Everybody knows of one of those shops which is filled with everything. The one which you go in for one thing and come out with a dozen more. Well, long before chain stores like B&M, Home Bargains and Wilkos dominated the streets of Leigh, the Victorian residents of the town could get all they ever wanted, and more, from Leigh Bazaar on Railway Road.

What’s in a Name: Leigh Bazaar or Cook’s Bazaar?

Throughout the 70+ years that Leigh Bazaar served the local community it was simultaneously known as both Leigh Bazaar and as Cook’s Bazaar. Any references to either is referring to the same building. It was built as Leigh Bazaar by its owner, Christopher Cook. Eventually his name was attributed to the shop and even to the street which runs along side it. The term ‘bazaar’ originates from the Persian word bāzār, which means an enclosed or covered market.

In the early-nineteenth century the word was adopted by Western Europeans, particularly in Britain and America, in correlation with their festishisation of Orientalism and all things Empire-related. The term bazaar could be used in the nineteenth century to describe a different kinds of retail experiences; an indoor market, a ‘charity bazaars’ (somewhat akin to car boot sales and craft fairs of modern times) and also to full buildings which offered different stock and services on different floors and levels; basically an early-department store.

Above: Leigh Bazaar, now known Best-In Best, built in 1880 on Railway Road, Leigh. You can still see the name of the original business carved in between the first and second floors. (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2021)

Leigh Bazaar was built in 1880 on Railway Road to designs by James Caldwell Prestwich (1852-1940). Prestwich, was born in Atherton into a family of bolt manufacturers, however he did not follow into the family profession and instead trained as an architect in London and he travelled around Holland and Belgium too. He moved to Leigh in 1875, so when he designed Leigh Bazaar he was just cutting his teeth, architecturally speaking. He had already designed the Lilford Hotel in a heavy gothic-revival style and he went on to design everything from the swimming baths, the Library and the Town Hall, to Leigh Infirmary, shops on Bradshawgate and houses on St. Helens Road and Hand Lane.

Today, Leigh Bazaar is one of those blink and you’ll miss it sort of buildings. Unless you look up above the shop window, you’d never notice it. Even still, if you did look up, you’d see a simple, unostentatious building, even though it was designed by a prominent local architect. The only ornamentation is some decorative terracotta panels and the carved name of the former shop. It may have been slightly fancier when it was first built, but the front has been altered several times. In 1892 it was substantially rebuilt, and I imagine this was to create the larger windows to let more light in and also to show off the goods to pedestrians. The ground floor shop front is the most altered part of the shop, as expected.

At the back of the Railway Road front was a much older, single-storey building. This was built c.1834 as a ropewalk, a place where material could be laid out being twisted into ropes and twine. By 1888 this building was eventually incorporated into the Bazaar, meaning it was 35 feet wide but 215 feet long! It was used as a furniture showroom.

Above: A picture taken of the back of the building from Cook Street, showing the ropewalks building which dates from c.1834 (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2021)

Inside Leigh Bazaar

Even though the façade of the building does not give much away, the inside of the shop would have been tantalising. Given the size of the building it had over 200 feet of counters inside. Leigh Bazaar would have been new and ground-breaking in Leigh at the time, and it predated the Co-Op stores on Bradshawgate by some 17 years. It would certainly have appealed to the middle-class population of the town, as its status as a bazaar meant was a step above the outdoor market where many people shopped, and it had more choice than many smaller independent shops. It was, in theory, supposed to be a controlled environment, where respectable shoppers, especially women could browse goods in a safe space.

However, Christopher Cook clearly recognised that his business would not survive if he did not make it somewhat accessible to the wider working-class population of Leigh and surrounding towns. Therefore, he decided not to charge customers an admission fee, like some other larger stores did at this time. His store sold everything and anything. He clearly played up to this in his advertisement strategy, using poetry, songs and repetition to draw the readers eye:

Above: An early advertisement for Leigh Bazaar (Source: Leigh Chronicle, 6 June 1884, p.4)

Cook even wrote a song about Leigh Bazaar which he had published in the Leigh Chronicle, week after week, month after month. The full song was 9 verses long, so here is just a sample with the chorus:

‘I was out for a walk, one fine sunny morn,
never dreaming of going so far,
when a friend said to me, let’s go down to Leigh,
and have a peep through the Leigh Bazaar

CHORUS: They do go, they will go,
You cannot keep them back,
For they find it the best place by far,
Their money to spend,
And their wants to supply
Down at the LEIGH BAZAAR’

Cook sold everything from furniture, bedding, ironmongery, drapery, crockery, hosiery, smallware, brushes, tinned goods, oils and paints. Like many shops at the time he offered a credit system (the tick) where his customers could purchase items but pay them off in weekly instalments. By 1888 the forward-thinking Cook also initiated a parcel delivery business for his customers, which included other businesses as well as the public. Any parcels under 14lbs would be delivered for 3d. and those under 56lbs for 6d. This allowed the average shopper to buy more than they could carry and thus, spend more money. He also boasted that he could have no more than 1000 customers in at once and that his sales started on 1st January and ended on 31st December.

