Most of London's Department Stores began life as small drapers' shops in the 19th century. Many of them went on to become household names and some even became internationally known. However, the developments of the late 20th century brought changes that proved too much for some and names such as Swan & Edgar or Derry & Toms are now but fading memories. In this short series we will present a brief history of the more famous of these, starting with the original cut-price emporium Gamages of Holborn.
A W Gamage Ltd., 116-128 Holborn.
Arthur Walter Gamage was the son of a Herefordshire farmer who was apprenticed to a London draper in St Paul's churchyard. In 1878, at the age of 21 and having saved 40 (equivalent to 2,500 today) he decided to set up his own shop, in partnership with Frank Spain. Between them they raised the 88 necessary to lease and fit a small watch repair shop in Holborn. The owner assured them that a hosiery shop would do well in the area.The frontage was no more than five feet and above it Gamage hung his motto "Tall Oaks from Little Acorns Grow."
The partners lived in the back room of the shop and allowed themselves no more than fourteen shillings a week for their living expenses. Gamage insisted on selling everything cheaper than anywhere else and gradually crowds began to visit the shop, even though the area was "unfashionable." By the end of the first year trading had grown to 1,632. In 1881, Gamage, bought Spain out and began to expand the premises by buying the small properties that surrounded his original shop. By the end of the decade most of the block between Leather Lane and Hatton Gardens was in his hands.
Because of the piecemeal expansion, his Department Store ended up as a maze of rooms, steps, passages and ramps which Gamage now called the People's Popular Emporium. And it was popular with children and adults alike who experienced something of an adventure as they wandered through the warren in search of bargains. It offered a very wide selection of goods, including haberdashery, furniture, sporting goods, gardening supplies and utensils, camping equipment and clothing.
Gamage went on to become the official supplier of uniforms to the Boy Scout movement and continued to expand. A large zoological department and a toy department were joined by a motor department where one could purchase a motor car and all the equipment required for running it. One of the largest departments was that devoted to pedal-bicycles and motorcycles. In 1911, 49 pages of his 900 page catalogue were devoted to bicycles. Gamage died in 1930 and tradition has it that he lay in state in the cycle department with a guard of honour made up of members of his staff..
The premises closed in march 1972 and disappeared in the massive redevelopment scheme which now occupies the site. The frontage on High Holborn that was Gamages is now occupied by a W H Smith stationary store.