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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
OK, so that was a quick tour of the entrances, so let’s go inside.
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.
But first, we’re going to go to the basement. Of course, I want to visit haberdashery for one last time.
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.
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.
And next, haberdashery.
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.
And back upstairs to ‘China and Glass’.
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.
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.
And finally, we go and have a look at the ‘new’ 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.