An Ode To Whiteleys

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 27 months ago
An Ode To Whiteleys

As the occasional shopper shuffles reverentially across the marble floors of Whiteleys shopping centre on Queensway, you could almost be in a mausoleum. It is a mausoleum of a kind too — a monument to a great entrepreneur gunned down in his own shop.

Yorkshire's answer to Dick Whittington, a young William Whiteley came to London in 1845, so the legend goes, with nothing but £10 in his pocket and a dream in his head. He mustered up a shopping empire, employed 6,000 people, became the envy of many a retailer with London's first 'great emporium', was the victim of many dubious fires — and then, on 24 January 1907, was shot dead by a man claiming to be his illegitimate son.

Overseen by two men who definitely were the deceased's sons, Whiteleys rose on Queens Road, west London — now Queensway — an exquisite example of Edwardian swank. It was one of London's finest department stores, and a commercial cathedral to a man who'd transformed shopping. When George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion, it wasn't Harrods or Selfridges he chose to send Eliza Doolittle for a wardrobe upgrade, but Whiteleys.

But the Bayswater beauty was to endure a harsher evolution than its famous London brethren; by the 1950s it was deemed too flabby for sole use as a department store, and watered down with office space. By the time it became a shopping centre in 1989, much of its former glory had been filleted — the inside reduced to a skeleton of Corinthian columns, and that La Scala staircase which practically oozes from underneath the tiered atrium.

Even then, the place still had character. "I used to come here when I was very young, so it brings back memories," says Vara, who works part time on her sister's stall Aria Beauty. "I remember when I was a little kid and I used to come here and there was a waterfall over there — stuff like that.

"You know when you go to a place when you're young, and then you go to it when you're older — you feel like you've missed this place, you know. It was, oh my god, it was like Westfield!"

Mr P's flower shop

Ironically it's nearby Westfield which has delivered more recent blows to Whiteleys; certainly that's the opinion of the bespectacled florist everyone knows as 'Mr P' - who operates out of a ground floor corner, opposite a branch of Costa.

Footfall, says Mr P, has dropped conspicuously even over the past year and a half, but — as with just about every trader we speak to — he begins ambiguously about how business is going: "I can't tell you," he says, "it depends when people are getting babies, when it's Swedish mother's day, French mother's day, English mother's day. When it's Valentine's Day."

Suddenly, he opens up: "We are just breaking even. So in one way I'm happy."

What the proposed development looks like

More challenges are on the horizon for Mr P and his fellow traders — and breaking even might not be an option. Earlier in the year, £1bn development plans for Whiteleys got the go ahead. They include apartments in the higher echelons of the building, a hotel, and a tree-lined courtyard packed with retail and restaurants. It's all very swish — Whiteleys' chance to reincarnate itself as something special. But is it all a bit too swish for those who are clinging on here at the moment?  

While some, like Vara, hope they can be a part of the new order, others like Mr P, are less optimistic, "The thing is when this property arrives, the rent will go higher," he says,  "I don't think small retail will have a chance."

A woman, the sole occupier of a bright orange easyInternet terminal has similar doubts: "I'd like to think that they'd keep all the beautiful features," she says, "but they probably won't." Then she clicks on the development website, ogles the artist's impressions and starts making impressed noises; given Whiteleys' current state as a weird, half-posh purgatory, maybe no one's quite sure what's best for it.

In the meantime, shops click off their lights for the last time one by one, and the place becomes increasingly like a mortuary dotted with 'closing down' gravestones, inscribed with the sacred names Saint Laurent, Celine, Givinchy, Gucci — from just £10.

Mind you, if you prefer to avoid the scrimmage of Westfield, for now at least, Whiteleys remains an attractive alternative.

You can still have your hands scrubbed in salt then moisturised by Bogdan at Soap & Co, still get your hair done by Vara, still get Mirela at Diamonds Forever to buff your nails. Then, you can work your way via a workout at Lux Fitness to the Lounge cinema, where, for £25 a ticket, you can recline in business class airline seats, and take in the latest film with martinis delivered to your side.

OK, you can't quite picture Rex Harrison taking Audrey Hepburn to Sports Direct for new shoes, but an odd kind of decadence can still be sought out at Whiteleys. And you almost never have to queue.

Last Updated 24 May 2016