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.