Brief History of Kitcheners
By James Ballance
It’s not uncommon to wonder what a place was like before it became what it is now. What did our houses or homes, or places of work, look like a century or two ago? This kind of history is deeply personal: having acknowledged our own attachments to a place, we start to wonder who else might have thought that same place dear to them, either in the recent past or the more distant.
Anyone walking through the doors of Kitcheners, the Cheltenham kitchenware shop, will see that there are more particular reasons to wonder what the shop has been. The internal architecture is particularly unusual in two respects. On the one hand, facing customers who walk in the front door, about two-thirds of the way across the main shop floor, is an ornately carved lateral wooden beam, which acts as the support for a clock-face. On the other hand, there is a cash desk, on the left-hand side of the shop, which is demarcated by wooden half-walls and vertical beams, creating a sort of enclosed, private space. Who built these peculiar features, and what was their purpose?
It is hard to tell with any certainty, of course, where these structures originated, or for what usage; but it is at least possible to give a relatively complete account of when the premises—No 4, Queen’s Circus—were first built, and what they have been used for since then. This brief history will trace the development of the place into its modern form, and offer a few, highly speculative suggestions as to how it came to possess its internal features.
Cheltenham’s transformation from a relatively poor backwater town to a thriving spa centre is well-documented. In 1800, J Shenton’s Cheltenham directory wrote: “[t]his town has been greatly enlarged and improved within these few years by the addition of many elegant and commodious new buildings erected in the principal street…” Although quite complimentary, the directory paints a picture of a small town, whose “chief dependence…is on [its] lodgings”, and which flourishes only in the summer months. Only one church is mentioned, and from the description of the town there seemed to be almost no buildings worth mentioning south of what is now the High Street. This corresponds with maps of 1804 and 1827, copies of which can be found in Cheltenham public library, showing that the entire area of Montpellier, where Kitcheners is located, consisted then of little more than fields and open spaces. By 1820, Gell & Bradshaw’s Gloucestershire directory could write in much more glowing terms, both of Cheltenham’s reputation, which by then apparently stretched to “the British East and West Indies”, and of its architecture and town spaces. The town had clearly been the subject of rapid growth for “the houses are generally well built…occasionally, however, a few old dwellings obtrude themselves to the eye, to remind us of its former simplicity…”
The reason behind this transformation lie in the patronage of the nobility and gentry of the 18th and 19th centuries, and in particular royal patronage. The National Gazetteer wrote in 1868: “The medicinal virtues of the Cheltenham waters were accidentally discovered in 1716, and a visit from King George III, who was directed by his physicians to try the waters, in 1788, established their reputation and brought visitors from all parts of the world.” The 1820 Gloucestershire directory similarly claims that the King visited in 1788. (Whether George III did in fact visit the town might be questioned: Shenton’s 1800 Directory describes a Royal visit of 1788, but mentions only that the Princesses Augusta and Elizabeth took up residence locally; and also that the Duke of York visited the two Princesses during their stay. The account makes no mention of a visit by George III. Surely, having named these three important members of the Royal Family, this early publication would also have included a reference to a visit by the King himself, if this had taken place?)
A map of 1834 shows the Imperial Spa still in location, and the Montpellier Arcade (from the upside-down L-shaped gallery). The 1840 map shows the newly-built Queen’s Hotel and Queen’s Circus.
Whatever the exact details, it is clear the Cheltenham became very fashionable in the late 18th and early 19th century, and this resulted in an explosion in construction of new buildings, residences and places of business, particularly on plots of land which were formerly open land or fields. One area which was virtually untouched in 1804, from a glance at the surviving maps, is the Montpellier district. By 1840, Montpellier had been entirely redeveloped. It is therefore possible to date fairly exactly when Queen’s Circus was built. Several sources claim that the Queen’s Hotel—which stands at the northern-most point of Montpellier, looking down towards the Promenade—was finished sometime between 1836 and 1838 (at a cost of £50,000). It is reasonable to assume that the Queen’s Circus—the small, oval area of buildings opposite the Hotel, on the other side of what is now Montpellier Avenue—was built around the same time, and took its name from the newly-built Queen’s Hotel. According to various sources, the Imperial Spa (as well as a riding school) had formerly stood on the site of the Hotel. These were apparently acquired in 1830 by “Robert and Charles Gearrad” who, being both architects, designed and built the new Hotel.
A Kitchener’s window display accidentally captures the Queen’s Hotel logo in the window’s reflection.
