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Material from Wills, transcribed by Jacky Lawrence, 2007

Wills Department Store - a history

Photograph of Wills Shop taken February 2008
Wills Shop 2008

In 1922 Mr Percy and Mrs Helen Wills first ventured out into trading in a modest shop in Park Road, Rushden at a weekly rent of £1, including house and rates. At this time they specialised in ladies fashions. Mr. Wills, who worked in a boot factory, had built up useful connections in a spare-time business selling ladies shoes. He realised his wife had shrewd judgement, taste and interest in dress and a gift for dealing with people. It was during the first years at Park Road that the shop began the P.W. fashion show. They were extremely popular and the one held in 1948 at the Windmill Hall, at a time when clothes were rationed, attracted two thousand people.

Photograph of Percy Wills Photograph of Helen & Percy Wills Photograph of Helen Wills
Percy Wills
Helen & Percy Wills
Helen Wills

Fashion Shop invoice
Fashion Shop invoice

Results of the Park Road venture in shoes and dresses encouraged them in their dream of a real ‘Fashion Shop’. Even so it required courage after some years to take over the large premises on the corner of High Street and Newton Road which had just undergone complete modernisation. Mr. Wills' dream was to have a business a little different from the ordinary, offering quality and smartness for moderate prices. The idea was successful and the fashion side of the business grew very quickly and soon lingerie and hats were added to the shoes, coats, dresses and gloves. The shoe side of the business receded and eventually shoes were phased out altogether. In 1936 the Wellingborough shop was opened, followed in 1938 by one in Kettering. [Fashion show 1949]

21st Birthday Advertisement rescued from old newspaper article
21st Birthday Advert
To celebrate it's 21st birthday on 6th February 1954, the shop offered girls, whose 21st birthday also fell on the same date, the opportunity to walk into a Wills’ store and claim a pair of free nylons. By now the firm was called P. W. Wills & Sons and the younger son, David, was working as an assistant buyer. ‘The first time I went out to buy,’ said Mrs Wills at the time, ‘was to get five coats which had all been ordered. That was in the Park Road days, now we buy in thousands.’ In the first nine months of trading at the Corner Shop they worked from eight o’clock in the morning until half past two the next morning. Mrs Wills often did the buying after the shop closed at seven in the evening as she had a family to bring up during the day. It was not unknown for her to still be there at midnight. Mr. Wills commented that many a time in the early days there was a long queue of people on the stairs waiting to be served until nine pm. Staff were there until eleven at night altering coats, dresses and millinery. They had their time made up later but it showed the marvellous spirit of the staff. Mrs Wills regarded her first fashion show as the occasion she supplied costumes for a play at the Co-operative Hall.

Taken from a cutting in a local newspaper

Customers and staff forgot about purchases and sales at a Rushden showroom on Saturday afternoon. Taking their eyes off spring outfits, they gave eager attention to a petite and smiling young lady who came forward to a microphone and spoke about a birthday. For the dark eyed lady – film star Jane Griffiths - the visit to the store was a pleasant break from the hard routine of the Pinewood Studios where she had been working on Friday. Jane made her little speech, accepted a bouquet of carnations and freesias from two small, grave looking girls (pictured right) and then handed large be-ribboned boxes to several people. The birthday that Jane mentioned was the 21st anniversary of the P. W. Wills corner shop. Loudest applause during the prize giving was for Mr. Bates, a cabinet maker, who by studying fashions in the windows had won a smart suit for his wife. Miss Griffiths had motored down from London with her husband, Mr. Gerald Nichols, whom she married last August. It was their first visit to Northamptonshire and during a luncheon at Kettering they learned with surprise that Jane’s first starring picture ‘The Million Pound Note’, in which she appears with Grgory Peck would be showing at Kettering this week.

Photograph showing Jane Griffiths accepting the bouquet

An early letterhead Later style of letterhead Very different design of letterhead
Various letterheads used over the years

After the Council’s decision to make the High Street and Rectory Road one way and the work had been undertaken, Mr. Wills noticed how shabby and dull the lower part of Newton Road was. As a result the first major extensions were carried out in 1961 and 1962 with new shop fronts and an opening out of the interior. Sadly, Mrs Helen Wills died while the alterations were in progress so did not live to see the smart new frontage and interiors. The main High Street doorway, on the corner of the High Street and Newton Road, was the focal point of the store and by then it was difficult to believe that the shop had once been three shops and a house.

Outside of shop (Newton Road) after the 1962 refit  Inside the shop after the 1962 refit
Left- outside after 1962 refit. Right - inside

In 1969 a major step was taken when the company became a member of Associated Independent Stores, the largest independent buying group in the country. Major structural work was carried out in 1974 with selling space being nearly doubled in Newton Road. Now, with David Wills as the Managing Director, 1984 saw the celebration of Wills’ 50th anniversary and by then it had expanded to cater for a wider range of taste and needs including a hardware department. Customers were offered a first class service and all the assistants were trained to know about the business and to offer advice. The following year space was acquired behind the store in Newton Road and made into a car park. Refurbishment of the first floor fashion department was undertaken in 1985 and 1986 and the ground floor refurbishment in the spring of 1987. In 1986 after the death of David Wills, who was the Managing Director, the Kettering branch closed.

Details from a Wills' advertising leaftlet

Since celebrating our 50th anniversary last year, Wills have started a programme of improvements to help us to serve you better. Outside you’ll notice a smart new exterior and we have acquired a car park behind the store which can be reached from Newton Road. Inside we have recently refixtured our hosiery departments (picture left) and we now offer a large range of the latest fashion styles. On the first floor our new fashion department provides much more space and a larger selection of dresses and stylish co-ordinates than we have previously been able to offer. Back on the ground floor you can also treat your house to a new look from our comprehensive range of ready made curtains which are available from stock for as little as £7.99 per pair. Just arrived in our linen department (picture right) is an exclusive range of bedwear and towels from the ‘First Impressions’ collection for those who are looking for quality and value. Whilst for the kitchen we have attractive ranges of co-ordinating merchandise in red or brown. So if you’re searching for a brighter look this summer why not start at Wills!

Photograph of David & Jean Wills 50th birthday advertisement 1983 Christmas money voucher
David & Jean Wills
50th Birthday
1983 Money Voucher

The closure of the Kettering branch gave the management the opportunity to expand and improve the original Rushden store. The shop front was completely renovated in early 1990 and in mid 1990 the lease on the adjacent George Allan property expired and the company acquired the property adding another 850 square feet of store space. This area was connected to the existing store by a feature staircase and the new ‘Wills for Men’ was created. In 1996 the founders’ grandsons John and Richard decided to re-launch the shoe department and it was opened in March 1999 in the newly acquired premises next door in the High Street, formerly Horsley‘s Pet Shop.

Photograph of John Wills, grandson of Percy & Helen During the 1999 refit of the shop The new shoe shop opened March 1999 Photograph of Richard Wills, grandson of Percy & Helen
John Wills
1999 refit
The New Shoe Department
Richard Wills

The extensive refurbishments made over the years have enabled Wills' to expand their range and their continuing story is one of progress and extension and today P. W. Wills & Sons is still a successful major commercial presence in the middle of Rushden.

In September 2010 Wills' went into Liquidation.

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