The decline of the British high street

Freddy Cole of Tissimans, Bishop’s Stortford. Photo: Paul Vicente

The building stands on a quiet street near the top of a hill. It is buckled and listing with age, and its handmade bricks, laid hundreds of years ago, are weathered and cracked. The timber frames sit impassively in the white plaster; the bay windows — added in the 19th century — jut out from the gloomy first floor.

Some parts of the building date as far back as 1132. It only just survived an earthquake in 1884. A newspaper report from the time describes how “employees rushed downstairs, thinking the workroom at the top of the old-fashioned house was falling outwards”. Opposite stands the medieval church in which Cecil Rhodes’s father preached.

The building features on almost every postcard of the town. It is believed to have been a tailor’s since 1601, making it possibly the oldest menswear business in Britain and, reputedly, one of the 30 oldest family businesses in the world. It once made the liveries for the staff of Windsor Castle and Sandringham. Dr Johnson’s servant bought a hat there in 1769; the sculptor Henry Moore bought his suits there in the 1970s.

Inside, muffled by the hanging jackets, uneven floors creak under thick rugs. It smells of leather and dust. A white changing cubicle with a single chair and an old wood-framed mirror has an almost Shakerish simplicity. Time has afforded the place a feeling of permanence, but last week Tissimans, in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, announced that it was to close.

“We’ve got one customer who has been shopping here since 1956,” says Richard Nash, one of the full-time staff. “It’s been a pleasure to work in a building like this; it’s just a lovely environment.”

“We’re very disappointed,” says the current director, a wispy 22-year-old named Freddy Cole. His father — a tailor and a tailor’s son — bought Tissimans a few years ago, having wanted to own it for the whole of his working life. He, and another tailor who has worked at Tissimans for 40 years, were too upset to speak.

Cole blames the collapse of the business squarely on the recession. But Bishop’s Stortford remains a wealthy place. Unemployment stands at about 4%, half the national rate. It’s an important commuter town, only 40 minutes from London by train, but almost everyone I speak to agrees that it is in decline.

“It’s just dead,” says Danny Collins, 27, who works in a butcher’s shop. “I’ve been here five years and the town has gone from up here [he holds his hand by the top of his head] to down here [he moves his hand to waist level].”

“In the last six or seven months we’ve lost all but one of the recognised family businesses that have been here for 100 years or more,” says Sarah Turner, curator of the Bishop’s Stortford Museum.

Haberdashers, furnishings shops and booksellers have all gone under. Pearsons, a department store, closed last year. In Florence Walk, a small arcade off the high street, several premises are vacant, victims of the town’s decline.

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