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Review: London’s Lost Department Stores: A Vanished World of Dazzle and Dreams by Tessa Boase.
A guest post by Dave Whittaker.

lost department storesWith Christmas now rapidly approaching, the windows of the remaining London department stores all brilliantly illuminated and resplendent with all the latest wares, what better time of year for a book that recounts and celebrates the origin of these stores and innovators of so many of our seasonal activities?

Barkers, Swan and Edgar, Gamages, Dickins and Jones, D H Evans. All, for most of us familiar store names from the past. Many, such as Gorringes, Pontings and Drages are less known. More recently, Allders, Army and Navy, House of Frazer and now even Debenhams. The litany of the lost department stores of London, its suburbs and beyond continues to grow.

In London’s Lost Department Stores, Tessa Boase chronicles their foundation, frequently developing from humble drapery stores. Then on through their golden age to their often rather sad demise. It is, as she puts it “a journey into a magic world”. We are “Transported up the escalators, higher and higher, as if on a magic carpet”. They were London’s “Halls of Temptation”. Growing from Victorian “Great Emporia”, to Edwardian “Cathedrals of Consumption”. Each vying for custom, offering more and more sales lines and services. Remembering the infamous exotic pet departments, Arthur Gamage’s laying in state in his own store and even, in one case, running public school tuck shops.

By the early 1900s, London and its then suburbs had over 100 department stores.
The best known, in central London and then further out are featured in turn. Detailing how they often built on an existing specialisation and targeting a particular clientele and class of customer. Around that time, Selfridges, (thankfully still very much with us), the then leading store, often acted as a business model and the innovator of new marketing techniques. Interspersed with the stores, are numerous articles on social change. Covering the rather slow establishment of employee’s working hours and rights and, especially in the expanded role of women in society and the world of commerce. A topical favourite for many of us will be the chapter “The Invention of Christmas”. The first store to create a Christmas Grotto, featuring a live Father Christmas was in 1888 at J R Roberts of Stratford. By 1889 others followed. Later, Harry Gordon Selfridge is credited with the ever-popular slogan “Only XX shopping days to Christmas”.

The book is richly illustrated with many evocative photographs, from Victorian and Edwardian highly decorative styles to the Bauhaus clean lines of Simpson Piccadilly, giving us a feel for the whole range of the golden era. Of course, it is tragic that so many of the physical structures have been lost forever. But much remains for us to see. Although changed in use, the Edwardian Debenham and Freebody building still stands in Wigmore Street, for example.

To conclude. Highly recommended as an introduction especially for those, like me with an interest in the history of retail consumerism. It should inspire further investigation. Its compact transportable format with several maps makes it especially useful for those wishing to locate former stores. This is definitely one for your London shelves.
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London’s Lost Department Stores: A Vanished World of Dazzle and Dreams (192pp) by Tessa Boase is published by Safe Haven Books in paperback. Cover price of £16.99 but available for less.

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