Historian Catherine Pitt uncovers the story behind The Corridor in Bath

Paris. London. Bath. The city’s new Southgate centre has seen a resurgence of shopping here, albeit one of chain stores. Yet almost 200 years ago Bath was at the forefront of the modern shopping experience. Cabot Circus, Cribbs Causeway, Bluewater, the Bullring, Meadowhall, and the Arndale all owe their existence and inspiration to the 19th century arcades.

At the cusp of the French Revolution, a retail revolution occurred on the streets of Paris. To combat the narrow and filthy streets of the city, the new covered cathedrals of consumerism enticed the wealthy inside. The Galerie des Bois became the world’s first shopping centre in the 1770s, providing a covered, pedestrian shopping alley, inspired by the forums of Rome and souks of Africa.

The provision of a chic retail environment away from the dirt and rain appealed to British sensibilities (and British weather), and soon London’s first arcades appeared – The Royal Opera Arcade (1816) and Burlington Arcade (1818).

Forever at the forefront of fashion, Bath followed suit, with Britain’s first provincial covered shopping arcade– The Corridor – opening on Wednesday 12 October 1825.

Originally called Goodridge’s Corridor, it was designed as a private enterprise by Henry Edmund Goodridge (1797 – 1864), inspired by his trips abroad and the success of the recently opened London arcades. He had just finished building The Bazaar in Quiet Street (now home to the Eastern Eye restaurant) and he wanted to create an upper class retail experience where people could promenade – to see and be seen.

More than 5,000 people walked The Corridor’s passageway on its inaugural day, pausing to admire the windows of the 22 shops within and be serenaded by an orchestra playing from the balcony above.

Its design was neo-classical, with columns at either entrance (Union Passage and High Street), carved garlands and gilded lion heads and Greco-Roman statues overlooking proceedings from the balconies.

In the words of Henry Goodridge at the time: “Every exertion has been used to make this promenade attractive and selective.”

Before The Corridor opened Goodridge had advertised for prospective tenants. He specified no noisy or offensive trades – butchers, grocers, pawnbrokers and licensed hawkers were not welcome.

“In 1974 at the height of the IRA’s campaign of terror on British shores, Bath became an unlikely target…”

One of the first traders to sign up, and incidentally it became the longest surviving business of The Corridor until its closure in 1989, was Thomas Hatt – a perfumerer and hairdresser (later known as Hatt & Co). Another eminent trader was one of the founding fathers of film-making, William Friese-Greene, soon to become a pioneer in early motion pictures. For 12 years, from 1877, Friese-Greene ran a photographic studio in The Corridor.

It appears that not all Bathonians welcomed the arrival of The Corridor and its high quality retailers. Within the first month of trading, perhaps fearful of competition, an anonymous vendetta was started in the local paper. Rumours abounded that alleged high rents were driving up the price of goods sold here. The Corridor traders’ replies soon quashed this hearsay.

As well as restrictions on the type of traders, there was also a set of rules shoppers had to adhere to; very similar to those still enforced in Burlington Arcade today. One could not run, whistle, sing, or carry large parcels through The Corridor during trading hours. Goodness knows what Goodridge would make of today’s Running Bath shop whose customers can be seen jogging along the length of the passage to test their shoes.

The devastating scene shortly after the terrorist organisation the Irish Republican Army detonated a bomb in
The Corridor in 1974.  Image courtesy of Bath in Time.

To enforce the rules Goodridge, once again inspired by the French and London malls, employed a private Beadle, called The Corridor Constable. The first Constable was George Witchell, who died from injuries sustained from falling through a shop trap door when helping a trader with his delivery.

The Constable was usually an ex-army officer, who marched along the thoroughfare in his uniform of maroon (later navy blue) suit and coat, a black top hat, and a short cane, overseeing order. At 10pm every night he was responsible for locking the gates at either entrance to The Corridor, and re-opening them again at 6am.

All the gas lamps that illuminated The Corridor’s 275 feet had to be lit by hand until this onerous task was resolved with one flick of a switch when electric lights were installed in 1894.

Today we can only imagine the passage ringing with the resounding tones of Constables of the past – men such as William Judson, Isaac Moon, and Arthur Sheppherd. The last Beadle of Bath was Gus Cowley, who stepped down in 1965 after 16 years of service; his position left vacant through lack of interest in such an archaic role.

The Corridor has seen a number of restorations and redecorations over the years. As early as 1833 Goodridge added an annexe to the passageway between Units 7 and 8, with the creation of the Assembly Rooms, known as The Corridor Rooms (later The Victoria Rooms), used as a Freemasons Hall and for lectures and meetings. From the 1870s the rooms were occupied by a school of art; lastly being amalgamated into a photographer’s studio at Unit 7.

The High Street entrance as it looked c1895. Image courtesy of Bath In Time.

After Goodridge’s death in 1864 a number of decorative alterations were made. The Bath stone columns at both entrances were replaced with the red Aberdeen granite columns we see today. The Georgian glazed shop fronts were given plate glass windows, while the low pitched timber roof was supplanted with a semi-circular iron and glass canopy (a small section of the original roof survives if you look carefully).

The glazed canopy bedecked with two glass faux flaming torches that greet shoppers from the High Street, was added in 1927 by A J Taylor. The steps into the arcade are long gone, and inside the brass stall plates are a modern misnomer. Victorian shop front fittings have been interpreted as Regency features. Only No 18, engraved with Bussey (a firm of stationers), is a Victorian original.

By 1877 Goodridge’s heirs were struggling financially and chose to sell The Corridor. The tenants grouped together to buy the freehold and created a management committee to oversee the business. An example perhaps of one of the first co-operative projects, the Corridor Committee still exists today.

A number of fires over the decades caused minor damage; however, in 1974 at the height of the IRA’s campaign of terror on British shores, Bath became an unlikely target. On 9 December at 8.50pm Bath police took an anonymous phone call, warning that a bomb had been planted in The Corridor, and officers rushed to clear the premises. Twenty minutes later the device exploded, thankfully with no fatalities.

Thirteen of the 22 shops were damaged, including Wessex Records, Hatt & Co and the Corridor Stamp Shop. The 5lb bomb had been tucked into The Corridor’s subsidiary passage that led to the Stamp Shop and Leaman’s Photographers. Today there is nothing to mark this incident, although two of the four Greco-Roman statues damaged by the blast, were painstakingly restored by Bath College students in 2011, and once again grace one of the balconies above.

No longer is The Corridor a place of leisured perambulation. Today you are more likely to find office workers and locals using it as a shortcut between Union Street and the High Street.

We may not acknowledge The Corridor as a fine architectural achievement, but perhaps after reading this one may stop and appreciate this Grade II listed location; one of the world’s first shopping arcades which helped set the trend for today’s retail experiences.

Bathintime.co.uk holds more than 4,000 historic images of Bath.

Visit: thecorridorbath.co.uk