Today (March 15) in London History – London had never seen anything like it

Selfridge’s revolutionised shopping in London. It opened its doors on this day, March 15th, 1909. This podcast tells the story.


Six days to go. And counting. Yes, I’m talking about the home stretch in the Tourism Superstar 2022 Olympics. London Walks is in the finals. We’d so like to win it. Pretty battered and bruised after 24 months of being roughed up by Covid. Be a lifeline for us to win it. Or even a miracle cure. So if you’ve got a minute please vote for us. And share. Spread the word. You vote by going to the London Walks homepage at – right at the top there’s a link that says Vote Now for London Walks at the Tourism Superstar Awards. Just click on that link, in a second or two the blue ballot paper will come up, put a mark by our name and hit Vote Now. And that’ll do it. It’s co st free and a matter of a few seconds for you – but it’s a lifeline for this beleaguered little company. Many thanks.

Ok, here’s today’s podcast.

First, Today in London. How about London’s ultimate destination restaurant and bar (as they call it) – The Brasserie of Light at Selfridge’s. Features London’s largest-scale artwork by Damien Hirst. Features Instagram-worthy desserts, not to mention – no, let’s not mention them. Save something for the imagination. Anyway, why The Brasserie of Light at Selfridges today – all will be revealed over the next few minutes in today’s Today in London History podcast.

Here goes…

London had never seen anything like it.

Londoners turned out by the thousand.

It was March 15th, 1909 – the day American consumer culture – to say nothing of shopping comfort – pitched up in London.

It happened toward the western end of Oxford Street. On the north side of Oxford Street. In a new shop that occupied – in the American parlance – a whole city block.

You’ve probably guessed. Selfridges opened for business.

Where specifically did it come from? Who was behind it? What was different about it – what was new and exciting – and why did it matter?

Maybe the first thing to say about Selfridges was that it was American. It had American tastes, American appetites, American confidence, American flair, American notions of size. Big was better. Selfridges thought big. New was better. Selfridges was innovative in so many ways.

Don’t get the wrong end of the stick. Selfridge’s wasn’t the first department store in London. But it was the first huge, purpose-built department store. In size, it dwarfed every other store in town.

Londoners were not used to vast retailing ventures. Until Selfridges came along all the big stores – and, yes, London did have a few – had grown gradually. Like Barker’s in Kensington. Start small, start with one shop. Acquire the one next door. Knock down a wall to join them. Then acquire a third adjacent shop. Knock down the wall to join it up to the first two. And so on. It was piecemeal growth. It was several different shops cobbled together. They were all a bit of a muddle. They worked from small to big and they bore every sign of doing so. Selfridges reversed that order of doing things. It worked from big to small. Its units – its small individual components – were never tacked on as an afterthought. They’d been planned – their look and the best position for them in the store – had been planned from the get-go.

Even the construction of the building was a London spectacle. Londoners could hardly believe it was a shop that was being built. It wasn’t just the scale and size of the building. It was also its look, its decorative touches. Those huge Ionic columns for example. The only other place in London where you could see giant Ionic columns like that was the front of the British Museum.

Selfridges was truly a temple of retail. The giant, steel-framed building itself was based on the plans of the cutting edge Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. Chicago at the time was in the forefront of innovative, exciting, modern architecture. The building housed 130 different retail departments. It introduced a whole range of customer services that had never been seen in Britain. The new services included a library, restrooms and a free information bureau.

It had 1200 staff. They’d all been hired many weeks before the store opened and trained up to very exacting standards. They enjoyed better working conditions than retail staff elsewhere in London.

Selfridge’s engaged the best buyers from Britain and America. It didn’t cut corners – it paid them well to get them on board.

A fortune – £36,000 pounds – was spent on advertising the store’s opening. Selfridge’s also threw money at Britain’s top artists and designers, hiring them to produce new advertisements announcing the store’s policies.

In modern parlance, Selfridge’s was laying the groundwork to turn shopping into an experience

Opening day itself was an experience, a spectacle. And into the bargain, a huge success. A huge success despite near Arctic conditions. A huge crowd of Londoners braved the snow blizzards and freezing temperatures to gather outside the shop by 8 am, a full hour before it opened.

