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McWHIRR’S DEPT. STORE – WHERE LIZZIE WENT A-THIEVING

27 Jul

Mea Culpa Notice:  I was in error. McWhirr’s Dept Store, as shown here was not inside the Cherry & Webb Building.   It was a separate structure subsequently torn down and another building in its place.  The Cherry & Webb building, however still stands as indicated below.

In Lizzie’s day this was McWhirr’s Department Store, an upscale department store where anybody who was anybody shopped. Shown in this photograph, the name “McWhirr” can be made out on the top of the white building in the background.

The Cherry and Webb Building (so stated on the front of the building) is located at 139 South Main and is now the UMASS-Dartmouth Professional and Continuing Education Center a learning center for professionals, night students and other students. On the ground floor is the Café Arpeggio. Bristol Community College has recently leased space for special courses for special needs. Baker Books, once there on the ground floor in April 2007, gone by August 2007. Darnit.

Previously “one of the city’s most underutilized downtown structures”, Mayor Lambert is credited with its current public use.When I spoke to security, building maintenance technicians, administrators and students, one of the things I learned is that this facility is being used to assist with GED education for a number of the nearly 900 employees who lost their jobs by the closing of Quaker Fabric. I also learned that the only interior “original” to this building is the grand staircase shown below.

There was a time when the building was known to all Fall Riverites as “McWhirr’s”. Imagine Lizzie in her blue India silk bengaline inside this store moving about amongst the crowd. Imagine Lizzie taking a five fingered discount of oh, say, a pansy broach and sliding it up inside her so conveniently fitted gloved hand. Then, with a casual grace and the deportment of “a Borden” strolling towards this staircase and ascending to the second floor.

Without batting an eye nor turning her head to see if she’s being followed, she would maintain a steady but lady-like gait as she faked interest in nearby displays of hats, porcelain figurines, and petite carved bottles of French perfume. With a skill only acquired from experience, she would be diligently aware of any store employee watching her from a near distance.

Her heart beating to the exhiliarating thrill of this familiar challenge and satisfied no one was following, she would turn back to the stairway and begin her descent, one lady-like step at a time. Below her she would survey the vast array of glass table top and standing shelved display cases, filled with products from near and abroad. Men, women and children busy shopping, strolling and admiring all the goods. Busy store clerks packaging purchases and preparing sales slips. Busy, busy, busy. She would survey it all, calmly determined in her objective.

One gloved hand on the railing, the other modestly angled upright, her fashionable cloth purse looped over it. Posture perfect, a lady of some stature, she would have looked straight ahead, a seemingly blank stare masking a steeled will. She would descend, slowly, each step measured with her resolve and comforted in the fact her broach not the least bit detected as it nestled securely inside her modestly priced but exquisitely stitched leather glove.

Pausing at the bottom step, brazenly she would hold up that gloved hand with its secret deposit and there she would act as if only adjusting the fitting. Only a moment, but pause enough to quickly ascertain once more with a quick scan if any authoritative and watchful eyes were upon her. They are not. Only a fresh-face counter girl who looks directly at her and says: “Good morning, Miss Borden”. She would respond with a tilt of the head, a forced, kindly smile, and she would begin her walk towards the front door. A slight turn to the left and she would be on her path, curving here, curving there passing the cases, dodging a small child, brushing skirts against other ladies. Closer, each step closer. The front door now in sight.

Only 32 paces,…. now 20, and the heartbeat accelerates,….. now 12, and the breathing more pronounced…..now 9, and a slightly fevered brow…..now 7 and a quivering chin….the uniformed doorman sees her approach… now 2 steps, two steps only as the doorman pulls upon the door and tips his hat…the step across the threshold…, now daylight. No arm upon hers. No hand upon her shoulder. Big exhale. The quivering chin ceases to quiver, the pulse rate subsides, the fevered brow cools in the bright sun. A liberating wave of relief engulfs her. She feels…. a profound sense of…..special achievement by way of genetic entitlement.

Actually, considering the fashions of the day, forget the broach. She could have concealed a Virginia ham under those skirts. And many of the “ladies who went a-thieving”, in fact, did just that. But not at McWhirr’s.

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10 Comments

Posted by on July 27, 2014 in Fall River History, Fall River, MA

 

10 responses to “McWHIRR’S DEPT. STORE – WHERE LIZZIE WENT A-THIEVING

  1. jacquiephelan

    October 8, 2007 at 7:48 PM

    Oh, man, dear miss Phaymeuss (that is such a sneaky pun)
    you have captured the five-finger discount attitude, and welded it to ms borden…I only came here because there’s a McWhirr here in Marin Co. Usa, where I live.
    And a quick google got me here, and I’m massively grateful
    Thus: please seek out MY blog: jacquiephelan.com
    your feedback would be greatly valued.

