The extravagant Sheffield shop that was a destination for a day out

When John Walsh's palatial new store opened its grand doors on High Steet, Sheffield, in 1899 it was much more than just a shop. Because for a lot of people it was home - literally.

Back in those days workers lived above the shop, in four four floors of bedrooms with facilities for more than 10 staff above the salerooms.

And Walshs was no ordinary store - it had cost an extravagant £60,000, covered 3.5 acres of sales space, had thick luxurious carpets throughout , mahogany counters and brass fixtures.

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It took grandeur to a whole new level - interior walls had been rejected and columns used in their place and it was said that every counter was placed in such a position that they all received natural light.

The outside sounded just as impressive - a 173ft glass frontage and 200ft long glass covered arcade along Mulberry Street.

And it sold plenty for the discerning shopper - clothing, fancy goods, furniture, patent medicines, stationery, cutlery, books and, even, oriental goods. There were cloakrooms for women, a writing room and a restaurant selling coffee all day.

All in all, more like a destination for a day out rather than a place you nipped into for a quick shop.

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But tough times lay ahead, the depression of the 1920s hit trade badly and in 1931 the Wash board asked 'whether we are not catering for too high a class of trade in the present conditions'.

So, presumably in search of shoppers on a more modest budget, a special fixed menu was introduced in the restaurant.

Walshs weather the economic storm but a bigger threat lay on the horizon and in December 1940 the handsome High Street store was completely gutted during the blitz.

Walshs moved to temporary premises within weeks but the store - taken over by Harrods of London in 1946 - was back on High Street by May 1953.

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It was unveiled by Lord Mayor Peter Buchanan who pressed the button to start the shiny pink and sycamore escalator of the new store.

Guests, it was reported, sipped champagne in the buffett of the unfinished second floor of the store after the opening ceremony.

And their comment was universally favourable - Mistress Cutler Lady West even said: "I have never seen any store quite as lovely as this in any provincial city. It is really just like London."

But in January 1967 work started on a massive rebuilding programme - the store, by now part of House of Fraser, had to be completely reshaped to fit in with the new High Street development.

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They didn't hang around and by March 1968 the new Walshs store was being unveiled (again).

A recurring theme when looking back over the history of Sheffield city centre and its shops is that some things never change.

And a report on the grand reopening of the store could have been written about the city centre today as it emerges from the Covid pandemic.

It said: "Sheffield town planners and architects have been working towards the creation of a city centre to provide facilities for the day and night life of its population."

This time, with Heart of the City II, let's hope they get it right.

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