Napoleon to thank for Fields of Sidmouth

Fields of Sidmouth shares its history with Nostalgia readers

WITH Sidmouth’s own department store facing the ‘big boys’ in the final of a national sales competition, Nostalgia this week returns to look at the history of Fields, with the help of its managing director Trevor Roberts.

The Fields of Sidmouth buildings owe their origins to Napoleon’s blockage of Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

With aristocracy prevented from embarking on a Grand Tour of Europe, they started developing coastal resorts in England, and Sidmouth expanded rapidly to accommodate such wealthy visitors.

Four shops were built near the seafront and in one of them a William Gale set up business in 1800. He was later followed by Matthew Hall and the first advert in Fields’ archives dates from 1830.

A pencil drawing of the storefront, with Hall’s name above, it describes him as a linen draper, silk mercer and lace man.

A photograph from 1849 shows the front of the buildings and little of the frontage has altered in two centuries.

Most Read

In 1870, John Field arrived and he soon expanded the business, acquiring adjacent premises. With his sons also in the business, it began taking the shape it is today.

Young staff had to undertake a five-year apprenticeship, living in dormitories in the building’s attic. Their days were long and they were compelled to attend church on Sundays.

Before serving anyone on the sales floor, a young girl had to know how to make a gown and be a qualified seamstress.

Fields catered for the wealthy ‘carriage’ trade for almost a century but, by the early 1970s, its business model was in terminal decline and no member of the Fields family was now involved in running the store.

In 1978, Alan Spores, father of two of today’s directors, acquired the business and began its renewal. His father, Charles, had started a menswear wholesale business shortly after World War Two, from a cellar near the House of Commons. Alan later transformed it into a retail company, at one time operating 12 shops in Surrey and Middlesex.

The desire to buy freehold led him to Sidmouth to take over Fields.

Today the store trades over two floors with 20,000 square feet to house everything from mens and ladies wear to cookware, gifts and a coffee shop.

Despite modernisation, the store retains evidence of its long history, such as three antique clocks dating from the 18th century, original Georgian panelling around first floor windows and original 19th century adverts.

Hidden beneath the floorboards are the foundations of old fishermen’s cottages, while beneath the menswear department are the foundations of a Tudor merchant’s house. Four wells have also been discovered.