M&S worker reflects on sixty years on Princes Street

81-year-old Mary Ashworth outside the Princes Street store. Picture: TSPL
81-year-old Mary Ashworth outside the Princes Street store. Picture: TSPL

SIXTY years ago, the queues snaked along Princes Street as hundreds of shoppers from across the country patiently waited for their opportunity to pass through the doors of one of the biggest high street names around.

Marks & Spencer had been a British institution for more than 50 years by the time it opened on the Capital’s most famous shopping street in the summer of 1957, but that didn’t stop the crowds from turning out in their droves for the grand opening of one of their largest outlets.

Marks and Spencers new store in Princes Street  Edinburgh - General view of  lingerie department with goods on counters. Picture: TSPL

Marks and Spencers new store in Princes Street Edinburgh - General view of lingerie department with goods on counters. Picture: TSPL

Mary Ashworth, now 81, was just 20 years old when she started as a sales assistant at the store and remembers the opening fondly.

“The doors opened and there was just a rush of people, the place was mobbed,” she recalled.

“I had walked past people queuing up on my way to work, but even at that point there must have been hundreds there. Someone told me later the queue had stretched all the way down Princes Street, I think there were even people queueing on St David Street round the corner.

“When I was inside on that day, I just didn’t know what to do. There were so many people and so much was happening around me, but at the end of the day when we shut the doors my supervisor announced we had smashed the sales target at the end of day one.”

Female employees in the Ladies fashion departmentin June 1957. Picture: TSPL

Female employees in the Ladies fashion departmentin June 1957. Picture: TSPL

The number of shoppers proved to be so huge that police were forced to split the queue into three parts before opening the doors at 9.30am, with the first customer in the line granted the opportunity to cut the ribbon and open the new store officially.

Sales records from the opening day showed shoppers bought “17 dozen summer dresses, 16 dozen blouses, 15 dozen children’s dresses and ten dozen nylon slips” in the first hour of trading alone.

Built on the former site of a cinema beneath the Royal Hotel, the store covered six floors in total, with the top two designated as stockroom space.

Offices including the General Office were on the first floor, along with a hanging area for the Fashion departments. On the second floor were the staff quarters, which included a dining-room which served four-course lunches for under a shilling, and had access to a sunny roof garden. There was also a special sound-absorbing lounge, a hairdressing salon, medical and dental rooms, and a public telephone for staff use.

Royal Hotel reconstruction next to Marks & Spencers in Princes Street, 1966. Picture: TSPL

Royal Hotel reconstruction next to Marks & Spencers in Princes Street, 1966. Picture: TSPL

As Mary remembers, the staff facilities were miles ahead of anything else on offer at the time.

She said: “I still remember getting my first wage packet, we got £6 and 12 shillings per week which was good wages for the time.

“But the benefits we got were almost as good. The meals were all freshly prepared on site and there was a staff doctor, a dentist and even a chiropodist on site most days of the week.

“I was living in Rosyth at the time and they even paid for my train ticket – 12-and-a-half pence – which I thought was extremely generous.

“Nobody had ever done anything like that before in retail. I’d struggle to think of anywhere that does it now.”

Mary, originally from Glasgow, spent her entire working life at the store, eventually retiring in 1995 after 38 years of service.

Starting off on the shop floor, she held various positions before working her way up to supervisor in later years.

Reflecting on the changes since its opening, Mary said the customer service had remained “excellent” and revealed she often sees trainees from her days at the store in more senior roles.

She said: “I’m back in at least once a week, so I’ve been able to see just how much it has changed in that time. One of the big things that I’ve noticed is the uniform. We used to have different colours for different roles. All the new starters and people on the shop floor wore this pale blue colour and as you progressed up to being a supervisor it changed to white, 
now everyone has the same uniform.

“A few of the supervisors I trained are still working there now, so it’s always nice to see them whenever I’m in. I always tell them how different it is now.”

The store has been through various renovations since its opening, most prominently in the early 1980s when an extra 7000 sq ft of floor space was added to bring the store up to 66,300 sq ft.

However, Mary believes no matter how big the store gets, it won’t ever recapture the initial excitement of its opening day.

She said: “I was there for the best years. It’s bigger now, but it feels different. I think I was lucky to be there when it was still the biggest store in town. I always look back on that with fond memories.”