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A Vanished World of Dazzle and Dreams

Not long ago, every major high street in Greater London, from Ilford to Uxbridge, had its landmark department store. The West End was full of them – from Debenham & Freebody on Wigmore Street, to Swan & Edgar at Piccadilly Circus. But now the department store is suddenly an endangered species. We've lost an astonishing 83% in the past six years. 

Today’s consumer has little idea of the sheer dazzle of these ‘Halls of Temptation’ during the golden age of shopping – of their sheer theatrical spectacle, the overwhelming assault on the senses, the astonishing architectural élan.


From the fabulous Art Deco of Derry & Toms, to the startling Moderne lines of Holdrons of Peckham Rye, department stores led the way in fashion and design. As new social hubs for the independent Victorian woman, they engineered social progress. They became legendary for their publicity stunts, their Christmas shop windows, their exotic pet departments, their furs: as places where you could buy anything – 'from an elephant to a pin'. 

Bursting with original research and anecdote, illustrated with superb period photographs throughout, this unique store-by-store history brings to life a vanished era of confidence and style.


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.

'Highly recommended. Definitely one for your London shelves' - London Historians

Click the images below for stories from the stores

• J.R. Roberts of Stratford was first to host a Christmas Grotto in 1888. 17,000 children visited.

• In 1937, Bentalls of Kingston lured crowds to its glass atrium with a female stunt diver.

• Harrods staff had a ladies’ rifle team, an athletics association and an amateur dramatics society.

• In 1900, some 250,000 women worked in shops. By 1965, the number was over a million: a fifth of Britain’s female workforce.

• Shoplifting, or ‘kleptomania’, was thought to be triggered by female hormones.

• A pair of Jones Bros pyjamas, bought on the Holloway Road in 1909, were used as critical evidence in the sensational Dr Crippen murder trial.

• On 17 September 1940, the Luftwaffe ignited a ‘river of fire’ the length of Oxford Street. Five great department stores went up in flames.

• In 1952 John Barnes of Finchley Road opened London’s first self-service food hall.

• In 1970, Selfridges ripped out its fabulous, bronze Deco elevators in favour of escalators.

• In 1930, Chiesmans of Lewisham thrilled shoppers with ‘Vixen the Untamed Lioness.’

• When Simpson Piccadilly opened in 1936, it featured a floor of tailors, cutters and pressers working away in full view of customers.

• The first elevator was installed at the Army & Navy in 1880. Barber’s of Fulham didn’t get around to installing one until 1988 – six years before it closed.

• The Lamson Pneumatic Tube System, for cash payments, required 15-18 miles of tubing for a large department store.

• Harrison Gibson of Ilford burned down to the ground not once, but twice: 1924 and 1959. Bromley’s Harrison Gibson also burned down in 1968.

• At Harrods’ 1981 Winter Sale, a woman fell and split her head in a tussle over a Dynatron Remote Control TV.

• In 1864 Lady Florence Paget gave her fiancé the slip at Marshall & Snelgrove, entering by the Oxford Street entrance, and exiting by Vere Street.

• Joanna Lumley worked as a ‘house model’ for Debenham & Freebody in 1966 on £8 a week

• When the Galeries Lafayette opened on Regent Street in 1920, its Pierre Imans wax models looked so real it was thought to be haunted.

• Peter Robinson was the last department store to have staff ‘living in’ until 1912.

• 83 per cent of Britain’s department stores have closed since 2016.

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