Thanks to ITV’s Mr Selfridge, I was made aware of London’s first department store in Bayswater: Whiteleys.
In S4, we see Jimmy Dillon persuade Harry and Gordon to buy Whiteleys, which they agree to. After the agreement was signed, we see the three walk proudly up the sweeping staircase inside Whiteleys, admiring their new store.
Whiteleys began as a drapery shop on Westbourne Grove in 1863. Over the decades, the store expanded and hired more staff, many of whom lived in Whiteley-owned single-sex dormitories. The store, unfortunately, suffered four fires in the 1880’s, the last of which forced Whiteleys to seek a new building.
The current Whiteleys building was built in 1911 and has been mentioned in many early 20th Century literature. In Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady), Whiteleys is the obvious choice for where a lady can buy a gown. Aside from being the store for luxurious goods, the store had a theatre and even a golf-course on the roof (much like Selfridges).
In 1927, Selfridges purchased Whiteleys. Most biographies end there. We know poor Mr Selfridge later faced bankruptcy and eventually died a poor man. Was Whiteleys sold off?
I wanted to see what had become of that grand store so I paid a visit last week to see how the store was faring.
On my way to Whiteleys, I passed by a clock on the corner of Bayswater Rd and Queensway. A few more blocks led me to a side entrance at the corner of Queensway and Porchester Gardens. (The main entrance is on Queensway.)
Walking into the store was like walking into a ghost department store. Many of the units were empty and most of the shops were either liquidating or hosting heavily discounted sales, ranging from 50-80% off! Retail assistants were desperate to flag down every passerby shopper. In fact, I was stopped twice for some demos. The first assistant desisted when I insisted that I simply did not have the money to purchase anything, even if a product were 75% off. The second, unfortunately, thought I was playing along and did not want to buy anything. It must be incredibly challenging to work at Whiteleys in the 2010’s.
Here at Whiteleys, you’ll find an eclectic mix of shops, including Toys R Us, Hallmark (pretty cards!), H&M, Zara, and an all men’s vintage store. There are also quite a few beauty salons inside where you can have cheap and fast eyebrow threading for £5. From what I could see, there were only two floors (ground and first floors) of shops. The second floor is home to Odeon, where there are four auditoriums and The Lounge, where adults (i.e. those over 18) can enjoy food and beverage whilst watching the latest movies. There is also an All Star Lanes 6-lane bowling alley with a Retro American theme (think 1950-60’s). I loved the old Whiteleys ads reprinted on the columns, a reminder of its popularity for women’s fashion long ago.
Although many have considered Whiteleys has a flop, I prefer department stores that are bustling with people and too much noise. At the same time, the department store could fill up more shops and even a restaurant (a nice one, not fast-food!).
But not to worry. It looks like Whiteleys new owners have plans to resurrect the department store and the shops along Queensway. Who knows, by 2020, it may indeed become the ‘Covent Garden of the West’. Mr Whiteley can be proud once more!