Oxford Street is one of the busiest shopping areas of London. There are several large department stores, and the best is Selfridges. Wikipedia says it was voted the best department store in the world in 2010 and 2012.
Many people who enjoy shopping there don’t know the story of the creation of the store.
The store was opened in 1909. It was designed by the American architect Daniel Burnham, who also designed Marshall Field’s, Chicago, Filene’s in Boston, Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, and Gimbels and Wanamaker’s in New York. The grand classical façade hides a structural secret – Selfridges was one of the first buildings in England built around a steel frame.
Harry Gordon Selfridge was an American retailing executive who worked for Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago for 25 years. He and his wife visited London in 1906 and Harry was surprised to discover that the stores in London were all quite old-fashioned. Harry was looking for something to do. He had left Marshall Field in 1904 and started his own store in Chicago, which he sold at a profit after only two months. For two years he lived the life of a wealthy retired businessman in his great house in Chicago, playing golf and enjoying his steam yacht. He had married well in 1890 – his wife Rose Buckingham came from a wealthy Chicago family. Before her marriage, Rose had travelled extensively through Europe, Russia and the Middle East with members of her family. She was also a successful business woman and developed large homes and artists’ cottages in the Hyde Park area of Chicago; some of these houses still survive.
This building is right across from the Royal Albert Hall. It was home to the Royal College of Organists from 1903 – 1991, when the peppercorn rent arrangement expired and the Royal College could not afford to renew the lease. The house became a private residence – but that’s another story!
In the TV series, the interiors of the “Selfridge home” was filmed in a completely different place – a purpose-built studio. At first I thought they had filmed the interior scenes inside the Leighton House Museum in Kensington because it looked so similar.
When I visited Leighton House and asked about the filming, a staff member told me that the locations people from the film company had visited the museum and then built their sets that looked very much, but gave no thanks or credit to Leighton House.
Not very professional. I think.
Back to Oxford Street and the great store. Harry Selfridge wanted to create a store that was the third most visited place in London, after the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace. He built the first grand modern department store in England.
Above the main entrance to the store is an amazing sculpture group created by Gilbert Bayes. The store was built in three sections, and this large sculpture wasn’t installed until 1931.
Down on ground level, next to the main entrance doors, are two larger than life statues of potential shoppers (I guess this one is headed to the cosmetics department.)
Harry, Rose and their four children lived at 30 Portman Square, a short walk from the store. The house was demolished and now the Hyatt Regency Hotel- The Churchill stands on the site.
Within a decade Harry was seriously rich and wanted to enjoy the money. He had plans to build the biggest private castle in England down in Dorset – with 300+ rooms, swimming pool, bowling alley, cinema room, etc (sounds like the Great Gatsby!) – BUT he didn’t get planning permission.
SO – in 1916 he took out a long lease on Highcliffe Castle, where he entertained Royalty, politicians and other millionaires.
Sadly, Rose Selfridge died of the flu or pneumonia in 1918, possibly contracted at the Convalescent Camp that Harry had given Rose as a present the previous Christmas. It was in the grounds of Highcliffe Castle and accommodated 24 soldiers who returned from the war in Europe.
After his wife and mother died, he leased one of the grandest houses in London – Lansdowne House on Fitzmaurice Place, just off Berkeley Square (William Waldorf Astor had rented it earlier in the century).
Harry became very friendly with the Dolly Sisters. I had never heard of the Dolly Sisters but people in England still recognize the name. They were identical twins from Budapest who immigrated to NY in 1905 when they were 13. They had a VERY pushy stage mother who got them into Vaudeville, and they became huge international stars. They moved to Paris and often came to London. One of them really thought Harry planned to marry her. But he didn’t.
Here is the one photo I will use that I didn’t take – but I think it gives a good impression of what the Dolly sisters were like. (Pretty frisky for the 1920s!)
(Image found online at www.silenceisplatinum.blogspot.com/2010/05/dolly-sisters.html)
Well, Harry was gambling and really enjoying the party life, but when the depression hit, his fortune disappeared. He became almost penniless and moved to a one-room flat in Putney (not the flashest part of town). He travelled around by bus, and the directors of Selfridges Department Store were so embarrassed by the old man that they banned him from entering the store! So sad!
The inscription says
“LAID BY THE MEMBERS OF THIS HOUSE IN ADMIRATION OF HIM WHO CONCEIVED AND GAVE IT BEING 1909-1930”
It’s a very nice reminder of the founder of the store, and lucky that they put in early. By 1941 Harry was penniless and an embarrassment – so the Board of Selfridges voted that he would not be allowed into the grand store that he had created!
Harry Gordon Selfridge’s true story is interesting and deserves a hearing. Unfortunately the TV series really embellished the story – I think the truth is more interesting than some of the TV fantasies. Last year as my daughter was walking home through Regent’s Park, she saw a film crew working on something. She asked and learned it was for the next series of “Mr. Selfridge”. Just one of the serendipitous things you can happen upon in London.
I do think it’s really sad that most of the new architecture we see today is so BORING!! New stores are almost always boxes of glass or stone. I think we should feel gratitude to Harry Selfridge who built a beautiful store that has stood proudly on Oxford Street for 100 years and is still interesting.
All photos except “Interior of Leighton House” and ” Dolly Sisters” were taken by Cathey Leitch
@Cathey Leitch, 2015