Respected store’s 100 years of history

By Emily Pearce

Friday, November 9, 2012

 

Respected store’s 100 years of history

David Edwards, who has been in charge of Dabells for more than 40 years.

WIGHT LIVINGWHEN Newport store Dabells closes its doors this month after more than a century in business, it will truly be the end of an era.

Ask anyone who grew up on the Island, of any generation, and they all know Dabells. It is an institution.

From the 1950s, when women would queue down the High Street for new fashions following the Second World War, to the 1980s, when the store boasted the best Santa’s grotto in town, Dabells has always been there.

During its 1970s heyday, owner David Edwards reckons a fifth of all ladies’ underwear and a quarter of jewellery bought on the Island came from his store.

Mr Edwards, who took over the family business more than four decades ago, admitted he was sorry to see the store close but said his two children were not interested in taking up the reins.

"I will miss it, certainly, but I’m approaching my 70th birthday and it seems an appropriate time to hang up my scissors," he said.

"It’s the end of an era but there is no-one in the next generation who wants to carry on so one has to be realistic.

"I have been running Dabells for 44 years and I suppose I’ve become a familiar face in Newport. It will be difficult to give it up but I didn’t want to get to the point where I was 100 years old and still coming to work."

Dabells first opened in Newport High Street, now the BHS store, in 1911. In those days it was solely a drapery, founded by Charles Morris Dabell and his wife, Ethel, both of whom had worked and met at well-known Oxford Street stores in London, such as Marshall and Snelgrove, and wanted to bring something similar to the Island.

The shop boasted a glorious art deco shop front and window — installed in the 1930s after a steer escaped from the St James’s Square cattle market and crashed through the original window — which was sadly destroyed when Newport was bombed during the war.

It flourished as a drapery and established a reputation for selling good quality, ready-to-wear ladies’ fashions.

The business expanded rapidly in the 1980s, opening its Savoy Court furniture and upholstery store — the site of Newport’s long-gone Savoy cinema — and buying Ryde department store Fowlers.

Mr Edwards made a number of changes to his grandfather’s business and expanded the offer of quality furnishings and upholstery, including carpets, curtains, beds and lounge suites.

He was also instrumental in setting up national furniture-buying groups, Assoc-iated Independent Stores, with Dabells as a founder member, and Flooring One.

Mr Edwards attributed much of the company’s success to this buying group trend, as it enabled the firm to buy on competitive terms with major national furniture groups and pass the savings on to customers.

However, the business suffered a blow in 1992 with the closure of its Newport High Street store. Dabells had taken out loans to buy the Fowlers’ freehold with a view to quickly re-opening the store after it was destroyed by fire but when Black Wednesday struck and interest rates doubled overnight the business was unable to cover its costs.

Fowlers was sold to the pub chain Wetherspoons and Dabells became solely a carpet and furniture retailer.

"Dabells has always been about giving the customer good value and bringing up-to-date merchandise to the Island," said Mr Edwards.

"Our philosophy was to provide value for money with style," explained Mr Edwards, a past president of the IW Chamber of Commerce and serving magistrate, who lives with his wife, former IW High Sheriff, Gay Edwards, at Watergate Road, Newport.

"We have a very strong customer service ethic and have never been interested in providing silly, cutting-edge fashion.

"At Fowlers, they always used to go to Paris to buy designs from the fashion houses, then re-create them, whereas we focused on ready-to-wear rather than bespoke designs.

"We weren’t trying to be the IW Harrods — although we were sometimes described as such — but instead tried to emulate stores, such as John Lewis, which gave us a wider appeal.

"We did extremely well and I like to think we were a trusted name on the Island."

Following the closing-down sale, Dabells will close its doors this month before the lease expires in February.

However, carpet manager Gordon Pressey will continue trading as Dabells Carpeting from January, at premises in Lugley Street, Newport.

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