Professor Deborah Sugg Ryan, Professor of Design History & Associate Dean Research, University of Portsmouth
The department store Debenhams has been a major name on the British high street since 1927 when it was the largest department store group with 84 companies and 110 stores. Its origins go back much further to 1778 when William Clark founded a draper’s store at 44 Wigmore Street, London, selling fabrics, bonnets, gloves and parasols. William Debenham invested in the firm in 1813, which became Clark & Debenhams. Stores outside London followed and further expansion was facilitated by Clement Freebody investing in 1851 and a merger with Marshall & Snelgrove in 1919 and the purchase of Harvey Nichols in 1920. Although the Debenham family ended its association in 1927, it remained a household name with all stores in the group being rebranded with the Debenhams name in 1977.
There can scarcely be an adult in Britain who does not have a connection with a Debenhams’ store through objects, visits or work. From furnishings to school uniforms to cosmetics to clothing, Debenhams brought affordable style to the nation. In 1993 it launched its groundbreaking Designers at Debenhams diffusion line, bringing fashion and interior products from high end names such as Betty Jackson and John Rocha within the reach of ordinary people. As a department store chain, it offered a distinctive and reliable experience of shopping as a leisure activity, with enticing window displays, welcoming cafes and friendly customer service. This was especially the case for women but there must have been many a panicked male Christmas Eve shopper grateful for Debenhams as a one-stop shop for last minute gifts. Wherever you went in Britain, Debenhams could be relied on as a consistent retail experience.
Debenhams’ archives, including those of the incorporated stores, offer a window into Britons’ consumer habits and aspirations. I can think of no other high street name whose records are so crucial to understanding the physical spaces and place of retail in Britain’s social and economic history.