The store closed in 1972, but prior to that had been unusual inasmuch as its premises were away from the main Oxford Street shopping area, being on the edge of the City of London at Holborn.
Arthur Walter Gamage was the son of a Herefordshire farmer who was apprenticed to a London draper in St Paul's churchyard. In 1878, at the age of 21 and having saved £40 (equivalent to £2,500 today) he decided to set up his own shop, in partnership with Frank Spain. Between them they raised the £88 necessary to lease and refit a small watch repair shop in Holborn. The owner assured them that a hosiery shop would do well in the area. The frontage was no more than five feet and above it Gamage hung his motto "Tall Oaks from Little Acorns Grow."
The partners lived in the back room of the shop and allowed themselves no more than fourteen shillings a week for their living expenses. Gamage insisted on selling everything cheaper than anywhere else and gradually crowds began to visit the shop, even though the area was "unfashionable". By the end of the first year trading had grown to £1,632. In 1881, Gamage bought Spain out and began to expand the premises by buying the small properties that surrounded his original shop until, by the end of the decade, most of the block between Leather Lane and Hatton Garden was in his hands.
Because of the piecemeal expansion, his Department Store ended up as a maze of rooms, steps, passages and ramps which Gamage now called the People's Popular Emporium. Children and adults alike experienced something of an adventure as they wandered through the warren in search of bargains. It offered a very wide selection of goods, including haberdashery, furniture, sporting goods, gardening supplies and utensils, camping equipment, magic tricks, and clothing.
Gamage went on to become the official supplier of uniforms to the Boy Scout movement and continued to expand. A large zoological department and a toy department were joined by a motor department where one could purchase a motor car and all the equipment required for running it.
Gamages also had a large mail-order business and issued a wide range of catalogues covering its different departments as well as large comprehensive catalogues. In 1911, for example, 49 pages of his 900 page catalogue were devoted to bicycles.
The Holborn premises closed in March 1972 and disappeared in the massive redevelopment scheme which now occupies the site. The frontage on Holborn that was Gamages was in 2009 occupied by a W. H. Smith stationery store and the offices above are now occupied by French technology specialists Steria.
By Paul Green