Casualty on the high street: Beales Department Stores
The Beales department store chain entered into liquidation in January 2020 following several turbulent years of trading. The firm had been in operation for 140 years in Bournemouth, Dorset and further afield. Its rise and fall—from the ‘Selfridges of the south coast’ to a high-profile casualty of the crisis in British high street retailing—encapsulates the nation’s rapidly changing shopping habits.
Images courtesy of Dorset History Centre.
A store of national significance
The Bournemouth store was opened in 1881 by John Elmes Beale as the ‘Fancy Fair and Oriental House’. This initially reflected the late-Victorian enthusiasm for Chinese and Japanese design, and was the first dealer in Liberty art fabrics outside of London. As a purveyor of fashionable drapery and household goods it quickly established a reputation for innovation. The store hosted the first visit by Father Christmas to an English shop in 1885, and was later managed by Beale’s grandson, Frank, who had trained at Macy’s in New York City.
The business remained a family firm for much of the twentieth century, and the Beales became prominent in local politics. The company gradually expanded by opening a glamorous Art Deco flagship store in Bournemouth, after its headquarters were bombed during the Second World War, as well as a sister chain of shops on the south coast, Bealesons. These shops were known for staging fashion shows and entertainments, with television personalities including the puppet ‘Sooty’ and broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough. The retailing heart of a number of English town centres, Beales stocked toys, books, and music alongside popular clothing and homeware brands.
From the late 1960s onwards, the company acquired other heritage department stores and chains in towns and cities across England and Scotland. Beales thrived and was listed on the Stock Exchange in 1995. By the 2000s, it was struggling with rising business rates and competition from online retailers and out-of-town shopping parks, but a series of restructuring agreements after 2015 saw the company briefly return to profitability. On its collapse, Beales employed over 1,000 staff across 23 stores located as far apart as Hexham, Peterborough, and Poole.
Status/Outcome: The company’s archive was presented as a gift to Dorset History Centre (DHC) by KPMG in 2020.
KPMG were appointed to manage the receivership of the company in January 2020. Following announcements that Beales was experiencing financial difficulties and set to close for good, the DHC made urgent approaches to the administrators. The archive was collected from the Bournemouth store by the DHC on the company’s last day of trading in March 2020.
- The rapid and pragmatic response by the business archives community was vital in preventing the destruction of heritage material at the point of liquidation.
- The rescue took place during the turbulent weeks in British retailing caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Successful transfer was testament to the perseverance of the DHC in contacting the firm’s current and former staff.
- Archivists were also supported with intelligence provided by local contacts, as well as by The National Archives and Bournemouth University.
- There is an ongoing need for advocacy about the value of archives within the retail and insolvency sectors. Campaigns should emphasise the enduring business and research value of records relating to British high street shops as a barometer of trends in fashion, technology, domestic and social life, and testament to the countless people who shopped or worked in them.
- The Beales brand has since been bought by a new business. This firm has relaunched the Poole branch, making it one of the only companies to open a new department store in 2020. The DHC are now in contact with the new venture to help ensure this unique archive supports future marketing and brand development.
- The Beales archive has expanded the DHC’s collection of business archives. It offers a valuable new window on the history of British retailing, marketing, and design. The collection includes ledgers, correspondence, staff handbooks, retail catalogues, photographs and ephemera. The DHC aims to fully catalogue the archive to make it accessible for research. The collection presents new opportunities for the DHC to work in partnership with Bournemouth University to develop related community heritage and education projects.
Sam Johnston, County Archivist at the DHC, commented: “The preservation of this wonderful archive reinforces the point that the records of businesses—particularly at this time of severe economic peril—are a fundamentally important part of our collective story and should be cherished as part of our cultural heritage.”
Thank you to BAC volunteer Heidi Egginton and to Dorset History Centre.