survives, even thrives, although more with discount stores than anything too upmarket. Superdrug itself is sandwiched between a clothes shop and a continental food store, the latter much more varied than the first Tesco ever was. And no, they didn't go far, just a couple of hundred yards round the corner onto Burnt Oak Broadway. Again the Tesco School of Architecture has built an ugly but functional cuboid, in sharp contrast to the former Co-Op across the road (once described as their "finest department store"). This Tesco is eight aisles wide, stretching back all the way to the car park, and considerably easier to push a trolley around. As Jack's empire has grown, so has his very first store, but I doubt that many in Burnt Oak realise the significance of their weekly shop.

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