Tag Archives: London shops

All lit up

The Christmas light displays are a London tradition dating since 1948, when the Regent Street Association decorated the street with Christmas trees. Lighting had not been allowed until 1949 following lifting of wartime restrictions. But it took an article in the Daily Telegraph which admonished retailers on how drab post-war London looked to galvanise Regent Street shops to start the tradition of Christmas lights, that today we have come to expect.

[I]t was as late as Christmas 1954 when they first appeared in Regent Street with Oxford Street trailing behind not appearing until 1959. An excellent gallery of photos can be found here including Regent Street’s lights in 1955.

It would have been a welcome relief for Londoners who at Christmas 1940 had endured the fiercest bombing raids of the entire Blitz. There had been a cessation from Christmas Eve until the 27th December. But Sunday the 29th marked on of the most intense raids, so concentrated it became known as the Second Great Fire of London. It was during that firestorm that the iconic photograph of St. Paul’s dome towering above the carnage was taken.

The glimmer of seasonal joy the post-war Regent Street decorations brought to a drab war-torn London were short-lived, due to the recession and lack of the now too obvious sponsorship, and the West End went back to darkened December nights between 1967 and 1978.

We now refer to these twinkling orbs as fairy lights which comes from an event at the Savoy Theatre. Opening in 1881 the Savoy Theatre was the first building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity. The next year a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Iolanthe was staged there. For the opening night the theatre’s owner Richard D’Oyly Carte dressed the principal fairies with electric star lights which the wore on the top of their heads.

This innovation aroused much excitement and the term ’fairy lights’ came into common usage for lights associated with Christmas.

Picture: Christmas Lights, Regent Street. Every year the lights in Regent Street have a different theme. Oast House Archive (CC BY-SA

Are you being served?

The Centre for Retail Research has recently forecast 62,000 shops will close in the next 5 years. The independent analysis group estimate that one-fifth of all retail outlets will cease trading by 2018. Peter Watts writes on his Great Wen site of the demise of Tobacco Dock. Opening in 1989 the dock conversion featured two arcades of shops on two floors inside a skilfully modernised structure that retained its Victorian industrial integrity. It now lies there completely empty.

[O]nce London had a number of prestigious stores many owned in a partnership of two men. Unlike the generically named Next or Top Shop their premises reflected the owners’ personal taste and retain acumen. As our shopping habits change the great days of the department store are probably over. There are some survivors left in London, but many of the great privately owned retail partnerships have gone. Old fashioned concepts like knowledgeable staff, politeness and service are now less important in a digital retail age.

Arding & Hobs


One of the few stores Sarf of the River. This department store was once situated at Clapham Junction and very often spoken of as “Arding ‘n’obbs”. It opened in 1885 and at that time was the largest store south of the River. Destroyed by fire in 1909 it was rebuilt in Edwardian baroque style the original signage remains in place above the main entrance. Now Debenhams.

Bourne & Hollingsworth


Mr. Bourne and Mr. Hollingsworth set up a fancy drapers’ shop in 1894 in Westbourne Grove. In 1902 they moved to Oxford Street slowly acquiring the rest of the block including a brothel, a ‘next of Polish tailors’ and Savory’s cigarette factory. Closed in 1983.

Derry & Toms


A little shop run by Joseph Toms described as a ‘toy and fancy repository’ joined with Charles Derry acquiring seven shops one of which was described as a ‘mourning department’. The firm prided itself on being the main suppliers to the upper classes of South Kensington and had over 200 employees living in. Closed in 1973 and taken over by Biba.

Dickens & Jones


Dickens originally opened a shop in Oxford Street in 1790 moving to Regent Street in 1835. By 1900 the staff totalled 200, most of them lived in nearby Argyll Street. In the 1890s John Pritchard Jones became a partner and the store changed its name. In 1901 the store was all prepared for a while sale when Queen Victoria died. Most of the stock was dyed black to meet the urgent demand for mourning wear. It is now owned by House of Fraser.

