I am sooo loving the new TV series Mr Selfridge.
I absolutely love Selfridges, and spend far too much time there. It’s a beautiful building, and the shop has it’s very own vibe and allure, I just love it.
But I’m particularly excited by the series as I’ve been secretly researching the history of Oxford Street and its shops, and in Oxford Street history, Selfridges was a big deal. And, as the show highlights, Mr Selfridge was a dreamer with big vision; he would be proud that his vision is so alive and kicking today.
However, I was a little disappointed by their portrayal of Mr Selfridge’s grumpy vision partner Mr Waring.
Actually Waring back then was what Selfridges is to us today. The luxury retailer, the flagship store of Oxford Street.
He hailed from Liverpool and had taken over his family furniture business. In a style that would make Sir Alan Sugar proud he turned the business around from a small furniture maker to a flourishing European money making enterprise. As well as owning a leading store on Oxford Street (the Selfridges of the early 1900s) his firm was also furnishing the rich, famous and royal (including Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace).
He opened his Oxford street furniture store in 1906. The store, was a grand building and it was just as grand inside; 40,000 square feet dedicated to quality furniture from around the world, crowed with two giant rotundas and filled with exotic flowers and palm trees. It was quite impressive, so impressive that it was described by one newspaper as the ‘Ninth wonder of the world’. It’s not surprising Mr Selfridge was keen to do business with him.
But not only that, Mr Waring, who’s luxury furniture now kitted out royal homes and yachts (The Queen Mary and The Queen Elizabeth, to name a few) and hotels far and wide, also owned a little building company on the side, Waring & White building (and refurbishing) among others The Ritz Hotel. It was here the two met for the first time. Mr Selfridge (as we know) was keen to build his store from scratch, and so rich Mr Waring was the perfect business partner.
Selfridges is a beautiful building, if you visit be sure to gaze at it’s design both on the inside and outside. It’s interesting to note that that Selfridges is located on towards the western end of Oxford Street whereas Mr Waring’s store Waring & Gillow was located at the eastern end, in a similar way that Primark now dominates both the East and West ends of the Street. Waring was about to become the king of Oxford Street.
So why did the relationship breakdown? Waring was a shrewd business man, he’d taken chances and risks before, most notably his first big Hotel job; kitting out the Cecil Hotel (one of London’s most luxurious hotels, sadly demolished in the 30s). He well overspent and almost caused his business to go bust, but his risk paid off and led him to new clients, big business, and contracts with the Ritz and Carlton Hotel.The Gillow & Waring store building is still there, it stands at 176 Oxford Street (the Tottenham Court Road End). I discovered it one day when I looked up from my feet (a rarity when struggling through the crowds on Oxford Street). I looked up and noticed this stunning red and white building, you can tell it used to be something important, and glamorous in its day. Today it’s been gutted inside and turned into offices, with retail space on the street level. No palm trees or rotundas. But from the outside you can still see it’s beauty.
But Selfridge’s eagerness to get his store off the ground and his grandiose visions, not only defied London planning regulations but also cost far more than the budget allowed. The money disappeared rapidly, before a brick was even laid. It was two big and risky for Mr Waring, and after less than a year he pulled out of the partnership. It says a lot for Mr Selfridge that he pushed through, and built his dream store without Mr Waring’s help. Mr Waring’s store continued until 1932 when it went into receivership.
It’s perhaps a little sad to compare those those two buildings and businesses today. One standing at the East End, just a beautiful building with no mention of its historic royal customers, and entrepreneurial owner; the other a ground breaking, billion dollar business, famous the world over, the must see of many a London Tourist, and shopper.
I wonder if Mr Samuel Waring was alive today he might be kicking himself just a little, and wishing he’d taken that gamble.
If you’re loving the show and want to find out more about the history of Selfridges itself, I totally recommend the presentation at www.selfridges.com/Mr-Selfridge