Remembering George Henry Lee

At the weekend there was considerable interest here and on Twitter in my ramble around downtown Liverpool. A good number of people were particularly interested in the ‘fold in time’ photos of one of Liverpool’s most treasured department stores, just before it closed, back in 2016. So today, top shopper Sarah Horton proudly remembers her top shop and shares the photos we took on the day it closed.

As a child I recall shopping trips with my mother going to Liverpool, from Birkenhead, to ‘George Henry Lee’. In fact I recall shopping trips where we didn’t go anywhere else in Liverpool except George Henry Lee. Because everything you needed could be found in this wonderful department store.

Where to start? We would enter the store on the ground floor and immediately you’d be in ‘Fashion Accessories’. Oh the delight of scarves, multi-coloured socks, tights and stockings in lace and every hue; jewellery, shining and tempting… an absolute cornucopia. I’d drag behind my mother, fingering the exquisite merchandise only to be dragged through and on to a more practical department, like ‘Furnishing Fabrics’ or ‘Cookware’. No doubt if the latter it would be for exactly the right piping nozzle for the latest recipe in the Cordon Bleu weekly magazine that my mother was avidly collecting, all 72 issues published between 1969 and 1970.

The gastronomic delights of my childhood came from these magazines.

The gastronomic delights of my childhood came from these magazines.

But it didn’t really matter where we went, because every department in George Henry Lee was stocked with the finest and the best products in the world. Their slogan ‘Never knowingly undersold’, meant that you would find only quality products, at the best price.

Years later as an adult I still shopped at George Henry Lee, I religiously bought my underwear there, eschewing ‘Marks and Spencer’, who must have supplied underwear to most of the population of the UK. I recall exclaiming to a shop assistant about the price of a nightie, and I said, ‘Oh that’s cheap isn’t it?’ The reply… ‘Well, madam, yes they are very reasonable.’ Cheap would have implied inferior goods. And yes, they really did call you madam.

George Henry Lee was a particularly unique shop, because it was in fact two shops that had been physically joined together. The Bon Marché department store (prounounced ‘Bon Marsh’ in Liverpool Ronnie tells me), had been a renowned stylish and artistic department store, holding exhibitions and concerts in the 1920s and 30s. It’s fortune declined in the 1950s and it was acquired in 1961 by the John Lewis Partnership, and they decided to merge it with George Henry Lee. So what this meant to the shopper, was that there was always a bit where you’d be going along a corridor joining the two buildings, and strange changes of level and odd steps here and there. In my opinion it only added to the shopping experience, there was a sense of intrigue and surprise about turning all these corners.

george_henry_lee

In the 1970s, the George Henry Lee building. © National Museums Liverpool

At the time of the merger the name of the store was retained, so it remained George Henry Lee, but as ‘part of the John Lewis Partnership’. I didn’t know at the time that they also owned a number of other department stores, and they traded with their own names, but all shared the distinctive dark green logo and branding. Years later I discovered other John Lewis stores, ‘Robert Sayle’ in Cambridge and ‘John Barnes’ in Hampstead. Always delightfully individual, but with the reassuring quality and feel of my beloved George Henry Lee.

Back in Liverpool, I don’t recall what year it was when the haberdashery department moved from the ground floor. Perhaps it was during my time away from Liverpool, but I do remember thinking how much I didn’t like it. Haberdashery in George Henry Lee was a sight to behold. Anything you needed, and I mean anything, for your sewing project could be found there. Threads, zips, hooks, interfacing, ribbons and lace (by the yard), and of course, the buttons. I have spent years of my life at the button counter in George Henry Lee. They had single buttons fixed onto stiff boards about 12″ wide by 10″ high, in neat rows and arranged by colour. The boards were displayed on a special ledge just the right size for them with an upstand on the front of the shelf so they didn’t slip off. When you’d selected the button you wanted you would ask an assistant and she (it was invariably, although not always, a she) would go to the set of tiny drawers behind the counter and bring the drawer over and select your buttons. These would then be put into a tiny paper bag and taped closed.

To be fair, when haberdashery moved downstairs to the basement, they did retain the button cards, but they stopped the ribbons by the yard, and started selling them on rolls of about five yards. As I recall it was yards but we’d probably moved over to metres by then.

