Joining me today on the show, I have Tessa Boase, talking about London’s Lost Department Stores. Tessa is a social historian, journalist and public speaker, but more important than all those things is that she loves a good story. Our paths crossed some time ago, though, not directly, because we were both involved with the Our Emmeline sculpture in Manchester, which was created by a friend of the show, Hazel Reeves, now she was much more important than me with this project, she was involved in the creation of it and I think without her, it probably wouldn’t have come to pass.

She was also involved in the early stages of the Emily Williamson competition, which if you don’t know about that sculpture you should do because we’ve talked about it a lot. But, if you’ve only recently joined the show, you can go back to our earlier episodes because we’ve got loads that covers that fabulous sculpture, which I really hope is going to get made soon. So during lockdown, Tessa wrote a book about London’s lost department stores and this made me sit up because once again here was another project where our interests intersect because the department stores in London are a real treasure and I have a particular interest in them. We have worked on so many of them, and particularly the Edwardian department stores, because they are top to tail covered in bronze. There are entrances and window frames canopies and friezes. Everywhere you look you will see bronze on that type of department store and, our company is a bit like some kind of fairy if there’s a lot of bronze somewhere, we seem to be magically drawn to it. We sort of manifest in that location.

I did a little mental tally of all the different stores that we’d worked on over the years and my list contained Selfridges, Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Whiteleys, Derry and Tom’s, Dickens and Jones, Simpsons Piccadilly, Peter Jones, and Jones Brothers. Goodness knows how many more my dad would have worked on before me, because he was really living in the period where they were at their height. And, and I’m absolutely sure that many of them must have needed a lot more of the ongoing kind of work that we do. The really special thing about them is that they weren’t just places of retail. They were temples of art and design and fashion, all in one place. Oh, my goodness, also craft, How can I forget craft! It was a  strategic decision to weave these things into the buildings and the outcome is that actually we’ve ended up with buildings that kind of intersect with museums because they’re so fabulous. So I began our conversation today by asking Tessa, how her interest in department stores had fast been kindled.

Tessa: That is a good question. I used to work on Kensington High Street for associated newspapers, and every day I would get out of the tube walk down the high street never giving a glance at any of the buildings beyond eye level – I never looked up. And then one day I was idling about where to lunch outside Derry Street and I looked up and I thought what an earth is this?

There were these incredible bass relief carvings, some metal work these these stories on the side of the building beautiful beehives with bees and kind of leaping deer and higher up there was more going on. There were workman with spanners and sort of jaunty 1930s caps on, stories all over the facade of this building, which I now know is the form of Derry and Tom’s.  My offices were in part of the Barker’s building. And digging a little bit deeper, I mean, how ignorant I was. The whole of Ken High Street was once given over to Barker’s and his empire. And so yeah, that that sense you get in London often have a sort of Time Warp, suddenly, you’re in another era. And another era before that as well. The sense that that the past is very present with you, at so many different architectural styles on that one High Street, all for these, you know, temples of consumption as they were called. So that sort of tickled my interest.

Then came lock down and they started falling like flies, I think they were already closing endlessly before that. But then suddenly, I think we lost 83% of our department stores over the last seven years. So I then thought, well, the memories that they contained, and who’s going to look after the archives? Our generation just about has a relationship with them, you know, memories of going with parents, grandparents and using them. But our children’s generation have absolutely no relationship with department stores or whatsoever. And when I talk to a lot of older people, they love this subject and this kind of murmur of, you know, rich nostalgia goes up in the room. These are repositories of memories and often they’re very sensory memories, it might be a door handle, the curve of a bannister, having your feet measured for your new school uniform shoes. And I love those kind of memories. So I thought I needed to capture those anecdotes from the past. And also take a broader look at London’s lost department stores and what was going on in the capital over this huge kind of 150-200 year time span of building decorating, selling,identifying every high street had 1, 2, 3,4 department stores that somehow managed to support themselves.

D H Evans Department Store, Oxford Street © Tessa Boase

Lucy: I absolutely agree, especially regarding the archives. Typically, even in the absence of a formal arrangement, there was usually a specific room designated for storing documents and related items. My concern now is about the fate of these rooms.  I remember the archive room at Selfridges vividly—it was a charmingly disorganized collection of historical documents and miscellaneous items, including an old lift door propped against the wall. However, this is from quite some time ago. In our restoration projects, we always conduct thorough research to ensure our work faithfully reflects the original design rather than relying on assumptions about what the original might have been. My worry now centers on what might already have been discarded, as the push to convert every available space into commercial areas intensifies. Basements and similar spaces that previously housed archives are now often repurposed for retail, making it too costly to maintain such archival spaces. I wonder, were these archives simply thrown away?

