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The sculpture detail above the main entrance to Selfridges, Oxford Street| © Chmee2/Wikicommons
The sculpture detail above the main entrance to Selfridges, Oxford Street| © Chmee2/Wikicommons
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The History of London's Selfridges in One Minute

Picture of Harriet Clugston
Updated: 4 April 2018

It’s one of the most famous department stores in the world and a haven for tourists and Londoners alike, and given an added dose of dramatic flair by ITV’s recent series, Mr Selfridge. But this iconic store is more than it first appears, having revolutionized the world of retail around the globe, and contributing in a major way to the creation of consumer culture in the UK. We introduce you to the fascinating history behind Selfridges.

The history of Selfridges begins in Chicago in 1879, when 23-year-old Harry Gordon Selfridge got a job as a stockboy in the wholesale division of Marshall Field’s, Chicago’s leading department store. He worked his way up in the company over the next 20 years, becoming a junior partner, marrying a woman from a prominent family and becoming a wealthy man. In 1893, the World’s Fair came to Chicago, prompting Marshall Field to commission the city’s leading architect to create a spectacular annex for his store. This was to underpin Selfridge’s belief in the theatrical quality of retail.

After travelling to London in 1906, Selfridge saw a gap in the market, realising London’s shopping scene was far inferior to other major cities, and decided to open his own store. Investing £400,000 of his own money, Selfridge demolished buildings at Oxford Street’s unfashionable West End, clearing a space to construct a magnificent building in a neoclassical style.

Selfridges, Oxford Street| © Martin Addison/Wikicommons

Selfridges, Oxford Street| © Martin Addison/Wikicommons

Selfridge & Co opened in March 1909, with Selfridge utilising his savvy sense for marketing, creating an elaborate advertising campaign to generate excitement; 30 policemen were required at the grand opening to hold back the crowds, unprecedented in a city that was not largely consumer-orientated. Selfridge wished to revolutionise shopping, turning it from a necessity into a leisure and social activity. In June 1909, the first plane to have been flown across a body of water was put on display, drawing crowds of 150,000 people, the first of many educational and scientific exhibitions.

The sculpture detail above the main entrance to Selfridges, Oxford Street| © Chmee2/Wikicommons

The sculpture detail above the main entrance to Selfridges, Oxford Street| © Chmee2/Wikicommons

Selfridge continued to manage his store in an innovative and creative way, using techniques that have been adopted by modern stores around the world. He opened franchises in Sheffield and Leeds, growing Selfridges to the biggest retail group in Europe. However, he was lavish with his personal spending and was forced out by the Selfridges board in 1941 after losing his fortune, and died virtually penniless. 

The Selfridges chain of stores has been sold many times in subsequent years, with the flagship Oxford Street store remaining the second largest UK store after Harrods. The sense of theatricality fostered by its founder lives on, through eclectic events and the store’s world-famous window displays.

Harriet Clugston