The Wonder Store of the North by Chris Nickson

As we prepare for the opening of the retail spectacle known as Victoria Gate, Chris Nickson reminds us that 84 years ago, the largest department store that Leeds could have imagined opened its doors. Lewis’s.

Lewis’s had a greater ground area than any store outside London. It occupied the space from where Clas Ohlson now stands, at the corner of Briggate and the Headrow all the way up to Dortmund Place. And it stood tall, fully 40 feet higher than any other retailer in the city.

If was the fifth store in the chain started by David Lewis from Liverpool. By the time the Leeds store was built, he’d taken his company public, with shares floated on the Stock Exchange. Work started not long after the massive public works to widen the Headrow, and the architect for the building took much of his inspiration from big stores that were springing up in America.

It looked modern and sleek, with lines that echoed the style of Art Deco, and inside, the layout was very clean and open. It cost between £750,000 and £1 million (more than £61 million in current value). The land alone was over £160,000.

It opened on September 17, 1932 and it was utterly unlike anything Leeds had seen before. Even with just the basement and first two floors ready for business, 120,000 customer flocked in on that opening day. They were served by a staff of 1,000, mostly female who covered 157 separate departments. According to the Yorkshire Post, by four in the afternoon Lewis’s had sold out of lobsters (priced 9d – 3.5p – each) but the stock was so vast that all other goods were available. There was a hairdresser, ticketing facility, butcher, a big toy department and clothes, of course. Floors of them.

The third floor came into operation in 1936 and more was added later. It was, by far, head and shoulders above anything else Leeds had to offer. The food hall in the basement offered unimaginable delights, items from around the world and quite exotic to the Leeds palate. It also possessed a huge novelty, the very first escalator in Leeds, something for kids (and adults) who often rode it  simply for the pleasure.

In its first year, Lewis’s in Leeds turned a profit. That’s remarkable for the start of any retail operation, but even for the fact that it opened at the height of the Depression, when most people had little money to spend.

It changed the whole idea of the department store in Leeds. After Lewis’s opened, it was the benchmark for every other business. Little surprise it was nicknamed the Wonder Store of the North.
Lewis’s continued to flourish for several decades. Some people will always remember going in to what was really a wonderland. The store was the site of several firsts in Leeds: one thing they did, guaranteed to draw in families, was to make the arrival of Father Christmas to the toy department a big event each year.

Eventually, though, times changed. Lewis’s went out of business, then Allders took it over. When that failed it became what we know today. Now known as Broadgate, it’s become a mix of retail on the bottom floors and offices above. And with a new company, Lifesearch, leasing space, it’s fully occupied. Not a department store, perhaps, but still alive and very busy.

In its day, though, Lewis’s, which dwarfed Schofield’s, its main competitor across the Headrow, was a garden of retail delights. And the way the world has changed, we’re unlikely to see a single store that has the same impact again.

ParkLane Properties has put together a slider called Leeds Through the Ages. Some well know Leeds’ locations are featured including Lewis’s. You can look at past and present images and mix them together:

Leeds Libraries Heritage Blog has written about the slider and  regularly features fantastic articles all about Leeds’ history. The blog is well worth signing up to.

There’s also the excellent Leodis photo archive if you want to see more.

Lottie cover

Chris Nickson’s novel, Modern Crimes, is set in 1924 and features Lottie Armstrong, one of the first policewomen in Leeds. 

Chris will be at Oakwood Library, 6pm, on Tuesday 25 October, talking about Lottie and Modern Crimes. This is a free event, all welcome.

1924 – Six years after the Great War and Leeds still isn’t back on its feet. Work is scarce, poverty is everywhere and crime is spreading. The city has its first policewoman, though, and Lottie Armstrong is eager to prove herself in this man’s world. But with her duties confined to looking after women and children, the force doesn’t want a woman with initiative. Then Lottie has to search for a missing girl, and her life changes.

Suddenly CID needs a woman’s touch to find answers, and Lottie is a proper copper for the first time, following a trail that takes her from high society to the Royal Hotel, where men and women gather, the ones who live in the shadows because their love is a sin.

As Lottie uncovers a plot involving high level corruption, the truth is slowly laid bare. And she learns that if you show you’re as clever as a man, there’s always a price to pay.

Modern crimes, timeless tragedy.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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