Father Christmas made special mid-summer visit to Paignton

Joseph Bulmer

The stories behind Torbay 's blue plaques by Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society. This week: the Rossiter family:

It was 2010 when Torbay Civic Society was asked by the directors of Rossiters if the family name could be included on a blue plaque to permanently reflect their connection with the store, now that the premises was leased to The Factory Shop in Palace Avenue Paignton.

Having been in touch with Keith Rossiter, of Sittingbourne, Kent, by the following July, 2011, all his fellow directors of the company had agreed we should formally proceed.

By then our researchers had discovered the initial advert for the Rossiter store at 7 Palace Avenue had appeared in March 1888, although previously sisters of the family had run a Rossiter drapery shop in Winner Street.

With the sponsorship and a Bijou Theatre Company advert in support, and the wording on the plaque also agreed, only the biographical pamphlet and date for the actual unveiling and event was left to arrange.

We knew the event would likely attract great interest as the store was one of Torbay's most popular retail outlets before it closed in January 2009.

With the arrangements all agreed the unveiling would take place on March 31, 2012.

Prior to its unveiling at the store, the directors decided they wanted to greet everyone at the Palace Theatre, Paignton, where Keith Rossiter would be introduced by me on stage before presenting a family biography with the plaque on display.

After the presentation the large audience were treated to free refreshments in the theatre bar, before then those wishing to witness the official unveiling walked through Palace Avenue Gardens to the store.

The official unveil was undertaken by leader of Torbay Council, Derek Mills, together with Miss Chris Tolchard, longest-serving member of staff who had been employed by Rossiters for more than 45 years.

With a large crowd in attendance, Paigntonians especially were not too surprised to see Father Christmas arrive on a summer visit, having travelled by Polar Express due to his sleigh having its mid-year maintenance.

Over many years thousands of loyal customers and children could recall the annual appearance in store of Father Christmas with Rudolph and the sleigh. It was a traditional feature for this popular family store.

Today's summer visit was certainly a first for the society and after the unveiling a second surprise - the directors had arranged a special reception at the Palace Hotel on Paignton Esplanade and guests were offered a special ticket giving admittance.

The family history of Rossiter & Son (Paignton) Limited goes back to 1740 when Richard Rossiter arrived in Torbay and worked as a steward at Blagdon Inn, Paignton.

Over the following period another line of the family saw two sisters, Sarah and Jane - two of a family of ten - establish the first Rossiter General Drapery store in Winner Street in March 1858.

Later, Sarah alone took on the shop and extended its range into fabrics used especially for crinolene dresses, then a new fashion rapidly growing especially to the thousands of visitors coming to Torbay after the railway was established.

The First World War was a difficult period for retailers and after Sarah's death in 1923, it was not until 1934 that with various members of the Rossiter family became involved and formally turned it into a limited company.

At the end of the Second World War with retailers still struggling to survive, it would not be until 1950 that Leslie Rossiter, with previous experience of banking, now ensured the store became financially sound and sustainable.

His added special promotions and good marketing eventually saw a successful store celebrating its centenary year in 1958.

But with the arrival of the 21st century what had been a highly successful business was struggling again and although it celebrated its 150th anniversary year in 2008, the arrival of internet shopping was a turning point for the company when reluctantly the board of directors decided it was time for the Rossiter's at 7-13 Palace Avenue era to end.

They finally closed their store in January 2009 and then leased the premises.