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.

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Dearly departed department stores

Part 1: Debenhams of Wigmore Street 

Every year, millions of shoppers converge on London’s major department store. Selfridges, Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Liberty feature amongst the capital’s most visited tourist attractions. They are also serious commercial operations – Harrods turned over £651 million in 2012 alone. With the department store enjoying a new millennium renaissance, it is easy to forget that London has, over the past century, lost a clutch of iconic names. As Selfridges surges and John Lewis thrives, this series of posts remembers those that didn’t make it, including Barkers, Allders, Whiteleys, Dickins & Jones and Arding & Hobbs.

Wigmore Street is a distinctly quieter, parallel counterpoint to the maddening crowds of Oxford Street. As thousands of shoppers throng past John Lewis, Selfridges and House of Fraser, Wigmore Street’s pavements are generally empty. One building in particular, however, suggests that the street has had busier days.

The Debenham & Freebody store on London's Wigmore Street

Wigmore Street is dominated by Victorian architecture – handsome brick piles with detailed stonework. But, in the middle of these worthy piles, one edifice stands out: “the prize building of the street” according to the Pevsner guide to north west London. It is an intricate and dazzlingly white colonnaded palace topped with an elaborate turret. The building’s clean and bright appearance is due to being clad in Doulton’s famous Carrara tiles. With over a century of service, the tiles have lived up to the manufacturer’s guarantee that promised smog-defying brilliance.

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Coining the home nations

If you are reading this in the UK, have a look at the change in your pocket. One side features a portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II and the other continues the monarchical theme by displaying one of an array of heraldic badges, devices and national icons. Changing over the years, the choice of these designs tells us something of the importance of giving equal weight to the constituent countries (England and Scotland), principality (Wales) and province (Northern Ireland) of the United Kingdom.

Since 2008, the coins issued by the Royal Mint have featured the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, either whole (on the £1 coin) or in parts that make up an image of the whole when brought together. There are also special issues for both the £1 and £2 coin (the £2 coin will be featured in a forthcoming post).

The Royal Shield reverse designs, introduced in 2008

The pre-2008 coins carried a much more interesting array of designs. The back of the pound coin had a number of designs, providing a feast of symbols to satisfy each of the component parts of the union. The 1983, 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2008 issues featured a slightly amended version of the royal coat of arms used today. But in the intervening years a more regional approach was taken.

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The price of privacy

London’s St James’s Park is one of the capital’s most popular and iconic open spaces. It forms the backdrop to stunning views of Parliament to the east and Buckingham Palace to the west. Weeping willows brush gently against the waters of the ornate lakes that glisten between pristine lawns and sumptuous beds.

For a long time the park formed the central expanse of the private gardens to the Palace of St James’s. It was only in the 17th century and the reign of Charles II that the park was opened to the public.

By the 18th century the public was well used to the pleasant amenity of St James’s Park and the other royal parks nearby. London had started its relentless growth north and west, and soon engulfed the surrounding fields and villages. The parks provided the necessary verdant relief from the urban sprawl.

Any attempt to limit the public’s access was fiercely resisted, leading to this rather lovely and probably apocryphal anecdote:

“Foreigners were shocked that in St James’s Park ‘the first quality blended with the lowest populace. Such is the taste of the English, who pride themselves on this, as a proof of their liberty.’ It shocked the foreign royal family in St James’s Palace too. George II’s queen, Caroline, once asked [the Prime Minister] Sir Robert Walpole what it would cost to enclose the park for the sole use of the court. He replied, ‘“Only a Crown, Madam.”’

London and the towers of (economic) doom

Does the completion of skyscrapers herald economic doom? This is the conjecture put forward by Barclays Capital and set out in a fascinating piece on the BBC News website. The bank’s research focuses on the correlation between the completion of world-record shattering skyscrapers and the onset of financial crises. The evidence presented is compelling – the Empire State Building was completed against the backdrop of a city and nation in the grip of the Great Depression and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa was completed just before the dramatic crash that nearly bankrupted the tiny emirate.

A building considered by many to be the world’s first skyscraper, the Equitable Life Assurance Building in New York City, topped out at a barely cloud tickling 40 metres during the post-Civil War crash of 1869-70. According to the report, the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s was heralded by the completion of Malaysia’s Petronas Towers and the oil shocks that rocked the US in the early 1970s were marked by Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower).

Completing the tower of economic doom?

But is this trend valid for London? Are the capital’s tallest buildings a reliable indicator of economic doom? Londoners should hope not, as the Shard London Bridge completes this year as both Britain and the EU’s tallest building. Does this make the double dip recession architecturally inevitable?

There are some clear examples illustrating how the health of the UK’s economy is predicted in London’s tallest buildings:

·         The Broadgate Tower marked the development of the City’s eastern fringes and was topped out in 2008, just in time to mark the credit crunch. It was completed in 2009, just as the UK slipped into recession.

·         One Canada Square (the Canary Wharf tower) was finished in 1991 in the middle of the early 90s recession. The development’s fortunes were so dire that its developers, Olympia and York, went into administration soon after in May 1992.

·         Tower 42 (the NatWest Tower) was completed in 1980, just as the UK entered the early 80s recession that saw unemployment rise from 5.3% to 11.9% by 1984.

·         The mid-70s recession of 1973-5 was marked by a whole development of skyscrapers as the City of London put the finishing touches to the Barbican Estate by completing the Cromwell Tower (1973), the Lauderdale Tower (1974) and the Shakespeare Tower (1976).

And, although admittedly stretching the cause and effect logic of the Barclays report, London’s tallest building for centuries was St Paul’s Cathedral. The cathedral was declared officially complete by Parliament on Christmas Day 1711. This was the same year as the foundation of the South Sea Company. The South Sea Company’s infamous bubble would steadily inflate until its disastrous explosion in 1720, plunging the country into economic crisis.

It would therefore appear that the topping out of the Shard London Bridge will inevitably take place against the backdrop of another recession. Fortunately, for the optimists amongst us, there are plenty examples of tall buildings being completed in London without accompanying economic or fiscal calamity.

Battersea Power Station became London’s tallest building after St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1939. Whilst clearly a significant year in British history, it heralded the opposite of economic decline as all British industry worked flat out to support the war effort. Battersea Power Station would give way to the Crystal Palace transmitter in 1950, at the beginning of a boom post-war period.

The BT Tower would be a physical manifestation of Harold Wilson’s white heat of technology and was finished in 1962 as the post-war boom continued and Britons had never had it so good. Similarly, Centre Point was completed in 1967 and, whilst economically unsuccessful itself, its completion did not precipitate economic crisis. Finally, 30 St Mary Axe (or the Gherkin) topped out in 2003 in the midst of an economic boom that allegedly signalled the end of boom and bust.

There is clearly plenty of evidence from the capital on each side of the argument that tall buildings herald economic doom. We will have to wait and see exactly what the Shard brings for London and the UK.