Abandoned corner shop frozen in time in Plymouth

It’s an odd relationship we have with our local corner shop. You probably see the shopkeeper more than some members of family.

Conversations are different. You encourage them to have a good day as you leave the store, but do you ever check if that day was actually good?

Most of us will have a memory of first spending pocket money as a child, and chances are it was a walk down your street to buy sweets from the local.

Long before ‘the local’ would grow to mean something else for you.

But if you really look back, as you’re extending your arm towards the vendor with pennies in your hand, can you picture who you’re paying?

You might recall that you bought a can of Coke, a bag of Wotsits, a pack of Fruittella and got change from a pound.

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You might even remember getting a shiny Alan Smith in a Leeds kit from a pack of football stickers.

However, it’s not too likely that you remember the person serving you. That’s fine, it’s just a bit of an obstacle here.

One Holdsworth Street is a building I’ve walked past countless times and have always wondered what it used to be.

At the end of a symmetrical street, resembling the home of Gwen and Bryn on Barry Island, is this one empty building.

Argyle fans and travelling supporters of away teams have probably seen it on journeys to and from Home Park. Too absorbed by the big fixture to notice, maybe.

It’s a popular cycling and walking route into town and must’ve turned a few heads along the way. One pair of eyes in particular asked us if we knew anything.

Approaching Holdsworth Street from Central Park

Of course not, but I’ve seen it. It’s a perfect spot to grab a cold drink and a pasty after the football, or a day chilling at Central Park.

So, how is it empty? And more interestingly, why does it look like it’s been empty for years?

I popped along for a browse and to annoy some residents. First port of call? Knock on its door. Obviously.

No answer, and number three’s green bin was in the doorway. What used to be the shop door is to the left. The house door is to the right. Both are connected.

I peeked through the letterbox of the right-side door. Not sure if I’m allowed to do that. Nothing much to report, leaflets on the floor and an old style telephone about three steps up on the staircase.

No need to peek on the left, there are lovely big glass windows. Perfect for showing off produce.

Leaflets also covered this floor, which begs the question, who is posting leaflets into a building which is quite clearly empty?

The walls hold wooden shelves which seem to be from a time gone by. As does the counter. A ladder and some other evidence of DIY suggests at one point, the plan was to reuse this place.

That point was not reached and many features remain. It’s like a museum.

Number one Holdsworth Street, once home to a local shop and unchanged for decades. Besides the green bin, that belongs to number three.

I thought I’d at least attempt to do my job, and speak with residents in order to see if they have any memories of this building. Even though it looked to have been empty for decades.

Door knocking isn’t easy in the current climate. Luckily for me, I was eased in by a man in blue overalls walking the street.

He was strolling past the old shop as I was loitering. “Excuse me, mate. Do you know anything about this place?” I said.

The gent replied: “You know, I was just thinking about it the other day actually.”

Not only did we share an interest in the old shop but we also share a name.

Pete has lived in the area for around 30 years and used to see an ‘old boy’ come out of the building for a smoke. That was until around 2005, when Pete thinks he sadly passed.

The ‘old boy’ had family who used to visit. Pete reckons the building was most recently used as ‘insurance or something’ which packed up around 1987.

He told me to knock for his neighbour who might know a bit more.

I knocked, introduced myself, then basically pointed at the empty shop and shrugged.

They didn’t want their name used, but one person aged 45 remembered it as a general shop when they were five-years-old.

Left door is the shop entrance and right is the house.

Another recalled the building as an estate agents but seemed confused. I suggested insurance and that seemed to fit.

“Complete something was its name.” She said.

I was happily passed on to another knowledgeable neighbour. All the while, maintaining social distancing, in case you’re wondering.

Contestant number three said: “It was a really friendly community grocery shop. Shame it had to shut.

“People in the street found it handy because it was so close. At one time, all the streets had one.

“They were a nice family. They had two boys, but I don’t know where they are now.”

She also suggested a surname. It matched the name on land registry documents for the property, dated 1979.

Given this property hasn’t been altered, maybe it’s of historical significance?

Who better to ask than the main man, local historian Brian Moseley.

He said: “Holdsworth Street seems to have only had one shop, at number one on the west side.

“In 1953 it was being run by a Mrs E. Derbyshire and in 1955 by a Mrs I. H. Birkett, when it was described as a grocers’.

“Before the War it was listed as a general shop run by a Mr William Charles Burt. The city was full of them, the well-known corner shop.

“What a shame it wasn’t run by a Mr Arkwright or a Mr Ronnie Barker!”

An old wooden counter and shop fittings still remain. Could it one day be restored?

“My initial thought when you asked the question was that I bet it didn’t do much business.

“However, further delving revealed that there was no other general shop or grocer in Central Park Avenue but there was one in Wake Street.

“Although it was off the main road, Central Park Avenue, the Postal Sorting Office was nearby so it may have got some business from postal workers.”

