Lawrence Allen has been the Manager of the now closed Forum shopping centre since 2001.
Lawrence was born in Manchester in 1945 and educated at Manchester Central Grammar School.
“If you really go back into my past, for 30 years I was a full-time professional disc jockey during which I did a great deal of promotional work for shopping centres, including running the ‘Arndale Radio’ station in the Manchester Arndale Centre. Then, one day in the late 1980s, I was called into the Chairman’s office and was offered a shopping centre managers job. I thought “I don’t want to do it. I am a DJ and a radio presenter, not a shopping centre manager!”
Nevertheless, with his bosses’ encouragement, Lawrence accepted the role and began his career in shopping centre management running both the Accrington and the Nelson Arndale Centres at the same time. “In 1990, I moved to live in North Shropshire having become the manager of a shopping centre in Shrewsbury.”
“Then, in late 2000, I spotted a centre manager’s job vacancy in Chester being advertised in the shopping centre trade magazine that had been placed by Legat Owen, the Chester-based commercial property surveyors and managing agents.”
The job was for The Forum Shopping Centre which, when it was originally built in 1967, had replaced the much-loved old Market Hall with its then brutalist architectural style, angering many local people at the time. In 1995 the front of the centre was redesigned but the demolition of the old Market Hall still causes bitter local sentiment.
Lawrence continues “I successfully applied for the Chester Forum post which came with the attractive prospect of early retirement for me due to the then owner (a major insurance company) having plans to demolish the shopping centre as part of a redevelopment of the Northgate Quarter of Chester City Centre. I started work at The Forum Shopping Centre on 2nd January 2001.”
“The job at this relatively small shopping centre has always been a single-handed post: with no support staff (Secretary, Operations Manager, etc). I was nevertheless surprised to find, when I started here, that there was no typewriter or computer in my office! Also, all the budgeting, clerical work, record keeping etc relating to the running of the centre was being dealt with at Head Office! Why? I pointed out that considered such work to be within my role and insisted that I be left to get on with it!”
“My line manager instantly agreed with this, and I was allowed to purchase the necessary computer, printer and set up email, arrange for a web site, etc. Soon afterwards, my line manager emailed me, vigorously thanking me for taking so much work off her shoulders – adding that ‘I had given her life back to her’. The rest is history as everything now is copied and filed. I never throw anything away. Yes, I admit, I am a hoarder!”
“Back in 2001 the centre was almost fully let and I was quite pleased with the footfall coming through the centre. We had a supermarket, which was Somerfield in recent times, (we had the Co-op in there before) and a good mix of other well-known tenants. “The tricky thing for me nowadays is remembering all the names of the tenants that have come and gone. There have been so many.”
“The big advantage for The Forum was having the Council Offices entrance in the mall and above us. It was six floors, with several hundred people working in those offices, all coming out into the centre and buying their lunch, doing their shopping and so on.” When the council moved services out of The Forum to other locations, including the HQ building, it naturally had a big impact on footfall.”
Of the tenants, the one steady rock at The Forum has always been the Boots the Chemist store, but their lease has now expired, and they have gone. The retail units at the front of the Forum, including the former McDonald’s Restaurant (closed 2018) and Blackstocks (closed 2022), will remain and will hopefully be filled by new tenants in the months ahead.
Last days of the Forum, December 2022
Prior to our interview, several of the recent tenants had already relocated, with the Forum taking on an eerie atmosphere as a part of Chester’s history fades away. Lawrence is hopeful that Oasis of Miracles the Christian Cafe will, after 7 very successful years in The Forum, join so many other former Forum shops by relocating somewhere in the city centre.
Lawrence reminisced on his time at The Forum. “I organised a range of events in the centre (e.g. fashion shows, music recitals, visits by Town Criers from around the world, Christmas events including our lovable Sleeping Polar Bears, etc.) and I supported a host of local charities in their worthy fundraising efforts, not least the Chester Childbirth Appeal fronted by Mrs Pat Daniels with her Money-spinner.”
Over the years, The Forum has been visited by a number of celebrities including Sir Paul McCartney who visited with his then wife Heather in 2005″ Chester Chronicle reported on this visit: “Sandra Riley, manager of the Health Rack store, ran after her pop idol after spotting him walk past her store in The Forum where he bought cod liver oil tablets on his last visit. She said: ‘I just said ‘Sir Paul, could I possibly have your autograph?’ He said ‘I’m not doing autographs because it’s a private shopping trip with my wife, but I wish you a happy New Year and he touched my arm. Heather was just in front of him and he had the baby in a baby carrier.'” Prince Edward visited in 2021 after a tour of Northgate Street and the Market.
