High Streets all over the U.K. have undergone dramatic changes during the past twenty years. Large national and multi-national corporations have taken over a large portion of the retail sector, squeezing out many of the smaller, locally-owned businesses that were always the backbone of High Street retailing. The unceasing efforts of the big corporations to increase the profitability of their operations has led inexorably to ever-larger stores, usually surrounded by acres of parking. Consequently most of the 'big box' or 'superstores' are located on the periphery of the towns or, even worse, miles away at a major highway interchange. In too many cases the desperate efforts of local planning officers to prevent the construction of such stores have been futile. The development of the Tesco store in Harlow's Edinburgh Way is an excellent example of such a story. There is no doubt that the new retail landscape is more convenient for those who shop by car, that prices are lower and the selection of goods better. But the inevitable result has been a steady erosion of the rich retail mix that characterized the High Street, and the increasing isolation of those, especially the elderly who either do not, or cannot shop at the peripheral superstores. The cultural landscape of Harlow, like so many other towns in England, has been seriously degraded by these trends.
The commercial core of Harlow was once much more vibrant than it is today. As recently as 1990 people in Old Harlow could have done most of their shopping in High or Market Street. In High Street alone there were 3 banks, 3 restaurants, 2 butchers, 2 greengrocers, 2 bakers, 2 newsagents, a pharmacy, a hardware store, an optician, an undertaker, an off-licence, a fish-and-chips takeaway a public library and several estate agents. Some of these functions remain, but many have disappeared, too often replaced by the office of an estate agent. There is now one estate agent’s office in Station Road, two in Market Street, one in Fore Street and 6 in High Street. The number of similar businesses trading in any one area is supposed to be regulated by Harlow Council but it is difficult to see how this policy has been applied in the case of the Old Harlow Shopping Centre.
What follows is a description of what you will see if you take a walk in Market Street, St. John’s Walk, Fore Street or Park Hill. The aim is to give you a sense of the interesting history of this small piece of England, and to remind you that Harlow has been successfully adapting to the social and economic changes of the past 900 years.
I have not been able to identify every individual trader or house occupant, nor to map the locations in which they lived or worked. Archival and anecdotal material has provided the names of many butchers, confectioners, saddlers and harness makers, bootmakers, stationers, builders and jobbers, outfitters, drapers, corn merchants and provisioners who traded in this small area of Harlow. But in many case their exact location has not been recorded. However, as you walk through these street, keep in mind that today’s traders in are the most recent in the long line of craftsmen, merchants and entrepreneurs who have contributed to the development of the town.
The descriptions of buildings and their occupants are based on a number of sources. These include the 1875, 1921 and 1947 Ordnance Survey maps, the Kelly Directory of Essex, a description of Harlow in 1938 which can be found in the archives section of the Museum of Harlow, and a series of maps dating from the 1950s and 1960s prior to the redevelopment of the High Street by Sir Frederick Gibberd. The historic images are reprinted with the permission of the Museum of Harlow. My first visit to Harlow was in 1977 so none of my photographs are older than that. I have updated my collection of images during each of the twelve occasions that I have been in Harlow since then, on two of them for an entire, delightful year.
Chris Sharpe. Shelburne, Nova Scotia. 7 February 2017
1. 'Listed' Buildings, i.e. those considered by English Heritage to be of particular architectural and/or historic merit are identified by an asterisk (*).
2. The text was originally written in the spring of 2004, and then extensively revised between November 2010 and July 2011 and in November 2016. In spite of my best efforts, some of the descriptions will now be out-of-date, so if you note errors or omissions, please contact me at casharpe[at]mun.ca.
3. Station and London Roads run almost due north/south. High and Market Streets run east/west. All four meet at what was historically known as The George Corner.
The following reproductions of parts of various Ordnance Survey (O.S.) maps from 1875, 1921 and 1947, and the 1969 redevelopment plan may help you to make sense of the descriptions of the buildings along the various streets. Note that Market Street was formerly known as Back Street.