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The Blitz: Oxford Street's store wars

Oxford Street during the Blitz
Oxford Street in April 1941 after a heavy bombing raid by the Luftwaffe

By Ronan Thomas
City of Westminster Archives

The West End of London is the capital's beating heart, world famous for the symbols of British government, royal palaces, high-end shopping and pulsating entertainment.

Seventy years ago these London streets, part of the City of Westminster, faced a profound crisis. In September 1940, the normal pulse of life across the West End was replaced by the wail of sirens, searchlights and the nightly visits of hundreds of German bombers raining death upon London's inhabitants.

Although the capital's East End was the most heavily bombed in the Second World War - an estimated 80-90% of all Luftwaffe bombs fell here - the West End was also ravaged, badly.

The London boroughs of City of Westminster and St Marylebone - 8.3 square miles of central London stretching from the north bank of the Thames up to Paddington and St John's Wood - were to suffer considerable bombing during the ensuing London Blitz of 7 September 1940 - 11 May 1941 and in later attacks during 1944 -1945.

Oxford Street yesterday, from Oxford Circus up to Marble Arch, completely empty of traffic, and only a few pedestrians, with the late afternoon sun shining straight down the empty roadway and glittering on innumerable fragments of broken glass.
George Orwell, diary entry for 24 September 1940

Iconic locations in the West End, including Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Oxford and Regent Streets, Piccadilly and the up-market Café de Paris nightclub on Coventry Street were badly damaged or destroyed.

The price paid by Londoners in the Blitz was heavy.

Across London during 1940-1945 nearly 30,000 people were killed and over 50,000 injured. Over one million buildings were destroyed or otherwise damaged.

Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill would later describe London's resilience and the courageous response of its inhabitants to the Blitz as a pivotal moment in Britain's national survival.

On Oxford Street, home since the mid-19th century to the West End's showcase retail emporia, the Blitz arrived with shocking effect in September 1940.

Oxford Street's personal nemesis came during the night and early hours of 17-18 September 1940.

Luftwaffe bombers

The work of generations of retailers and architects disappeared overnight as 268 Heinkel 111 and Dornier Do 17 bombers dropped their ordinance on London.

Oxford Street was hit repeatedly, from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch.

Clearing debris at Bourne & Hollingsworth 1940
Clearing debris at Bourne & Hollingsworth 1940

That night, fires along the street raged out of control for several hours, acting as a reference point for new waves of Luftwaffe bombers.

When dawn broke, on 18 September, no fewer than four of the West End's most prestigious department stores were ablaze, had been badly damaged or destroyed.

They were household names: John Lewis, Selfridges, Bourne & Hollingsworth and Peter Robinson.

In 2010, two of these retailers continue to trade robustly, two are consigned to history. Of the four buildings attacked, three survive; two are new businesses inhabiting older, grander facades. All carry the marks of September 1940.

At the eastern end of Oxford Street and at Oxford Circus two longstanding Oxford Street retail names were hit during the raid of 17-18 September 1940: Bourne & Hollingsworth (today's Plaza Shopping Centre at No 120) and Peter Robinson (today's Niketown at No 200-236).

Blitz spirit

Bourne & Hollingsworth - an imposing edifice built in 1894 and remodelled in art deco style in 1928 - was hit in the night raid of 17 September by high explosive bombs which gouged a huge hole in the store's interior and severely damaged several shop floors.

Shards of glass carpeted its Oxford Street locale and adjoining Berners Street. But the next day, in a powerful example of the 'Blitz spirit', the staff were back at work, unfurling large Union Flags to cover bomb damage to the store front.

A week later, part of the eastern wing of the store was reopened for business. Today, the former Bourne & Hollingsworth still impresses.

Although the site is occupied by the modern Plaza shopping centre and adorned by a bronze ballerina statue, much of the art deco department store's upper stories survive, the letters 'BH' in 1920s' script still proclaiming the building's heritage proudly.

Also hit that night was the 1924 Peter Robinson's department store on Oxford Circus (200-236 Oxford Street).

The upper right section of the store's neo-classical façade was ripped open; three floors were destroyed; plate glass windows and debris was blown into Oxford Circus. Parts of Peter Robinson's were reopened four days later, but its Oxford Circus storefront was boarded up and subsequently used to display war advertising hoardings.

Catastrophic damage

Later in the war, the store's basement menswear department was converted by the BBC into broadcast studios for its Eastern Service. The writer George Orwell made several wartime radio broadcasts at No 200 for the BBC's Indian Section during 1941-1943.

West of Oxford Circus, John Lewis's - at 278 Oxford Street on the corner with Holles Street - was next in the bomb-aimers' sights, suffering catastrophic fire damage.

John Lewis department store in the 1940
Bombed out John Lewis store on Oxford Street 1940

The store was hit by several incendiary and high explosive bombs in the early hours of 18 September. Two hundred people were sleeping in the store's basement air raid shelter.

The store's attractive West House, completed in 1897 and facing Oxford Street, was hit by a German oil bomb (flammenbombe), showering the building with a mixture of burning oil and petrol.

Fire rapidly took hold and was spread by the wind across Holles Street to destroy most of the store's East House (a 1928 tunnel-linked extension today occupied by British Home Stores, Royal Bank of Scotland, the London College of Fashion and the Carphone Warehouse).

