January 11, 2017
The upmarket department store chain John Lewis traces its origins back to 1864 when the man himself opened a drapers at 132 Oxford Street (later renumbered, it’s the site of the current store).
Originally from Somerset and brought up by an aunt after he was orphaned at a young age, Lewis served as an apprentice to a linen draper in Wells as a teenager before he moved to London to work as salesman for an Oxford Street draper, eventually becoming a silk buyer. He apparently turned down offer of partnership in that business, deciding instead to put out his own shingle.
Lewis slowly expanded his business into neighbouring properties and diversified into a growing range of goods – everything from clothing to furniture to kitchen china. By 1895 he had rebuilt his original shop, which now had fronts on Oxford and Holles Streets, into a multi storey department store with retail showrooms as well as a warehouse and a restaurant for customers.
More than 40 years after he opened his first shop in London, in 1905 Lewis acquired Peter Jones in Sloane Square. His sons, John Spedan Lewis and Oswald, became partners in the business in 1907. Oswald was later bought out but John, particularly while convalescing following a riding accident, began to think about how he could improve staff wages and working conditions.
However, his new ideas led to conflict with his father (known to be a tough employer) and so, in 1914, Spedan Lewis took over total control of the Peter Jones business in exchange for no longer taking any part in the Oxford Street store. Instead, turning his attention to the Sloane Square business, he introduced a profit-sharing scheme for employees as well as a representative staff council and other initiatives including the introduction of the weekly in-house magazine, The Gazette.
In 1924, Spedan Lewis was reconciled with his father and so it was that following his father’s death in 1928, he became sole owner of both businesses, bringing them together into a single entity. The famous motto – “Never Knowingly Undersold” – has apparently been in use in the Peter Jones store since it was introduced by Spedan Lewis in 1925.
In 1929, he created the John Lewis Partnership Ltd and while he continued to have practical control of the business, his reforms meant profits were distributed among employees. Twenty-one years later, in 1950, he signed settlement which saw the partnership become the property of the employees.
In 1933, the partnership purchased its first store outside London in Nottingham and it is now regarded as the largest department store retailer in the UK with 46 John Lewis shops including 32 department stores. It also owns the Waitrose supermarket chain.
The flagship Oxford Street store was almost completely destroyed during World War II. The present premises, which features a roof garden, opened in 1961. It features a famous (now Grade II*-listed) artwork – Barbara Hepworth’s Winged Figure – on the Holles Street facade near the corner with Oxford Street.
In 2008 this store was awarded a Royal Warrant from Queen Elizabeth II as “suppliers of haberdashery and household goods”.
This is the final in our current Wednesday series. We’ll be starting a new series shortly.
December 14, 2016
Debenhams’ origins go back to 1778 when a draper’s store started trading at 44 Wigmore Street in London’s West End. Soon run by Thomas Clark and his partner Mr Flint, the shop sold fabrics, bonnets, gloves and parasols.
The Debenhams name entered the story in 1813 when William Debenham, still young but having already learnt something of the trade at a hosiery in Nottingham, invested in the firm, now known as Clark & Debenham.
Success followed (apparently they expanded into a store across the road, calling one Clark & Debenham and the other Debenham & Clark) and in 1818, the firm opened its first store outside London – an exact replica of the Wigmore Street store in fashionable Cheltenham. This was followed by stores in other locations across England. (The original Debenhams store, which was rebuilt as a department store in the Edwardian era, is now largely occupied by offices).
The firm prospered in the coming years thanks to the demand for mourning attire in the Victorian age and in 1851 underwent another name change when Clement Freebody, brother of Debenham’s wife Caroline, invested in the firm, becoming Debenham, Son & Freebody and later just Debenham & Freebody (when William Debenham retired, it was his son William, Jr, who entered into partnership with Freebody) . At this time a wholesale business was established selling cloth and other items to dressmakers and other large retailers.
The company continued to expand and offices opened in various countries around the world – from Australia and South Africa to Canada and China. It’s said that in 1899, the store even had its own fire brigade and constabulary and around the start of the 20th century it became one of the first businesses to get a telephone.
In 1905, Debenhams Ltd was incorporated and in 1919 the business merged with Marshall and Snellgrove. Knightsbridge retailer Harvey Nichols was acquired in 1920 and seven years later the Debenham family’s involvement ended as the company went public.
Famous faces associated with the store in the early part of the 20th century included King Edward VII, for whom the business supplied coronation robes.
By 1950, Debenhams had become the largest department store group in the UK, owning 84 companies and 110 stores. Between 1985 and 1998, it was part of the Burton Group and it was during this period that it launched the Designers at Debenhams initiative as well as, in 1997, opening the first international franchise store in Bahrain. Debenhams listed on the London Stock Exchange following its demerger with the Burton Group and remain so until 2003 – when it was acquired by Baroness Retail Ltd – before returning to the London Stock Exchange in 2006.
It acquired nine stores from Roches in Ireland in 2007 and in 2009 acquired Danish department store chain Magasin du Nord.
As well as its flagship store in Oxford Street (refurbished for Debenhams 200th birthday in 2013), these days Debenhams owns and operates more than 18o stores in the UK, Ireland and Denmark (these include Browns of Chester which, following its acquisition in 1976, was allowed to keep its name). There are also some 60 franchise stores in more than 25 other countries.
For more, see www.debenhams.com.
PICTURE: Debenhams flagship Oxford Street store dressed up for Christmas.
December 7, 2016
Another Knightsbridge institution, the origins of luxury fashion department store Harvey Nichols (known to many as ‘Harvey Nicks’) go back to the founding, by Benjamin Harvey, in 1831 of a small linen shop in a terraced house on the corner of Knightsbridge and Sloane Street.