Tessa: Indeed, it’s rare for a department store to maintain a dedicated archive section. The situation becomes even more complicated when considering large chains like Debenhams, which absorbed many stores. Who manages these archives, and do they even recognize the historical relevance? The most well-preserved archives tend to be from stores that remain independently owned. Yet, even in these cases, closures present significant challenges. For instance, Jenners of Edinburgh faced such difficulties upon closing. It seems much of the historical material is at risk of being discarded, with only select pieces preserved.

I recently visited a family-owned department store in Jersey that has been in the same family for generations. During the war, they were forced to supply the Nazis with specific items, and they have retained every piece of correspondence, every order—it’s a treasure trove of history, with each document vividly bringing the past to life. This is the type of archive I cherish. But the preservation of such archives depends on someone recognizing and valuing their historical significance, which often is realized too late.

London’s Lost Department Stores: splendid architectural details © Tessa Boase

Lucy: Absolutely, the importance of accessibility and visibility in archival materials is crucial, as you’ve noted. Having these historical documents and stories locked away serves little purpose if they aren’t accessible to people who can bring them to life and share their significance. This becomes particularly poignant as we witness the gradual decline of an era, a process that was significantly hastened by the recent lockdowns. It’s vital to have individuals like you who can elevate these stories and ensure they are not forgotten.

Regarding Derry and Toms architectural features, you brought up an interesting point about the placement of Walter Gilbert’s bronze panels. Indeed, their high placement keeps them out of sight for most people. Low level bronze is often subject to damage from wear and tear so this is a classic conundrum in conservation terms: their height protects the art but what is the point of protecting something which no-one can see?These panels are essentially a hidden gallery, rarely seen and appreciated, which is a true loss.

Tessa: Switching perspectives to how we experience urban environments, I find it fascinating how a simple change in where we direct our gaze can transform our understanding of a city. Looking up in London, beyond the generic storefronts at street level, reveals a cohesive architectural story, particularly evident in the grand old department stores adorned with decorative flourishes. These buildings weren’t just stores; they were statements of luxury and artistry, intended to awe and transport customers to a realm of luxury and fantasy.

The interior of Derry & Toms in 1933 is a prime example, remodelled in the Art Deco style to widespread acclaim for its opulence, featuring walnut woodwork, blue carpets, gold accents, and lifts of onyx and black marble. The media of the time, like the Daily Mail, described it as a “dream palace” for a new generation. These spaces were designed not just to sell products but to create an experience that made you feel elevated, perhaps even overwhelmed.

Lucy: This psychological approach was cleverly integrated into the design of many high-end stores from the mid-to-late 19th century onwards. The use of bronze in the entrances and window frames, a material associated with wealth and intelligence, subtly conveyed a message of exclusivity and sophistication. This wasn’t just about the aesthetics; it was a strategic decision to influence customer perception, making them feel part of an elite, intelligent and wealthy club.

The clever use of materials and architectural designs in these spaces was not merely functional but deeply psychological, playing on the sensations and emotions of the customers to enhance their shopping experience and, ultimately, encourage purchases. This strategic use of architecture and material choice is a testament to the thoughtful design and marketing prowess of these historic department stores.

Tessa: Waring and Gillows took this one step further. They are a fascinating example of how department stores transcended their commercial roles to become cultural and educational hubs, particularly in the early 20th century. Lord Waring’s vision of bringing “good design to the people” and his slogan “Furniture for the million, and the Millionaire” reflect a democratic approach to design that was quite progressive for the time.

The creation of a modern art department within the store in 1928, under the direction of Russian émigré architect Sergej Chair, was groundbreaking. By integrating 68 fully decorated rooms showcasing diverse styles like French, English, and Spanish furniture, all in the modern Art Deco style, Waring and Gillows offered more than just retail—it provided a comprehensive educational experience. This approach allowed thousands of visitors to explore cutting-edge designs and materials such as tubular steel, plywood, rubber, and plate glass, which might otherwise have been inaccessible to the general public.

This blurring of lines between a retail space and a gallery or museum was indeed revolutionary. Department stores like Waring and Gillows were not just places to buy goods; they were venues for display, spectacle, and education. They showcased the latest and greatest in design and technology, making high design accessible to everyone, irrespective of their ability to purchase these items. This accessibility was a form of democratization of design and luxury, a theme that resonates with Lord Waring’s initial vision.