Come the appointed hour an army trumpeter blew a fanfare. Mr Selfridge himself unfurled the house flag. Simultaneously, the drapes hiding each display window were drawn. There were ooohs and ahhhs from the onlookers as the elaborate tableaux came into view.

And then the doors were opened and thousands of Londoners – shoppers and the curious – surged through the doors, converging on the new Wilton carpet, slush on their feet.

So who was this American, Harry Gordon Selfridge? Where did he come from?

He was from the land of the gathering waters. I so enjoy saying that. Not least because I, David, am also from the land of the gathering waters. Wisconsin is an Ojibway word and that’s what it means. And it’s so much better than saying Cheesehead land. We’re not from the same part of the state – I grew up in the driftless hills in the southwestern part of the state. Gordon Selfridge grew up in Ripon, Wisconsin, in Fond du Lac County in the east-central part of the state. His father owned a small retail business so I guess – there, that verb, that’s a bit of American usage for you – I guess retail was in Gordon Selfridge’s blood. Born in Wisconsin but after a few years grew up in Michigan. Left school when he was 14. Became a bank clerk. Wanted to go to the U.S. Naval Academy but didn’t meet their height requirement. Eventually made his way to Chicago. Joined Marshall Fields. Rose through the ranks. Became manager of their retail department. Travelled for the firm, gathering up new ideas wherever he went. Made a trip to London and Paris. Returned to Chicago. Tried to persuade Fields to establish a department store in London. Fields wasn’t interested. Selfridge left the firm that he’d done so well out of. He was a junior partner. He’d accumulated a fortune of £300,000. He came to London in 1906 and the rest is history.

His personal history, though, is a pretty sorry story. From lots of hands-on making sure that everything was tickety boo at his magnificent new department store – he made daily tours of inspection, always formally dressed with his top hat – over time things went pear-shaped for Gordon Selfridge. After his wife died in 1918 his eye for comely female flesh – notably theatre and cinema stars – got the better of him. He also developed a taste for throwing money away at French casino resorts. In a matter of a few years he burned through his entire fortune. And he was making bad decisions up in the board room of Selfridges. He was forced out. Lost all of it. That was in 1941. The man who brought Selfridges to London, the man who revolutionised the London retail experience, the man who once owned and lived in Lansdown House, one of the grandest mansions in Mayfair, died, penniless, in a modest rented flat in a mansion block in Putney.

Two further thoughts. Timing and good luck are always important. Selfridges was right on time to benefit from the newly built tube lines serving Oxford Street, bringing people with some disposable income from middle-class suburbs into central London.

And when I think about Gordon Selfridge trying, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Chicago retail titan Marshall Fields to open a shop in London – and when Mr Fields said, “no, not interested, that’s not a good idea” – prompting Gordon Selfridge to do it off his own bat, I’m always reminded of that American woman, Ally Svenson. She was a Seattle native. Be over 30 years ago now. Ally’s husband had a good job in the City of London, that’s what brought them to London. Alley Svenson got here and was horrified at the muddy water that passed for coffee in London in those days. She wrote to Starbucks and said, you really should open a branch in London. Some middle manager there read the letter, said that’s a terrible idea. Binned the letter.

In the end Ally opened her own London coffee shop. That was in 1993. In Covent Garden. Called it The Seattle Coffee company. It was a runaway success. She opened another one. And then another one. And so on. Before too long it was making so much money her husband left his high paid job in the city to help his wife run their fledgling coffee shop empire.

And of course, in due course – five years later – 1998 – Starbucks bought the chain. For millions.

I’ve often wondered what happened to the middling Starbucks executive who turned up his nose at Alley Svenson’s idea that Starbucks should open a shop in London. Threw her letter away.

Starbucks paid 83 million dollars for the Seattle Coffee Company’s London business. So that call by that minor Starbucks executive – that was probably a 50 million dollar mistake. Or thereabouts.

Anyway, on that note, good night from London. See you tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *