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.

Covering an entire block, this confection of Edwardian baroque was built to impress. The building is detailed with the bare breasted statues denoting virtues of commerce and industry and is further adorned with wreaths, garlands and angels. This fine work is surmounted by a full attainment of the Royal Arms given pride of place on the central tower.

With a prestigious address on Wigmore Street, W1 and built with imperial grandeur and Edwardian élan, why was this palatial building commissioned? It isn’t a ducal palace or the town house of an industrial titan. It doesn’t house a ministry of state, an important High Commission or Palace of Justice. It was, to put it bluntly, a shop. And, to underscore its ordinariness, it was a branch of Debenhams.

To be fair, this was not just any department store and not just any branch of Debenhams – Wigmore Street was the historic home to a business with over two hundred years of history in the area. Tracing its antecedents to Flint & Clark, a drapers business founded at 44 Wigmore Street in 1778. It became Clark & Debenham in 1813, changing its name to mark William Debenham’s investment in the business. It would change its name again in 1851 to become Debenham & Freebody.

The central tower and turret of Debenham & Freebody's Wigmore Street store

By the turn of the 20th century, the business had expanded across London and the UK. The Wigmore Street headquarters was to become an emblem of this success, the pre-eminent Edwardian emporium. It would, of course, be upstaged by the arrival of the flashier and modishly modern Selfridges around the corner on the busier Oxford Street.

Debenhams also had a presence on Oxford Street following its purchase of Marshall & Snellgrove. which, over time, would become its prime central London location as the retail geography of the West End shifted decisively northwards. It is barely worth comparing the architectural merits of the opulent Wigmore Street building with the brutalist concrete slab on Oxford Street (the latter being labelled the “ugly duckling department store” by the London Evening Standard).

The 'new' Debenhams store on Oxford Street - undergoing a major refurbishment

This unloved building is undergoing a £25 million refurbishment intended to turn the “dispiriting” vast concrete expanse into a 21st century marvel. It will feature an undulating, ‘kinetic’ aluminium and light installation and extensive new sky lit atrium. Whether this revival will compare with its earlier century counterpart on Wigmore Street remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the Wigmore Street branch stands stately and distinctly quieter than in its retail heyday. The address is still used by Debenhams plc but the building primarily functions as office space. An echo of its retailing past is retained with a rather posh branch of Dolland & Aitchison opticians and Tsunami, an upmarket bathroom store.

Next week – part two – central London’s lost department stores

4 thoughts on “Dearly departed department stores

  • Jenny Seale

    My grandfather (was a doorman there (Debenhams, Wigmore St). My dad told me he wore a uniform and white gloves. This would have been late 1800s to mid 1900s I guess. Might you have any photos of the doorman/men in their uniform during this period please?

  • Jenny Seale

    My grandfather (was a doorman there. My dad told me he wore a uniform and white gloves. This would have been late 1800s to mid 1900s I guess. Might you have any photos of the doorman/men in their uniform during this period please?

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