Lucy: Regarding the employees, particularly the large numbers of young women drawn to these glamorous workplaces, the allure of working in such lavish settings must have been significant. The contrast between the front-of-house opulence and the potentially stark backstage conditions highlights a common theme in many industries: the disparity between the public facade and the private reality. For many young women, the opportunity to work in such a prestigious environment would have been irresistible, despite the likely less glamorous behind-the-scenes conditions.

This dual role of department stores—both as places of commerce and as cultural institutions—played a significant role in shaping public perceptions of consumerism, design, and modernity. They were not just selling products; they were selling an experience and an ideal, often transforming how people viewed their personal and domestic lives.

Selfridges London, Female Figures Stand at the Main Entrance

Tess: Yes, you had to look impeccable in your black silk dress, but the job was undoubtedly challenging. Particularly in the Victorian era stretching into the early 20th century, there was a stark contrast between the luxurious environment presented to the customers and the harsh reality faced by the employees behind the scenes. Many of these women were housed in attics under the roof or lived in bleak, cardboard-like boarding houses nearby. It was a system deeply resented, persisting until World War I. Employees had to pay for their own poor-quality accommodation and meals. They weren’t allowed to have visitors and were subjected to petty fines for trivial infractions. For instance, William Whiteley was particularly despised by his staff for fining them for minor things like a missing button, a lost duster, being a few minutes late, not finishing meals, or having a friend visit. These fines went straight into his pocket. Despite being treated almost like owned servants, working in these grand stores was seen as a step up from domestic service, especially for country girls. It offered them a glimpse of the big city and a chance to be part of a glamorous world, even if it was somewhat of a fantasy.

Lucy: It seemed like there was a quite a lot of opportunity for girls in the department stores. I wondered if you had like a favourite story of someone who did manage to move up?

Tessa: Finding stories about women’s experiences was challenging. However, let’s discuss Ethel from Harrods. She was the pioneering woman to be employed at Harrods, a fact I discovered in their staff magazine, The Herodian. Initially, Charles Digby Harrod, the founder’s son, was reluctant to hire women because he believed they were unreliable. However, he soon noticed that other stores were hiring women because they could be paid less. This realization prompted him to hire Ethel, assigning her to the ledger department.

Ethel Fowl shared a memory of her first day, recalling how the existing staff peeked around showcases to catch a glimpse of the new ‘beauties’—herself and another woman. Before long, she was managing the entire sales ledger section, working from eight in the morning until eight at night, and even later until ten on Saturdays, with only two hours off one evening a week. Ethel eventually led a team of 400 female clerks, affectionately known as “Fowl’s Chicks,” and she managed her team for 36 years, helping many women start their careers in the more desirable areas of retail.

During the First World War, another woman at Selfridges leveraged the absence of male employees to advance. Initially hired as a secretary, she quickly ascended to oversee the recruitment of all female staff, managing thousands. It was a time ripe with opportunities for women. She even met her future husband within the store.

Since publishing my book and giving numerous talks, I’ve encountered many people who share stories about their mothers and grandmothers, often accompanied by photographs and romantic anecdotes. It seems that department stores were not just places of employment but also venues where many found their life partners.

Lucy: I did wonder if it was sort of Tinder of the time, you know, if you didn’t like the one in front of you, you sort of walked left instead of swiped?

Tessa: Certainly, working in department stores meant you were quite visible, almost on display. These places were bustling hubs of activity, reminiscent of beehives. If you weren’t positioned at the front of the store, you were likely tucked away in a less visible room, perhaps in the back or down in the basement. There’s a striking image from the 1930s showing Harrods staff in the packing room during the pre-Christmas rush. In the photo, countless men and women stand shoulder to shoulder in long lines, feverishly packing goods in a scene that could be seen as a precursor to the Amazon era.

Lucy: I also loved you telling us about the suffragettes and how they associated themselves with different stores. They sort of aligned themselves for different reasons, can you tell us a little more?

Tessa: Indeed, the suffragettes were among the most elegantly dressed women of their time, a deliberate strategy led by Emmeline Pankhurst. She enforced a strict dress code, insisting her followers be the most stylish women in public. Pankhurst herself, a self-professed shopaholic who attended finishing school in Paris, understood the power of fashion as a form of armor. Department stores quickly recognized the value of aligning with these influential women, creating window displays in the suffragette colors of purple, white, and green. These stores were keen to attract these ideal customers: smart, savvy, wealthy, and glamorous women who were actively engaged in public marches and advocacy—the first time women had ever done so on such a scale. This visibility offered the stores valuable free marketing through what amounted to fashion parades.

