Selfridges. Westminster. 400 Oxford Street, London W1A 1AB.
Walking around Oxford Street's great department store Selfridges is an enjoyable and interesting experience. Even more interesting is the history of the store, which was opened in 1908 by Harry Gordon Selfridge.
Born in Ripon, Wisconsin, Selfridge delivered newspapers and left school at 14 to find work in a bank. After various jobs, he joined Marshall Field's department store in Chicago, where he stayed for 25 years. In 1890 he married Rose Buckingham a member of a prominent Chicago family.
In 1906, following a trip to London and bored with retirement, Selfridge invested £400,000 of his own money to establish Selfridges in Oxford Street. The building pioneered steel frame construction in the UK. It was a huge success, largely because Selfridge pioneered the concept that shopping should be a fun and enjoyable experience, not a chore. The store had elegant restaurants with modest prices, a library, reading and writing rooms, and a Silence Room with soft lights, deep chairs and double glazing. In the 1920s the roof was set out as terraced garden, with cafes, a mini golf course, and an all-girl gun club.
During World War II Selfridges' basement was used as an air raid shelter, and also housed the huge SIGSALY scrambling apparatus used for communication between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. It was connected to the Cabinet War Rooms about a mile away.
After the death of his wife in 1918, caused by the flu pandemic, and the death of his mother in 1924, Selfridge adopted an extravagant lifestyle with many liaisons. He entertained lavishly in his great town house and on his yacht. He gambled and often lost. His fortune was wiped out in the Great Depression, and in 1941 he was pushed out of Selfridges by its board. He died destitute in a flat in Putney in 1947, aged 89.