Selfridges: one of the first great modern UK retailers

Selfridges: one of the first great modern UK retailers

A classic rags to riches story followed by a final fall from grace...

David Osbourne, Writer

David Osbourne


With the popularity of the new TV series ‘Mr Selfridge’, TheGenealogist takes a look at one of the first great modern retailers and how they revolutionised shopping in Britain.

Selfridge was born in Ripon, Wisconsin on January 11, 1856. One of three boys, within months of his birth the family moved to Jackson, Michigan, as his father had acquired the town’s general store.

A hard-working employee since leaving school at 14, in 1876 his ex-employer, Leonard Field, agreed to write Selfridge a letter of introduction to Marshall Field in Chicago, who was a senior partner in Field, Leiter & Company, one of the most successful stores in the city (later bought by Macy’s).

People will sit up and take notice of you, if you will sit up and take notice of what makes them sit up and take notice.

Harry Gordon Selfridge

Initially employed as a ‘stock boy’ in the wholesale department, over the following 25 years, Selfridge worked his way up the commercial ladder. He was eventually appointed a junior partner, married Rosalie Buckingham (a successful property developer) and amassed a considerable personal fortune.

He was also credited with a number of other management terms: “The boss depends upon authority; the leader on good will.” and “The boss knows how it is done; the leader shows how.”

In 1906, Selfridge travelled to England on holiday with his wife. Here, he was able to view British retailers and found their sales practices far inferior to those in the United States. He saw an opportunity and invested £400,000 in building his own department store, in what was then the unfashionable western end of Oxford Street. The store opened on 15 March 1909 and went from strength to strength.

On TheGenealogist, using the quick MasterSearch tools, we can find Gordon Selfridge on the 1911 Census, now settled in England. The family lived at 17 Arlington Street in Mayfair. Harry lives with his wife and family and his mother Lois (who he was very close to) in this exclusive part of London.

The couple had 4 children, 3 girls and a boy. Violette, Harry (Junior) and Beatrice are living with their parents here in Arlington Street. They also had another daughter, Rosalie.

On TheGenealogist, we can find the marriage record of the daughter Rosalie’s marriage to Serge de Bolotoff in London. He was an aviator, of Bulgarian nobility. It was also rumoured Rosalie was close friends with Sylvia Pankhurst, campaigner for the suffragist movement.

Gordon Selfridge promoted the completely new notion to British people of shopping for ‘pleasure rather than necessity’. The shop floors were designed so that goods could be made more accessible to customers. There were elegant restaurants, a library, reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for French, German, American and “Colonial” customers, a First Aid Room, and a Silence Room, with soft lights, deep chairs, and double-glazing, all intended to keep customers in the store as long as possible. Staff members were taught to be on hand to assist customers, not too aggressively, but still to sell the merchandise. It was the start of successful retail marketing in Britain. Here he is listed on the ‘Directory of Directors’ on TheGenealogist:

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As a leading retailer, his views were noted on the impact of the First World War on business, and can be found on TheGenealogist in the Newspaper & Magazine collection:

Selfridges continued to supply numerous market leading products. Here is an advert from the Harts Annual Army Lists of 1910 found on TheGenealogist, promoting sturdy cases for Army Officers.

However, after the First World War, his wife Rosalie sadly died in the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918. His mother died in 1924 and this seemed to be the start of the decline in the retail magnate’s fortunes. His business acumen started to be replaced by a desire for living a life to excess with gambling and showgirls taking priority. In 1921, he lost over £170,000 (in today’s money) alone at casinos.

To trace his movements in the 1920’s and 30’s TheGenealogist has the largest collection of Directories. This is a key resource for finding the exact address of an ancestor. In the Kelly’s Post Office Street Directories we can see where Gordon Selfridge was living as a private resident.

In 1925, he was still quite affluent, living at Lansdown House, in fashionable Berkeley Square, London.

In 1932, he is now living at 5 Carlton House. His son, Gordon Junior, is also listed at 8 Farm, Berkeley Square.

In 1940 Gordon has moved to Brook House, flats near Hyde Park. Gordon was still a director at Selfridges at this time, just as wartime bombing started when the London store suffered serious damage.

By the 1940’s, he had substantially large debts including the Inland Revenue for unpaid tax, his Directors account at Selfridges and he was also in debt to the Midland Bank. Selfridge left his store in 1941, after an ultimatum from the Selfridges Board to retire now or pay back his debts immediately. The store was later acquired by John Lewis. It was said he used to regularly visit his London store and stand outside and reminisce on the good times. He was arrested around this time by the Police who thought he was a vagrant. Hard to believe from a gentleman who prided himself on his sartorial elegance and fine waxed moustache!

After all his business success and displays of entrepreneurial skills, his latter years were spent more frugally as the high life of casinos, fine cigars and showgirls finally took its toll. He died in 1947 in a flat in Putney which he shared with his daughter. We have a copy of his death record on TheGenealogist:

The fascinating lives of the Selfridge family is well worthy of a television series and is a classic rags to riches story followed by a final fall from grace! The remaining Selfridge family members could not afford to buy a headstone for his final resting place at Highcliffe in Hampshire, but the continued success of his flagship store is a great testament to one of the great retailers and marketers in history.

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