Inside The Brixton Department Store With 130 Years Of History

By Laura Reynolds Last edited 14 months ago
Inside The Brixton Department Store With 130 Years Of History

Morleys department store opened its doors in the centre of Brixton in 1880 — although back then it operated as Morley & Lanceley. It survived changes of owner and a substantial fire before being renamed Morleys in 1927.

Morleys department store is a long-standing resident of Brixton Road, situated on one of the life veins of south London, traffic pumping past at all hours on the A23, trains rattling over the railway bridge.

An unremarkable but smart redbrick building, it's not by any means the most exciting facade in the vicinity — that title belongs to an art deco construction a little further up on the other side of the road, now home to EE and H&M stores.

In fact, the Union Jack on the roof is about the only distinguishing mark on the Morleys building, and even that's not the only rooftop flag on the street.

Morleys' unstrikingness is irrelevant anyway. Between the pedestrian traffic and the constant stream of double-decker buses coming over the hill, you never get a glimpse of the building as a whole — just snatches as the traffic stop-starts.

The window displays, lovely though they are, might as well not be there — they mainly function as a backdrop for the endless carousel of people hopping on and off buses, waiting for the next one.

The Morleys (or 'morleys') shop sign is a modern creation, a simple, black font on a white background. It's disappointing. Somehow we'd expect a bit more pomp from a shop with more than 130 years of history. At the very least, we'd expect a capital letter.

A Caffè Nero branded window on the first floor leaves no doubt that this is a modern, mainstream department store — although hopefully not without any nod at all to the history.

No need to fear, it's distinctly Brixton — the David Bowie mural is painted on the Tunstall Road wall of the building, and eye-height window stickers on the automatic entrance doors inform customers that local currency the Brixton pound is accepted within.

The stock, however, could be any other shop in any other department store in the country. Brands such as Wallis, Evans and Dorothy Perkins sit alongside White Stuff and Barbour. Mid-range high street shoppers are comfortably accommodated for, but those who want something a little more high-end may end up taking their Brixton pounds elsewhere.

The ground floor is all sleek whitewash and bright colours, the make-up counters contributing to the dazzling lights. A wall of colourful handbags compete against each other to catch shoppers' attention. One corner is dedicated to cards and gift wrap, adding to the rainbow nature of the entrance.

A blend of perfumes wafts through, pleasant rather than overpowering, and thankfully no-one's on hand to attempt to spritz us with the latest scents. Men's fashion is tucked away at the back, up a small set of stairs — easily missed, at least until you're on your way out of the shop, feeling like a later addition rather than part of the main store.

Tempting though it is to head for the escalator or lift, don't. Take the stairs. It's a shame more people don't do this, as they miss out on the best feature of the shop, a series of lightboxes, each offering an insight into the history of the store, and of Brixton as a whole. Electric Avenue's there, as is Lambeth Town Hall, Van Gogh, and the first ever mention of the name 'Brixton'.

It's unclear whether it's intentional or poignant serendipity that David Bowie's light has gone out. Follow the spiralling history trail and before you know it, you'll find yourself on the second floor.

Home to the gift, haberdashery, furniture, homeware and suitcase departments, the second floor sits on the thin line between cosy and claustrophobic. Air conditioning units and pipe work snake across the ceiling, throwing an industrial feel into the mix — not conducive to the selling or buying of fluffy cushions and camper van duvet sets.

It's unclear whether it's intentional or poignant serendipity that David Bowie's light has gone out.

The candle department scents the whole floor, sucking customers into sniffing wax-based offerings with names like Pink Sands and Summer Peach. As we clutch the glass jar, sniffing our fifth hit of Amber Moon, our eyes wander round the corner to the haberdashery section where a staff member is helping an elderly woman who's got her inches and centimetres mixed up. The resulting curtains sound disastrous.

The whole rainbow spectrum of wools, threads and cottons lined up on the wall lead us to suspect that this may be the best haberdashery department in south London.

Despite the low ceilings and industrial feel of the second floor, it's more open plan than the other floors; navigating from suitcases to towels to carpets to cushions is easy, with few interior walls and partitions. Stand in a certain spot at the front of the store and you can still hear the pumping of the traffic over the store's lively pop music.

The store's sole customer lift continues the Brixton story, the frontage covered with black and white photos of the local area throughout the years. Inside it's a more formal story — polished hardwood and metal make it more sleek and less tired-looking than the rest of the store.

Down on the second floor, home to women's clothes and shoes, and the toy department, there's more of a buzz.

On a Wednesday morning in mid-July, the sale is in full flow. Staff scurry about lifting stock from one rack to another as prices go up and down, leaving a chaotic mish-mash of leftover stock in their wake, like some sort of retail hurricane.

Customer-wise, it's a quiet time, mainly parents with children in pushchairs, and elderly women.

The slight step up to the toy department at one end of the floor hints at the age of the building — or the suggestion that they were once two completely separate buildings.

Happily, the toy department is not organised into 'girls' and 'boys' toys, but rather by toy type; popular characters such as Peppa Pig sit near more traditional wooden dominoes and trains. Toys range from pocket money treats to top-of-the-range micro scooters.

At the opposite end of the shop, the first floor coffee shop — the Caffe Nero we espied from outside— is almost as busy as the shop itself. Workers with laptops have sussed out that it's a peaceful place to be, and if you can bag yourself a window seat overlooking the main road, you can enjoy a coffee and cake in what we reckon is Brixton's best people-watching spot.

If the second floor seems claustrophobic, the basement's positively cave-like — a soulless underground room of domesticity in the form of white goods and saucepans, Pyrex dishes and knife blocks. A giant black bowl CCTV camera protrudes from the ceiling at the central point of the room.

A cursory glance at the seemingly infinite rows of toasters, blenders and kettles is enough to send anyone scurrying for the lift and back to the bright lights and relative safety of the ground floor, where daylight and the rest of Brixton awaits.

Morleys Brixton, 472-488 Brixton Road, SW9 8EH

Last Updated 18 July 2016