Dearly departed department stores

Part 2: Central London’s lost department stores (a walking tour in two halves)

The first post in this series focused on the stately and grand former heart of the Debenhams department store empire on Wigmore Street. It is not the only central London department store to have disappeared. Today, we look at the history and demise of some iconic names from across the heart of the capital – Regent Street’s Dickens and Jones; Victoria’s gargantuan Army & Navy Store; Oxford Street’s Bourne & Hollingworths and Peter Robinson; Holborn’s Gamages and Piccadilly Circus’s Swan & Edgars.

There are many walking tours of central London. You can follow in the literary footsteps of Charles Dickens, experience the autumnal chill of a Jack the Ripper walk or simply follow the River Thames along its well-trodden South Bank. There is not so much of a market for a trip taking in some of the ghosts of London’s rich retailing heritage, but, if you are so minded, you can fashion a three-mile route that takes in six giants that ultimately fell out of fashion’s whimsical favour.

Gamages on Holborn (next to Holborn Circus)

Holborn (or, MidTown, as it is somewhat desperately trying to rebrand itself) is not a retail hot spot. Its borders Oxford Street just as the shops are fizzling out into the lost no-man’s land of New Oxford Street. With the British Museum, a portion of Theatreland and a vast swathe of legal London, it has plenty of interesting spots. But shopping is not high amongst its contemporary attractions. Charles Dickens put his finger on it in his Dictionary of London.

“Holborn is a continuation of Oxford-street, the link between east and west. It is a great thoroughfare, but its shops are not of such a class as would be expected from that circumstance. Holborn, in fact, suffers from being neither one thing nor the other. It is too far east for the fashionable world to come to it for their purchases; it is too far west for the business men of the City; consequently it contains few first-class shops or warehouses.

What was true in 1879 remains so today. But on to business – our walk starts in Holborn Circus at the point where, today, the City gives way to Camden. Holborn Circus was badly damaged in the Second World War – a famous photograph shows the statue of Prince Albert doffing his hat against the backdrop a fearsome conflagration that has consumed the surrounding buildings.

Holborn Circus’s rough treatment during the Blitz explains the distinctly modern architecture in this ancient quarter. Two great survivors were the red brick and terracotta gothic pile of the Prudential Insurance Company and its immediate easterly neighbour Gamages – perhaps the favourite department store for generations of London’s children.

Gamages famous Christmas bazaar

Gamages boasted the full range of products that marked the great department stores of the age – collecting everything from shotguns to car parts, ladies fashion to camping supplies under one roof. Rudyard Kipling even records buying pet fish from: “a pool and a fountain near the grocery department” and being served by a “stern woman” who said she liked “Nat’ral ‘Ist’ry”.

But what set Gamages apart from other stores was its unrivalled toy, games and gifts department. For most of the year, Gamages was a typical shop. In time for December, it was transformed into ‘the world’s most famous Christmas bazaar’. The Gamages catalogue was, for many London children, the herald of Christmas and the start of long days of expectant waiting.

The City’s demand for office space ensured that few other land uses remained economically viable. Who could resist the big bucks offered by developers keen to throw up an office block? Gamages fell victim to the same fate as Bank’s Mappin and Webb – torn down and replaced by an entirely non-descript block. The only nod to its retailing past is a parade of three shops including branches of W H Smith and Currys. There may no longer be a vast toy hall, but at least you can still get some gadgets on the site of one of London’s palaces of pleasure.

Bourne & Hollingworth's building on Oxford Street - now the Plaza Shopping Centre

From Holborn Circus it is a straight walk along Holborn then High Holborn and then New Oxford Street to the former Oxford Street site of Bourne & Hollingworths. You won’t miss the site – it is covered in the garish adornment of its present day occupiers in the Plaza Shopping Centre. But take a step away from the plastic signage urging you to ‘live london : shop plaza’ and look upwards and you’ll see the uniform bulk of a relatively plain but unmistakably coherent department store.

Walter William Bourne and Howard E Hollingsworth moved their successful Westbourne Grove shop to a purpose built Edwardian site on Oxford Street. Whilst the building does not have the baroque conceits of Debenhams’s Wigmore Street branch or the sheer élan of Selfridges, it was solid and dependable and was given some fashionable art deco flourishes in 1928. It survived until 1983 and a sense of the interior is given in a Pathé news reel showing the aftermath of day one of the New Year sales in 1968.

Bourne & Hollingworth's Oxford Street branch - the B and H symbols can be seen throughout the building

Carry on down Oxford Street until you reach Oxford Circus. At this point, Oxford Street finaly becomes the shopping mecca that its eastern half promises but fails to deliver. Today’s Oxford Circus’s four facades are dominated by foreign fashion brands – United Colours of Benetton, H&M, Nike Town and Tezenis.

The vast pile on Oxford Circus’s north east corner was once home to Peter Robinson. Peter Robinson had started life as a draper’s shop in 1833, but by the 1960s it had grown to become a chain of stores across the UK. The main Oxford Circus branch suffered catastrophic damage in the Blitz, with the façade ripped open and debris strewn across the street. As noted in this BBC story:

“The upper right section of the store’s neo-classical façade was ripped open; three floors were destroyed; plate glass windows and debris was blown into Oxford Circus. Parts of Peter Robinson’s were reopened four days later, but its Oxford Circus storefront was boarded up and subsequently used to display war advertising hoardings.”

The former flagship branch of Peter Robinson on London's Oxford Circus

The anchor site is now Nike Town, but it is flanked to the east by the vast flagship Topshop. This is no coincidence – Topshop started life as ‘Peter Robinson’s Topshop’, an attempt by the venerable women’s clothing specialist to liven up its image and establish a more youthful brand. The unmistakeable entrance to today’s Oxford Circus Topshop is shown in its former guise as Peter Robinson in this Pathé Newsreel clip. Eventually, Topshop (and its male equivalent, Top Man) would become so successful that they eclipsed their parent and Peter Robinson disappeared from the high street.

3 Replies to “Dearly departed department stores”

  1. Researching my family history I have found a photo of Peter Robinson Department store before Oxford Circus was rebuilt in 1912. Any body interested?

  2. Interested in any information re Gamages store in Oxford Street (opp Selfridges, I think).
    My mother used to tell us that she presented flowers to Princess Marina who apparently opened the store.

    1. Hi Bob! I didn’t know about that, but apparently Gamages did move to Oxford Street.

      There is a mention of it here: http://hidden-london.com/gazetteer/oxford-street/

      and here: http://www.vam.ac.uk/archives/unit/ARC50286

      and a picture of the interior here: https://www.architecture.com/image-library/RIBApix/image-information/poster/gamages-west-end-store-oxford-street-london/posterid/RIBA51761.html

      From what I can gather, there were two attempts by Gamages to break into the West End. There was an attempt in the early 1930s and one in the early 1970s.

      Hope this helps!

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