Above: An amazing image showing the front of Cook’s Bazaar, c.1900. Less certainly was not more in these window displays, and we can clearly see the sort of decorative items they sold. (Source: Jonathan Coombes, Old Leigh Photographs, 2021)

Of course, some local residents were willing to take advantage of the free-entry into Leigh Bazaar and the fact the large scale of the building offered some secluded spots. In April 1884, 25 year old Elizabeth Ashurst entered Leigh Bazaar and stole: six boots, one cap, one shawl, one apron, two slates, two bottles of ink, one gross of buttons, three bags and two pieces of black lead. She then sold some of the items on to Alice Isherwood, aged 46, who knowingly knew the items had been pinched. The women were caught and sentenced at Liverpool Assizes court for theft. Isherwood received the lesser sentence of 3 months in prison with hard labour but Ashurst was given 12 months with hard labour. It appears Elizabeth Ashurst may have already embarked on a life of crime, though it is unknown whether she stole to make money so she could eek out a life for herself, or just for the thrill of it. In March 1882 she had served 14 days at HM Liverpool for stealing flannel. Later in June 1882 she was sentenced to 8 months for stealing boots from Wigan. In August 1885, shortly after being released from her Leigh Bazaar-related sentence she was back at Liverpool for 18 months for stealing a silk dolman and fur cape in Wigan.

The Cook Family

The business was the brainchild of Christopher Cook (1836-1901) but he could not have run the shop without the support of his family. Christopher was born in Preston and moved to Bolton in the mid-1860s and later to Leigh around 1870 where he set up a business on King Street as a clog and paraffin merchant, later adding ‘general dealer’ to his business too.

He married Isabella Lonsdale in 1859 and the couple had eight children: Alice (1859), Mary Anne (1861), Jane (1863), Isabella (1865), John (1867), Thomas (1870), William (1872) and Elizabeth (1875). The family home was building adjoining Leigh Bazaar on Railway Road in the 1880s and the Cooks only moved out of the house some 60 years later in the 1940s. The building still survives, although the structure is much altered. It is now The Brick.

Christopher was assisted in the business by his wife and all his children, after his death in 1901 the business was inherited by them. Four of the siblings Thomas, John, Jane and Elizabeth then managed the shop: Thomas and John as general managers and dealers, Jane in the drapery department and Elizabeth as the bookkeeper.

Above: Just at the back of The Brick, you can see the original gable and façade of the Cooks’ family home peeping out. This house was a bay-front property set back from the road. It was altered in the early-1900s with the new shop front, even still the family continued to reside in the house behind until the 1940s. (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2021)

Lizzie Cook: A New Woman

Elizabeth Alice Cook (1875-1949), known as Lizzie, was the youngest child of the family. She led a very interesting life and in many ways she was broke free from the conventions expected of her because of her sex and her class. It is likely that Lizzie was inspired by the ‘new woman’ movement of the 1890s, when she was in her teens and twenties. This was an exciting time for many wealthy young women who pushed for radical changes in different parts of their lives, poverty prevented many working-class women from enjoying these freedoms. This included reforms in dress, such as the aesthetic movement which sought to abandon corsets, and also taking up new hobbies, such as cycling, which permitted women the freedom to travel on their own and to do physical exercise in public – something unthinkable in their mothers’ generation. Many middle-class young women at this time also sought respectable employment, such as typists, to free themselves from the domestic sphere. For some this was just temporary release until they married, for others, like Lizzie, work would bring a lifelong freedom. Lizzie had to work to support the family business but as it was a prosperous business, she had more freedom and leisure than many of her contemporaries in Leigh. She never married and if she had, she would never have been able to become the director of Cook and Co. in the 1930s.

Above: Elizabeth Alice (Lizzie) Cook (1875-1948): business director, actress and suffrage campaigner, (c.1910)

Lizzie had many other passions and hobbies outside of work. This included amateur dramatics with the Pennington Church Dramatic Society (Pennington Church is also known as Christ Church). Lizzie first tread the boards in 1885 at the age of ten. She then performed in a few plays but it was not until 1908 that she took up acting again regularly. Her role that year was a small part of a parlour maid in one play, but within a year she was performing key roles, with much success:

‘Her fine acting was responsible for a great deal of the success of the play. The bulk of the work fell to her and her success inspired confidence in the others.’

