11 Secrets Of Selfridges

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 14 months ago
11 Secrets Of Selfridges
Photo: David Bank

Harry Gordon Selfridge was a figure of relative obscurity to many until ITV's Mr Selfridge appeared on our screens in 2013.

Selfridges, the shopping behemoth at which the series is based, opened its doors on 15 March 1909 on what was then the unfashionable end of Oxford Street.

1. Size matters

Selfridge's (it had an apostrophe when it opened) was the last of London's best-known department stores to be built — and is the only one that was purpose built. Others were adapted and extended from previously existing buildings. It's currently the second largest retail space in the UK, after Harrods.

2. Taking flight

Shortly after the store opened, French aviator Louis Blériot became the first person to fly over the English Channel. In July 1909, his plane was put on display in Selfridges for four days, attracting over 150,000 people to visit the store.

Blériot's plane on display in Selfridges. Photo: Selfridges archives.

3. The rooftop

The Selfridges' summer rooftop is now an annual fixture, but did you know that it was closed for over 70 years?

In the store's early days, many forms of entertainment took place in the roof gardens; in 1913 dancers Florence Walton and Maurice Mouvet performed for 2,000 people at a charity ball on the roof terrace. However, in the second world war, the store was bombed, with most of the damage done to the rooftop.

The rooftop remained closed until 2009, when Michelin-starred French chef Pierre Koffmann came out of retirement to run a pop-up restaurant overlooking Oxford Street. Since then it has hosted many pop-ups, including restaurants, bars, crazy golf and a boating lake.

4. The Selfridge's Seismograph

Never one to miss a bit of publicity, Harry Gordon Selfridge had a seismograph installed in the building for several years in the thirties. It picked up readings from several earthquakes around the world. Today, the seismograph is at the British Museum.  

5. Queen Of Time Clock

Part of the Queen of Time clock. Photo: David Burton

You may have walked past the Oxford Street entrance hundreds of times, but have you ever looked up and seen the Queen of Time clock? Unveiled in 1931 to mark the store's 21st birthday, the 11ft tall sculpture was designed by Gilbert Bayes, and is created from bronze.

6. War effort

The Selfridges building reaches 6o metres below ground level, so it's no surprise that the basement levels were put to use during the second world war. The US Army took up residence down here, as the building offered a secure telex line, was safe from bombing, and was close to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Churchill and Eisenhower are both known to have visited.

7. Apostrophe

Never sure whether to include an apostrophe in Selfridges? Don't. The removal of the apostrophe in the store's name was a deliberate choice following a certain series of events. Cryptic, huh?

8. Phone number

Somehow —  and nobody's quite sure of the details —  Harry Gordon Selfridge managed to convince the General Post Office to give the store the telephone number '1'. So for several years, you'd only have to dial '1' to be connected to a Selfridges operator. This is not the case today, so don't try.

9. Miss Selfridge

Ever wonder if high street fashion chain Miss Selfridge is linked to the Oxford Street giant? Turns out it is. Selfridges opened the first Miss Selfridge inside the main store in the 1960s in an attempt to attract a younger, more fashion-led clientele. It had its own entrance in Duke Street, a coffee bar and a Pierre Cardin department.

10. The store today

These days, Selfridges claims to be home to the largest shoe department in the world, with more than 4,000 pairs of shoes at any one time. The store also revolutionised the sale of make-up, perfume and beauty products; before Selfridges, these items were often sold at the back of stores, as they were considered taboo, but Selfridge himself made the decision to move them to the front of his store, and the rest is history (and you've got him to thank every time an over-enthusiastic salesperson showers you in various fragrances at any department store, ever).

11. Sell Fridges?

No, they don't.

Last Updated 19 October 2016

Alan Charles Rudman

Great article, but they do Sell Fridges! (& hoovers, washing machinces etc etc)

Jonathan Wadman

Perhaps also worth mentioning: the ground floor isn't level, instead following the contours of the land as it slopes gently towards the Tyburn. Check the plinths of the display cabinets and you'll see some of them are slightly wedge shaped.

Laurence Scales

Not sure about the secure telex line but there was a whole heap of American apparatus there to give Churchill a secure voice line to Washington.

LondonRemembers

Thank you – you’ve solved one of our
puzzles. There is a brass plaque in the
floor of the main entrance to the store, which we previously didn’t understand –
but you’ve made us realise that it’s by Gilbert Bayes and was part of the 20th
or 21st celebrations. Most customers won’t
even see it – just walk over it, but now we know it’s a by the great
Bayes: http://www.londonremembers.com...

Jon Millwood

Supposedly one of the reasons perfume is at the front of the store was to mask the smell of the horse manure on the street outside (back before cars were more common).

Harry Selfridge also invented the concept of a bargain basement.

Andrew Le Tissier

Not sure about No. 1... most of London's department stores were purpose built (Harrod's and Harvey Nichols included) and Liberty wasn't built until 1924. Arguably the last "famous" purpose built one was John Lewis in 1954...

ChicagoeJoe

Selfridges does NOT claim to be the largest department store but it can lay claim to being voted best three out of the past five years. Macy's NYC flagship has five times the selling area and while Macy's claims to be the largest there is supposedly another that is larger. Behind Macy's NYC is the former Marshall Field and Company flagship in Chicago. It very sadly became a Macy's about 10 years ago. The former Marshall Field and Company flagship in Chicago was co-conceived by none other then H.G. Selfridge and is about four times the size of Selfridges Oxford Street, although it is likely Macy's plans to significantly downsize it in the coming years. Construction of the southeast corner of this flagship store in Chicago was overseen by H. G. Selfridge.