In 2002 the John Lewis Partnership announced that they were changing the name of all their stores to John Lewis followed by the location. So George Henry Lee became ‘John Lewis Liverpool’. Well, that’s what it called itself. I always continued to call it George Henry Lee. The exception to this is Peter Jones in London, which has remained Peter Jones. There is a very comprehensive history of the John Lewis Partnership on Wikipedia here. This tells me that the decision to call all the stores the same name was to ‘accommodate national advertising’. I always felt the shop never felt quite the same. The staff who work at George Henry Lee are not just ‘staff’, they are all partners, and receive an annual bonus, which is a share of profits. To me, this is partly why I think the staff seemed so pleased to help you, every sale was potentially more profit, and therefore the larger their bonus.

So the following year in 2003, John Lewis Liverpool announced they would be moving to the new ‘Liverpool One’ shopping experience in the city centre, as one of the ‘flagship’ stores (I hate that word), and Debenhams (a House of Fraser store), were the other ‘flagship’ store. The move didn’t actually happen until 2008, so now we have two gleaming brand new department stores at each end of a concrete ‘retail experience’ which sandwich two levels of high street shops and not an independent shop between them. Very, very sad.

But I digress. In 2008, just before George Henry Lee closed its doors for the last time, we went to have a last look round.

And round the corner it's August 2008.

This is the entrance to the George Henry Lee building.

I always thought of this entrance as the ‘back’ entrance to the store. It brought you into ‘Gifts’ and from there you could go down into ‘Lighting’ and ‘Large Electrical’, or up to the towel and sheets department. I preferred the other entrance….

DSC06896

The main entrance to George Henry Lee, which is in fact the old ‘Bon Marché’ entrance.

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George Henry Lee, Basnett Street, Liverpool.

As you entered the shop from here, you are plunged into ‘Fashion Accessories’ and many a casual purchase has been made simply by seeing the latest displays of footless tights or hair ornaments. A delight.

The entrance to 'Menswear'.

The entrance to ‘Menswear’.

This is another entrance, one that I really liked, but didn’t use very often because it goes straight into ‘Menswear’. I would often come out this way though if I wanted to shop in this part of town, it’s right by Williamson Square.

I love these doors.

I love these doors.

Fortunately these doors are still here, but sadly they now contain a Poundland shop (yes everything is a pound), and when I first saw this, in January this year, I had to wonder what the assistants who used to measure gentlemen’s inside legs would think of this. It all seems so sad.

Can I help you in Poundland sir?

Can I help you in Poundland sir?

There was another entrance, which was a newer addition, here you can see it’s in between the George Henry Lee building (on the left) and the Bon Marché building (on the right). I’m obviously a bit overcome by the emotion of the day and have had to sit down for a drink of water.

The 'new' entrance.

The ‘new’ entrance.

OK, so that was a quick tour of the entrances, so let’s go inside.

The lovely staircase.

The lovely staircase.

We’re in the Bon Marché building here, with the lovely mezzanine floors. That’s ‘China and Glass’ straight ahead (we’ll be coming back here), to the left you can just see the a mirror in the ‘Mirrors’ department, below that is ‘Bed Linens’ and to the lower right is ‘Carpets’. Beyond the carpets you can see steps that lead up (to ‘Women’s Fashions) in the George Henry Lee building. See what I mean about the levels.

xxxx

Looking across the mezzanine to ‘Tableware’.  Napkins anyone?

And looking down from the

And looking down from the mezzanine to ‘Stationery’ ,which for some reason always included ‘Partyware’ just visible on the shelves at the back on the right.

It's...

It’s more of ‘Stationery’. Cards, wrapping paper, Filofax pages (does anyone still use them?), and of course, a pen counter.

Just nipped down myself to get something...

Just nipped down myself to get some cartridges.

The lovely mezzanine ceiling.

The lovely mezzanine ceiling. Another glimpse of ‘China and glass’. We’ll be back!

But first, we’re going to go to the basement. Of course, I want to visit haberdashery for one last time.

Here I am on the stairs leading down to haberdashery. It's looking a bit empty.

Here I am on the stairs leading down to haberdashery. It’s looking a bit empty.

And the stairs that I am standing on, dear reader, are the Bon Marché stairs. And every time I went up, or down, these stairs with Ronnie, he would say, ‘These are the Bon Marsh stairs.’ No, that wasn’t a typo, that’s what he said.

The 'Bon March' stairs.

The ‘Bon Marsh’ stairs.

Which say 'BM'. They don't make stairs like this anymore.

Which say ‘BM’. They don’t make stairs like this anymore.

Before we go and see what’s left of haberdashery, we take a detour to the left and go and visit ‘Kitchenware’. It’s all looking a bit depleted.

The stock is being wound down, and is a sad sight compared to how it looked fully stocked and full of choice.

