Bygones: Wem's Union Building - was this Shropshire's first purpose built shopping arcade?

Reporter:

Barrie White

We make a return to Wem for this week’s Bygones page.

If you look across the road from the Computer Factory (formerly the Black Lion Inn) in Wem High Street, the full side of St Peter and St Paul’s Church will be visible with the war memorial set in a wide grassed area. However, this was not always so.

Before 1831, the area between the High Street and the churchyard was occupied by a row of houses and shops with a much narrower graveyard area between them and the church. Iris Woodward in The Story of Wem noted that the many of the houses had passageways that led under the road, connecting their cellars to those of the shops opposite.

The tops of the arches from the filled-in tunnels are still visible in the cellars on the north side of the road.

The houses were poorly maintained, so some prominent businessmen, led by the rector, formed a Wem Improvement Society, bought them and in the early 1830s, demolished them and erected a row of eight shops known as the Union Buildings.

In those days, the northern end of Mill Street was very narrow, with the church wall on one side and with shops and offices on the other – probably only leaving room for one stagecoach at a time to drive through.

Many different traders used the shops during their 110-year existence, though few 19th century records exist as to who occupied which shop.

One such example is the 1771 census, which lists Edwin Freeman (watchmaker), plus a bookseller, a clogger, two butchers and a smallware dealer.

In 1899, an advertisement shows a grocer and tobacconist called Pattysons in the Union Building (modestly described as ‘the noted shop in Wem’), but does not specify the unit occupied. After the Great War, premises were named or numbered in almanacs and business directories, and identification of premises usage became easier.

One example of this was the annual publication of Strongs the Printers, whose shop was opposite the Union Buildings. In it, houses were listed in street order by number, together with their occupants, making it easy to identify where businesses were located.

In 1925, the nearest shop to Mill Street, No 51, was occupied by Francis Taylor, a watchmaker and silversmith from at least 1890 and by Challinor and Bailey, the jewellers, from 1925 to 1938. Their shop entrance lay on the corner of Mill Street and the High Street, with a narrow pavement in front of it. Hairdresser Harry Taylor used the upstairs floor for his business.

Though some cars were being used at the time, few people in the 1930s would worry about crossing the road to reach the shop. Today, such a crossing involves taking your life in your hands. By 1941, the business was run by Samuel Bailey and had moved to 21, High St.

In 1925, Number 53 was being used by Mrs Bowen, a ‘smallware dealer’, selling tea and dinner sets. After that it had a number of short-term tenants, including Ellis’ Stores and later, in 1938, by the Urban and Rural Milk Office.

This was run by Captain Harry Strong MC, a WW1 hero and son of Thomas Strong the printer. By 1941, Capt. Strong was in charge of both the Milk Office and the Employment Exchange which had moved to 17 Aston Street.

Numbers 55-59 were operated as one unit. George Evans (later William Evans) bought at least part of the site in the 19th century and his grocery and tobacconist’s shop was there from 1890 until around 1934, when Colin Wright took it over.

When Wrights left in about 1942, they moved to 11 High Street and opened Wem’s first superette, while number 61 appears to have been vacant through much of the 20th century, though Percy Edgerton, cycle agent used it from 1926 to 1930.

The end building, number 63 was a boot and shoe repair shop, run by the Matthews brothers for most of the period between the two world wars.

By 1941, the only shops occupied were those of used by Wrights. The council acquired the site for a road widening scheme and in 1943, demolished the buildings thus opening up the church frontage and allowing Mill Street to be widened to enable larger vehicles to turn into the High Street.

This worked for a time.

Unfortunately, vehicles have got larger and even more numerous – a 2014 survey recorded over 10,000 vehicles a day using the junction.

Damage to the church wall got more frequent and in 2016 more of the corner was ‘shaved’ to allow articulated lorries to squeeze round. Despite this, damage still occurs.

The steps to the memorial continued to be on the increasingly dangerous corner of Mill Street. To alleviate this, the Wem Civic Society raised money to install new steps on the High Street side and also commissioned two ornamental lamps – designed and produced by the internationally renowned local artist Anthony Robinson. These were installed in 1993.

n As part of the Society’s historical activities, it is collecting information on the people and buildings on this site. If any reader can help, please contact on wemcivsoc@yahoo.co.uk

Email:

barrie.white@nwn.co.uk

See full story in the Whitchurch Herald

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