Tales of the Titans
Updated: Apr 1
Designed to dazzle, department stores were once glittering sites of local pride. Now, with closures, a chapter of history is coming to an end.
It’s like losing a dignified friend: the shock, on walking down the high street, to discover the windows of a once-cherished department store have been boarded up. Or, worse, that it’s morphed overnight into something unseemly. And with its sudden loss, memories are triggered: school uniform fitting, the sweep of a curved bannister, the haberdashery department with its racks upon racks of Sylko bobbins in every nuance of colour, from forget-me-not to Napoleon blue.
We’ve lost an astonishing 83% of our department stores in the past six years. A 2022 report by SAVE Britain’s Heritage found 237 former stores sitting empty and purposeless, evidence of the seismic shift in our shopping habits. It seems inconceivable that old, established independents, such as Jenners of Edinburgh, founded in 1838, or Boswells of Oxford, trading since 1738 and the second-oldest department store in the world, have shut their doors for good.
When the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic began to pick off our remaining department stores, it seemed like a pivotal moment in history; a time to take stock. And so I set off, like an Edwardian ‘shopping woman’, on a mercantile journey around London, scanning facades for the stories within.
By 1900 the capital and its suburbs boasted well over 100 grand ‘houses’, often in close proximity. Ilford had Bodgers and Harrison Gibson; Peckham had Holdrons and Jones & Higgins; Brixton had Bon Marché and – right next door – Quin & Axtens. Kensington High Street had an alluring offer for every kind of shopper: Barkers, Derry & Toms and Pontings, the ‘House for Value’. Oxford Street, the ‘Golden Mile’, was a famous parade of palatial emporia, from Selfridges to Bourne & Hollingsworth.
When the pandemic drove me indoors I went online, scrolling through archives, ordering old books, in an attempt to resurrect the detail of that supremely confident era of consumption. What did it feel like to enter a great store in 1850 – and again, in 1950? What sights might greet you, once you pushed past those heavy revolving doors? How did it feel to serve, and be served?
My shopping companion was ‘Olivia’, anonymous author of Olivia’s Shopping and How She Does It: A Prejudiced Guide to the London Shops. Published in 1906 at the height of Edwardian consumption, Olivia’s little red book promised no ‘vapid flatteries’ but robust opinion. ‘Oxford Street,’ she advised, ‘is for the woman who can afford to make mistakes. It is to be avoided by anyone who is easily attracted by the sleek, vainglorious outward appearance of earthly vanities. You may buy anything, from an eleven penny hat to the last in Parisian toilets.’ (Though it must be said that women’s lavatories didn’t feature inside department stores until 1909; we have Mr Selfridge to thank for this.)
Olivia divulged her secrets: the delights of the Dickins & Jones tea room with its shining silver teapots, a certain black suede glove you could buy only at Debenham & Freebody, the ‘delicious’ range of ribbons to be had at Woollands. Derry & Toms for hats, she advised; photo frames from Gorringes, and if you were shopping with a dog, leave it with the porter outside ‘The Stores’ – the Army & Navy. Bond Street (Fenwick, Russell & Allenby) came with a warning. ‘No woman should enter Bond Street for shopping purposes who is not prepared some time or another to pay half a crown for tea. This price gauges the street.’ To the outer suburbs, Olivia did not venture. But here, too, department stores were furiously expanding with confident swagger, from Sutton to Finchley...
Taken from a feature in The Arts Society Magazine, November 2022.
Tessa Boase is an accredited Arts Society lecturer. Hear one minute of her department stores lecture here.