Peter Scott, Professor of International Business History, University of Reading

The economic and social importance of the Debenham’s archive

 Debenhams was one of Britain’s largest national retailers and, for several decades, its biggest department store group. It was founded in 1778, when William Clark began trading as a draper at 44 Wigmore Street, in London’s West End. Debenhams reached its zenith in the early and mid-twentieth centuries, as Britain’s largest department store chain (eventually having 178 stores in Britain, Denmark, and the Irish Republic) and played a key role in developing “popular department stores”, serving the lower and middle-classes.

Debenhams changed its name several times during the nineteenth century while extending its range of stock and opening branches in Cheltenham (1823) and Harrogate (circa 1843).  All three shops traded in similar goods and developed an extensive mail order trade, via a joint catalogue, the Fashion Book. The business was incorporated as Debenhams Limited in 1905, with a prestigious new headquarters in Wigmore Street from 1908. There then followed a period of rapid expansion, under the leadership of Ernest Debenham, with the acquisition of department stores throughout the UK, including the prestigious London stores Marshall & Snelgrove (1919) and Harvey Nichols (1920). In 1928 Debenhams purchased Clarence Hatry’s Drapery Trust: Bon Marche (Gloucester); Swan & Edgar (Piccadilly Circus); the Bobby & Co. group; Marshalls Ltd; and the Drages furniture store group. Debenhams remained Britain’s largest department store group for several decades and was a major national store chain into the early twenty first century.

In addition to its size and scope, Debenhams is important as the main creator of a new, “popular” department store model, aimed at a working and middle-class clientele, during the inter-ware era. Key characteristics of this model included low prices -compared to traditional department stores – and high promotional expenditure, including entertainment and spectacle (in the 1930s one of its store managers, Jimmy Driscoll, was arrested for obstruction after a stunt involving two elephants, borrowed from a circus to promote a ‘Jumbo’ birthday sales event). As such, it is important to the history of working-class consumption and leisure, in addition to its business activities.

In my view the Debenham’s archive ranks alongside the Woolworths and Marks & Spencer archives as the most important retail archives for the UK, given its great contribution to British business, social, and cultural history. Given the popularity of retailing history and department stores (as evidenced by substantial publications in this area over recent years) it is likely to be of considerable interest to both academic historians and the general public. I would therefore regard the preservation of this archive as being of the greatest priority.

Photo/credit Peter Scott
Store Closing signage, Hastings, Sussex, Dec 2020
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