Celebrating the history of St James Street

Daniel Shannon-Hughes visits an exhibition on the history of ‘Walthamstow’s Westfield’

St James Street in 1938

St James Street in 1938 (credit Vestry House Museum/Waltham Forest Council)

Ever feel as if you only need leave Waltham Forest for five minutes to be taken aback by the changes on your return? Imagine looking back over a whole century.

A new exhibition hosted by The Mill in Coppermill Lane does just that, tracking a century of change around the St James Street area of Walthamstow.

St James Street Station opened in 1870, bringing crowds of people into the area around it. Over the years it developed into Walthamstow’s first shopping centre, the Westfield of its day. But today, following years of decline, shoppers head for the other end of the High Street and to Selborne Walk.

In the last year a multimillion-pound project has been working to restore historic buildings and improve shop fronts and the street environment in the St James Street Conservation Area. While the bricks and mortar are getting some much needed tender loving care, the exhibition celebrates the area’s lived heritage.

As part of the wider project, Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop members and volunteers have been interviewing shoppers, shop workers and stallholders and have created a collection of 40 recordings to bring the St James Street area’s history to life.

One example is Brian, whose father had two stalls in the market. He remembers: “When Woolworths was there, on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, you think of Oxford Street when it’s busy at Christmas, that’s how that was.

“It closed at one o’clock on Thursdays, and you’ve never seen anything like it in your entire life. You could not move.”

Extracts from these recordings can be heard in the exhibition alongside other voices from the archive, some dating back to the First World War. There are vivid memories from many decades ago of the major stores, the stalls, the Saturday meat auctions, together with local people’s hopes and opinions about the future of this part of Waltham Forest.

A wonderful collection of historic photographs from the borough’s photo archive at Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow Village also demonstrate how local shops and people have changed over more than a century.

Memories of Shops and Shopping around St James Street is open until Saturday 22nd April at The Mill, 7-11 Coppermill Lane, Walthamstow, and will be appearing at Vestry House Museum on Sunday 14th May.

Interviews are still being recorded and interviewees still being sought. Contact Alice Mackay:

Call 07985 962 975

Email oh@wforalhistory.org.uk