Marshall & Snelgrove


Opening in Vere Street in 1837 their nearby rival was William Debenham. By 1871 James Marshall the son of the founder had introduced a large mail-order business. Alas the rivalry is over Marshall & Snelgrove is now part of the vast Debenhams empire.

Swan & Edgar


William Edgar had a haberdashery stall in St. James’s Market and used to sleep under it at night. Meeting Mr. Swan together they ran a shop in the Ludgate area. In 1812 they moved to Piccadilly Circus and then Regent Street premises which had been the Western Mail coach offices and also the Bull and Mouth public house. They retained the inn licence until the late 1970s. Its vast store was closed in 1982.

Waring & Gillow


The business was established by Robert Gillow in Lancaster about 1731 and by 1765 leased some land in Oxford Street that was to become the Selfridge’s site. S. J. Waring had a cabinet making enterprise in Liverpool and in 1895 had a retail outlet in Oxford Street. The companies merged and made furniture for Boodle’s, the Garrick and Reform Clubs. However, the business of the firm began to decline and the Lancaster workshops closed in 1962 and the company merged with Maples.

A Nation of shopkeepers

My daughter came home the other day enraged, her favourite Indian restaurant in our high street had closed. It was being replaced; she informed me, with a note of incredulity in her voice with yet another fast food outlet.

The offending newcomer this time was one selling pizzas with a name sounding like an Italian version of a game played with black tablets with white spots.

Just how many fast food outlets does one small suburb need?

Well the answer somewhat surprised as I spent 15 minutes making a survey of our high street.

[O]nce the street provided all the usual outlets for sustenance and comfort: butcher, baker, greengrocer, fishmonger and my hardware haven.

Our local authority in an attempt to give us a balanced retail experience has given us: 13 fast food outlets; 7 hairdressers; 4 nail bars/sun tanning studios; 3 charity shops and 3 estate agents.

Napoleon Bonaparte once famously described the English as ‘A Nation of shopkeepers’, this at a time when the rich would eat at home the food prepared by their staff. While the poor, because they had no choice would eat at the local pie shop.

Danny Boyle’s plans for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics are said to be reflecting the customs and values that made Britain. Well this should include having unique local shops each with their own identity where your daily needs may be purchased.

Within a few years not only will every high street peddle the same products, only those retailing fast eating or your coiffeur will be available.

Thinking inside the box

A common complaint nowadays is that our high streets are being decimated by the recession, with boarded up gaps.

These gaps, looking like missing teeth, are between every shop that is managing to stay afloat.

At first it was your local butcher, baker and greengrocer unable to compete with the large supermarket chains.

[O]nce they gave up trading the mega-giants of retail moved into open their own “local” version of their ubiquitous brand while offering the same products as that of the displaced retailers.

Inevitably over time most moderately successful high streets in medium sized towns all looked the same as fashion brands copied the supermarkets and swallowed up independent clothing retailers.

With every high street identical with only the order they appeared along the shopping parade one entrepreneur has taken this trend to its logical conclusion – Boxpark.

In Shoreditch in what’s dubbed the world’s first pop-up mall – an Americanism if ever there was one – Boxpark comprises of 60 identical shipping containers over two levels each 2 metres wide by 6 metres deep and all of them painted black, each with identical signage with none displaying the famous logos that clothing brands have spend millions perfecting and promoting. Nike, Puma, Calvin Klein – they all look the same.

The idea taken from Puma City store in Boston and Illy Cafe in New York was conceived by Roger Wade and erected on the site of the defunct Shoreditch High Street Station that has remained empty for 40 years.

Located on the edge of “Silicon Roundabout” which the Government is predicting (and investing) to be London’s hi-tech growth centre competing with Silicon Valley in California, it couldn’t be in a better location.

Roger Wade is boxing clever, he has plans to open another dozen of these container parks offering retailers short economical leases with each unit stamped with Boxpark’s unique style.

Could this approach be the shops of the future? The high street is beginning to look uniformly the same, to paraphrase Henry Ford: Soon you can any colour shop front you like as long as it’s black.