The stock is being wound down, and is a sad sight compared to how it looked fully stocked and full of choice.

And next, haberdashery.

And it's already gone.

And it’s already gone.

Everything. Not a zip in sight.

Everything. Not a zip in sight.

Yes. We know that.

Yes. We know that.

The yarn shelves. All empty.

The yarn shelves. All empty.

For some reason, John Lewis decided that when they opened the new store, they weren’t going to take any yarn from this store, so they had a massive yarn sale. I have to confess that I still have 17 balls of bamboo yarn in shell pink (and quite a lot of other stuff) in my yarn stash from that sale.

So it's farewell to haberdashery.

So it’s farewell to haberdashery.

And back upstairs to ‘China and Glass’.

Another one of my favourite departments.

Another one of my favourite departments.

This wonderful department contained the most amazing selection of glasses you have ever seen. And vases too. And mugs, cups, jugs, plates…. But the particular thing about this department was the sound it made. As you walked past the shelves of glassware, the floor underfoot gave slightly and the glasses on the shelves would all gently tinkle. It was just the sound of ‘China and Glass’ in George Henry Lee. I’d heard it for nearly 40 years.

And I look very happy to be here.

And I look very happy to be here.

A small selection of coloured glass vases.

A small selection of coloured glass vases.

Perfectly selected and displayed.

Perfectly selected and displayed.

So it’s nearly time to end our last visit to George Henry Lee. Outside there’s a couple of other things to show you.

The staff entrance, they are not 'staff' but 'partners'.

The staff entrance, they are not ‘staff’ but ‘partners’.

And another old entrance

And another old entrance, which has been unused for years… I have a distant memory of this being open and it led into women’s shoes, but I may be wrong.

And finally, we go and have a look at the ‘new’ George Henry Lee.

A modern 'flagship' store.

A modern ‘flagship’ store.

With none of the character of George Henry Lee.

With none of the character of George Henry Lee.

Welcome to character-less shopping. How I miss haberdashery.

And here at a sense of place our thoughts and best wishes today are with the people who inherited the George Henry Lee building, the staff of Rapid Hardware.

25 thoughts on “Remembering George Henry Lee

  1. Chris Lee (no relation)

    Growing up in Birkenhead, my mermory of George Henry Lee is being left there by my mum on their carpeted floor in front of a counter (any counter) sometimes to play, sometimes to sleep. I would be picked up once my mum had done her shopping (she rarely forgot me). That I never came to any harm (physically, don’t know about psychologically) says much about George Henry Lee at that time. Don’t know quite what it says about my mum…

    Reply
    1. Sarah Horton Post author

      Yes Chris, I too remember playing on the carpet in front of counters… I particularly remember the tall counter with the dress pattern books and we seemed to be there for ages!

      Reply
    2. Julie Lee Balestreri

      Thank you all for the comments. My Great Great grandfather was George Henry Lee. I got a chance to visit the store in 2000. I had contacted the staff and they treated me for a tour and provided me some old pictures. It was wonderful. So glad I have the memories.

      Reply
  2. lindsay53

    Lovely reminiscence Sarah and those BM stairs are beautiful! These individual department stores do have a place in the memories of those of us of a certain age. My mother started her very early working life in the accounts department of Palmers Department store in Great Yarmouth. Similar thing, quite upmarket, you could get everything, served by people who knew their stock & knew their customers, proud to serve you kind of place. Perhaps you could do a blog on the new, ‘flagship’ store for a comparison?

    Reply
    1. Sarah Horton Post author

      Hi Lindsay, yes I also recall Marie et Cie in Llandudno which you might have also been familiar with. The sad decline of the department store…
      Yes it would be interesting to do a comparison piece, but I’ll have to see how it is taking photos in the new place, it’s much more sterile and I don’t know how the staff would react. The whole feel of Liverpool One has a feeling of being private (which is odd for a public place), so I will have to be very discrete!

      Reply
  3. cheethamlib

    Excellent piece and strangely enough there used to be a Bon Marche here in Perth and I’m sure there was one in Melbourne.But they have long gone probably melded into ‘flagships’. I have the same memories of accompanying my mother to an old and venerable department store named Georges. The staff stood respectfully behind their counters and in front of all those interesting sets of drawers and there were high chairs for the customers.

    Lovely photographs, I liked the Partner’s entrance and those magnificant double doors that now take the bemused shopper into a tacky Pound store (I’m assuming this is the equivalent of a $2.00 store)

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes

      I too remember when the department stores were rather too stuffy and respectful. And George Henry Lee always did retain a few customers who thought they were still the well to do in the 1930s and we were all the hoi-polloi. But on the whole the staff there had pulled off the trick of being friendly and interested in the customers and recognising the regulars.

