One of the many business casualties of the Covid pandemic was the John Lewis store in the centre of Sheffield.
Its demise was not entirely a surprise but it caused sadness to Sheffield people who’d shopped there over the years.
Indeed, the building was only branded ‘John Lewis’ in 2002. Previously it was Cole Brothers, and Sheffield shoppers continued to call it Coles because to them that was what it was.
The Cole brothers, born in Pickering, North Yorkshire, were John (1814-1898), Thomas (1824-1902) and Skelton (1827-1896). The older two had served apprenticeships as drapers and founded the company in 1847, trading as “Silk Mercers, Shawl, Mantle and Carpet Warehousemen, Bonnet Makers and Sewing Machine Agents”. Skelton joined the partnership later.
One of their assistants, John Atkinson, left in 1872 to found his own department store, which still trades on The Moor.
The business was continued by the sons respectively of Thomas and Skelton Cole – Thomas (b 1854) and Thomas Skelton Cole (b 1853), who sold the store in 1920 to Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947). He transferred it to his Selfridge Provincial Stores group seven years later and in 1940 sold it to the John Lewis Partnership, then as now an employee-owned mutual partnership. Throughout these changes the store continued to trade as Cole Brothers.
The shop was repeatedly extended between 1869 and 1920 along Fargate and round the corner on to Church Street, and the corner entrance became the favoured meeting place for young couples, known as “Coles’ Corner”.
In the Sheffield Blitz of December 1940 Coles was the only department store in the city-centre that was largely unscathed.
The original store was replaced in 1963 with a new building on the site of the burnt-down Albert Hall at Barker’s Pool, and the lovers’ rendezvous moved to the fish-tank in the “Hole in the Road”, otherwise Castle Square, when it opened in 1967.
(The Hole in the Road was filled in to make way for Supertram in 1994. The well-worn joke was that the last fish in the tank was a piranha.)
Proposals for Coles to move to the Meadowhall Centre when it opened in 1990 and later plans to move into a new flagship John Lewis store in the aborted Sevenstone development alike came to nothing.
Now the only manifestations of the Cole brothers’ place in Sheffield’s history are a plaque on the site of the original Coles Corner, the Sheffield-born musician Richard Hawley’s eponymous 2005 album and John Coles’ eye-catching obelisk in the General Cemetery.
The ‘Cemeteries and Sewerage: the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness’ (August 25th-29th 2022) tour includes a guided tour of the Sheffield General Cemetery. For details of the itinerary, please click here.