Lizzie’s other passion was women’s rights. She was a founding member of Leigh Women’s Suffrage Society, which was a ‘non-militant and non-party’ organisation established in October 1910. It was also non-gendered, so sympathetic men could also be involved. It must be remembered that many working-class men were only granted the vote in 1918, at the same time as some women aged over 30. A large number of men in Leigh were in favour of giving women the vote, as historian Yvonne Eckersley’s research has shown. In January 1910 the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies visited Leigh’s polling booths and conducted an unofficial referendum on-the-spot.. Some 2843 men signed their petition in support of giving women the vote, and more can be found out about this in Yvonne’s article here.

In the period between 1910-1914, Leigh Women’s Suffrage Society (LWSS) was keen to promote their peaceful tactics and distance themselves from the Women’s Social and Political Union, headed by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters. The WSPU was engaged in militant tactics to raise awareness of their cause. This included breaking shop windows, bombing post boxes, setting fire to empty homes of MPs, damaging art in galleries and going on hunger strike in prison.

Whilst Lizzie and her fellow members of the LWSS wanted the same aims as the WSPU – the enfranchisement of women -they did not believe in these violent, divisive tactics. Instead they resorted to peaceful campaigns, even putting on specially written plays to get their word out to the public in a way which did not alienate people. Lizzie played a vocal and active part in the LWSS and she eventually became the secretary. Lizzie did see the full enfranchisement of women in her lifetime, granted partially in 1918 and fully in 1928. In the 1940s she retired from the business and moved from the hustle and bustle of Railway Road, her home of some 60 years, to ‘Brockwood’ a large semi-detached house among the secluded greenery of Old Hall Mill Lane. She died in 1948 at the age of 73.

The 20th Century and Beyond

Leigh Bazaar, or Cook & Co., as it was known during the 1950s continued to serve the local community in much the same way as it had done for generations. By this point Railway Road was one of the busiest streets in Leigh, with shops, cafes, houses, pubs, clubs and the library and technical school being located there. This was a far cry from the Railway Road of 1880, when Christopher Cook established his shop. At that time it had only been developed as far as Wilkinson Street and the rest was open fields!

Current and former residents of Leigh still have fond memories of Cook’s Bazaar at this time, especially around Christmas time, as there was a in-house Father Christmas for children to visit. During this period of post-war boom, there was an apparent divide between some families who shopped exclusively at Cook’s and those who shopped at the Co-Op stores on Bradshawgate.

Above: The façade of Leigh Bazaar, still retaining elements of Prestwich’s 1880 building but it was altered in 1892. (Source: Thomas McGrath, 2021)

In the 1960s, a new company took over the building, and here I’m a little unsure of the timeline, so if any readers could offer some clarity, please leave a comment! I believe it was first used by Oxley’s, who operated much as Cook’s had done although there was a hairdressers upstairs. It was also used occupied by a combined supermarket, in the early 1970s but it become Wallpaper Supplies by the end of the decade. Wallpaper Supplies became another Leigh institution and many residents recall the shop having everything they could ever need to redecorate and refurbish their homes. This closed in the 21st century and today the building is used as a BestIn Best (a convenience store), so 140 years after it opened it is still providing local people with their necessities!

Researched and Written by Dr Thomas McGrath

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2021 UPDATE: The regular readers of If Those Walls Could Talk, will notice that this year has been a quiet one regarding new articles, but it has been a busy one for the author. This year I successfully finished and defended my PhD and I am now a doctor, of the historian sort, not the medical! I am just about recovering from all the writing (80,000 words on the thesis), so new material on new buildings and some new local areas will be coming this way over the coming months! Thank you to all my readers past, present and future, for all your support, encouragement and for sharing your memories.

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Sources:

  • Yvonne Eckersley’s Article ‘Leigh’s Political Women and Women’s Suffrage 1910-1914’ in PastForward, Issue 77, 2017-18 : https://www.wigan.gov.uk/Docs/PDF/Resident/Leisure/Museums-and-archives/archives/Past-Forward/Past-Forward-Issue-77.pdf
  • My thanks to Yvonne for chatting with me about her research too!
  • Richard Pollard and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Lancashire: Liverpool and the South-West, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006)
  • Leigh Chronicle, 1 April 1892, p.8
  • Leigh Chronicle, 1 March 1901, p.5
  • Leigh Chronicle, 16 May 1884, p.5
  • Leigh Chronicle, 6 April 1888, p.4
  • Leigh Chronicle, 29 April 1910, p.7
  • Leigh Chronicle, 28 March 1913, p.1
  • Leigh Chronicle, 2 June 1882, p.4
  • Leigh Chronicle, 6 June 1884, p.4