      Then, moved to their new ‘flagship’ in Liverpool One, most of them are stuck behind tills which are remote from any particular department and the joy was clearly not brought with them from the old shop.

      Reply
  4. Linda Williams

    I haven’t been to Liverpool 1 as yet. I have lived on the Isle of Man for 40 years. I loved George Henry Lees, and shopped there. I worked in the Cunard Building for Spillers. I had an aunt who worked at the Bon Marche. When she left (to work in the Kardomah in Dale Street with her future husband) she was presented with two pillowcases from her workmates at the Bon ! I still use them! That was pre 1936, and they were given to me,as new, by my aunt in 1967.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes

      Hi Linda. My partner Sarah continues to be of the firm opinion that most of the culture and a large chunk of the customer service were left behind when George Henry Lee’s moved into Liverpool One. Now it’s much like a John Lewis store anywhere, sadly. Those pillow cases sound pretty special though, best part of 80 years old and still going!

      Reply
  5. iseabail rowe

    I have just received a vintage pattern brought online. I opened it to find a very old George Henry Lee receipt inside. As a counterfoil i cannot really make out the date or details but the back is beautifully with that time old slogan “We are never knowingly undersold”. I loved learning the history of the store and look forward to paying in homage in my no doubt dodgey attempt at this dress. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes

      Difference is, if you’d bought the pattern and material in George Henry’s they’d have talked to you about it. And no doubt asked you how you were getting on with it next time you were in the shop. Now, having moved the tills out of the ‘Habi’ department, John Lewis has removed the chance of such friendly encounters.

      Reply
      1. leeinroyston

        I grew up in Birkenhead and, 50+ years ago, my mum would ‘leave me’ under the watchful eye of one of the George Henry Lee staff members while she did her shopping. Sometimes I would sleep on the floor while I waited. Don’t know what this says about my mum’s parenting skills but it says a lot about the store. And no, as far as I know, I’m not related to George Henry…

  6. Wendy J Cullen (Mrs)

    Does anyone remember the uniformed doormen? As a child my sister’s and I always tried to enter the Bon Marche store, but we never managed to get past the doorman. I really miss all these large Liverpool stores and the atmosphere that these elegant stores created. Blackler’s was always a child’s dream at Christmas with the huge Christmas tree that was erected through the middle of the store, absolutely wonderful. I was employed within the wage’s department at Owen Owen’s in the early 1960’s, and the staff were allowed to shop within the store during our lunch period, I always remember being told that if a customer approached me with a query, that I was to lose the “Liverpool Accent” when I answered their question. I still haven’t lost the “Liverpool Accent” even though I moved out of Liverpool in the 1960’s. I also was employed at Co-operative House in London Road, and spent quite a lot of my time looking out up London Road from the large glass windows that encased the corner of the store.

    I always wish that I was back in the 1950’s/1960’s watching all the big liners leaving at the Pier Head, going on the ferries to the fair at New Brighton, and just roaming around the city stores. We may not have had a lot of money but they were happy days.

    Reply
  7. Maggie Wallace

    Oh dear, nearly moved to tears by this! Loved Lee’s, the new John Lewis is a mess, get lost always, can’t eat in the cafe as it’s so echoey and noisy. Ages since I even bothered to try to go there. Haberdashery is (rude word) useless.

    All I can say is thank goodness for the internet so I can shop from home now. Though may have to make a trip soon to be measured up in the lingerie dept – hope they still train their corsetieres (sp?), though even back in the days of GHL I had a horrible one once who was very rude and unkind to me. Luckily she went off for her tea break, and an elderly lady looked after me then, was very kind, and measured me perfectly, and made a decent sale that I trust she made something from!

    Reply
  8. Matilda

    Thank you for this lovely post. My Mum, sister and I loved “Lee’s” and everything about it including its eccentricities such as the tinkle in the glassware, the lifts and the odd corridor connecting the buildings. As children of the 80’s we loved the gift department (not so much the toy department- you couldn’t beat Lewis’s for that) and as we got older the makeup, gloves, scarves etc. However, nothing could match the magic of the Christmas department. It announced the start of Christmas! It lost a little something when it was moved to the basement but we still made the effort to visit it. I also totally agree with everything that has been said about haberdashery in the old and new buildings. We have got used to the new building but miss the service!

    Reply
  9. markyhMark

    I used to work at George Henry Lee and I left in late 1990. I worked there for 3 years in the carpet department (I’m 48 now) but I was 23 then.
    I loved it and all of the rules and regs that many people would find silly now.

