A look back for a special 110th birthday
PUBLISHED: 09:08 05 November 2014
IN AN increasingly tough world for the nation's high streets, the 21st century has given some household names a real beating - Woolworths, Zavvi and Republic to name but three.
With that in mind, it’s perhaps even more impressive that one of Weston’s oldest shops is celebrating its 110th birthday this week, even surviving eight recessions and a World War Two bombing.
Walker and Ling is a name synonymous with Weston’s High Street, whether a regular visitor or passer-by down the years. As other stores have come and gone in their droves, it has been a mainstay opposite the Town Square - bar 11 years while the bomb damage was repaired - since 1904.
It was way back in 1856 when William Girling Ling began trading in Bath’s Milsom Street, and by 1893 his nephew, William John Ling, and Samuel Walker had joined the partnership.
Within 12 years, the younger pair had acquired a drapery business in Weston, previously owned by one John Lewis of Oxford Street, London, and began trading under the Walker and Ling name they would keep for more than a century.
Through the decades, the shop has remained a family business and passed down through five generations to current boss Sam Walker, Samuel’s great-great-grandson, who took over the running from dad Tony last year.
He said: “When they were both open the two stores were run separately for the most part, aside from sharing the name. They had living accommodation and serving rooms all built in, it was like something out of Dickens.
“There would have been more than 100 members of staff at one point looking after the whole operation, a lot more than the 23 we employ today. They were knitting, cutting fabric, buying and selling on the shop floor.
“It was a different time, with tailored suits and dresses, even though we didn’t have any cookery or menswear sections back then.”
In 1942, disaster struck for the firm, when neighbouring business Lance And Lance was struck by an oil bomb during World War Two. The ensuing fire was so strong it gutted much of the store - by this time run by Samuel’s son Charles - but against the odds, they were open the next day, albeit in temporary accommodation at the nearby Colstings Bazaar shop.
Sam said: “The windows and stockrooms were the only things which were intact. The insides were badly hit. Charles was determined to open the next day, but they ended up staying at Colstings until 1953, when they managed to re-open on the original site, but even then the new shop front wasn’t rebuilt until 1959.”
Over the years, the firm has retained some of its original feel - installing the first passenger lift in Weston in 1929, which still bears a striking resemblance to the original, while passing through five generations of Walker.
Sam said: “Charles was a big figure, spending 68 years in charge, as was my dad Tony who took over in 1976. They served over 100 years between them and brought great continuity. Charles did the job until he died, pretty much.
“There’s not a lot of families who would want to do the same thing for five generations. I think people in other independent businesses will face that problem at some point - having no-one to take over down the line from within the family.”
Earlier this year, Walker and Ling ventured onto the worldwide web for the first time while also expanding into social media, though Sam says he doesn’t foresee a radical overhaul in the near future.
He said: “In the future we will be expanding online and we are bringing in more brands and contemporary fashion. There is so much going on with the town centre and that could be really exciting for us, including the potential university development opposite.
“We have talked for 20 years about having a cafe and we have got ambition to grow, certainly. It’s a great site and a great business.”