Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Are you being served? London's Department Stores

A guest posting today, from Jeff Hathaway, looking back at the old London Department Stores.

It reminds me of "Are You Being Served", the TV show which, in its early years before it got very silly, very much captured a type of department store, and like the other shows - Dad's Army, It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Hi-De-Hi - had its genesis in real life experience.

The idea for the show came from writer Jeremy Lloyd's brief period in the early 1950s working at Simpsons of Piccadilly, a clothing store which traded for over 60 years until 1999. The inspiration for the store has also been credited to Rossiters of Paignton department store from the time Lloyd and producer David Croft spent there, and the former Clements of Watford.

London’s department stores.

London - on Oxford Street. A London that in the 1970’s was undergoing considerable change both in appearance and in shopping habits. The out-of-town super-centres, as there were first called, were taking their toll while the buildings that these big departmental stores occupied were showing their age and inadaptability.

So I thought I would write a little piece about the London Stores I remember and in particular Bourne & Hollingsworth where I worked for about 2 years as ‘House Promotions and Ticket Department Manager. A mouthful of a title which really meant I was in charge of all instore signage.

While some of London’s departmental stores have hung on and able to re-invent themselves and even become icons in their own right Harrods and Selfridges for example, so many have fallen by the wayside.

They are just names now from a bygone era when London’s streets were dominated by the large departmental store; Swann & Edgar, Derry & Toms, Gamages, Marshall & Snellgrove. Peter Robinson and my old company, Bourne & Hollingsworth.

I found this nostalgic reference from novelist Christopher Fowler:

“As a kid I went to Gamages to see Santa, and my mother would go to Marshall & Snellgrove. Swan & Edgar was more mysterious, being situated on Piccadilly Circus – what did they sell there? It suffered the indignity of becoming a Tower Records.

In the 1970s such stores suffered from the birth of style-shopping, and were unable to update their services fast enough to attract the newly-monied young. Old-fashioned concepts like knowledgable staff, politeness and advice were less important than stocking the latest fashions.

If the old department stores had managed to hang on for just a few short years until mass tourism arrived, they would doubtless have been reborn as flagship British stores.

We still seem to have more department stores than most cities, some of which are specialised, like Lillywhites, the sporting store in Piccadilly, and Fenwicks, which seems entirely aimed at county ladies of a certain age who are in town for the day.

But more and more, like Simpsons and Whiteleys, are slipping away to leave us with TK Maxx and the nightmarish souk Primark”

Gone two are their histories - save that Wiki has provided opportunity for those who experienced London Departmental stores in their heyday to leave their own snapshots and ‘Time Out’ has dedicated a section of there website to the long-lost departmental stores http://www.timeout.com/london/shopping/history-of-oxford-street-in-pictures

It contains masterful précis of Bourne & Hollingsworth.

“Howard Hollingsworh and Walter Bourne opened their shop on Oxford Street in 1902. The business grew and took over the whole block which was redesigned in the art deco style in 1928. Bourne and Hollingsworth became renowned for selling the best quality goods and for looking after their staff, providing accommodation at Warwickshire House on Gower Street for up to 600 female workers. Like much of Oxford Street, the store suffered bomb damage in 1940, however today much of the art deco facade still survives. Now housing the Plaza Shopping Centre the initials of it's previous occupants can be seen either side of the bronze ballerina statue. Warwickshire House is now used by UCL for student accommodation.”

Working for the company came something of a family tradition. My grandmother worked there as a wages clerk in pre-war years and during the war, and my mother as a sales assistant in ladies underwear (no the department not the mode of dress) in post war years.

The store reeked of 30’s art deco grandeur – although by the time I worked there in the 1970’s it was showing signs of its age and the wear and tear of the millions, perhaps even billions, of footsteps that had traipsed over its five floors – and its encounter with German bombers during September 1940 - during the early days of the London Blitz.


“Bourne & Hollingsworth - an imposing edifice built in 1894 and remodelled in art deco style in 1928 - was hit in the night raid of 17 September by high explosive bombs which gouged a huge hole in the store's interior and severely damaged several shop floors.

Shards of glass carpeted its Oxford Street locale and adjoining Berners Street. But the next day, in a powerful example of the 'Blitz spirit', the staff were back at work, unfurling large Union Flags to cover bomb damage to the store front.”

I remember my grandmother telling us that the staff cleaned up sufficiently for the store to re-open is east wing to customers just 7 days later. Signage guided people around the the remaining debris, each sign carrying the Great British understatement: ‘We apologise for any inconvenience caused’.
For Bourne & Hollingsworth you could easily read Grace Brothers as if the BBC series ‘Are You Being Served’ had been modelled upon the store. Perhaps it was. The characters are also there from John Inmans camp Menswer Department Manager to Mollie Sugdens 'mutton as lamb' Mrs Slocombe - complete with blue rinse. 

There was even a parallel with young Mr Grace. Although the Hollingsworth side of the business has long since departed, three generations of the Bourne family now ran the business including patriarch Stafford Bourne on whom surely young Mr Grace character took its inspiration. It was however a wonderful family run business in which the Bournes were known personally to all, and at their instruction were to be addressed as Mr Edward, Mr Christopher and Mr Stafford. Gentleman all. Happy times. 

The store finally closed its doors in 1983, but the name survives – as a basement bar in nearby Rathbone Street.


James said...

I always saw Grace Brothers as a provincial department store rather than a London one. I grew up in the 1970s and remember that most of my clothes shopping was done in Marks and Spencer - even then the independents were struggling against the competition from the big boys, as they simply couldn't carry the ranges.

Mr G said...

Wasn't there a 'restaurant' in the basement? Served burgers using sliced beef?