An entire class of buildings has become redundant and risks being lost for ever, says David Rudlin. But it was never about their external appearance

David Rudlin_index

When I was a teenager I had a Saturday job at the Lewis’s department store in Birmingham (not to be confused with John Lewis). I got to know and love the rambling store with its arcane cast of shop assistants, floor walkers, sub-managers, store detectives and backroom staff.

Reading the report Departing Stores: Emporia at Risk by Harriet Lloyd for Save Britain’s Heritage took me back to those happy days. There have been 237 department store closures in recent years. Like Victorian warehouses or stately homes, the report says, an entire class of buildings has become redundant and risks being lost for ever.

The first Lewis’s opened in Liverpool in 1856 after its founder, David Lewis, returned from a visit to Bon Marche in Paris, the first true department store. The store in Birmingham was built in 1886 at the invitation of Joseph Chamberlain to adorn the newly opened Corporation Street, a grand avenue that the council had cut through the Victorian city and then named after itself.

Lewis’s always went for big stores in big cities and we were told that the Birmingham branch was the largest department store in the country, although this may have been an exaggeration. It closed in 1991 when the company collapsed long before the current retail crisis.

I have been reading about the fascinating history of department stores as part of the 1851 built environment fellowship. We may regard them as outdated, but they were the malls of their day, ruthlessly commercial institutions, selling off-the-peg fashion and undermining the bespoke tailors, drapers and haberdashers that had dominated retailing.

Lloyd suggests that some were even burnt down by angry shopkeepers. In shades of the 2020 Boohoo scandal, they also were accused by the Victorian social reformer Henry Mayhew of selling luxury fashion manufactured by “sweated labour”.

They were also the Amazons of their day, publishing catalogues and using the newly-international postal service to ship their goods to all corners of the Empire. The stores were revolutionary, the produce out on display with price labels rather than hidden behind counters.

Customers could handle the goods, compare quality and prices and admire the clothes on mannequins. Advertising would stress the ability to browse without being pressured to buy – the origins of shopping as a leisure pursuit.

These were not upmarket institutions even if they sold the idea of attainable luxury. The chairman of the very grand Brown’s of Chester admitted that they targeted ‘the C class of customer’ - artisans and lower middle-class groups who aspired to middle class values.

They sold the mass-produced goods of the industrial revolution, things that were aspirational rather than functional, things you just had to have but did not really need.

One of my favourite stories is that of Paulen’s that originally stood on Stretford Road in Hulme. If you know Manchester you will realise that this is massively off-pitch, in one of the city’s most impoverished neighbourhoods.

Yet Paulden’s was the first store in the city to introduce electric lighting, lifts, escalators and plate glass display windows as well as being the first place in the country to sell Danish pastries!

Paulen’s was acquired by Debenhams in the 1950s, who funded a major refurbishment. But, just as the store was about to reopen, it burnt down and a week later a double-decker bus crashed into it and fell into the basement!

So, instead of rebuilding, Paulden’s moved into a monumental store on Piccadilly Gardens. This was later rebranded as Debenhams and is one of the case studies in the Save report now that it is slated for conversion to offices.

This was also the fate of the Lewis’s store in Birmingham and – looking at it today – there is no hint of what it once was. It makes me wonder what it is we are saving? Some of the case studies in the Save report are very fine buildings, but it was never really about the external appearance.

It was not even about the interiors. Lewis’s was a stage-set with flimsy partitions and suspended ceilings. What was special was the clatter of the foodhall, the heady scent of the beauty department, the glamour of the fashion floors, the hush of the furniture department and the bright lights of electrical.

More than anything else it was about the institution and the tradition that no amount of conservation is going to bring back. This may just be me being old and grumpy!

I was however heartened to read about Bobbies in Bournmouth, a former Debenhams that has been reopened as… a department store! The work of the property company Verve, it includes an art gallery, ice cream parlour, a beauty hall with organic skincare, a microbrewery and a market space to be run by South Coast Makers (plus a foodhall for dogs). If only this could be the fate of all former department stores!