selfridges
Christmas lights are appearing already and shop windows are being unveiled. So in the lead-up to the yuletide celebrations this year, we’re taking a look at eight of London’s most historic department stores.

To kick it off, we’re looking at how it all started for Selfridges, the department store started by American Harry Gordon Selfridge and made famous, in recent times, as the setting for the TV series, Mr Selfridge.

Selfridge, who had been born in Wisconsin in the US, formed the company Selfridges & Co in 1906, having made his way to London from Chicago where he had been extensively involved in the department store Field & Leiter (later Marshall Fields) rising to become a junior partner in the business (he had, after leaving Marshall Fields, apparently subsequently opened his own store in Chicago but not wanting to compete with his former employees, decided to head for London).

As well as drawing on his own resources, he was backed by Samuel Waring of furniture makers Waring & Gillow, who did so on condition that he not sell furniture in his store, a condition respected long after W&G had ceased trading.

Work began on his new purpose-built neo-classical department store at 400 Oxford Street soon after. Featuring rows of columns and taking up a whole block, it was designed by American architect Daniel Burnham whom Selfridge knew from Chicago and wasn’t fully completed until 1928. As mentioned in a previous post, an idea for a colossal tower on the building was never realised.

The grand opening was held on 15th March, 1909, and, a master of the theatrical, Selfridge’s publicity campaigns had ensured a crowd and as many as 30 police officers were apparently required to help hold back the crowds.

Known to his staff as The Chief, Selfridge – who now preferred the name Gordon to Harry, kept the masses talking about his store when in July that same year he put on display the plane French aviator Louis Bleriot had used when making the first flight over water. More than 150,000 people came to see it.

Selfridge, driven by his credo that “the customer is always right”, revolutionised the way the British shopped – particularly women – with his stylish display of goods in-store and in the windows, not to mention store features like the women’s toilets (a novelty for the age), Art Deco lifts, rooftop gardens and the Palm Court Restaurant (destroyed by fire caused by bombing in the 1940s). Other facilities included a post office, theatre booking office, library and an information bureau.

And the innovations kept coming: in 1910, he opened a beauty department inside the ground-floor entrance and in 1911, the Bargain Basement was born. The world’s biggest bookshop became part of the store in 1911 as well as a pet department. He also launched a delivery system using a fleet of horse-drawn vans and then petrol and electric powered vans.

And Selfridge continued to draw crowds with events ranging from a gala charity ball on the rooftop in 1913 to a showing of John Logie Baird’s televisor in 1925. In 1931, the famous clock, The Queen of Time was installed over the flagship store’s entrance.

Selfridge, who was forced to retire in 1939 after losing much of his personal fortune – thanks at least in part to his free-spending lifestyle, died in 1947.

Aside from the flagship store in London, Selfridges stores can now be found in Birmingham and Manchester (two).

PICTURE: Russ London/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 2.5/Image cropped

For more on the history of Selfridges, see Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge.

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Given our current series on great London projects of the Victorian age in honour of the Tube’s 150th birthday, it’s only fitting that we should take a look at the Crystal Palace, a wonder of the age which once adorned the grounds of Hyde Park.

The-Crystal-PalaceBuilt as the centrepiece to the Great Exhibition (more properly known as the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations) of 1851 – an event enthusiastically supported by Prince Albert, the Crystal Palace (pictured left in an image published in 1854) was a vast cast-iron and glass exhibition hall which took its nickname (apparently first mentioned in Punch magazine) from the enormous amount of glass used in its creation.

Designed by gardener and architect Sir Joseph Paxton (his designs were chosen after an international competition failed to come up with anything suitable), the enormous and innovative structure, located just south of the The Serpentine, owed its design inspiration to his previous work on glasshouses.

Measuring 1,848 foot (563 metres) long, it was completed in just five months. The building, which needed no artificial lighting during the day due to its massive expanses to the glass, was so large that full-sized elm trees already growing in the park could be enclosed within it.

More than six million people visited the building during the Great Exhibition, held from 1st May to the 15th October, 1851. As well as hosting 14,000 exhibitors, the building also housed the first major installation of public toilets in which George Jennings had installed his ‘monkey closet’ flushing lavatory. While the structure was only meant to be temporary, such was its appeal (Paxton was knighted for his design efforts) that following the closing of the exhibition, it was purchased by the Crystal Palace Company.

A massive feat of logistics saw it dismantled and relocated to a site on what was then Penge Common at Sydenham Hill in south London where it was rebuilt (albeit to a different, much larger, design). It reopened in 1854 and contained a series of courts, illustrating art from various periods of history as well as other exhibits and performance spaces.

The grounds, meanwhile, were decorated with gardens and fountains designed by Edward Milner which drew water from two water towers designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. There was also a maze (still there) and also featured some terrific life-sized statues of dinosaurs created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (these Grade I-listed specimens, the first of their kind in the world, are still located in Crystal Palace Park).

Interestingly, the fountains were later grassed over and one was used as a sports stadium, famous for hosting the first 20 FA Cup Finals. The site also became home to the Crystal Palace School of Art, Science, and Literature and later, the Crystal Palace School of Practical Engineering.

The Crystal Palace remained in use for various purposes – including as a TV studio for John Logie Baird – until late in 1936 when it was destroyed by fire, the origins of which apparently remain somewhat mysterious.

The name Crystal Palace has remained, however, as well as being given to Crystal Palace Park – the actual site where the building once stood – it also continues to lend itself to the area in which the structure once stood.

There’s also now a foundation – the aptly named Crystal Palace Foundation – which works to “keep alive the memory of the Crystal Palace and its major role in the story and social development of Victorian and Edwardian England” and a small museum, The Crystal Palace Museum, housed in a building constructed around 1880 as a classroom for the Crystal Palace Company’s School of Practical Engineering. Plans for building a replica of Crystal Palace have been mooted but there’s no sign of it rising once more at this stage.

PICTURE: Wikipedia.

For more on the Crystal Palace, see Patrick Beaver’s book, The Crystal Palace: A Portrait of Victorian Enterprise.