The Passing of Allders: Last of the Great Croydon Department Stores?

Allders North End Facade by Kake Pugh, used under a creative commons licence by-nc-sa

Allders North End Facade by Kake Pugh

It seems that the Allders may finally be facing its end. Some 300 staff are, very sadly, due to lose their jobs as result. At time of writing this post, no rescue package had been secured and Allders had begun a final closing down sale.

The loss of Allders is not only the end of one business however, but the end of an entire retail tradition in Croydon. Long before the current Westfield – Hammerson debacle and long before the Whitgift centre was even conceived, Croydon was the department store capital of Surrey.

In the late 19th century its three principle engines were three great, independently owned names: Allders, Grants and the now rather less well known Kennards. With their massive combined floor area they offered a wide variety of goods, services and retail experiences not available outside of the West End: From the decidedly upmarket offering of Grants (once said to draw shoppers as far afield as Paris with the legendary quality of its tailoring) to the more populist experience of Kennards; a store which had a private zoo or ‘menagerie’ on site to draw the punters. In the middle of this sat Allders; the epitome of comfortable middle class shopping. A shop which was so successful it expanded to become the country’s third largest department store and a national chain thereafter. Its beautiful ‘Oxford Streetesque’ North End façade (1926) was testament to its massive success.

Today, Croydon still has department stores; M&S and House of Fraser; but they are less important to overall retail mix than their forebears, are part of large chains, and don’t have a local connection. For some then, this latest retail tragedy marks the end of a piece of local heritage and part of general narrative of Croydon’s retail decline.

I must disagree.

Croydon has always had its highs and lows. But, if you know your history you know that’s spent much more of its existence as a successful shopping destination than not. It was famed for its major grain market in the 18th century, its department stores in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the Whitgift centre in the late 20th century.

The interest of shopping giant Hammerson and the even bigger, even more successful giant, Westfield, is not coincidental. They realise that its strategic location will always make it a good place for retail as long as there is retail. Their redevelopment of the town will simply be another chapter in Croydon’s retail history and, I believe, to be welcomed. Personally, I would like to see another department store take over the site. I’d like to see the original façade put back to its intended use; a grand frontage pouring light into high-ceiling rooms; something lost from Allders from the 60’s onwards. I think Minerva’s plan to simply divide the building into shops would be a shame. But provided we preserve the memory, the physical remnants and the name of the once great business of Allders, we protect our heritage while preserving our future.

Advertisements