Such was his initial success that the shop expanded quickly, just four years later taking over the neighbouring property (it was to expand further in following years).
When Harvey died in 1850, he left the business to his wife, also Anne, and she subsequently went into partnership with Nichols to form Harvey Nichols & Co.
Anne died in 1872 and Nichols in 1873 leaving Harvey’s son, Benjamin Charles Harvey, as sole remaining partner.
By 1874, Harvey Nichols occupied the entire block between Seville and Sloane Streets and, in 1889, the existing properties were all demolished to make way for a new purpose-built department store. Designed by architect CW Stephens (designer of Claridges), it was built between 1889 and 1894. In 1904, the address of the store was changed (while the location remained the same) to 109-125 Knightsbridge.
The store opened a range of new departments in 1919 – including haberdashery and hosiery, and was acquired by Debenhams in 1920.
The first restaurant – Harvey’s – opened on the fifth floor in 1975. It was famously a favourite of Princess Diana’s.
Harvey Nichols has since gone through several ownership changes – and following the latest when it was bought by Dickson Poon, of Dickson Concepts (International) Ltd, in 1991, the store was refurbished and a new restaurant, cafe, bar and food market opened on the fifth floor, complete with an express lift allowing it to stay open after the rest of the store had closed (the restaurant was refurbished in 2002).
Harvey Nichols now also has stores in Leeds, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol and Liverpool as well as Ireland, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong.
For more, see www.harveynichols.com.
November 23, 2016
Now a Piccadilly institution, Fortnum and Mason’s origins (which we dealt with in 2011 in a London’s oldest post but couldn’t resist looking at again) famously go back the early 17th century when Hugh Mason rented out a spare room to William Fortnum, a Footman in the household of Queen Anne.
The entrepreneurial Fortnum decided to supplement his income by selling Queen Anne’s half-used candle wax (new candles were required every night) for a small profit. It was he who convinced his landlord, who also had a small shop in St James’s Market, to join with him in a joint venture – the first Fortnum & Mason – in Duke Street in 1707.
Initially founded as a grocery store, Fortnum & Mason, which moved to its current site at 181 Piccadilly in 1756, become known for its high quality and rare goods – in particular tea – and during the 18th and 19th centuries supplied the gentry who were in London for the ‘season’. Departments inside the store have included a rather bizarre ‘Expeditions Department’ which apparently supplied King Tut’s finder Howard Carter and a 1922 expedition to Mount Everest.
It has held numerous Royal Warrants since the mid 1800s with the first granted in 1863 when the firm was appointed as grocers to the then Prince of Wales.
A supplier of British officers during the Napoleonic Wars, Fortnums was also active during the Crimean War when Queen Victoria had shipments of “concentrated beef tea” sent to Florence Nightingale for use in her hospitals there.
Other claims to fame include the creation of the first Scotch egg in 1738 as a food for travellers and that in 1886, it became the first store in Britain to stock tins of Heinz baked beans. It also operated a post office between 1794 and 1839 when the General Post Office was founded.
The iconic clock which hangs on the facade of the building was commissioned in 1964 by Canadian businessman Garfield Weston who bought the business in 1951. Every hour models of Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason come forth and bow to each other. Other features on the building itself include four colonies of bees which have lived on the roof since 2008 in uniquely-designed hives.
The store, now famous for its luxury food hampers, underwent a £24 million restoration in the lead-up to its 300th anniversary in 2007. As well as the flagship store, it also now operates stores in St Pancras (2013) and Heathrow Airport (2015) as well as, since last year, in Dubai (it did open a store on Madison Avenue in New York in the 1930s but the business was short-lived thanks to the Depression). Fortnum & Mason products can also be found in a growing number of department stores around the world.
The Piccadilly store houses a number of eateries including The Parlour, The Gallery and The Wine Bar as well as, since it was opened by Queen Elizabeth II herself in 2012, the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon – already famous for its afternoon teas.
November 9, 2016
Born the son of a Buckinghamshire draper, Liberty worked with relatives from a young age before he eventually started work with a women’s fashion house, Farmer and Rogers. Rising to management, when they refused to make him a partner in the business, he decided to strike out on his own and established Liberty & Co at 218a Regent Street, an ‘oriental warehouse’ selling ornaments, fabric and objets d’art. He named the property East India House.
Only 18 months after he first set up shop – financed with a £2,000 loan from his future father-in-law and employed three staff – he was already expanding his premises into properties to the south in Regent Street to house furnishings and carpets. He eventually took over all the buildings between 140 to 150 and named the extended building Chesham House.
The costume department was introduced in 1884 and together with its director EW Godwin, Liberty created in-house fashions to challenge those of Paris. He is also noted for having encouraged and collaborated with designers like Archibald Knox and William Morris.
Liberty, who took the company public in 1894, was knighted in 1913. He died in 1917, seven years before the current Liberty store – the mock-Tudor building on the corner of Regent Street and Great Marlborough Street – was built.
Designed by Edwin T Hall and son, the shop was built from the timbers of two ships, the HMS Impregnable and the HMS Hindustan (and the shop frontage measures the same length as the latter). It was built around three light wells, each of which was surrounded by smaller rooms – many of which have fireplaces and were designed to give the feel of rooms in a house.
Features on the Grade II*- listed building include its weathervane – an exact replica of the Mayflower, which took pilgrims to the US in 1620, decorative shields including the arms of Shakespeare and those of the wives of King Henry VIII, and the clock above the Kingly Street entrance.
Liberty, which is generally acknowledged to have been a powerful influence on 19th and 20th century fashions and tastes, was bought by its current owners, BlueGem in 2010.