     
  2. Alan McWhirr

    August 7, 2008 at 1:24 PM

    I know noting about McWhirr’s department store, but wondered if anybody has traced the McWhirr. Did the family come from the UK? If so when and where did they live?

    Alan McWhirr

     
  3. Carol McWhirr

    August 16, 2009 at 2:50 AM

    Hi, Im a McWhirr born in Bristol England and raised out here in Marin County, California. (Hi Jackie. Your one of my favorite Mt Bike riders of all time! ) I searched the McWhirr name and found this Interesting site as well. Did not know Lizzie was a thief.
    Hi Alan, I know my grandfather’s father was born in Ireland, in 1900. My grandfather was born in Ireland around 1920. He moved to England where my father was born in the 1940s. But that is as far as my Dad knows. Im always looking for McWhirr info as well. I also found a McWhirr Candy Store in I believe Rhode Island, USA.

     
    • Brendan Dunne

      June 3, 2014 at 10:09 AM

      I know this msg is 4 years late, but I noticed the McWhirr family name being mentioned when I was casually looking up the Lizzie Broden story. I have some info on a McWhirr family from Cork Ireland bet. 1887-1910 and who seemed to have disappeared from this area after 1911. email me for full details which I can send on. B.

       
  4. Arthur Michael

    January 10, 2010 at 4:35 PM

    McWhirr’s was a thriving, elegant and popular store when I was growing up in the area in the ’50s. I believe it was still open into the early ’60s. The store had a very formal, old world and elegant feel and on several accessible by wide staircases and manned elevators, McWhirr’s had wonderful departments filled with mannequins displaying clothing, toys, furniture, perfume, sports equipment; for a young child, it was a haven for hiding out. The wooden floors creaked magically and the display cases were fine carved wood. I also remember being completely fascinated by the pneumatic tubes by which the salespeople would convey cash and receive change for purchases.

     
  5. Peter G Laurie

    April 5, 2011 at 12:59 PM

    my mother is related to Mr. Fred Cherry, of Cherry and
    webb. She lived and was born in Somersham,out side Cambridge England UK.
    She is very interested that the building once a super store is now been put into such good use.
    I have printed pictures to show her the once store now
    a gallery and learning centre.
    I her son buy the way.
    Thank you
    Regards,
    Peter G.Laurie. Dated. 5-4-2011.

     
  6. Peter G Laurie

    April 5, 2011 at 1:01 PM

    sorry I made a mistake my mother is related to Mr. Fred
    Webb.
    Regards,
    Peter. G.Laurie

     
  7. Anonymous

    December 11, 2011 at 8:51 AM

    Very Interesting… I was the display manager for Cherry & Webb in Fall River, Newport and New Bedford from 1956 to 1966 I remember the building in Fall river and Prov like the backs of my hands. I remember the staircase as shown, and the side entrance shown at the bottom of the staircase . I worked there during the time of Pres. Kennedy’s assasination when I drove from Fall Riover to our Newport store in the afternoon and was greeted outside the store as I was parking, by the store manager Al Stuttard, who askied me if I heard the latest, and I said what, he answered The President was shot. I said o.k. what’s the punch line?, thinking it was a joke. The strangest thing was I glanced up above the store’s roof line where I could see the church steeple where Pres Kennedy and Jackie Onassis were married. At Cherry’s in Fall River we would decorate the 50″ christmas tree on the roof of the buildin each year to later be lifted by crane to the facade of the building, with the police closing down the streets in the morning for the occasion. Cherryand Webb was a great place to work, The manager of the store(Nelson Cherry ) had a daughter Drew who would work in my department during the summers, as she was a school teacher at Dana Hall in Ma. the rest of the year. When the Outlet Co. bought Cherry & Webb, things changed dramatically, and it was time to go. I went to work for a small co called Casual Corner that consisted of a 12 store chain. When I left them 28 years later the company consisted of 1400 stores.

     
    • Sue

      December 26, 2011 at 1:17 AM

      do yoou have anyold pictures of the insides of these stores? I grew up in Fall River. Am a Stafford.Miss the old Fall River. What amess they made out of a unique downtown

       
      • phayemuss

        December 30, 2011 at 3:44 AM

        No, I’m sorry, I do not.

         

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