It all started with a man who wasn’t always renowned for his customer service.
When a female shopper once complained to store manager John Atkinson that she could not find a hat to suit, he replied by declaring the problem “must be your face, madam, not my stock”.
Yet, clearly, this straight-talking Yorkshireman knew something about retail.
For the little Sheffield drapery he set up more than 140 years ago is not just still thriving today, it has become the city’s only independent department store and one of the biggest family-owned shops in the UK.
Atkinsons – founded in a single unit in The Moor in 1872 – today has 36 departments and four restaurants spread across 75,000 sq ft of trading floor. Clothes, furniture, electronics and toys can all be bought here.
Now, a new book released this week records the definitive history of this landmark outlet.
It charts everything from the day John Atkinson – a one-time Cole Brothers sales assistant – opened the place to the shop’s 21st century future at the heart of The Moor’s current regeneration.
In between, shoppers and staff recall the building’s destruction during the Blitz, the opening of the current store in 1960 and, er, the time a baby crocodile was let loose. That was the Thirties. The animal escaped during an in-store zoo display. “We found it dead in the lift shaft,” notes Sidney Wright, the store’s electrician’s assistant at the time.
A small chapter is also devoted to Muffin The Mule, the children’s ride first installed in 1950 and still working today – for the original 2p charge.
“Atkinsons is more than a Sheffield shop, it’s a Sheffield legend,” says author Neil Anderson. “You don’t speak to many Sheffielders who haven’t shopped in there at some point. It’s a destination venue. I just felt it was about time its history was recorded.”
That history, then, started with John Atkinson – whose great grandson Nicholas is now director – arriving in the city in 1865.
An ambitious young man from North Yorkshire, he spent several years working as an assistant at Cole Brothers before, aged just 26, setting up his drapery in South Street – the old name of The Moor.
“He was young and with hardly any capital,” says Neil, who has written more than a dozen other tomes on Sheffield history. “But what he lacked in cash and maturity, he made up for with entrepreneurial drive.
“He specialised in hosiery, ribbons and lace. It wasn’t anything that couldn’t be bought anywhere else but he hoped his enthusiasm would win support.”
Seven years after opening the store made the first of what would be several expansions into neighbouring units. Atkinsons became more than a drapers. Here, fashion, furniture and other household items could all be bought. And by 1890 the owner was so confident of ongoing success, he knocked his row of units down in order to build a specialist super-store.
It was, boasted the adverts from the 1902 opening, fully electrified inside.
“We’ve always innovated,” says Nicholas Atkinson, who has been fully involved with researching the book. “That was an early example.”
Certainly, reacting innovatively to circumstance is something the store has often done – not least when the building was destroyed during the Blitz in 1940.
“It was completely razed to the ground,” notes Nicholas.
By then old John Atkinson was gone, having passed away aged 84 in 1929. But his two sons, Harold and Walter, improvised impressively. The question they faced was a tough one: how does a store survive when it has no store? Their answer was to set up several temporary shops in disused buildings and rooms across the city.
St Jude’s Church in Milton Street became the headquarters. A kiosk was taken outside the railway station. And various departments were opened in places such as the semi-blitzed Central Cinema and even a spare room in The Star and Telegraph Building.
Which was, incredibly, how the business operated until 1960. That was the year – a full two decades after the bombs had fallen – a new proper store finally opened.
“It starts a new era in city shopping,” this newspaper declared on the first day. “It is a tall white building erected by one of the most up-to- date methods – believed to have been used in Sheffield for the first time.”
The new restaurant was especially impressive. It served something called a brunch, we reported: “a combination of breakfast and lunch which consists of bacon, eggs and sausage”.
That store is the one which still stands today. And while it has not faced anything like German bombs, it has survived and thrived in the face of other potential problems such as the opening of Meadowhall and the global recession.
That it has done so means it has become the only independent department store in Sheffield. Others – including Cole Brothers and Cockaynes – have all been taken over or closed down.
“When Meadowhall opened in 1900 I did an interview with Look North,” says Nicholas, who lives in Dore. “They said The Moor would not exist in five years. I said ‘We will wait and see’.”
Atkinsons responded to the challenge with a £1 million facelift in 1992 followed by another £1 million makeover in 2000.
Now, with the current regeneration of this part of the city, including the new market opening this week, the family is confident their store will continue to thrive in the future.
“We are aware of the rise of internet shopping and are addressing this,” says Nicholas.
“However, we feel that we can offer the public something very special when they visit our store.
“We are a niche retailer in a very cloned high street. Quality, value and service were implicit in my great grandfather’s business and that same ethos remains today.”
The Story Of Atkinsons Of Sheffield available in The Star shop now £9.95.
Sheffielders remember Atkinsons...
Nellie Bennett: “I’ve worked at a number of the city’s shops over years gone by including Walsh’s and Redgates. The original Atkinsons shop which was destroyed was one of my favourites. I remember the Christmas grotto they used to have where Santa would arrive by train. They’d also have an orchestra and Saturday afternoon tea dance.”
Donna Jackson Shillito: “I remember hanging out in the coffee bar with my mates in the early 1980s. It was cooler than the Wimpy on Fargate. Very exotic for that time.”
Deborah Muff-Rose: “It was my nana’s favourite shop. She took me and my sister every Saturday for a milkshake and, at Whitsuntide, she took us there and bought us matching outfits so we could join the parade though Meersbrook Park. Lovely memories.”
Just how well respected Atkinsons was can be seen in an astonishing occurrence in the aftermath of the Blitz.
The store was completely razed to the ground during the German bombing of 1940. Not only was all the stock lost; so too were the shop’s ledgers recording which customers owed what while paying on credit.
“It was assumed the money they were owed had gone up in smoke,” explains Neil Anderson who has written the definitive history of the store. “In fact what happened was that within three months, 80 per cent of all that money had been paid back voluntarily.
“It was an amazing show of honesty and loyalty by the customers.”