The incredible untold story of the Preston business behind city’s oldest building

Thos Yates united the city’s great watch making ‘houses’ and has been passed down from father to son for generations

Preston changes every year – churches become restaurants, terraced houses become cafes and you always seem find yourself thinking ‘was that there before’? The inevitability of change is something we witness daily but hidden between great slabs of modern day infrastructure, you’ll often find a timeless and perfectly preserved piece of the past.

One prime example can be found at Preston‘s Flag Market – a focal point in the city that has become home to countless events and displays over the years. Bordering the impressive structures that make up the concrete square, is one tiny, hidden store.

This is in fact the oldest building Preston, dating back to 1580 – although first mentions of the site reportedly go back even further. And the business which now plies its trade inside these ancient walls has a fascinating tale to tell.

Thos Yates Watch Makers and Jewellers is one of the oldest enterprises known in the city. Dating back to the early 1800’s, the specialist business eventually became one of the city’s most treasured gems and still a talking point centuries later.

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Thomas Yates was born in 1811 in a small village outside of Preston called Goosnargh and was one of the youngest sons of a local farmer. His teenage years introduced him into the world of watch making where the apprentice became the store owner, setting the gears into motion for a family run enterprise that would survive generations.

The first of a trio of stores was opened on 159 Friargate where Mr Yates manufactured and repaired watches. Four years later, he married his wife Mary Hartley and it was at this point of his life where not only his career grew but his family too.

Two years before the birth of his eldest son, Mr Yates patented his own watch – The Dead Beat watch made a significant maker on the horological industry which later resulted in the watchmaker being awarded the silver medal and certificate by the Society of Arts and Sciences.

The original patent and medals are still hung on the walls of the current store in Preston’s City Centre. But there were still many years and changes to the business to come before the historical store on Market Place opened up.

Mr Yates became a father to three children, a boy and two girls who each gave their own contributions to the family business. After the death of his son in 1881, Mr Yate’s business eventually fell into the hands of his daughter Hannah Yates.

While the youngest daughter Emma Yates, married and moved to live in Liverpool, Hannah stayed with the family business. Never marrying, she took on the responsibilities at the shop but in 1890, Mr Yates died aged 78 leaving behind just under £2000 to his name.

Three decades on, Hannah came to the decision that it was time for her to sell up shop but with no children of her own to pass it down to, she sought the help of a fellow watchmaker. It was here that the Yate’s family business was taken on by a different family- the Rhodes family.

James Rhodes, grandfather and great grandfather to the current owners, ran his own watchmakers shop on Church Street in Preston. As the nation prepared to fight in the First World War he left his own business to join the Royal Engineers and then later became part of the Royal Flying Corps.

After the war ended, James Rhodes attended All Saints Church on Elizabeth Street in Preston. The war veteran returned home teetotal and had taken to preaching on the “evils of drink” on the Flag Market on Sunday evenings, talking to those who stopped and listened.

In the audience during one of his impromptu public sermons one day was an elderly lady called Miss Hannah Yates – who also did not approve of strong alcohol and after some inquiry, she discovered that James was also a watchmaker. Not long after, Miss Yates decided to sell her family business to James under one condition – that he would keep her father’s name above the shop.

This sparked a pinnacle moment in the business’ history as the transition from one family to another meant that the entire enterprise would live on for more centuries to come. The year Miss Yates sold the shop was the same year she died leaving little in the way of a lasting legacy with the exception of the store which still stands as Thos Yates today.

In 1920, James Rhodes moved the business from 157 Friargate, up the road to 12 Friargate, with the new premises neighbouring the newly built shopping centre. In the new shop, James introduced his own children to the business and transferred it to his son, Rodger Rhodes.

At the start of the second World War Roger, like his father before him, left the business to join the RAF but this time round, the business continued trading. James had returned to man the store with the help of his daughter Maude.

At the war’s end in 1945 Roger came home to run the business once again. Roger Rhodes sadly died in 1968, leaving the business in the hands of his son David, again just like his father before him had done.

David spent the next couple of decades happy at work in the business that was now his own but after a new leases was negotiated for the premises on Friargate, the watchmaker soon found he could no longer afford to keep the site, forcing him to look elsewhere if he wanted to keep the company alive.

33 Market Place is an anomaly among the other buildings on the row. The ‘Dickensian’ style building made up of wooden panels, small glass windows and traditional signage still remains practically untouched, even to this day.

The Grade II listed building has been preserved since its early beginnings with the first mentions of the site reportedly dating back to around 1487. It’s believed that the town doctor resided in this small property and even before ever getting the keys to the place, David always had his eye on it.

“I’ve always liked the building in fact, I used to sit by the Cenotaph and just look at it and think it’s a lovely shop that I wish it was mine and I never dreamed that get it and then it just happened that while we were down in Friargate, the lease was coming up for review and I was paying about, I think it was £3000 a year,” David said.

“They wanted to push it up to £17,000 and I just couldn’t afford it, the business couldn’t stand it. So I looked around for a new property and a friend of mine was a director of an estate agents and he said there’s a shop coming up for sale in Cheapside- I said, oh, I might be interested.

“When he told me it was this one I said right, I’m definitely interested and so I negotiated legal and general and got out of that, and bought it.”

Once he acquired the building, David recalls moment where repair works and clean up jobs were needed. During his time in the new building he even came across more of the site’s rich history.

“It’s had a variety of uses at one time it had been a fruiterers, it had been a chemist and I think it’s a been a liquor store,” David added.

“In the last 100 years it’s been a tobacconist- I remember it as a child, originally when it was a tobacconist there was a model of a sailor with long floppy trousers, and a white top smoking one of these wooden pipes, leaning forward and I remember that to even today.

“There was this upstairs that we opened up, because we use it as a workshop now but when we got up there, it’d been used as living quarters, there was a fireplace, which we took down and there was a chimney, which actually came down. But the dust and soot was that thick on the beams so we had to clean all that up- but the rest of it was pretty well as it is today.

“At one time 33 and 34 Market Place were one shop and when they split them up I think they sort of made a mistake, I think and they acquired the staircase and part of the upstairs because when I took over, the only way that we could get upstairs was through a trapdoor.”

In 2008, David retired from the business aged 69, leaving it in the hands of his own son, Charles Rhodes. The site stands as it did all those years ago and while many undoubtedly often stand and admire this Victorian style premises, the business has certainly kept with the times and now thrives in modern society.

By

Fatima AzizTrainee reporter
  • 11:05, 17 SEP 2022

1 Comment on "The incredible untold story of the Preston business behind city’s oldest building"

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