Pencil messages

Burning debris fell into Holles Street and Cavendish Square obstructing rescue access.

No casualties were reported among the staff or in the basement shelter but three firemen arriving at the scene were killed by an additional falling bomb.

The western end of Oxford Street was sealed off: thirty fire engines tackled the blaze; crews struggled until 20 September to bring the flames under control.

City of Westminster Civil Defence records, including original pencil messages written by volunteer ARP wardens and support staff, reveal that fire broke out again on 25 September.

By then, John Lewis's was almost entirely burnt out, the building reduced to a fire-scorched shell.

In the following days, George Orwell walked past the smouldering John Lewis bomb site and noted the disconcerting sight of shop window mannequins piled up outside. To him they looked alarmingly like corpses.

Immense heat

Fellow wartime journalist Kingsley Martin later described the remnants of John Lewis's as "like the ruins of a Greek temple".

Staff salvaged what was left from the rubble; the store struggled back to its feet. A small tin was found containing the staff's tea money - welded to the metal base by the heat of the fire.

Three weeks later, part of John Lewis's East House was reopened for business.

In October 1940, the store's General Manager noted in a letter that although 'all woodwork and everything else inflammable has been destroyed completely…we shall be able to deal in the regular way with all orders by post addressed to us at Oxford Street. The staff of our Furnishing Departments will wait upon customers in their own homes up to thirty miles from London and at greater distances if the order is substantial".

As noted by the Daily Mail, John Lewis's accounts department was also unaffected and was issuing its monthly invoices as normal.

Beyond repair

Repair teams were kept busy at John Lewis's until 23 November 1940. As the war progressed, John Lewis continued to do its bit for the war effort, hosting a series of popular public exhibitions in its basement air raid shelter.

But the building was now beyond repair. John Lewis's - a presence on Oxford Street since 1864 - remained a bomb site until 1954.

John Lewis department store in the 1940
Staff at John Lewis get back to work after a bombing raid in 1940

The store was completely rebuilt by architects Slater & Uren during 1958-1960. The rebuilt store is celebrating its 50th anniversary in October 2010.

The night raiders' work was not over. Further west, Selfridges department store on Oxford Street was also struck early on 18 September.

As John Lewis's burned, Selfridges was hit by a single high explosive bomb and by several incendiaries.

The store's elegant roof gardens - famous in the 1920s and 1930s as a place for strolling after shopping - were badly damaged. They were never to open again.

Reduce to tears

Broken glass from Selfridges' many upper storey windows fell into surrounding streets. Owner H. Gordon Selfridge's own prized signature window - autographed by dozens of celebrity visitors to the store since its opening in 1909 - was shattered.

The sight reportedly reduced the 84-year-old American retail magnate to tears.

The store's impressive art deco lifts, installed in 1928, suffered extensive damage and would not carry shoppers again until 1945.

After the raid, the ground floor windows - normally used for Selfridges' world famous shop front displays - were bricked up for the war's duration.

Selfridges had survived, but with deep internal wounds.

St Marylebone Civil Defence records detail further incendiary bomb damage inflicted in a night raid of 17 April, 1941.

In this attack, fire destroyed the store's beautiful Palm Court Restaurant, venue for the rich and famous.

Codename Sigsaly

Despite the damage of 1940-41, Selfridges was keen to show its continuing commitment to Allied victory. The store hosted Utility fashion shows and mounted exhibitions and window displays with wartime themes.

It was also to play a more important role as the war progressed. One of Selfridges' sub-basements was converted to hold a secret Bell Telephone 'X-System' communications system. Codenamed 'Sigsaly', and operated by US Army technicians, specialist cryptographic signal equipment scrambled top-secret phone calls between Britain and her Allies.

From 1943, this system - linked from Selfridges to the Cabinet War Rooms in Whitehall - provided Prime Minster Winston Churchill with a secure phone link to his US counterpart, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Selfridges' war was not over. At 11pm, 6 December 1944, a V2 rocket hit the Red Lion pub in Duke Street, just off Oxford Street and yards from Selfridges.

Proudest period

A canteen situated in the Selfridges Annex building - bordering Somerset, Wigmore and Orchard streets and nicknamed the SWOD - was badly damaged.

Oxford Street today
John Lewis in Oxford Street today

Eight American servicemen were killed with 32 injured. Ten British civilians were also killed and seven injured.

Selfridges' shop-front Christmas tree displays were scattered into the street. Although the Food Hall was undamaged, other departments had to be cleaned throughout. Flooding also threatened operation of the Sigsaly system.

In a memo to staff, H. Gordon Selfridge praised their swift response and their courage. The next day, 7 December 1944, Selfridges was again open for business.

Seventy years on Oxford Street retains its usual frenetic pace and reputation as one of the West End's major retail arteries. But the memories of 17-18 September 1940 lie just under the surface of today's bustle.

The devastation of four of Oxford Street's world famous department stores during just a few hours in September 1940 still bears powerful witness to one of the toughest yet ultimately proudest periods of London's rich and turbulent history.

Ronan Thomas is a London-based journalist and researcher on the City of Westminster Archives West End at War project.

Tales from The Blitz
01 Sep 10 |  History
Living through the London Blitz
06 Sep 10 |  History



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