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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Selfridges’ flagship Oxford Street store has been an institution for more than a century.

Selfridges_nameboardCredited as being the second biggest store in the UK, the now Grade II-listed neo-Classical premises was opened in 1909. It was designed by US architect Daniel Burnham and features five above ground stories, three basement levels and a roof terrace (a western extension, designed by Sir John Burnet, was added between 1924-29).

Less known is that there was at one stage a proposal to build a massive 450 foot high tower on top of the building. Selfridges’ founder, Harry Gordon Selfridge, backed the plan for the tower – drawn up in 1918 – and apparently spent years lobbying for permission to build it before, eventually successful in those efforts, he commissioned architect Philip Armstrong Tilden and Burnet to draw up plans (you can see some of the designs on the Royal Institute of British Architects’ website here and here and a picture of a plaster model here).

Selfridge apparently didn’t like any of the plans, however, and eventually dropped the idea, his attention instead coming to focus on building the “largest castle in the world” in Dorset (another plan which didn’t go ahead).

The tower was among a number of proposed London buildings that were never built which featured in a gingerbread display in Selfridges’ famous windows in 2013.

PICTURE: Anuradha Dullewe Wijeyeratne

The true story of Captain Kidd and an exploration of London’s links with piracy is the focus of a new major exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands. Pirates: The Captain Kidd Story features original artefacts dating from 300 years ago when London was a site of pirate executions and tells the story of the infamous Captain Kidd’s life until his execution at Wapping’s Execution Dock. Among the artefacts is the original costume worn by actor Johnny Depp as he played Captain Jack Sparrow in the film Pirates of the Caribbean. The exhibition, which opens tomorrow and runs until 30th October, is being held in conjunction with a series of pirate related events including an adults-only pirate night on 27th May where you have the chance to sample some genuine “pirate drink” and take part in pirate speech lessons. Admission charges apply. For more information, visit the Museum of London Docklands website www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Docklands/Whats-on/Exhibitions-Displays/Pirates.htm.

The path of London’s Olympic Torch Relay has been announced and will finish with a week long jaunt through London. The torch will arrive in Waltham Forest on 21st July next year and then pass through Bexley, Wandsworth, Ealing, Haringey and Westminster before its arrival at the Olympic Stadium on 27th July. To find out how to nominate someone to carry the torch or for more information on the relay, visit www.london2012.com/olympic-torch-relay.

• On Now: London’s Underworld Unearthed: the Secret Life of the Rookery. The seedy side of the St Giles Rookery, a once infamous quarter of the capital, is laid bare in this new exhibition at the Coningsby Gallery. Back in 1751, the area was known as “a pit of degradation, poverty and crime” known for its free-flowing gin. Artist Jane Palm-Gold has displayed 18th and 19th century artifacts found during the Museum of London Archaeology’s recent excavation of old St Giles (conducted prior to the construction of the recent Central St Giles development which now covers the site) alongside her paintings, building what has been described as a “multi-layered psycho-geography that both mesmerises and disturbs”. Runs until 3rd June at the Coninsby Gallery at 30 Tottenham Street (nearest tube station is Goodge Street). Admission is free. For more information, see www.coningsbygallery.com

Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue – known for having helped cure King George VI of his stammer, the story of which is told in the recent Oscar-winning film, The King’s Speech – has been honored with a green plaque by Westminster Council. The plaque was expected to be unveiled today at 146 Harley Street, where Logue, who is known to have used fees from wealthier client to subsidise free treatments for those who could not afford them, lived from 1926 until 1952. The plaque is one of 94 which Westminster Council has placed to mark buildings of particular significance for their association with people who have made lasting contributions to society.

• On Now: The Seven Seas at Selfridges in Oxford Street. Conceptual artist Beth Derbyshire’s seven minute video installation features seven films of seven different seas around the globe. On show as part of Project Ocean – an initiative by Selfridges and 20 environmental and conservation groups aimed at celebrating the ocean’s beauty and highlighting the issue of overfishing. Runs until 8th June. For more information, see www.selfridges.com.