Brian’s suggested surnames didn’t match what the resident said, but his help is always welcomed.

I did speak with a fourth resident before leaving. She also mentioned two children, but said one son took the place over.

Could he have used it as an office for his business? Perhaps an insurance business? She didn’t know, but she does think about the building a lot.

She said: “We won’t park over there, the tiles are falling down and we don’t want our car to get hit.

“We would like the National Trust to buy it. It has the original original shop fittings.

“They could have a shop there, for them. I’m sure people here would run it.

“The street could use a shop like that. When Argyle are on they all come this way, maybe a little bakery would work.”

I agree, a bakery would work. I would be great to see this traditional corner shop back in use.

It seems maintenance may have been carried out during its most recent use, recalled by locals as possibly an independent insurance sales office.

The third person I spoke with mentioned how every street had its shop.

While that may have been a slight exaggeration, times were different and it seems it may have been easier for independent traders to survive.

Brian thinks the same. He said: “How did such shopkeepers remain in business? Because there was retail price maintenance.

“In other words there was no Tesco to undercut her prices. Her price for a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate was the same as everyone else.

“There was no advantage or disadvantage to going anywhere else. Happy days.”

Happy days indeed, Brian.

The name given by the resident I spoke with earlier was Clamp.

There was a glimmer of hope that one of those sons still lived in the city. I found out late on Friday that it wasn’t to be.

Do you remember this shop being open? Can you fill in the blanks? I’d love to hear from you if so: peter.chapman@reachplc.com

I’ve included further reading, in case that was a bit of a let down…

A time before Debenhams and Dingles

Spooner and Yeo newly completed in the construction of Royal Parade c1955
Spooner and Yeo newly completed in the construction of Royal Parade c1955

If your corner shop couldn’t provide everything you need, you probably popped into town. This was before supermarkets were destinations.

Former content editor Jon Bayley talks you through the early days of some of our city’s biggest stores.

“There was a time when Debenhams occupied the buildings either side of Bedford Way, one, to the west, formerly known as John Yeo’s, the other, Spooners.

Dingles grocery and provisions store at No.34 Westwell Street. No date

“Of the two, Yeo’s was the first to open, some 80 years after John Yeo had come to Plymouth and joined forces with Joseph Pillman, draper and milliner, at 35 Bedford Street, which was very near the new site.

“In 1893 he was joined by his nephew, John Beckley and the business stayed in the family until Edwin Beckley sold to Debenhams in 1964.

“Spooners, meanwhile were established by Joseph Spooner, in Whimple Street, in 1837, however while they too had had a pre-war presence in Bedford Street (dating back to 1858), they had been bought out by Debenhams in 1929.”

Read and see more here. Or, for those perhaps a bit younger, here’s a virtual shopping trip to your past.

Pennycomequick – One of Plymouth’s most peculiar names

Pennycomequick roundabout hasn't always been as busy as it is now
Pennycomequick roundabout hasn’t always been as busy as it is now (Image: Reach PLC)

Below Brian Moseley discussed the origins of Pennycomequick’s name on his website Old Plymouth.

“It will no doubt surprise many Plymothians to learn that Pennycomequick was originally a part of the ancient parish of Stoke Damerel and not a part of old Plymouth.

“The farm from which it took its name is shown on early ordnance survey maps as being opposite what is today an apartment block in Central Park Avenue, previously Cemetery Road.

“There are two claims as to the origin of the name.

“The most spurious is that is comes from a local saying that the toll house was so busy, being on the main road from Plymouth to Saltash, that the ‘pennies came quick’.

“That story has been encouraged no doubt by the fact that on the early ordnance survey maps the name of the farm is spelt as “Penny-Come-Quick”.

“However, the name predates the coming of the toll road or the toll houses. In fact, the name was in use in the middle of the 17th century.

“Thus the more reasonable derivation is from the Celtic/Cornish ‘Pen y cum gwik’ which translates as ‘at the head of the valley of the creek’.

“It does indeed stand at the head of Stonehouse Creek and the farm was only yards to the north of the stream that fed the creek.”

The old prison nearby

5 Russell Place remains behind an iron gate (Image: Erin Black/Plymouth Live)

Last year our video journalist Erin Black paid a visit to another old building nearby. This one didn’t sell apples and pears.

“Hiding behind a thick hedge, metres away from Pennycomequick roundabout, stands the gateway to what was one of the country’s most efficient prisons.

“Many people probably won’t have heard of Devonport Borough Prison in the 21st Century, but during its 27 year tenure between its construction in 1851 and closure in 1878 it was highly regarded up and down the country.

“Built at a time when Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport were three individual towns, the structure, which stretched all the way back to Central Park, cost £13,153, three shillings and seven pence to erect under the designs of Mr Piers St Aubyn.

“In modern day money that’s over £1 million.” Read more here.

Plymouth Live