From this end of retail history it’s in some ways quite surprising that the old department stores of Kensington High Street lasted as long as they did. I can remember the giant of the High Street, Barker’s carrying on as though it would never end, but now the building is dominated by the Whole Food store and another part of it is about to be colonised by Gap. Derry and Toms is memorialised in the Roof Garden (the Virgin flags fly from the rooftop), and Pontings has vanished completely. Those three were the main names of genteel shopping in Kensington but there was another name still remembered by veteran consumers – Pettits. Much smaller than Barker’s or Derry and Toms, a little smaller than Ponting’s, we passed by it in a previous post on the Promenade when I said we would return. So here we are in October 1977 for a last look around at numbers 191-195.
The closing down sale is in full swing at the time of this picture, October 1977.
Inside, business looks steady rather than brisk. Perhaps the best items had already gone. As the displays are picked over by shoppers the place starts to look a bit untidy. My wife and her mother paid a visit to the sale about this time. My wife bought a purple dressing gown at half-price which she used for a number of years. I asked her if the place did look a bit of a mess at the time and she says it did.
An empty unit which formerly held a selection of Pretty Polly tights. A woman stares at the photographer.
The shop had four floors. If they had been a lift you could have heard the announcement: Household linens and curtains.
This is how it looked.
The department was also looking a bit thin.
On the back of this picture was written “Mrs White”. I assume she is the one behind the counter pointing out what’s left for the keen shopper leaning towards her.
Upstairs there is a bit more activity.
The scene looks old fashioned, and I ask myself, was that how things were in the late seventies? Am I projecting more recent memories of shopping back onto anothere era? Or was Pettits out of time even then? I was talking about Pettits with one of my colleagues and she discovered this bit of reminiscence:
“Petit’s clerical department was extremely outdated. It was the last shop still using a system of receipts for customers transported by overhead wires. The cashier sat in a sort of overhead balcony. The sales assistant made out a bill and sent it by pulleys and wires to the cashier, who kept one copy and stamped the other “Paid” as a receipt for the customer, and gave the necessary change. This was all transported by wire and pulley back to the sales assistant on the ground floor, who then gave the customer her change and receipt. In the 1950’s this system had long become outdated in other stores. Most sales assistants at this time were also cashiers.” This comes from a book called “Cosy corners in depression and war: autobiography” by a woman called Joan Hughes which regretably we don’t have in stock. (It was found on a website devoted to wire and pneumatic cash sytems: http://www.cashrailway.co.uk which is well worth looking at if like me you can remember some of the odd systems which used to exist in large stores – I can remember the pneumatic system at Pontings but I’ve aslo seen it elsewhere.) The wire system is not visible in these pictures but nor do you see many tills (I think that’s one in the bottom left corner of the picture above.) It’s possible that some of the old methods for making payments and dispensing change lingered on into “modern” times. (Somehow I can’t quite consign the 70s to the historical past even though I know many people who weren’t even born then.)
Our photographer sneaked upstairs into the office, where there is also a distinct lack of business machines.
I can remember rooms like this, desks jumbled together, piles of in-trays, filing cabinets and barely a hint of the technological revolution that would sweep through offices in the decades ahead. As I said in the Promenade post the upstairs floors of buildings in Kensington High Street were full of rooms like this one and the traditional office was still alive.
By the beginning of 1978 Pettis was about the go under the hammer.
The Survey of London records Pettits’ period of trading as 1890-1978, just short of 90 years. But before they occupied the whole corner. Alfred Pettit, drapers, just had number 193. I think this may be a picture of the first shop, which I tracked back in Kelly’s Directory as far as 1888 although it may go further.
This gentleman could be Alfred Pettit himself with his wife.
Pettits seems to have expanded into the larger premises in the early 1900s just in tine for a reatil boom. The 1920s and 30s were the peak for the shops of Kensington High Street. This page is probably from a 1930s brochure.
Or is it later? The prices might be a clue.
This picture shows a celebration for 50 years of trading which would take us to roughly the same period, probably the late 1930s.
Happier times for Pettits. But unlike other larger establishments the building is now home to a single store – a branch of Waterstone’s. So you can still go there now and browse through the books, (something I’d much rather do than look for curtain material, but that’s just me), and imagine the shoppers of the past.
Kelly’s Kensington Direcory 1903: 191 Pettit A W draper and furrier. 193 Pettit A W, milliner and ladies outfitter.
Forgive me for a little uncertainty with some of the pictures. The pictures of Mr and Mrs Pettit were not labelled as such but it was recorded that the originals were loaned by the company so photos could be taken. I would welcome any comments/information from former staff or shoppers. My special thanks to Maggie Tyler, an assiduous researcher as always. I haven’t exhausted the topic of the shops of Kensington High Street so we’ll certainly be back here again.