J W Darcy's in the 1920s.

Take a look into the past of Peterborough’s oldest business as it prepares to shut

Silversmith, watchmaker and jeweller JW D’Arcy has been adding sparkle to Peterborough’s retail scene for more than 160 years.

Friday, 2nd July 2021, 6:15 am

But as the decades have passed, new trends have cut deep into this gem of a retailer, the shimmer has faded and now what is thought to be the city’s oldest independent business is about to close.

Founded 166 years ago, the business has always traded from number seven Westgate.

Originally a family home in a rapidly expanding Victorian Peterborough, the building, complete with its own rear garden, was bought in 1855 by William Sawyer who converted the ground floor into a jewellery shop with a new frontage added in 1890.

Sixty eight years later, the business was sold by William’s son Walter to John William D’Arcy, known to his friends as Jack.

The accounts show the first day of trading was December 5, 1923, and for decades to follow the premises served as both a business and a family home for the owners.

Originally from Yorkshire, Jack and his wife Lena had four children - Michael, born in Yorkshire, and then Ray, Margaret and Eileen who were born above the shop.

The business has remained in the D’Arcy family ever since and at its peak it generated enough income to support four branches of the family.

But buffeted by changing tastes in jewellery, the construction of the Queensgate shopping centre, the financial crash of 2008 and - the final nail in the coffin - the Covid-19 pandemic, the business is now just staggering on.

Current owner, accountant David D’arcy (64) of Bourne, grandson of JW D’Arcy, said: “The business has not been good for us over the last few years and the last 12 months during the Covid pandemic have been hard.

“We now have an opportunity to break the lease on the premises and thought we might as well do it - and sell.

“It is sad to be closing, especially as the business, which has been trading since 1855, must be the oldest independent business in the city.”

A closing down sale will start on Saturday with a repairs service being offered until August 31.

The four staff - including two who have been with the business for 15 years each - will be made redundant.

The last of the D’Arcy family to work in the shop was David’s cousin Mark who retired in 2014.

Their aunt Margaret lived above the shop until her retirement in 1990 after which the upstairs was turned into flats for rent.

The D’Arcy family sold the building in 2016 and then leased back the shop. The building’s current owner is based in Reading and is understood to be looking to sell the premises.

Mr D’Arcy, an ardent Peterborough United supporter, said: “By the 60s the business was comfortably looking after four families.

“But Peterborough has changed a lot over the last 97 years and so has the jewellery industry.

“The final nail in the coffin for us has been the Covid pandemic.

“Even by the first lockdown business had died and it has just been a struggle to get people back.

“There seems to be a general nervousness among people and they don’t seem to want to be out.

“Footfall in Peterborough has dropped off. The Queensgate centre is really nothing more than a large red brick building with no natural light.

“But people are beginning to appreciate being outside. They just want to park and go into a shop and so are now more likely to go to Serpentine Green shopping centre or Brotherhood Retail Park.”

The Queensgate shopping centre has been a recurring bugbear for the D’Arcy family

Plans to build Queensgate were a major concern for the D’Arcy family who campaigned in 1972 against its application for planning approval.

They were successful in forcing a rethink over the original size which would have seen the jewellery shop swallowed up and the land it occupied turned into an entrance area for the mall.

But the family and other campaigners could not halt what was deemed to be an essential for Peterborough if it was to compete with other cities and a slightly reduced Queensgate secured the go ahead.

However, Mr D’Arcy said the real struggle for the business began in 2007/08 with the financial crash.

He said: “People tightened their belts and we then saw a drop-off in footfall.

“But there has also been a change in trends in the jewellery industry.

“People no longer want to buy items such as canteens of cutlery and trays and sales of watches are dying.

“The arrival of Pandora had a big impact on the industry as people began to see jewellery as a throw away item and not something of value - something inexpensive to buy and worn for just a short time.”

Mr D’Arcy added: “The business has been a bit of an enforced inheritance for us.

“Times change and it seems it has been left to me to wrap it all up.”

The pending closure of the business has sparked some concerns about the future of the historic building for which there are deeds drawn up in 1791.

But in the rear garden, embedded in a wall is a stone into which is carved the date 1678, which is thought to have been from the buildings that had previously occupied the site.

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