George Henry Lee and Bon Marche in Liverpool
George Henry Lee
Founded in 1853 by Henry Boswell Lee, George Henry Lee started life as a bonnet warehouse at 12 Basnett Street on the corner of Leigh Street. The shop prospered and grew, gradually developing into a department store.
In 1874, the last of the Lee sons retired and control passed to Thomas Oakshott, who in 1887 became the first tradesman to become Lord Mayor of Liverpool, an appointment which added to the prestige of the enterprise.
In 1910, the year Thomas Oakshott died, the company had over 1,200 employees and the Basnett Street frontage was rebuilt with elegant Edwardian marble pillars.
During the 1920s George Henry Lee was refurbished; so began an age of elegance when the store became the northwest’s most exclusive shopping destination.
Customers in 1920 would often arrive at the shop by horse and carriage to be met by their own personal shopper. A series of cubicles served as a fitting room and each assistant – who could use a table and chair outside the fitting room to write out the bill by hand – would serve just one cubicle.
On the ground floor was a lounge and writing room showing that making a profitable use of all available square footage was not a priority!
Even in complex areas such as haberdashery the atmosphere was spacious and elegant. Sweeping counters added to the graceful appearance of the shopfloor, while pillars and light fittings added the finishing touches.
Shortly after the First World War, the Oakshott family sold the shop to an American, H. Gordon Selfridge, who in turn sold the business, together with the other 14 stores in his Provincial Stores Group, to the John Lewis Partnership in 1940.
Meanwhile across the road, a very different department store had developed. Founded in 1878, Bon Marché was modelled on its famous namesake in Paris and featured French fashions, perfumes and accessories.
It became renowned for its sense of style and its encouragement of the arts, and in 1927 a gallery was built in which a series of exhibitions, lectures and concerts were staged.
During the 1930s promotional events were a regular feature and citizens flocked to see Gracie Fields selling stockings for 15 minutes. In 1937 it introduced Younger Liverpool Ltd., an early example of a boutique-style department store.
Even the war could not inhibit Bon Marché – a special air raid safety zone was designed in a futuristic manner and it was the first shop in Liverpool to stage a fashion show featuring the new Utility styles.
During the 1950s its fortunes declined and, after a brief period of ownership by the Liverpool Co-operative Society, it was acquired in 1961 by the John Lewis Partnership, who decided to merge it with George Henry Lee.
Since then, the shop has developed its own unique identity, dedicated to meeting the evolving needs of the community it serves.