There are two trips I will have to take after reading Tessa Boase’s poignant and heartbreaking book about London’s lost department stores. First, at Mile End, to see the tiny Georgian building banging in the middle of the pillared facade of what was once Wickhams and is now Tesco and Sports Direct. When Wickhams expanded in the 1920s, a neighbor, a German watchmaker called Otto Spiegelhalter, simply refused to budge, no matter the financial offer. He ends up agreeing to sell his garden so that the store can expand behind him. But there, overshadowed by the clock tower, still stands his two-storey house, a monument to stubbornness.
Then Khan’s Bargains in Peckham Rye, once Holdrons, “the pride of the Golden Mile of Rye Lane”, where 1930s children flocked to see Europe’s largest model train display. The photographs in this charming book show us not only Khan’s bargains, which look tempting, but also the man, Akbar Khan, who arrived from Afghanistan in 1999 and is now “on a mission to help involve more traders in the preservation of Peckham’s architectural heritage”. . Kudos to him. Above her head you can see the Art Deco vaulted ‘lenscrete’ (concrete studded with a thousand glass lenses) ceiling of the 1930s reconstruction by Holdrons. The building is a modernist gem.
You’ll need a sturdy constitution to read this chronicle of the rise, decline and death of the family department store without crying. These proud establishments might have looked like rabbit holes if you were on the second floor looking for the upholstery, but they were also oddly glamorous, with their doormen and staircase hallways. The excitement of visiting his mother was a defining aspect of countless childhoods. The owners knew that if they caught children they would keep them as customers for life. The Peter Pan playground at DH Evans was a thrill, with its treehouses and indoor ponds, but the escalator lobby to get up there was equally dazzling. Even the horror of being outfitted in Daniel Neal’s school uniform department in Oxford Street by the formidable Mrs. Boyce with her clanking bracelets has been soothed by the sensual tingle of having your feet x-rayed in the shoe department.
“The Wonder Store of the South” was Kennards of Croydon’s description; and these places were indeed marvels of capitalism. The public came not only to buy but to admire. ‘Shopping’, said Harry Gordon Selfridge’s ad in his Edwardian media blitz to promote his new store, should be ‘pleasure – a pastime – recreation’.
Department store owners got pretty bloated, as good as they could get. When Arthur Gamage, the founder of Gamages in Holborn (not to be confused with Gorringes in Buckingham Palace Road) died in 1930, he lay in state on a catafalque in his motor department, members of his staff standing watch day and night. Its motto had been simply: “undermine competition”.
The general trend is as follows: an unprecedented provincial apprentice (William Debenham, Alec Simpson, Dan Evans or William Whiteley) arrives in London around the 1850s and opens a small shop. Victorians flock. Largest building constructed, copying the architecture of, say, the William and Mary facade of Hampton Court. The money is flowing. Sales staff are housed in dormitories in the attic, under a “lodging” system, in which they are paid half in cash and half in board and lodging. At some point there is a terrible fire in which a handful of people die. Massive expansion in the 1920s and 1930s, in bold architecture. Stunning new escalators and elevators installed. Even the largest stores are taking a “majority stake” in the business. World War II: bombed facade. Post-war: appointment. ‘Meet Me Under the Clock at Bourne & Hollingsworth’, or ‘Outside Swan & Edgar’. The stores are starting to look dated in the 1970s. Hang on; still about to go in 2016. Closed last year. A local person comments that “the heart has been ripped from the main street”.
If you can cope with reading these repeated tales of glory followed by decline and demise, you’ll appreciate Boase’s book – and the photographs. My three favorites are: schoolboys and men in 1936, watching the model trains whirl around in Gamages the week before Christmas (spot the clergyman among them all, his glistening white dog collar); the interior of Robinson & Cleaver, taken in 1910, reminding us how important lace was in all aspects of British domestic life, from curtains to clothing; and a captioned “A snatched rest for the clerks in ‘Room Six’ at Harrods, 1920”, which shows about 100 clerks relieving their weary legs and knitting or reading a hardback book.
Selfridge’s does not have its own section in this book because it survived. Neither did Harrods, nor, thank God, John Lewis. (When my beloved Peter Jones goes, I go.) But we shouldn’t take any of these places for granted.