Remembering Lewis’s: The jewel in Leeds’ retail crown

Lewis's store, courtesy of the Thoresby Society
Lewis's store, courtesy of the Thoresby Society
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On the first day of opening on September 17 1932, Lewis’s colossal department store in Leeds was invaded by 120,000 excited customers. The only item that could not be purchased after 4pm was lobsters. They had been selling at 9d each.

The store’s statistics were incredible, including 21/2 million bricks, 5,000 tons of steel, 5,000 tons of cement, 13,000 tons of sand, 12,000 tons of gravel and 40,000 cubic feet of Portland stone. At 40 feet higher than any other retail building in the city, Lewis’s also had the largest ground area of any provincial department store.

Lewis's on The Headrow in Leeds

Lewis's on The Headrow in Leeds

The store was perhaps the jewel in the crown of the newly widened The Headrow, Leeds’s best-known street. The Headrow can be traced to maps of 1560, forming the northern edge or ‘head’ of Leeds’s medieval boundary, hence the name. It was also the principal east-west route through the town.

During the 17th century, the thoroughfare was known as Upper Head Row and Lower Head Row. On 19th century maps it is shown as Park Lane, Guildford Street, the Upperhead Row and Lower Headrow.

The growth of city business and commerce during the 19th century led to a rethink on the problem of traffic congestion along The Headrow and ultimately the job of widening it to 80ft was undertaken.

Other developments, besides that of Lewis’s in the widened street of the early 1930s included the building of Permanent House, the headquarters of the Leeds Permanent Building Society; and the Paramount Theatre, later named the Odeon. Headrow House was built in the 1950s.

The Headrow before Lewis's

The Headrow before Lewis's

David Lewis, often described as an English merchant and philanthropist, settled in Liverpool around 1840. At 16, he was apprenticed to Benjamin Hyam & Co., tailors and outfitters. Accumulating sufficient cash, he branched out on his own to establish a business as a boys’ clothier in Bold Street. Following the opening of a second outlet, he went on to develop one of the largest retail businesses of its kind in the UK. After Lewis’s death in 1885, he bequeathed large sums for the building of hospitals and other philanthropic institutions.

The first Lewis’s store outside Liverpool opened in nearby Manchester in 1877, followed by one in Sheffield 1884 (but proved unsuccessful and closed after four years) and Birmingham in 1885.

After Lewis’s demise, Louis Cohen took control then, when he died, control passed to Harold Cohen, who took the company public in 1924. A store was opened in Glasgow in 1929 before the company moved into Leeds.

A proposal for a Lewis’s store in the city had been announced in 1928, on a site on the north side of the Upperhead Row, between Woodhouse Lane and New Briggate. Much of the property was owned by Wade’s Charity, founded in 1530 by Thomas Wade.

Excavating the basement for Lewis's on The Headrow in Leeds

Excavating the basement for Lewis's on The Headrow in Leeds

Leeds Corporation acquired the land required for The Headrow widening from Wade’s Charity and sold the large plot earmarked by Lewis’s for £160,770.

Architect, G.W. Atkinson, visited the US before producing the final drawings for Lewis’s store, which adhered to Sir Reginald Blomfield’s overall plan for the entire Headrow widening scheme. The construction work was carried out by Wm Airey & Son.

One of the most remarkable events before building the store was the scooping out of a great hole in the ground for the basement floors and foundations. Twelve hundred men were employed in the store’s building which, it was said, was a monument to the enterprising firm’s faith in business possibilities.

Describing the construction of the store itself, where steel was a key material, the Yorkshire Evening Post of February 24 1932 said: “The Domed steel cages after being surrounded and encased in cement provide an air space which gives a resiliency and lightness to the floors hitherto unknown in building construction.”

Lewis's Food Hall staff in 1930s

Lewis's Food Hall staff in 1930s

The new Lewis’s cost about £750,000 and was officially opened by the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Alderman F.B. Simpson. In attendance at the ceremony, staged in the restaurant, was Harold Cohen, who presented a cheque on behalf of the company, for £500 for Leeds charities to the Lord Mayor.

The new store comprised 157 departments in which everything could be had from a theatre ticket to a permanent wave, a pound of sausages to a suite of furniture.

Initially, there was a permanent staff of about 1,000, of whom 850 were women and girls. In its first year of working the store showed a clear profit.

At the outset only two basement floors and two ground floors were in operation. But in 1936 the third floor was finished and 1938 saw further additions.

Following the demise of the company, the Leeds store became a branch of Allders in the 1990s and now houses branches of T.K. Maxx, Argos and Sainsbury’s, among others.