The Isle of Wight Society

October 2023


 Our high streets are changing, as I am sure you will have noticed.   Many of the major chain stores have moved out to the edges of town as our shopping habits have changed.  Today the car reigns supreme despite all we think about global warming and using public transport.  

However, within the town centres, the old buildings still exist – although some are now in a poor state if they have been left empty.  The decorative work on them is worth a closer look.

The window size grew in the late 19th century as it became easier to make large sheets of plate glass.

Newport High St

The surround for this glass sometimes used classical features – pillars with fancy leafwork capitals or Romanesque pediment details.  Some of this was wood and other parts were in plasterwork – stucco.  Painting schemes picked out the detail.  While time cost money, the shop owner needed to make his shop stand out.

The entrance was important.  There are some finely detailed permanently tiled “door mats.”  These often show the names of the shop – a name long since gone from the fascia board.  Black and white tiles gave a crisp, clean image.  Of course, these tiles would be swept and scrubbed daily.  The pavement would also be swept by the shop staff every day.


An Art Deco door, Newport High Street.                Lower St James Street Newport

Lower St.James St Newport

Below the window there might be a long brass plate with the name of the firm.  International Stores, the grocers, had this. It was the job of the grocery delivery boy to polish this up every morning as soon as he arrived.  There was an International Store in every town on the Island, and they had the same shop fronts everywhere.  

International Stores East Cowes before WWI

Kindly they also took several photographs of the staff standing outside!  Unfortunately few of these are dated, and people did not list who the staff were.  We are all guilty of this, as we know who is in our photographs – but we should consider dating a few of those old photographs in the back of the drawer and writing down who the people are.  It would greatly help future historians!

The fascia board above the windows is the one place where, occasionally, we can still see some artistry.  The sign writer still has work to do, although plastic and printed work is taking over.  To look at a row of small Edwardian or late Victorian shops, each with their sign boards, brings back some history to the town.  Better still when each of them is still occupied as a going concern!

Wrays in East Cowes

Old Newport Post Office doorway

Some sign boards were more elaborate.  Both Wray’s the grocers and International Stores had wonderful black and gold glass fronted name boards above the windows.  They looked very classy, and had the advantage of not requiring repainting every couple of years!  

Wray’s competed with International Stores for our custom.  International Stores were throughout Britain. They had a cooked meat and cheese counter, sold dry provisions, and tins of food just the same.  But Wray’s was owned by Islanders, and the profit made stayed on the Island.   

Sarah Burdett

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Isle of Wight Society
East Cowes Heritage Centre, 8 Clarence Road
East Cowes, PO32 6EP

Tel: +44 (0) 1983 280310

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