The more militant suffragettes preferred shopping at Selfridges, where Mr. Selfridge, a shrewd and supportive businessman, openly championed their cause. He would raise their flag every time a suffragette was released from prison after a hunger strike, capitalizing on the publicity. His overt support likely also served as a strategic move to prevent his store windows from being smashed, a common tactic among the more radical activists.

On the other hand, the non-militant suffragists, who were typically more reserved middle-class women, perhaps a bit older, favored Derry and Toms. The tea room at Derry and Toms in Kensington became a popular spot for these women to discuss politics quietly among peers.

Advertisements targeting these politically active women began appearing in the ‘Votes for Women’ newspaper, indicating that the stores were not only courting them as customers but were also engaging with them in a politically savvy manner that was quite new and clever at the time.

Selfridges, One of The Few Survivors of Lockdown

Lucy: One of the reasons I have a deep affection for Selfridges, beyond my company’s long-standing involvement with the property, is its commendable representation of women in its art and architecture. There are few public sculptures of women during this period, yet Selfridges breaks that mold, particularly with Gilbert Bayes’ magnificent sculpture, “The Queen of Time,” positioned prominently at the front of the store. This statue, resembling a ship’s figurehead, symbolizes the store as a vessel bringing treasures from around the globe. It stands at the forefront, boldly ushering in visitors—a powerful and proud representation of women.

Additionally, at the main entrance, sculptures of women flank each side, enhancing this theme. It’s rare to find a department store with such a focus on female figures; indeed, there are no male sculptures featured prominently like this.

Tessa: This emphasis reflects Mr. Selfridge’s strategy not just in art but in his business practices, including being the first department store to include a women’s lavatory. This was a revolutionary move that allowed women to spend entire days at Selfridges, aligning with his slogan that a day at Selfridges is a pleasure, a pastime, a recreation—more than just shopping.

Lucy: Mr. Selfridge was indeed a larger-than-life character. This leads me to ponder whether there’s a correlation between the charisma of store owners and the grandeur and flamboyance of their stores’ designs. For instance, the owner of Whiteleys, despite being reputedly difficult to work for, did have a grand vision. Perhaps the more charismatic and visionary the leadership, the more bold and elaborate the store’s aesthetic and cultural impact.

Tessa: These department store magnates were certainly men of big egos, a fact that likely contributed to their remarkable success. Take Mr. Barker, for instance, originally a brewer’s son from Kent, who epitomized the classic tale of seeking fortune in the big city. Like players in a game of Monopoly, these entrepreneurs would start with a small draper’s shop and aggressively expand, acquiring neighbouring shops in a relentless pursuit of growth.

To display their success and stature, they would spare no expense in hiring top architects and decorative artists, making each store a showcase of the newest, brightest, and most innovative designs. This was not just about architecture; it extended to every aspect of the store, creating an environment that was as much about spectacle as it was about retail. Barker, Whiteley, and of course, Selfridge, were all players in this grand display of confidence.

For example, Selfridge’s approach to retail was particularly theatrical. In the 1930s, an era of stunts and spectacles, he would employ extraordinary tactics to draw crowds. In 1932, during a ‘Buy British’ campaign, he dedicated 6,000 square feet to showcasing the steel products of Sheffield artisans—a move that was both clever and audacious, akin to what we might expect in a modern art gallery or museum, not necessarily in a shopping environment. This was less about direct sales and more a commentary on consumerism or the artistry of metalwork.

It’s fascinating and almost hard to believe how these store owners managed to step beyond traditional retail boundaries so boldly. They seemed to intuitively grasp that art and design could serve as powerful tools for drawing in customers, often making the actual products feel almost secondary to the overall experience of the store. Their approach wasn’t just about selling; it was about creating an unforgettable encounter, with showmanship taking centre stage. This blend of commerce and creativity continues to inspire, demonstrating a forward-thinking approach that feels as modern today as it must have back then.

Tessa: Let’s also consider how innovations like escalators and elevators transformed the movement within these stores, becoming focal points for stunning designs. For instance, Selfridges installed beautifully Art Deco lifts in the 1920s and ’30s. Similarly, during its refurbishment for the 1937 coronation, D.H. Evans introduced an impressive escalator atrium, reflecting a German Deco style with its use of burnished soft metals like pewter, bronze, and silver. This design not only enhanced the shopping experience but turned the escalators into a destination themselves. People would travel to Oxford Street just to ride these escalators.

