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If you ever saw an episode of the Are you being served ? TV series then you will already be familiar with the department store known as Rossiters which played such an important part in the life of Paignton for over 150 years. It is believed that the writers of the show, David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd based their format for the series on this particular store after getting to know Rossiters while working in the town during a summer season at the local theatre.

The shop - and its staff - were the subject of innumerable jokes during its run from  1972 to 1985 but there was nothing funny about the business face of the company in Paignton - or Paington as it was then called in Victorian times  In 1858, at a time when Paignton was little more than a country village, a drapery shop  was founded in Winner Street by two sisters, daughters of a local farmer - Sarah and Jane Rossiter.

Jane Rossiter The Rossiters shop in Winner Street Sarah Rossiter
Jane Rossiter

aged 26 when she founded the business with her sister, Sarah

The Winner Street Drapery shop in the 1850s
Sarah Rossiter

aged 28 when she founded the business with her sister


The career pattern of the Rossiter sisters is remarkably similar to that of Marianne Gush and her  sister who founded Gush and Son in Budleigh Salterton in 1842.  (Go to BudleighinKelly1939Commercial to read the story of Gush & Son). We tend to think of Victorian women as financially dependent, timid and incapable of business acumen. Both Jane and Sarah were married within a few months of their shop opening its doors and  set about founding a family dynasty which would steer the business very successfully for many years to come. Jane retired at the time of her marriage and played no further part in the business.


Over time, the business outgrew the little shop in Winner Street where the owners , their families and their staff had lived over the shop. Sarah and her family moved to Palace Avenue, Paignton's main shopping street, in 1888, and over the years,  acquired adjacent shops to enlarge their premises still further, making room for the new "departments they were gradually adding. In 1934, the family partnership was converted into  a private limited company with four directors including Sarah Rossiter's son "Mr Frank"  who, as the 1901 census shows. followed the family tradition in living above the shop at 7 Palace Avenue.

Sarah married a distant cousin, Robert Tucker Rossiter who was a Master mariner and so was often absent from home for long periods. Thus, in an age when a woman's property passed automatically to her husband upon marriage, Sarah remained free to make business decisions on her own behalf and this she did with great skill.  In 1908, Rossiter and Son (as the Company was then known) celebrated its 50th anniversary. In 1934, the family partnership was converted into  a private limited company with four directors including Sarah Rossiter's son " Mr Frank" - Sarah  herself having died in 1923 aged 93.

Rossiter's shop in Palace Avenue in 1911
The Palace Avenue shop in 1911 dressed for the Coronation celebrations of King George V

This article is based on material included in the History of Rossiters produced in conjunction with the firm's centenary which was celebrated in 1958. At that time, it seemed as though the store would still be there in a hundred years' time, in the heart of Paignton  but it was not to be. Other areas,  notably Plymouth and Exeter built vast new shopping centres to replace those destroyed in the blitz. These were large enough to support a whole "day out" - an attractive proposition to the people of Paignton for whom neither town were far away and who were introduced to the variety and spectacle of nation-wide household names in the High Streets of both places. Paignton - and Rossiters lost ground rapidly in the shopping stakes - and almost overnight, that most precious commodity "foot-fall" disappeared to re-emerge in the new Plymouth shopping centre which boasted not one department store but several. The final blow was delivered by the popularity of internet shopping. The writing was soon on the wall and in spite of a huge effort on the part of the family and the entire staff, the inevitable happened and Rossiters had to close its doors on 31st January 2009 when 29 full-time staff and 62 part timers lost their jobs, including Nigel Rossiter, a grandson of Sarah's who had been in charge of the store for 30 years.


In the final days, everything was put up for sale including the display features and the building itself. One winders if they managed to sell the overhead "railway" which carried payments to the Accounts Office and flew back a few seconds later with change and a receipt.

Rossiters - A horse-drawb delivery vehicle
Rossiters were very proud of their company history and had a number of these old photographs on show in the store.


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