Who doesn’t love a mooch around their favourite department store? When the pandemic restrictions lifted last year, I headed up to town for a hit of much-missed, immersive glamour. Nothing beats a slow glide up the escalators, sniffing French perfume on your wrist, past outrageous mannequins and oligarchs (Selfridges) – especially when you’ve been stuck at home for six months.
But 21st-century Oxford Street is a changed landscape. Once, department stores marched its entire length, and their names used to roll off the tongue: Marshall & Snelgrove, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Peter Robinson, Waring & Gillow, D. H. Evans (latterly House of Fraser). The ‘Golden Mile’ was famed for its dazzling shopping offer. Post-pandemic, just Selfridges and John Lewis have survived.
We’ve lost an astonishing 83% of our department stores over the past six years, from the big chains (Debenhams, Army & Navy, Beales) to cherished independents like Jenners of Edinburgh and Boswells of Oxford. ‘But Mum,’ says my 13-year-old daughter, rolling her eyes. ‘Department stores are so last century.’ Shopping has, as we know, moved on.
I’ve spent the past two years immersed in the golden age of shopping, researching my book on London’s lost department stores. And, unexpectedly, it’s made me hugely nostalgic for this decorous retail model on the cusp of extinction. Right from the start, these ‘Halls of Temptation’ were designed to seduce. Stuffed full of extraordinary innovations – from the first children’s bicycle (Gamages, 1898), to the first vacuum cleaner (Gorringes, 1903) to the first Y-fronts (Simpsons, 1937). Santa’s Grotto was invented by the department store: J.R. Roberts of Stratford put Father Christmas in a darkened cavern lit by lanterns in 1888. Some 17,000 children visited.
While the West End’s emporia dazzled, some of the most go-getting businesses sprang up in the suburbs. Here, the big store was the community lynchpin, cossetting customers with goods and services (furniture repair, wedding cakes, coal delivery, clock winding), plus, the chance of a job for life. Most of us know someone who worked, however briefly, in a department store, and all of us have our own childhood memories of such places.
Croydon’s big ‘houses’ were particularly brilliant. There was Allders, with its sweeping, colonnaded front; Grants, famous for bespoke tailoring; and Kennards, ‘The store that entertained to sell, and sold to entertain’. Up on the roof or ‘Playground in the Sky’, you’d find Wild West shows, a zoo and Punch & Judy. Downstairs, Mademoiselle Veronica of the Folies Bergère, the World’s Highest Kicker, would be trying out the hosiery department’s range of silk stockings at 100 kicks a minute. Outside, two circus elephants could be blocking the street, publicising a ‘Jumbo Sale’.
These were phenomenal, surprising, emancipating places. Edwardian women could linger, un-chaperoned, all day (thank you Mr Selfridge for the first ladies’ lav, 1909). But if I could teleport back in time, where would I go? Lunch at the sumptuous, Art Deco Shinners of Sutton? A fashion show at Holdrons of Peckham, with its Moderne ‘Lenscrete’ vaulted ceilings (today Khan’s Bargains)? Or a shoplifting spree in the louche gloom of 70s Big Biba, on Kensington High Street, complete with Moorish roof garden and flamingos?
If you’re lucky enough to still live near a department store, go mooch around its vintage ecosystem. We can take none of these places for granted.
This book is for London-lovers, architecture buffs, history flâneurs, fashionistas, former loyal workers, Are You Being Served obsessives, and anyone who has ever loved riding the escalator up, up, up.
London’s Lost Department Stores: A Vanished World of Dazzle and Dreams (Safe Haven Press, £16.99) The publisher has kindly offered three books to give away to TNMA readers. If you’d like to win one, please comment below before 10 December 2022.
Journalist and social historian Tessa Boase lives in Hastings with her family.