    For example, the men were allowed to take their suit jackets off but only if they had a short sleeved Jonelle shirt underneath. If your shirt was long sleeved, then you were not allowed to take your jacket off, even in the summer and this was before air conditioning.

    All shirts had to be white and your suit had to be black or dark grey.

    All department heads were called Mr Smith, Mrs Johnson, Ms Walker, etc and my boss on the carpet department was called Viscount Boringdon, son of the Earl of Morley and ex Sandhurst trained Captain in the Army! Great bloke though.

    Can’t remember the MD’s name but he was ex-military, as were most of the branch MDs around the country.
    The management and the Partners (staff) had different dining rooms (yes, even in 1990!).

    My favourite time was Christmas as you would be seconded onto the really busy departments like Perfumery and gifts as part of a team known as the Flying Squad – a team specifically to cover departments who were short staffed due to illness or needed more staff at busy times.

    We also used to have our own floor at the top of the building where there was a games / leisure room…table tennis table, 2 pool tables, full size snooker table and almost 50 ‘easy chairs for staff to relax in. There was also a separate room called the quiet room where again, there was about 50 chairs but talking was discouraged, it was dark and people used to just go to sleep!

    There was also a bar and a roof top terrace where we used to have BBQs in the summer and the views from there were stunning – the tallest building in the city centre I believe.

    Great, great times and this blog has really taken me back to a simpler time in my life, thank you.

    Reply
  10. Lizzie

    Hello,
    I am working on Educating Rita at Chichester Festival Theatre with Lenny Henry playing ‘Frank’ and the show is set in Liverpool… It features a dress in the play which would have been bought in George Henry Lee – We are set in 1982.
    Does anyone have a photo of what the logo, or even better the carrier bags, looked like from the store? Or even better still, maybe even have a carrier bag?!
    Do get in touch, Lizzie Props..

    Reply
  11. Dave Townson

    George Henry Lee’s was my mother’s favourite department store. It had a certain dignity about it, except when as a schoolboy I learned how fast you could run down its shallow stairs. I also remember young women operating the lifts in the Bon Marche, a store that even had a lending library. Henderson’s was another favourite shop, where I was fitted with my first shoes. Perhaps if the John Lewis building ever becomes a Wetherspoon pub they’ll respect its heritage and call it the George Henry Lee.

    Reply
  12. Joan Aughton

    I am originally from the Manchester area and used to large shopping areas with famous stores. Moved to Southport in 1971 and have lived here ever since. I frequently took the train to Liverpool to George Henry Lees I loved everything about the store the character of the building to the contents within. I especially loved the habadashery dept and would spend hours in there looking at everything and always found what I wanted.The service was second to none and personalised ,unfortunately something that is now missing in most modern stores. It was good to reminisce .

    Reply
  13. Margaret Longden

    What a joy to read about George Henry Lee. I loved everything about it, the exotic smell of the perfume and cosmetics department, the Buttery, the gorgeous porthole windows in the doors. It often reminded me of a cruise liner from the glamorous days. I could spend hours browsing the haberdashery, and a particularly happy memory is of buying the Vogue pattern, moss crepe and guipure lace for my wedding dress there in 1972, and also a huge picture hat to wear instead of head dress and veil. I still remember the lovely assistant who helped tactfully persuade my dubious mother that the hat suited me better than a veil. Shopping there was a complete experience, and the staff were so knowledgable and helpful.

    Reply
  14. Christine Thomas

    I too have one particular fond memory of going to George Henry Lee shopping. In 1982 I was engaged to be married, my dear mum and I went to Liverpool on the train from North Wales, we looked around all the independent bridal shops only to be offered copies of a particular Princesses wedding dress who had been married the year before in 1981, all of which I rejected as layers of thrills and bows wasn’t really my style or what I was looking for. Then mum and I entered George Henry Lee, we found the bridal department and again similar dresses were shown to me by the very helpful assistant, at this point I was starting to feel a little disinterested and tired, then I noticed a single dress on display in a glass cabinet, mum asked the assistant could we have a closer look, certainly she said and proceeded to remove the dress from the cabinet. It was my size, I think she said it was a French design from the previous year, I tried it on, it was an A line cut, with a small train and 3/4 sleeves with lace over, it was the perfect dress for me, both mum and I loved it. The assistant wrapped it in tissue put into a large George Henry Lee box. I still have it in the same box and will have married 35 years this coming October, lovely memories of a lovely time.

    Reply

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