From taking the Forum job in 2001, Lawrence knew the centre’s life would eventually come to an end. “I was originally expecting that The Forum would cease to exist in 2005 or 2006 but the plans put forward by the then owners for their re-development of the Northgate Quarter were not met with enthusiasm by Chester people. Another new owner, an international property company came on the scene and proposed new plans, but everything came to a halt again with the global financial crisis of 2007-08.
“I was not over worried because I was very happy in my work and Legat Owen has always have been an excellent company to work for. They simply leave me to get on with the job.”
The shopping centre was eventually bought by CWAC in late 2013. Once again, plans were forced to change when the House of Fraser department store dropped out of the scheme, with the Forum, originally to be anchored by them, along with other new retail units leading to the New Market and Car Park which opened in November of last year.
In the latter years, B&M, which opened in 2014, proved a big draw for shoppers, as well as innovations including the University’s art gallery space. The inspired food court revival of Chester Market happened from 2018 onwards and Lawrence says that “It certainly brought people in at unusual times of the day. We even had to keep the Forum mall open on Friday and Saturday evenings, because our mall was the Market’s main entrance.
“I’m struggling to think of anything that has annoyed me about my job here because I have always had a very good relationship with the Council.” says Lawrence. However, he does admit to frustrations in his early days here, when the activation of a fire alarm in any part of the shopping centre would also trigger the fire alarm panel in its neighbouring premises, not least the Gateway Theatre, often disrupting performances. ” If anyone accidentally set off the fire alarm in the shopping centre (smoking in shop units was still legal in those days), the whole complex had to be evacuated, even for false alarms.”
“So, I eventually persuaded the local Fire Officer and our Fire Insurers to allow me to fit a 4-minute delay device to the shopping centre’s Fire Alarm system, which then gave us time to investigate the cause of any fire alarm and, if it was a false alarm, to deal with it before it set off any neighbouring alarms. Happily, The Forum Shopping Centre has never had a real fire in all the years that I have been here.”
Of the vast changes to retail in the last two decades, Lawrence says: “It disappoints me and upsets me that, everywhere I go, I see how many retail spaces that used to be so good are now empty and boarded up. The shopping centre I left in Shrewsbury is an example. I left that centre fully let with no problems. That shopping centre is now closed, yet it was only opened in the early 1990s. I do fear for the future of high street retail now.”
Looking down from his office in The Forum, Lawrence notes that the shopping centre will be mothballed rather than demolished. “So, we have to make the building compliant with what the fire insurers want. It is going to be mothballed for a while. I would personally like to see some sort of quality re-development of this part of the city centre, and I would also like to see it include more residential. If people live locally, they will shop locally.”
“At 77 years of age I will be both sad and pleased to leave my job in Chester. I am pleased because I have been here at The Forum for so long but sad to watch as the centre passes away, like a loved relative. Yes, I will be sad, but I have enjoyed twenty plus years of happy times working in such a wonderful city centre.”
Lawrence with the painting by the previous Forum manager Gordon Wilkinson
“My job here will finally come to an end on 31 January, when I will walk out of the building holding a watercolour, painted by my predecessor at The Forum, of the memorable view across Northgate Street, looking toward Chester’s beautiful Cathedral.”
5 Replies to “The Forum Manager reflects”
Really interesting to read and so nice that Lawrence mention the Oasis of Miracles Christian cafe. It’s a lifeline for many people so I’m sure it will have a new place. God bless you in your retirement Lawrence.
Its been a pleasure working with you over the years Lawrence, enjoy your retirement and pop in for a coffee if your passing 🙂
Hi Lawrence. It’s good to see you are fit and well. I used to work for you on Arndale Radio back in 1986 to 1988 when I left to have my baby. I too have had a fabulous career and am now retired. Hope you enjoy your retirement. Take care, Linda.
Hi Lawrence. I was one of your Security team in the early 2000,s (me, big John the Security Manager and Cliff Atkinson, closely supported by Selwyn lol) So sorry The Forum has closed. You put so much into it from reindeers at Christmas to birds of prey during the Summer. It was a privilege to work for you and I wish you health and happiness in your retirement. I live in Australia now but will raise a glass to ou👍
Hope your enjoying your retirement. We were both in the travel industry many years ago before your Forum and DJing days.
Good to hear you had many happy years at the Forum before it’s closure. Be great to see you at my 70th birthday bash in November.
Best wishes to you and the family x