We can be fairly sure that the Queen’s Circus, and hence the premises of the modern kitchen shop, were also built around this time, because of details found in the land register. Maps from 1834 suggest that the plot of land corresponding to the Queen’s Circus was then just open field with nothing built upon it. The modern Charges Register lists details of a restrictive covenant agreed in 1838, the substance of which was to prevent the freeholder or any occupier of Queen’s Circus from making alterations to the front of the buildings which did not conform with various architectural specifications, and also from opening up a “Beer shop, Gin shop or other offensive…business of any kind”. What is of interest is that two of the original parties to the covenant are named as “Robert William Jearrard and Charles Jearrard”: surely the same two persons as are credited with the construction of the Queen’s Hotel, given the similarity in names and dates.
The premises of Kitcheners therefore first came into existence around 1838, since there was no building on the plot before then; and from that time, it seems likely that the premises have been consistently used for trade. This is partly to be deduced from the restrictive covenant of 1838 which, by preventing the building from being used as a gin shop, suggest that some trade usage was contemplated. More generally, however, by 1838 the strip of land running from the Queen’s Hotel down to the Rotunda spa was a thriving trade area. Pigot’s 1830 Directory of Gloucestershire lists a number of tradesmen as being based in the area, including John Abraham, an optician based next to the Rotunda. Abraham also advertised in a local courtly magazine, the Cheltenham Looker-On, which was itself published from a library and bookbinders at 2 & 3 Montpellier Walk. The contents of this magazine support the contention that the Montpellier district was a particularly fashionable area for the gentry: the weekly publication made a point of noting arrivals and departures of the upper classes, as well as providing wittily written articles for their amusement. There is also evidence that the Montpellier Arcade, a boutique shopping centre just south of the Queen’s Circus, was built in 1831 to 1832. The Queen’s Circus would therefore have been a slightly later addition to this commercial hub, vying for the trade of the great and good who found themselves taking the waters at the Royal Well, Imperial and Montpellier spas.
[Photo 6a, Photo 6b] [Caption 6: “The front-page of Vol II of the Cheltenham Look-On, and J Abraham’s advertisement from within its pages.”]
It is more difficult to trace the usage of the premises since 1838, because historical records are patchier, and more difficult to locate. Slater’s Commercial Dictionary of 1858-1859 lists several businesses carrying on at 1, 2, 3 and 5 Queen’s Circus but, frustratingly, no entry for No 4. The first entry that has been found dates from Kelly’s 1894 Trade Directory of Gloucestershire, listing Frederick William Sawyer carrying on the business of hairdresser and perfumer at 4, Queen’s Circus. Could it be that the ornate beam and clock date from this time? They might have formed part of a decorative interior, designed to make customers’ stay as pleasant as possible, whilst also, obviously, keeping them informed of the time.
Kelly’s 1894 Directory shows Sawyer, Frederick William, exercising his chosen profession at 4 Queen’s Circus.
More recent history is perhaps a little less glamorous. Customers who remember the premises from the 1950s suggest that it was then, at least for a time, a local butcher’s, though no documentary evidence to support this proposition has yet been discovered. By 1965, usage had changed once again. Kelly’s trade directory of Cheltenham for that year lists one CE Baker as carrying on the business of television engineer at 4 Queen’s Circus. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the decorative features of the shop were then entirely hidden from view behind internal panelling designed, presumably, to make the shop more practical as a display area. It has also been suggested that the shop was at one time a pharmacy, but whether this was before the 1950s or after its stint as a television shop is not clear. If this was the case, it might explain the presence of the gaol-like cash-desk, which might then have been used to keep prescription-only drugs away from customers’ prying hands, as well as being the obvious point for making sales.
Kelly’s Street Directories from 1965, 1974 and 1975.
As for how long the shop has been in its present form—Kitcheners—living memory provides the details. Kitcheners has been under its present management since 1988; it was bought in that year from its previous owners, but had been trading as a kitchen shop under its present name since the earlier date of 1973. This corresponds roughly with the Kelly’s Directories, which list Cheltenham Kitchener for the first time in 1975. Usage within the building has changed a little: although the ground floor has been the main shop floor since Kitcheners’ inception, the basement floor was only opened up as additional display and storage space from 1997. Its affectionate name amongst staff members—the Deli—points to its immediate preceding usage as the premises of a Delicatessen, selling coffee and foods. The principal internal features of the shop continue to be, on the one hand, the ornate wooden beam and clock; and on the other, the old wooden cash desk, which nowadays creates a well-defined ‘staff area’ and till.