Iconic Ribble Valley department store to close

After decades of helping to dress ladies locally and many others living further afield, Hilary Cookson, the owner of Whalley-based women's wear store Maureen Cookson has talked about the history of the business, and how and why it is now set to close.

Tuesday, 18th September 2018, 5:15 pm
Updated Tuesday, 18th September 2018, 5:27 pm
How the store used to look.
How the store used to look.

Sad to be ending what has been the main feature in all of her life; from watching her mother building the business or working in it herself, mother-of-one Hilary (58) said: “We are seeing what I can only describe as a seismic shift in the world of retail and that which the national high street is suffering from, we are suffering from too.”

Hilary’s daughter Harriet (22), has just graduated from Loughborough University with a first in her management degree and has secured a job in Cirencester, so there is not to be a third generation female at the helm.

“As it became clear there was no succession,” said Hilary, “I decided after 40 years it was time to put the business on the market as a going concern and hope someone would feel our heritage was something to add to their own portfolio. I feel so very sad after sitting at the same desk for the past 40 years. It’s been my other baby and many of the current staff have been with me for more than 30 years so it’s more like a family bereavement. Customers still travel for miles but there’s just not enough of them making the journey to Whalley.”

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Maureen Cookson, front left, presenting a cheque to charity. Her daughter Hilary is on the right directly behind her and her husband Alan is second from the right. They are joined by members of staff.

She added: “Of course the internet has had an impact on business, but our customers still need to touch and feel the fabrics. The Ribble Valley has felt a no go area for shopping for too long now with the constant impact on traffic with construction vehicles, no public car park in Whalley to attract customers to stay and the recent rates hike to name a few of the general grievances of all shopkeepers in the area.”

However, on a positive note, Hilary said that, over the years, she has enjoyed “wonderful collaboration” with other shops in the village.

“There are no vacant shops and no charity shops in the village – it’s a high street of independent shops and I’d like to think that, over the years, we have been a draw for other shops to open in the village and create such attractive shopping options. I’m excited for the people buying my business as they have some great ideas, they are local people who appreciate and value what we have stood for.”

She added: “I would like to say thank you for everyone’s support. We have all had wonderful tributes from customers personally to my staff, from my suppliers and many notes from ex staff who have happy memories of their time amongst the team.”

Hilary is presented with the Industry Oscar for Independent Retailer of the Year by comedian Jack Dee.

Hilary, who is a regular on the after dinner speaking circuit and has staged many fashion shows in Lancashire and Yorkshire in her time, admitted that the business has been her life.

“I’ve enjoyed it and loved the journey. I’ve always been very focused and driven,” said Hilary, who has sat, for the past 10 years, on the Saïd Oxford Business School retail masters programme as a “dragon”.

Hilary said the highlights of her career at Maureen Cookson included being crowned Independent Women’s Wear Retailer of the Year at the industry’s Oscars, and being chairman of the British Shops and Stores Association for three years.

Asked what she will now do, Hilary said: “I may consider mentoring, who knows, but at the moment I’m just focussing on the staff and what we do here. I will think about me eventually.”

Maureen Cookson will close its doors on Saturday, September 29th, and champagne will be served all day “to celebrate the end of the journey” Hilary said.

Benedicts Café Bar is totally unaffected by Maureen Cookson’s closure and it will be business as usual under new ownership.

• Looking back at the history of the business, Maureen Cookson opened her first shop on King Street, Whalley, in 1956.

Initially selling knitting wool and baby clothes in a two room shop, the business went from strength to strength and in 1974 moved to its current premises on George Street which had worn many guises before that point.

Built originally as a Co-op with the village’s cinema upstairs, the building had fallen into disrepair and, in 1964, Fred Haydock, a Clitheroe landlord, bought it and it became the Ace of Spades nightclub and casino.

When Maureen took on the centre portion of the building in the mid-Seventies, it was just the middle section of the ground floor.

The businesses at either side were Billy Fenton’s grocers and general store, who had been their neighbouring shop on King Street and then passed to Jonathan and Brenda Fenton who created the Spar brand in Whalley. On the other side was the electrical shop run by Donnie Wallis, who later became a village historian and wrote the book Looking Back at Whalley.

“It was all done on a handshake and the understanding that when they did want to pack up we would take over their shops,” Maureen’s daughter Hilary explained.

“When the Ace of Spades closed we took over upstairs too, but it was left empty for a long time,” she added. “We just wanted to have the option to expand if we wanted to. The first floor had, in fact, been the village cinema and still comes complete with a projection room and a sprung maple dance floor!”

Hilary, whose first move towards education was at Miss Cams in Whalley Old Grammar School, attended Whalley Primary School. After leaving school she joined the John Lewis Partnership and became the youngest female to be elected onto the Central Council, which is the Partnership’s representatives on the main board.

She then joined Maureen Cookson in 1979 working closely alongside her mother and father Alan who had joined the business in 1975 on its move to George Street. Hilary worked in the same office as her father for eight years until his death in 1990 when she was made company secretary and director. They were happy years with office work stopping for them both to rehearse, aided by the office stereo, the latest works they were rehearsing for Blackburn Music Society as they both shared a passion for choral music. In fact, it was not uncommon to hear the Messiah during April!

In 1986 Hilary was tasked with developing the first floor of the building, a project which she embraced with vigour, adding new clothes lines upstairs and opening Cookies coffee shop. She also sub let number one George Street down stairs to Holts shoes.

“We wanted to create the whole package, we wanted it to become a one stop shop,” said Hilary, who was joined by her husband Henry Shepherd in the business in 1995, the year they bought the business out of the Cookson family.

In its heyday, Maureen Cookson had 11,000 square feet of retail space, employed 45 members of staff and had 31 fitting rooms. Despite this customers would still be queuing on a Saturday for a fitting room such was the store’s popularity.

“We were one of the country’s largest women’s wear independents,” said Hilary, “and people travelled from all over the country to visit the shop – the Maureen Cookson name was synonymous with Whalley.”

“The joy of having such a large store is that we’ve been able to cater for a wide range of customers. We’ve had up to 70 labels in store,” said Hilary. However, it was “Mother of the Bride” range that was the biggest draw.

In 2010, Hilary decided it was time to diversify.

“I felt keenly that Whalley needed a cafe in the centre of the village so we decided to create what was christened Benedicts of Whalley. The name was a passing nod to the monastic heraldry and history of the village – although the historians were quick to point out to me it was the Cistercians that inhabited the abbey!

“It quickly outgrew the original space so we doubled its size in 2012. Then in 2014 we created the deli,” said Hilary.

“I’m Whalley born and bred, and I wanted to create a village shop feel with customers able to buy, for example, eggs from my hens, locally made sausages, bacon and artisan breads,” she said.

When asked what anecdotes spring to mind when looking back on her career at Maureen Cookson, Hilary, said: “I could write a book!”

And maybe with Hilary’s proven track record for a woman to be reckoned with, we should all watch this space.