The very first British health store was opened by James Henry Cook in Corporation Street, Birmingham in 1898. Originally called the Vegetarian Food Depot, its name was quickly changed to Pitman’s Health Food Store after a customer enquired as to which foods would help her particular medical condition and suddenly Mr Cook realised he was selling foods for health.
The building, which still stands today, also housed a seven-storey vegetarian hotel and vegetarian restaurant. It was named after Sir Isaac Pitman who was also a notable vegetarian of the time, and whose shorthand system is still used to this day.
There followed many more health stores during the early 1900s, initially in cities and then major towns, not least in London where the pioneers Eustace Miles, William G Orr and Edgar Saxon opened health food stores in Chandos Street, Ludgate Hill and Wigmore Street respectively. Shearns of Tottenham Court Road was a veritable health food mecca. The Martin family opened the Savoy Health Store in Nottingham which was to pass through three generations of the same family.
The Roaring 20s
William Orr had expanded to four shops, his others being in the UK capitals of Belfast, Cardiff and Glasgow. By 1925 there were a few hundred health stores in the UK and more were added steadily throughout the next decades.
The National Association of Health Stores was formed in 1931 and advertised its members shops for the first time. The message which went with the list said ‘Health Stores have for many years been advocating and facilitating the adoption of a vital natural diet. By purchasing your supplies from any of the undermentioned establishments, you will not only be assured of obtaining foodstuffs of guaranteed quality, purity and integrity, but you will be helping to support the much needed educational work which they, hand in hand with the great pioneers of Natural Therapeutics, are doing to eradicate disease and to inaugurate an era of universal health and happiness’. The message is still as valid today.
During the Second World War and the continuing rationing period, health stores had a particular edge, for they were a source of veggie protein sustenance on which the nation’s vegetarians could rely. Despite the shipping casualties, most stores enjoyed a smooth supply of nuts and nutmeat products.
The 1960s witnessed dynamic growth in health foods and the number of stores increased to over 2,000 along with health food departments in the most prestigious department stores of the time – not least Harrods and Selfridges.
Although this boom in interest in health foods led to some big companies setting up shop, it was still dominated by individual entrepreneurs, many with the same altruistic ideals of those early pioneers set on what would be described today as ‘eating for health’ and reversing disease by natural methods.
The success of the health food store message through the latter part of the 20th century also captured the interest of major food and pharmacy retailers. Today, despite many challenges, the independent health store continues to thrive as a result of its ability to adapt and to lead, together with its infinitely wider range of healthy merchandise and, not least, the expert advice it is able to offer to its customers.
In 1998 a permanent plaque was unveiled on the listed Pitman building, the site of the first British health store.