During my last visit before its closure, which coincided with the lockdown, I remember the escalator ride to the top of D.H. Evans, peering into the dimly lit upper floors, still adorned with fibrous plaster ceilings with geometric designs. It was like stepping back in time. Unfortunately, such historical interiors are rare today as many are not preserved, becoming lost to modern renovations.

Lucy: Despite having protections for many architectural and historical elements, countless valuable features slip through the cracks. Often, there’s an assumption that these details will be preserved, but that’s not always the case.

Tessa: Take Selfridges, for example, where recent renovations stripped away layers of later additions—like false ceilings and ’80s decor—to reveal its original Edwardian structure. Now, as you ascend the escalators, the simple, crisp white moldings of the ceiling convey a classical, airy aesthetic, offering a glimpse into the past and how the store might have once felt. This return to simplicity serves as a reminder of the store’s historical elegance and the ongoing journey of architectural preservation and transformation.

Simpsons Piccadilly, © Tessa Boase

Lucy: Reflecting on the substantial damage many department stores have endured, fire emerges as a recurrent theme. These buildings, while architecturally monumental, were surprisingly vulnerable. Particularly in the 19th century, department stores were veritable tinderboxes due to the abundance of textiles and display materials. Fires could easily devastate these structures, often leaving behind nothing but charred remains.

Tesssa: Interestingly, despite the extensive damage, recovery plans were often swiftly put into place—sometimes so quickly that it raised eyebrows. It seemed almost as if the disasters provided a convenient pretext for comprehensive redesigns and modernizations. Indeed, photographs of these smoking ruins often show architect’s plans already laid out the following morning, hinting at a rapid and robust response aimed at not just recovery, but significant improvement and expansion.

Take John Lewis, for instance, which suffered severe damage during the Blitz. On a fateful night in September 1940, the Luftwaffe specifically targeted Oxford Street, viewing these large department stores as symbols of British resilience. The bombs left a trail of destruction, with John Lewis taking a direct hit. Kingsley Amis, a journalist at the time, likened the smoldering debris to “the ruins of a Greek temple.” However, this devastation was seen not just as a setback but as an opportunity. In the 1960s, John Lewis underwent a major reconstruction, transforming the damage into a chance to build something even grander.

In these stories of destruction and subsequent renewal, there is a remarkable narrative of resilience. Many department stores didn’t merely recover; they used these crises as springboards to come back stronger and more spectacularly than before.

Lucy: Many are aware of the sculpture at John Lewis, created by the renowned Barbara Hepworth. The store went through numerous proposals before deciding on Hepworth’s work, which has since become iconic due to its distinctive winged form. However, I personally have never felt quite as connected to this sculpture as I have to other works by Hepworth. It seems somewhat misplaced, positioned awkwardly on a corner of the building without proper integration into the architecture. It feels more like an accessory, akin to a brooch tacked onto the side, rather than an integral part of the structure.

Tessa: This sense of the sculpture being an afterthought is reinforced by its history; it was added in 1962, after the building itself opened in the 1960s. Despite the long search for the right sculptor, it appears the final installation lacked the thoughtful integration seen in other architectural artworks, such as the carefully considered placement of sculptures at Selfridges.

Tessa: There is another statue of a woman over a former department store on Oxford Street. This piece, a representation of Darcey Bussell ringing a bell, created by Michael Ripp-Zelo in 1997, replaced an Art Deco clock. This clock was not just a timepiece but a cultural landmark, often serving as a meeting point—“Meet you under the clock at Bourne and Hollingsworth.” Over the years, despite changes in ownership and the eventual sale attempt of the clock in 1984, which sparked public uproar due to its sentimental value, the clock was an integral part of the community’s fabric. Its replacement by the sculpture, though quaint, has not resonated as strongly, possibly due to its whimsical appearance and the significant historical element it replaced. Thus, the facade remains, but some of the soul of the place has been lost with the removal of the clock.

Lucy: Can you tell people where they can find your book and more about you?

Tessa: Yes, thank you, Lucy. It’s been enlightening discussing the often overlooked significance of bronze in stores. My book is titled London’s Lost Department Stores: A Vanished World of Dazzling Dreams. It’s available at Waterstones, especially the Waterstones in Piccadilly, which fittingly used to be a department store itself. It is published by Safe Haven Books, the book can also be easily ordered online.

Additionally, I’m excited to mention that I’ll be giving a talk at Waterstones Piccadilly next Wednesday as part of the London Festival of Architecture. The talk will focus on department stores and Art Deco, offering a perfect synergy with the venue’s history. It’s truly special to discuss these topics in a place that resonates so closely with them.

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